The Young Women Struggling With Porn Addiction

·9-min read

Safiya* was 19 years old and in her first year of a medicine degree when she started using porn to cope with stress and depression. She’d watch adult content up to four times a day, for hours at a time – something which remained consistent throughout her four years at university.

It wasn’t until the final year of her degree that she began to perceive her relationship with porn as problematic. “It wasn’t about feeling good anymore; it was to fulfil a habit, to chase a high,” says Safiya, who is now 24. “I remember feeling completely numb afterwards, even disgusted with myself. I’d just spend hours going through pornographic material because nothing would do it anymore.”

Compulsive porn use is a problem far more commonly associated with men: at the Laurel Centre – a leading UK-based sex and porn addiction service – 95% of enquiries come from men. It’s hard to judge just how widespread the problem is among women, given that they often feel the shame and stigma surrounding compulsive porn use more acutely, which may prevent them from seeking help and appearing in data.

As Refinery29 reported earlier this year, porn consumption is on the rise and women appear to be consuming more of it than usual amid the pandemic. Safiya says that the stress and boredom of lockdown made her porn use particularly rampant and that despite trying to quit, she found herself “relapsing” on multiple occasions.

While there are many people, such as Safiya, who self-identify as porn addicts, it’s worth noting that ‘addiction’ isn’t an officially recognised or accepted term to describe problematic porn use. Cecily Criminale, a sex and relationship therapist, says that clients might come to her because of “negative associations with porn use such as it consuming large amounts of time, taking away from their engagement with friends, family, hobbies and activities; feeling that porn isn’t providing the sexual satisfaction or is preventing the relationship satisfaction they would like to experience.”

One person could use porn daily and it would not be problematic at all. It’s about exploring what’s an authentic and enjoyable sexual expression for the individual.

Cecily Criminale

There is no clear-cut criteria as to what makes a person’s porn use a problem or an ‘addiction’. “Somebody could use porn daily, and be in a relationship, and it would not be problematic at all,” explains Criminale. “For me, it’s about exploring what’s an authentic and enjoyable sexual expression for the individual.”

Porn might become an issue for people if it’s negatively impacting their sex life. Twenty-seven-year-old Veronica* is a self-described ‘porn addict’ who says that she started watching porn when she was 18. She entered into her first relationship at the age of 21. “I felt arousal for my boyfriend, but the act itself was always so underwhelming,” she recalls, adding that she would struggle to orgasm. “I just felt like, Porn is much better.”

Veronica eventually admitted to her partner that porn “was affecting their sex dynamic”. But she didn’t take steps to quit porn until the prospect of travelling without internet access sent her into a panic. “It made me realise it was a problem because I couldn’t go even two weeks without porn and I’m in a relationship,” she recalls. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone: Safiya says that her porn use subsided while she was dating her girlfriend of four months and that from her perspective, it wasn’t detrimental to their relationship.

The reasons individuals develop a dependence on porn are often complex and multifaceted. Access to porn from a young age was a recurring theme among the women Refinery29 spoke to, with one consuming porn from as young as 9 years old. In fact, a 2019 survey found that 51% of children aged 11 to 13 had seen pornography, rising to 66% of 14 to 15-year-olds (and these figures are likely to be an underestimate).

This partly comes down to children having access to technology at a younger and younger age, and the fact that England’s archaic sex education is pushing young people to take it upon themselves to fill the gaps in their knowledge. “When I talk to 14 and 15-year-olds about it, they’ll say that porn is normal, it’s how you get you sex ed,” says Miranda Christophers, a relationship and sex therapist. “If you’re thinking about discovery and self-exploration, it’s an easy place to go [and] it can form a habit.” One of the common complaints about sex education in schools across the UK is that pleasure is still discussed in a male-centric and heteronormative way, which leaves women and people with vulvas to figure things out for themselves.

Porn, then, becomes an easily accessible alternative for young people looking to inform themselves. In 2016 the UK government proposed plans for strict age verification checks to stop under-18s viewing porn online. These plans, which have since been shelved, were widely criticised over privacy concerns and the harm it would cause smaller, independent porn creators – not to mention the fact that under-18s would have found it relatively easy to bypass the restrictions.

For some, social stigma – particularly around female sexuality – may be part of what leads to a problematic relationship with porn. Safiya believes that her deeply religious, conservative upbringing is likely a factor in her compulsive porn use. “In my household, sexuality is never discussed,” she says. “Porn concerns sexuality and I feel ashamed that I fell into this addiction.” The link between religious upbringing and problematic porn use is well established: a recent study showed religious people to be “significantly more sexually compulsive” than their non-religious counterparts.

Rather than seeing porn as something inherently ‘bad’, both Criminale and Christophers emphasise the importance of locating the source of this shame and whether it is due to social stigma. As Christophers put it: “[An individual] won’t necessarily have an unhealthy relationship with porn, it’s more a case of their own views around sex and if there’s shame, if there’s religion or various other things involved.”

Internalised shame around pornography might also stem from the more radical feminist stance, which posits all porn as a form of rape and calls for it to be banned. Arguments to prohibit access to pornography are widely considered extreme but there are urgent conversations to be had about the harmful tropes and misinformation spread by porn – particularly when it is a source of sex education for so many young people.

And while there is a growing amount of ethical porn available, it’s especially likely that people consuming large amounts of porn will end up watching more extreme or niche content which may not align with their values or beliefs. Studies have shown that it is “extremely common” for compulsive porn users to escalate their viewing habits, either by greater viewing time or seeking out new genres which might induce “shock, surprise […] even anxiety”.

The realisation that my tastes were escalating into truly harmful content such as rape and abuse turned me off completely.

daniella*

For Daniella*, 31, this only intensified the shame she was feeling as a self-identified ‘porn addict’, eventually prompting her to quit porn altogether. “The realisation that my tastes were escalating into truly harmful content such as rape and abuse turned me off completely,” she says. “Having been coerced and abused into sex I did not enjoy with past partners, I realised how much I did not want to watch other women go through the same thing.”

Veronica says that while she initially enjoyed watching “romantic” porn, she eventually became desensitised to it, turning to more “hardcore” content. Similarly, Safiya found herself watching increasingly niche porn, specifically hentai, which she found to be misogynistic. Even for those who don’t become desensitised, the bottomless rabbit hole of adult content available means it’s likely that anyone who watches porn will end up consuming content they feel uncomfortable with, even ethically opposed to.

Daniella suspects that she was using porn as an escape and says that facing up to distressing events from her past was the key to quitting the habit. “Talking to people who care about me and love me about past trauma has helped, and a ton of introspection has gone a long way,” she says. “Sometimes I still feel the physical response to pornographic marketing but I am luckily able to click away.”

According to Criminale, many clients have developed habits around sex and porn that also serve, beyond sexual pleasure, to deal with negative emotions and trauma. She explains: “If you felt you weren’t lovable, that you weren’t good enough, like an outsider, or if your emotional needs weren’t met, then you may have unconsciously found that with sexual arousal you feel better… It could be a strategy to get away from something we feel or believe about ourselves.”

For women looking to address their relationship to porn, it’s not just shame but the financial burden – more likely to impact women than men – that might prevent them from doing so. Thankfully, there are anonymous online spaces set up to help women and non-binary people with problematic porn use, such as the Reddit forum r/pornfreewomen, which boasts 6,800 members. The group, founded in 2018, saw a surge of membership and activity over lockdown, according to its moderators.

Safiya says she has now been “clean” for 50 days and has found an accountability partner through the Reddit group who she checks in with every day. She adds that sexting has become “an easy peasy method” to deal with any urges to watch porn that she might experience. Tech companies are also offering new solutions: for a fee, Remojo will work across all of a user’s devices to block not only pornography sites but sexual content on social media and elsewhere.

While Daniella, Veronica and Safiya are all attempting to cut porn out of their lives entirely, this isn’t necessarily the solution for everyone. It is of course possible for porn to foster and promote healthy sexuality. Crucial to tackling compulsive behaviours around sex and porn is a robust, expansive sex education, taught from an early age. It will be a vital step in stamping out the shame that so many women are still made to feel around sex.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

Why Young Women Are Watching More Porn In Lockdown

Our Guide To Watching Porn On Your Phone

Teach Young People About Female Pleasure In School

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting