The Complex Reasons Young Women Are Watching More Porn In Lockdown

Photographed by Anna Jay
"Octopus tentacle hentai cartoons, gang bangs, humiliations… It’s not like any sexual experience I’ve ever had and it doesn’t get me off, I’ve just been bored," says Eloise*, 29. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Eloise would watch porn around twice a week. Now, it’s four or five times a week. 
She is not alone. Porn use rose in tandem with the announcement of the first lockdown in March 2020. Statistics provided by Pornhub show that site traffic from the UK increased by 26.9%, and only partly because the site offered its premium content for free – by the end of this offer, site traffic was still up by 17.5% compared to the average day.
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Google Trends shows that from 12th to 18th April 2020 in the UK, there were more searches for 'porn' than at any other point in the year (apart from, um, the week of Christmas). Subscription-only video-sharing service OnlyFans has experienced a 150% rise in searches during the past year, now boasting more than 90 million users and more than 1 million content creators.
Emma’s* porn use turned from "nonexistent" into a "twice-a-week habit". The straight, single 32-year-old charity worker never used to watch it but says: "Last March, the prospect of having sex was nonexistent so I thought I’d re-engage with sex in some way."
Meanwhile Eloise, a lesbian who works in security, has always used porn to shock herself rather than get off. "The amount of time I’m spending on porn has gone up purely because the number of things that it’s possible to fill my time with have gone down," she explains. 
As for Rebecca*, 24, who works in the civil service and entered the pandemic with the man she’d been dating for six years, lesbian porn has always been her thing. She tells Refinery29 that she used to enjoy it as a "shameful" secret every couple of months but began consuming it on a regular basis when the first lockdown began.

From 12th to 18th April 2020 in the UK, there were more searches for 'porn' than at any other point in the year (apart from, um, the week of Christmas).

"I could picture myself better [in a scenario with another woman]," she explains. "It was softer and about giving pleasure rather than taking it, which is how I imagine straight porn to be." 
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But what does an uptick in porn use mean for those consuming it? And what does it do to our minds when we see more images of other people’s genitals on a cold, dark lockdown evening than we’ve seen friends’ faces in an entire year? 
Charlene Douglas, a psychosexual therapist and psychodynamic counsellor, says that porn is often used as a way to explore aspects of sexuality we don’t feel comfortable talking about. She tells Refinery29: "There’s a whole taboo about sex that has always been there and can keep people trapped. When they’re not able to express what they really want and enjoy, porn provides a platform to explore that."
Though Google Trends statistics show a sharp year-on-year rise in online porn streaming in the weeks following lockdown, this ebbed as the year went on. Pornhub’s most recent statistics end in June and the company did not respond to Refinery29’s request for comment on this. It is understood that Pornhub has received lower traffic since December 2020, when it introduced a pledge never to publish nonconsensual content and purged 9 million of its 13 million videos.
Some time before that, though, Emma had ended her fling with porn. "I was too panicked about the pandemic to really enjoy the porn I was watching. I also realise from podcasts about women in the industry that porn use doesn’t sit with how I try to conduct myself and really, why am I watching this?"
On the basest level, she doesn’t feel great about herself once she’s finished watching porn. "As soon as you’re done, you’re repulsed, and it’s so dark. Porn was not helping my loneliness at all," she reflects. 
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Charlene recognises that porn can affect people negatively even after they have viewed it. "People think once you close the laptop it’s over, but those memories are still in your brain and different things will trigger them," she explains. "It may be you’re having sex with a partner and you may not be in the moment because you’re thinking about those shocking sexual images."
Eloise’s porn use, comprising the most shocking – but, she hastens to add, legal – images, has continued at a steady rate since the latest lockdown. "I would be thrilled to find something visual that did turn me on but I can’t. Maybe I’m challenging myself to be turned on by porn," she explains. She laughs and adds: "Maybe there’s something really wrong with me?"
Although many young women won’t be watching the same "bizarre stuff" that Eloise describes, lockdown has denied huge numbers of people a type of human connection that porn professes to substitute: sexual intimacy.  
Many reputable sexual health practitioners recommend ethical porn as an intimacy aid when watched together as a couple and as a great masturbation aid when solo. But Charlene warns that if you are looking to porn to assuage negative feelings, it may actually compound them. 
"If you’re feeling isolated or lonely, particularly during lockdown, then porn use can send you on a dark downward spiral and make you feel worse and more isolated," she cautions. 
For Rebecca, though, the opposite has proved true. "I felt less isolated and lonely in my relationship when I watched it," she explains. There was, she adds, something about the combination of lockdown and lesbian porn that provided her with an escape. "When normal life is going on, it’s easy to ignore the problems of a relationship, but being around my partner so much more during lockdown made things clearer."
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In late summer 2020, she broke up with her long-term boyfriend and finally felt comfortable realising that her latent bisexuality is what had drawn her to lesbian porn. One problem, though: she couldn’t access it after leaving the flat she shared with her ex. "I did try to watch porn at my parents’ place but they have a filter on the internet here and it’s in the countryside so there’s no mobile data signal," she says. 

When you're not having sex but engaging with porn, and that's the only outlet, it can be depressing. I'm now making sure not to turn to it when I'm lonely.

emma, 32
An estimated one in 10 young adults moved back in with their parents because of the first lockdown. This number added to the 3.5 million people under 35 (that’s two thirds of young adults) who were already living with their parents in 2020 due to financial issues which the post-pandemic recession will inevitably exacerbate. Emma is one of them. She is spending the third lockdown with her parents due to a gap between tenancies, leaving porn off limits for now. "I wouldn’t even engage that part of my brain anyway, there’s nothing sexy about being 32 and being at home," she jokes.
Emma is biding her time until she’s able to date again and is no longer watching porn as a sticking plaster to heal a lack of intimacy. "When you’re not having sex but engaging with porn, and that’s the only outlet, it can be depressing," she reflects. "I’m making sure not to turn to it when I’m lonely."
Rebecca, meanwhile, was lucky to be able to return to London, and went on some dates during the "tier 2 glory days". She’s still using porn but says it’s different now. "Before, I’d go onto sites like Pornhub but since becoming more open about my sexuality – not just my attraction to women – friends have recommended more ethical ways of watching porn. I’ve been using Erika Lust and it alleviates the guilty feelings that what I’m consuming might not be ethical," she explains.
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Complex as her relationship with it might be, there’s no denying that porn is helping Emma to explore her sexuality in a way she can’t in real life right now. "I think it’s quite a good thing to do this while I’m realising and accepting my sexuality," she tells me. "I can work out what I like and don’t like and I think that might be a better way of working things out before I sleep with women."
Porn is far from perfect. Abolitionists – both radical feminists and conservative religious types – criticise its accessibility, affordability, aggression and anonymity. Many men who hurt women in bed are inspired by mainstream porn’s violence, and the image-based sexual abuse that can emerge on porn sites – revenge porn is just one type – is currently being discussed in parliament as a potential part of the government’s Domestic Abuse Bill
As the debate rages on as to how to make porn more ethical, perhaps we need to consider how ethically we want to treat ourselves, too. Is it really good for us to consume something that makes us feel messed up? Can we work out what we want from sex without using porn? Charlene says that porn literacy helps us to understand not only what the porn we’re watching might mean for our real life but how our real life plays into what we want to watch and how often. We must, she concludes, be mindful of what we’re watching. "If you find you’re watching a lot of porn and didn’t before, it’s about exploring what you did do before and how you got to where you are today."
*Names have been changed to protect identities 

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