THE ESSAYS ISSUE, VOL. 1
The week of March 29, 2015

Caught between porn and a hard place

By Miles Klee

This essay contains sexually explicit language.

I.

For much of my adolescence, I hated looking at my dick. It was such a weird, embarrassing appendage. I’d sit to pee so that it vanished from sight. I would often relive my earliest memory—of inhaling the anesthetic gas before surgeons operated on a hernia in my groin—and consider how an entire roomful of people had worked around my stupid privates, maybe even laughing at them. After reading a magazine article about a man who’d remained conscious but paralyzed during a different procedure—he’d heard a nurse joke cruelly about his size—I sincerely believed that medical staff might mock a 2-year-old’s penis. This sort of thing worried me.

It’s tempting to blame Catholic guilt, the doctrine of original sin. That we’re born with flaws is a tough precept to shake, consoling while keeping us sharply alive to disappointment. Church was also, as it happens, where I was first made to wrestle with the fact of human lust. Because children making first confession are clueless as to what a priest wants to hear, in CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) class, Father Mark circulated a handwritten list of a few dozen popular sins. He’d starred the mortal ones (murder, etc.), but “masturbation” was considered a lesser violation, perfectly pardonable. Another eight years would pass before I committed and required forgiveness for the crime, but when Father Mark asked through the grate of the two-chambered booth if I’d had any impure thoughts, I said yes.

Was there any other kind?

II.

I came late to masturbation. At 16, growing too fast and half-terrified of the opposite sex, I remained a virgin in every respect, including with myself. Because I denied myself manual pleasure—or didn’t know where to begin—I was plagued by counterbalancing wet dreams. My subconscious was telling me something I didn’t want to hear. I could lose an entire class just staring at the back of some girl’s neck. I’d brush shoulders with her prettier friend in the hall between bells and relish the fleeting contact for days. People like to call puberty “a confusing time,” but I was like a caveman trying to crack relativity. I struggled to read my own desires.

My subconscious was telling me something I didn’t want to hear.

My hands, impatient, took charge. It started with boner-adjustments, for comfort. Then, to keep rogue midday stiffies in check, I had to walk around with a hand in my pocket, pressing my cock against my thigh, developing a hitch in my step. These strategies had the paradoxical effect of heightening the arousal I sought to suppress. Evenings, safe and isolated in my attic bedroom, I started experimenting. At the peak of my inventiveness, I found that with gym shorts pulled down to my knees and my body folded in half, neck held in place by the waistband elastic, I could actually lick myself. None of what I did was “natural” as I understood the term, but all of it was true to me, of me, self-contained.

In short order, the Internet would foreclose this phase of personal discovery. I would find my own strange tastes overwritten by the rules, expectations, and sad clichés of pornography.

III.

On a pinkish, maybe-leather couch, a skinny, greasy, tattooed man is screwing a zaftig blonde woman from behind. Not knowing what doggy-style was, I had to assume this was anal, which at once repelled and excited me. (This, I learned, is the defining element of pornography.) After a few minutes of rutting, the woman turns over to lie on her back. The guy thrusts his erection between her preposterous tits until he begins to ejaculate, suddenly stroking himself to the finish. The starlet underneath him lifts her hair in such a way to avoid getting semen in it, a detail that struck me as both impossibly sexy and quite depressing.

I got hooked on other clips in my early covert porn surfing, but this one brought me to a milestone climax. My bedroom was next door to our guest room/office, which boasted access to my family’s desktop computer, so stealing in after everyone had fallen asleep was a cinch. For a month, I barely touched myself during these smut sessions. Then, without warning, I crossed a vague bodily threshold; I looked down in astonishment to see that I was jizzing onto the green shag carpet. I spent the next hour scrubbing it out.

“That’s not a good thing to use the computer for,” he said at last.

Soon I had a ritual. It involved the prudent repositioning of a small wastepaper basket beforehand. Gone were the cerebral rush and theoretical consequences of baiting a stranger into a private AOL chat room with erotically charged wordplay; biology had moved to the fore. Still, when my father did finally confront me for this habit, it wasn’t for a telltale stain, rather an atypical carelessness as to browser history. I half-heartedly implicated my younger brother, exacerbating my shame. Dad wasn’t totally sure how to field the response, so he tried to keep his lesson simple: “That’s not a good thing to use the computer for,” he said at last.

IV.

In at least one sense, Dad was right: I was starting to flirt with girls at school, becoming more receptive to those who had previously alarmed me with their advances. Porn was nothing compared to the intensity of my classroom infatuations and tangible experience. For the latter half of high school and most of college, pornography was just idle decadence, nothing that had a hold on me. But in my last year of higher education, with a long-distance girlfriend, Internet porn became a hobby. I spent painstaking hours downloading videos from peer-to-peer filesharing networks like Kazaa and LimeWire, mostly based on misleading titles, and was infuriated when they proved low-quality or otherwise less than thrilling. At the same time, I was nervous keeping a file of favorites on my laptop, where any snoop might find it. In dire situations, I could use my imagination or a photo of an ex, though purely as a last resort.

I graduated and moved in with my girlfriend. We married four years later. Another three years on, we continue to have, I modestly submit, more and better sex than most people are permitted. Along with domestic bliss, however, arrived the impulse to watch porn whenever I had the apartment to myself, as well as when I didn’t, counting on a bathroom door or my wife’s talent for napping to preserve an air of secrecy. Masturbation was my answer to boredom, a method of procrastination, a heightened or hedonistic laziness. There was even a poisonous nostalgia in play: I continually returned to the videos and starlets I grew up on, and it drove me crazy when I could no longer find some half-remembered money shot.

Porn was nothing compared to the intensity of my classroom infatuations and tangible experience.

Driven by this behavior and the escalation of real-life affairs outside my (non-monogamous) marriage, I googled “sex addiction.” One definition stated that a sex addict is anyone for whom sex has made daily existence “unmanageable.” I shrugged it off, figuring that applied to everyone. I read a book by Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion, that described in harrowing detail the physical and mental toll suffered by your average porn actress; I then tried to tell myself that I was an enlightened consumer of erotica, turned on solely by those women who appeared to have fun in their work—as if that weren’t yet another phony aspect of their performance.

And truth be told, I was starting to click on links that hinted at abusive acts. I developed an interest in kinks that made me uncomfortable and things I had no interest trying out in my own bed, where I’m not exactly adventurous. It was difficult to tell who was pushing the envelope—me or the industry. My shame increased. Despite all efforts at denial, as we entered 2015, an epiphany steamrolled into place: Even as I crossed horrible new boundaries of loathing, exploitation, and utter sleaze in search of porn nirvana, I wasn’t enjoying any of it.

V.

My belated New Year’s resolution was to quit porn altogether. With the advent of YouTube-style porn sites, I had taken the fixation to baroque extremes. Tabbing between a dozen videos simultaneously was hardly unusual. I enjoyed the cacophony of competing moans and tangled flesh. I’d take time with myself and then, in the sorry aftermath, realize I’d meant to leave the house 20 minutes before. Going cold turkey might be framed as an ethical decision, but it had a practical appeal: I wanted my freedom.

Restraint has had bizarre effects.

The beginning, as usual for me in matters of willpower, was far too easy. It took no effort to banish thoughts of porn with constructive tasks. “You should wash the dishes,” I’d tell myself. Or: “Work on that short story instead.” A positive momentum accumulated. Rather than jerk off before my wife got home from work, I waited with great and buzzing anticipation for literal sex, which immediately improved and became more frequent under my new regimen. Everything was going so well—well enough that, three weeks later, I wanted to reward myself.

Like an alcoholic who celebrates a short stint of sobriety with a fateful beer, I succumbed all at once to my old temptations under the pretense of exercising new control. The initial orgasm gave way to a binge that lasted for two more languorous rounds, spread across an entire day. I can’t say if this constituted a rock-bottom moment, but I’d fallen plenty far. It wasn’t enough to betray this campaign of improvement; I had to wallow in my failure.

VI.

And so I arrived at the oddest stage yet of this 14-year debilitation: What was formerly a byproduct of youthful lassitude or frenzy is now a manifestation of the dark and damaged corners of my mind. No longer is it something to do on a whim. It’s a crucible made of my own shortcomings. Between periods of resistance, the occasional breakdowns justify themselves oddly. Sex itself, I find, draws me back to the flame of adult entertainment; after fucking, I feel all the more primed to seek solitude in which to stir the glowing embers of that connection.

If life is better than porn, why do I crave it so?

Restraint has had bizarre effects. When I abstain from porn, I fantasize about it—my usual roster of actresses and the specific instant or gesture that compels me to rewind over and over again. I miss these people as if I had known them. Recently I dreamed that I incurred the jealousy of a preferred porn star by frolicking in a meadow with someone near and dear to me—instead of mock-fornicating with my dirty illusions, I suppose. The narrative, bewildering as it was, posed an essential question: If life is better than porn, why do I crave it so?

VII.

I’m not a victim of circumstance. Ours is a porn-saturated era, but the product meets demand. In my profile on Lulu, an app that allows women to rate men’s personalities, a reviewer has noted my #OneTrackMind, presumably without an awareness of what websites I visit in incognito mode. I want to believe that this oversexed maturity is the predictable result of a childhood marked by dogged resistance to these exact ideas, and not ipso facto unhealthy. Yet porn in particular remains an abysmal force. It exerts an infernal, inexhaustible gravity.

Upon hearing the topic of this essay, a close friend revealed that porn is a crucial part of her intellectual balance. Without it, her thoughts race wild, unsettling her disposition; porn presents a convenient way of muting her brain. I seized upon that idea, because I’ve turned to porn for similar reasons: to zone out, unplug, forget. Heroin addicts talk about a related effect—the empty-headed blankness, a selfish, one-way parade of pleasure with perpetually diminishing returns. This is why pornography has proved hard to abandon. The less it satisfies, the more the world intrudes, and the more we need it to escape.

I doubt I’ll break its spell over me. I’ll always sense it within close reach. But I’m not throwing in the tissue yet. I’m dead set on surviving somewhere beyond the borders of a screen.

Illustration by Max Fleishman