I started regularly watching internet porn when I was fifteen. I am now thirty. After half a lifetime with porn, I am left with questions above all. The way we interact with pornography is the strangest cocktail of lust and shame, riddled with weird behaviors and paradoxes that you won’t find in the consumption of anything else – yet it’s as old as civilization itself.

Porn is the dark matter of the internet: absolutely everywhere, everyone’s interacting with it all the time, but it is extremely hard to measure. How much is there? We have no idea. The statistics I could find – 40 million Americans view porn every month, 20% of Americans view porn at work, 10 - 20% of mobile traffic is porn, etc. – seem like guesstimates at best. Pornhub reports that it had 115 million visits per day in 2019.1 Porn is massive, but cloaked in silence. Millions of people watch it every day, but never speak about it with another person.

Think about how strange that is. Like most people, I probably watch more porn on average than I read books,2 and yet I’ve spent hundreds of hours discussing books, and never once spoken about a piece of pornography. To underscore the power of this taboo: I’ve seen people do cocaine off a bathroom counter more often than I’ve heard someone disclose their favorite pornographic actress. Porn sits in a unique, profoundly strange spot where there is nothing that is both more heavily consumed and more heavily shrouded in silence.

And so I, like everyone else, regularly watch porn, entirely on my own, treating it like a personal secret. Of course, it is an absurd secret, since I share it with billions of people.

After fifteen years of a mostly once-a-day porn habit,3 this is what I have to report: it’s boring. The thought of watching porn fills me with same dull dread as watching a TV show that I’ve seen before and don’t really care for. I know exactly what’s going to happen, and the older I become, the more distasteful its fake and ugly aesthetic becomes. When I first began watching porn, I felt excitement and curiosity. But that passed many years ago – while my tastes slowly changed over time, there’s only so much to reasonably explore. In that respect, porn is like most other entertainment: exciting when you’re young and seeing something for the first time, but as an adult it’s mostly a snoozefest. In all media, it is hard to innovate.

Where porn differs from regular media is that it’s intertwined with masturbation. Porn is a conduit for pushing the dopamine button. Masturbation just by itself is less common – people generally need stimulus – so you find a porn video, jerk off, orgasm, clean up. Great.

This makes porn a necessary, but meaningless stimulus on the way to orgasm. Porn is utterly uninteresting by itself – case in point, you turn it off after you come. Nobody watches porn for more than a few minutes just on its own.4 The chorelike and meaningless nature of porn is shown by its fungibility – I have rarely gone back to watch the same video. It’s not like movies or music where people have sincere, long-lasting favorite works that they revisit. Porn is the subject of an arbitrary hunt for stimulus, and if you seek stimulus, you usually want something new.

Since people use porn for biological stimulus, it follows the path of all superstimulus: the exaggeration of what draws the most attention. Gone are the softcore centerfolds and two-hour long porn movies of the 70s. The median straight porn video is a ten-minute fetishization of body parts, featuring four positions of two minutes each, just long enough for the viewer to find their favorite angle and climax.

Ironically, this flavor of porn feels so industrial and sterile that while it is physically sexual, it is hardly mentally arousing. The other day, I was watching something, and I realized it was taken from a ten-hour livestream – shoot, that’s not sex, that’s just a full-time job, performed with the same professionalism as double-entry accounting. It is ironic that most porn seems totally devoid of sexual energy, so overly focused on body parts and mechanical actions that it has lost its erotic qualities.5

Something is lost here: modern porn takes acts that are quite special in our lives, and desensitizes us to them – they are turned into routine chores, mere means to pushing the dopamine button. Habitually consuming porn feels somewhat unnatural, like I know deep-down that I probably shouldn’t have access to all this very raw stimulus. And I cannot help but feel that there is something debasing – perhaps even inhumane – in reducing the complexity and richness of human sexuality in this way.

Ultimately, porn resembles junk food: low in nutrients – all the important, personal, holistic elements of sex that it can’t offer – but high in stimulus – the unhealthy salt and sugar that we respond to biologically. And like tasty junk food that I can’t help but devour, porn very palpably reminds me of my basest instincts: I am just a dumb mammal, slave to my biology. And as much as I try to transcend that in doing good work and living an examined life, I still spend twenty minutes every day enrapt by moving images of genitalia. There’s something profoundly disappointing about this fact.

The only thing possibly more disappointing is that I am fully aware of all of this – I have written a thousand words here about my qualms with porn, I know it’s boring, I know it’s fake, I know it mostly sucks – and yet I still keep watching it. And as it will only become more stimulating in the future, it seems likely that I will always keep watching it.

  1. While Pornhub is very large, one of the weird dark-matter qualities of internet porn is that it’s fragmented across tens of thousands of websites, and there’s nothing in the way of a public index. Piracy is still extremely heavy in porn – I have never paid for porn in my life – and piracy happens almost entirely underground. How deep does it go? No clue. 

  2. This may seem like a shocking statement, but generally speaking, people – myself included – just don’t read books very much anymore. 

  3. Maybe once every two or three days on average, when accounting for some dry spells. 

  4. In other words, without masturbating. 

  5. This is a common criticism of porn, but please do note that the free market is working as you would expect. This flavor of porn exists and is so popular because that’s what the audience wants, for better or for worse. Long, holistically erotic content is simply not as popular – consumers may not have the patience for it.