Escape from Womanhood
How the Internet led one teenage girl to believe that she'd rather be a boy
Helena Kerschner is a 23-year-old detransitioned woman who identified as transgender during her teenage years and was prescribed testosterone shortly after her 18th birthday. After being on testosterone for a year and a half, she realized that transitioning was a misguided way of dealing with her social and emotional struggles. Now, years later, she is interested in exploring the cultural and psychological factors that contribute to the sharp rise in the number of adolescent girls identifying as transgender and choosing to medically transition with hormones and surgeries.
In my efforts to understand the personal factors that led me to identify as transgender and eventually decide to mistakenly transition, I’ve always been struck by the overwhelming role the internet has played in my life.
Online pornography, which studies show most kids are now exposed to by the age of 13, has become virtually inescapable. Faster than we can even measure its impact, this new world of porn is drastically changing how young people form their perceptions of sexuality and adult relationships. It would be foolish to think that it wouldn’t have major consequences. In my own life, I can see how being inundated with pornographic imagery as a young woman, much of it violent, and being repeatedly told that this was normal and even cool led me instinctively to look for an escape from womanhood.
Pornography isn’t what it once was. Fifty years ago, young boys could find a stash of magazines and become enthralled by the sexual images within them. But these still photographs, which needed to be sought out, are only loosely related to the novel phenomenon of pervasive online pornography. MindGeek, the company that owns many of the most popular porn sites, including Pornhub, boasts 125 million daily visits and quietly collects massive amounts of data from its users, which it uses to sell targeted ads and to create content that appeals directly to younger audiences. Many porn users attest to a “tolerance” effect, whereby they no longer feel sufficiently stimulated by scenarios that were once arousing and are motivated to seek ever more extreme content. To keep their audience’s attention, the endless quantities of new porn being produced are eternally novel. Without even looking for it, anyone can now stumble on footage so grotesque and abusive to the people involved, a person who does not have a porn “tolerance” would likely be mortified.
Alongside this ever-increasing normalization of pornography usage by young children and adolescents, there has been an unprecedented explosion in the number of children and teenagers identifying as transgender. Official British government figures from 2018 show that in less than a decade, the country saw a more than 4,000% increase in the number of minors being referred for gender treatments, including hormone injections. Most of the increase was driven by girls. In the year 2009-10, only 40 girls in England sought gender reassignment, but by 2017-18, the number had ballooned up to 1,806. In the United States, a 2019 report from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that gender-confirming surgeries (GCS) were a “rapidly expanding field. Of all procedures recorded by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), GCS was among the most rapidly increasing from 2016 to 2017.” The most rapid increase, according to the ASPS, was among women transitioning to men: a 289% increase in one year.
As a young woman who both identified as transgender as a teen and grew up in a very online, pornography-influenced environment, I believe there is a profound connection between this new way of exploring sexuality and the identity confusion that we are seeing in so many young people today.
To girls who are pressured into regurgitating how fantastic and progressive porn culture is, the very idea of being a “woman” becomes repulsive.
Many young girls today, including those that identify as trans as I did as a teenager, internalize a hyper-sexualized caricature of what a girl or a woman is. It mirrors the image of women as extreme sex objects that boys derive from porn, but whereas for boys that may be titillating, for some girls it becomes the reason why they feel they aren’t really a “girl.”
On social media, it’s become normal for women to farm engagement and money by either presenting a highly sexualized image of themselves or outright selling homemade pornography. OnlyFans, the user-driven pornography platform, was frequently promoted as a glorified and ideologically progressive career option for women during the coronavirus pandemic. Today, any young woman can be faced with pressure, direct or indirect, to sell pornography of herself, and any consideration for the emotional, spiritual, or material long-term impacts of such actions will be called “prudish” and “bigoted.”
In adolescent internet subcultures, it’s normal to talk about the porn you watch and what kinks you have, with people as young as 12 saying they have a “daddy kink” or a “knife-play kink” or that they’re “bottoms” or “tops.” The existence and the popularity of the so-called sexuality “demisexual,” which is a label for someone who prefers to have an emotional connection before engaging in sex, imply that many young people see such attitudes as separate from normal sexuality, which to them is promiscuity, kink, and hookup culture. Twitter has several popular NSFW (“Not Safe for Work,” or explicit content) tags in which one can regularly see girls as young as 13 or 14 advertising that they would like to participate in explicit conversations and the sharing of explicit content. Most of the explicit content online isn’t about healthy sex between two people who love and trust each other; it’s about bizarre kinks and degradation.
In these porn-saturated circles, submission, degradation, abuse, and suffering are all highly associated with women. This is completely normalized and encouraged within online groups of young people and, in so many cases, presented as empowering for women. If a young person feels uncomfortable with it all, that person is pressured to not only repress those feelings but also participate in porn culture nonetheless. Pop megastar Billie Eilish recently confessed that she started watching extreme porn at the age of 11, believing it was a cool thing to do, only to later find that it had “destroyed” her brain and warped her sense of healthy sexual boundaries. “The first few times I, you know, had sex, I was not saying no to things that were not good. It was because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be attracted to,” Eilish said. Predictably, she faced a backlash for speaking out.
Even for girls (and boys, probably) who don’t watch porn, who don’t participate in the porn culture, the stuff is so pervasive that many will have seen (and felt horrified and violated by) pornographic imagery elsewhere.
To girls who notice that this culture wants them to be sexual objects, who do not want to be sexually tortured but instead wish for loving intimate relationships, who do not want to rejoice in porn but are pressured into regurgitating how fantastic and progressive porn culture is, the very idea of being a “woman” becomes repulsive.
Ideally, a girl should be able to explore sexual ideas in a safe way, when she’s old enough to choose it herself, in ways and with people that are age appropriate for her. Today, that developmental pathway has been hijacked.
The inherent anxieties that come with being a vulnerable human female can be intolerable in these conditions. Most girls don’t want to compete with porn for the attention of boys. They’re scared that all the boys around them and any boys they might fancy are watching porn and will demand that intimacy be like porn. They feel inferior to other women who seem to be thriving in the porn culture; they feel something is wrong with them for not getting it. They’re told their feelings make them either prudish or bigoted against sex workers (which they’re told is a lucrative career and an admirable thing to do) or that being “vanilla” means they will never please a partner. If they are so strongly shamed that they disconnect from their discomfort and participate in porn culture despite it, they may force themselves to consume content or participate in activities that are traumatic.
Some end up feeling, as I did, that there is no way for a girl like them to be happy as a girl. As the number of detransitioners increases, it’s clear that a girl’s discomfort with being a girl does not mean she needs hormones and surgeries. It may mean that we have turned womanhood into something that terrifies young women, blurred the lines between fantasies and reality, and allowed medical professionals to alter young people’s bodies without accountability for addressing the cultural changes that could be affecting young people’s ability to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Get The Scroll Delivered Daily
Thank you, Helena:
I am 50 years old and, even having grown up in the 70s, I can relate to profound childhood alienation from the widely disseminated idea of a sexual female. Now, as a mother of an 11 year old girl, I am struggling to figure out how to protect her and talk to her about the phenomenon of internet porn. Let alone how to insulate my 9 year old son from it...
Illuminating, to say the least. In the much less porn-saturated world of the 1970s that I grew up in (before the VCR and home porn revolution), it was hard for teens to find "real" porn (not pictures of naked ladies -- something hard core, rather). As Helena writes, it had to be sought out, and it wasn't easy to find. I can remember struggling in my late teens in the 1980s, once hard core porn was available at home without too much trouble, between the real in the here and now and the fantasy projected on the screen. It was still roped off to an extent and not available with a few clicks.
Being male, I usually thought about what boys would have to struggle with (real vs. fantasy) as porn moved toward omnipresence in the 1990s and 2000s. But periodically, I would also be reminded of how girls and women would react to the pull of that image and subculture and what it meant to and for them. Now having children of both sexes, I think about it again in yet another way.
It was never realistic to imagine that the internet, not just social media, could be limited to adults. We might need to deeply rethink the presence of the internet in our homes.