Darren McGarvey: Porn moulded me into a sexually selfish man

Porn was once largely restricted to magazines and sex shops but is now easily available online (Picture: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Porn was once largely restricted to magazines and sex shops but is now easily available online (Picture: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
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I recently stumbled across an article published in Time magazine that claimed “married people who start watching porn are twice as likely to be divorced in the following years as those who don’t”. The headline really jumped out the newsfeed at me for two reasons: I watch porn and I’m getting married in just over a year.

It turns out the piece was written in 2016, but even if I had read it then, it still wouldn’t have been news to me. The potentially corrosive nature of pornography is something with which I am all too familiar.

I grew up in the time before porn was readily available. I recall the great lengths you used to have to go to if you wanted to see a picture of a naked woman; flicking through the underwear section of a catalogue behind the couch or discreetly scanning discarded Daily Sport pages crumpled up beneath some withering hedgerow. The sight of a scuddy picture was so rare I eventually took to drawing naked girls myself at one point. This was a few years before I had access to the internet, when my sexual instincts began stirring around the age of 14 or 15. Somehow, even then, I felt a sense of shame, chased by a deep embarrassment. Not just because I had these impulses, but also because I would occasionally attempt to act on them without the first clue about what the hell I was doing or why.

Sex education at school was laughably mechanical, outdated and worryingly tokenistic. It was a mix of biology (where things go) and some stuff about condoms and diaphragms. I can’t recall being given any information about many of the issues that are widely discussed today, like consent, homosexuality or, indeed, the not-insignificant dimension of emotional and physical intimacy. Maybe they expected us to learn that stuff at home.

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I think I was always a prime candidate to become hooked on pornography given my atrocious impulse control in many other areas of my later life. Particularly those areas that activated my racing brain’s keen reward-centre; directing my thinking temporarily away from some niggling emotional discomfort or difficult aspect of reality I was struggling to confront head-on. For me it started with sugar, then codeine, followed by cigarettes and alcohol. By the time I was 18, amphetamines, hallucinogens and benzodiazepines opened my mind up to new realms of pleasure – and pain. By the time I found porn, it was about the only potentially addictive stimulant I hadn’t so far developed a problem with.

Now at 34, I fear pornography has disfigured me mentally, spiritually and physically. I reckon most of the damage was done during my drinking years, when I would often spend hours trawling through pages and pages of videos yet somehow remaining unsatisfied. Repeated viewing throughout the years has impacted my sex life and relationships, just like alcohol left its mark on my mind and body and sugar ruined so many of my teeth. Before I was even aware this activity was potentially harmful, the damage was done. It subconsciously warped my expectations of both myself and my partners.

Like sugar or alcohol, for me at least, just a little porn seems to create a craving for more. Not just more porn, but more sexual contact. It’s the sheer intensity of the sexual thoughts and urges that porn elicits that begins to corrupt your day-to-day life. You find yourself consumed by intrusive sexual ideas; subconsciously viewing everything through a sexual lens. A head that tells you there’s more to a glance, a short-skirt or smile on the subway than there really is. The ludicrous and dangerous notion that these micro-interactions, of which the woman may not even have been aware, were somehow an elaborate performative prelude to something else.

READ MORE: Darren McGarvey: I’m sober and life is going well, but drink is still calling

Today, at the click of a button, you can access elaborate, scripted scenarios that involve almost any fetish, theme or desire you care to mention. Some are exactly what you might expect, but more and more contain some undercurrent of coercion, violence or some other deviance. And you’ll find this stuff on any freely accessible mainstream porn-site. I’m not saying these areas are not areas that consenting partners shouldn’t feel free to explore together, nor am I saying that every instance in which they are present in porn is harmful or wrong, just that I was knee-deep in this kind of material before I even understood what it was doing to me.

Then there’s the algorithm, designed to endlessly expand your digital palette, keeping you online long enough to sell your cognitive bandwidth to advertisers. You find yourself descending various rabbit-holes as new, seemingly tantalising genres and styles of porn get their claws in you. For me, the effect has been a desensitisation. I am almost numb to whatever I see, regardless of how bizarre, shocking, outrageous or weird someone else may find it. Sometimes I also find myself desensitised to real sex because my threshold for pleasure often has little to do with closeness, trust or intimacy and everything to do with self-gratification. I am ashamed of the impact this has had in my relationships at times. Not least for the times my sexual expectations, coupled with a sense of entitlement, undoubtedly had a negative impact on partners in my life. Porn moulded me into a sexually selfish man, who thought of a woman’s pleasure only as a mere conduit to his own.

Increasingly, porn is used to get around intimacy and straight to gratification; making the natural ebb and flow of sexual intercourse seem slow, clumsy and cumbersome. Not only does repeated porn use rewire your sexual preferences, but physically you become a different animal; constantly setting yourself up for a fall because, on one hand, you desire sex, but it must conform to a certain, often very specific, expectation or it won’t excite you. Then there is the more humiliating factor that often you cannot physically rise to challenge of your own veracious sexual appetite.

But the thing I dislike the most is the all-encompassing, visceral shame I feel for using it. This shame is corrosive and interacts with many of my own personal demons and hang-ups from adversities earlier in life, to create a deep well of self-loathing – which I often soothe with more porn. I want to stop, but I can’t. There is no conclusion, no summary and no call to action. I’m ashamed, yet somehow cannot find the rabbit-hole’s exit. The shame, however, is eclipsed only by the fear of being honest about it.