what effect are porn and dating apps having on our love lives?

Writer Megan Nolan weighs in her own experiences.

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May 30 2018, 9:29am

It was on a third date with a shy American philosophy grad named Willem that I first really understood just how bad porn can make sex. A docile, endearing nerd on our dates, when we went to bed together he launched into a joyless succession of moves which clearly didn’t come naturally to him and which I did not want or solicit.

Like anyone else, I’d read foreboding statistics and editorials about a generation of men growing up in the shadow of this unquantifiable and worrying influence, but I’d never paid much attention to them. This was, in part, because I like the sort of things that fretful newspaper columnists get upset about -- I’ve always tended to the submissive, ever since I started having sex, long before porn was as easy to access for teenagers as it is now. I found it hard to worry about these men learning to dominate women, so long as it was consensual, because that was exactly what I wanted them to be doing to me.

Fast forward a decade, however, from the days I first started exploring sex to when I met Willem the philosophy dork -- I had since moved to London from Ireland, was 26, and submerged in online dating. Sex was different here to what it was in Ireland, something I was only just getting to grips with. This isn’t for some interesting and complex postcolonial reason, but rather because I was more or less always in a relationship in Ireland. If I was briefly single I would usually sleep with friends. There was no such thing as “dating” for me then. I fell into relationships and fell into bed at the end of parties and that was it. The people I had sex with were known to me either intimately or tangentially, and all felt idiosyncratic, had little traits and habits I would remember them by later. The way this one bites his lip, the way that one laughs when he’s most aroused.

When I moved to London, I was heartbroken and truly single for the first time in my adult life. I had no social group, and therefore no way to find sexual partners with any context. What I had instead was OK Cupid, and I distracted myself from my grief and homesickness with that. I went on several dates a week, suddenly finding myself with access to an enormous cross-section of entirely disparate sorts of men. What I started to see, having dated in this way for two years, was the eradication of the wildness that made me love sex in the first place. By wildness I don’t mean an ability or desire to be especially kinky or creative in bed, but rather the wildness of being simply and humbly human, being animal and instinctive.

In London, men who had nothing in common with each other, men from different demographics and generations to each other, would repeat the same by-rote pornified turns of phrase to me, the same learned gesture of “Ooh-yeah-you-like-that-baby?” throat-grabbing, sneering dominance. It was surreal. After a while the gestures and phrases recurred so frequently I would find it hard not to laugh. For me, dominance and submission had always been about an attitude, not a list of actions to be ticked off. It wouldn’t matter to me if I was never physically treated roughly again, if the feeling between us was right. But these men seemed all to have learned from the same boring, glazed-over instruction sheet. This was emphasised to me by the fact I was also, by then, sleeping with women and other queer people, who tend to be inherently more creative and playful with each other in bed. I still found men attractive and sexy, but the sex was becoming so repetitive that I wasn’t sure I could bother with it any more.


There is so much in life now that is disconnected from our essential humanity, so much that is denaturalised by commerce and technology -- things as basic as how often our body is able to move, what we feed it. I don’t like to think of sex being that way too, a thing that is standardised by external factors. It saddens me to think of desire being codified so thoroughly, whether in Pornhub categories or OKC questions and answers.

I realised this in bed with Willem, when he went to grab my hair and then hesitated, paused his strange, unconvincing performance of an alpha male out for revenge.

“You like that right?” he asked.

“Uh, sometimes. Not really -- not right now,” I replied, feeling a little sorry for him.

“But your profile said you did?”

And then I realised: all those questions about yourself you can answer on Ok Cupid, the ones I would idly work my way through when bored at work -- he had studied them all, added any I had responded positively to to his repertoire. It had quite literally been an exercise in box ticking. Sex had become as prescriptive and transactional as everything else in this life.

I grew up feeling that what was so enrapturing about sex was its essential strangeness. There was profound mystery therein. I used to feel sadness when I had my rare one night stands and brief flings, at the fact that I could not get to know each person fully. It was pleasantly melancholy that I saw only a little of their beauty and soft secret self, that I was not able to exhaust them. But that was what made it so enchanting and why sex is more than fun to me, more than an urge. It’s important. The wildness is important.