Johann Hari: Internet porn has transformed teenage life

Young people need to be taught as they approach adolescence to be porn-savvy
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The Independent Online

I am a member of the last generation of Western teenagers who had to struggle and strive to get hold of porn. I still remember the hysterical burst of testosterone (laced with desperation) that burst over my school playground when I was 11 years old and it was revealed that one of my classmates had swiped a porn mag from his dad. The Penthouse was passed from hand to hand like a fragile Ming vase, its pages studied with the obsessive care of Talmudic scholars poring over the Mishnah. I didn't stumble across another porn mag for years.

But 11-year-olds today have to actively avoid porn. Bodily fluids leak into every inbox from the moment an e-mail account is opened, and every sexual act imaginable (and a few that aren't) are only a google away. It was revealed this weekend in the Independent on Sunday-Nielsen poll that half of all children have now seen porn sites.

This is a drastic social shift - in just one generation, the land of the stiff upper lip has become the land of the permanent stiffy. When I saw that tattered Penthouse, Clare Short was calling for the banning of Page Three girls who now look like seaside postcards compared to the sites 9 million men clicked on last year. But as a culture, we have tucked the new world of internet porn under our duvet like guilty adolescents and refused to discuss it.

What does it mean that most 11-year-olds can now inspect close-ups of genitalia and penetration from their bedrooms? As I look at the generation of kids a little younger than me, I can see some amazingly positive effects. Today's teens and twentysomethings are probably the most sexually literate in European history. Many use the web as a digital Kama Sutra, surfing for new forms of sexual expression. I don't see it as something to tut-tut if consenting teenagers are discovering new ways to experience one of the great pleasures of human life, without the old sterile hang-ups; I see it as something to celebrate.

But I cannot honestly join the ranks of the porn libertines like Gore Vidal or "pro-porn feminists" such as Camille Paglia who celebrate the rise of digital porn as a glorious Dionysian orgy after two millennia of unnatural Christian repression. I find this argument intellectually alluring - until I remember these same people laud men like Larry Flynt - the publisher of Hustler - as "heroes". This is a man who followed up a real gang-rape on a pool table in Baton Rouge by publishing a double-page spread of a woman tied to a pool table with the strap-line, "Welcome to Baton Rouge, Gang Rape Capital of America".

For every positive effect porn has, there is a Larry Flynt and a slew of victims. I have one friend who describes himself as a "chronic porn addict" and sadly laments that his (very beautiful) girlfriend can never match the 10 million infinitely pliable, infinitely-surgeried fantasy women forever splayed in his laptop. I know teenage lads with wildly unrealistic expectations that women are constantly "up for it" - and up for anything.

And, worst of all, I know girls trying to meet those swollen expectations - girls who have internalised the norms of pornography and who try to convince themselves that they enjoy their boyfriends' endless requests for anal sex, sex toys and being "shared" with the mates. Of course, there are some women who genuinely do enjoy all this, and they need to be protected from clucking puritans. But as I look around, I see far more women trying to contort themselves painfully into an internet-shaped dream-girl.

And the harm could be worse still. Professor Jennings Bryant, a US psychologist, wanted to discover what happens to men when they are exposed to massive amounts of porn. His test subjects quickly shifted from being happy with vanilla porn, and started to seek out more and more extreme strands. Men who before had said they found violent or rape-fantasy porn unacceptable were soon eagerly consuming it.

At the next link in the chain, Canadian psychologists James Check and Ted Guloien exposed men to massive amounts of rape-fantasy porn, and discovered that they became more and more likely to agree with statements like "rape isn't so bad", "women complain about rape too much" and "some women enjoy being raped" as they were exposed to more and more porn. So is one of the features of this new age - in addition to the welcome growth in sexual openness - a wave of increased sexual assaults?

While the old Christian puritans who hated the "filth" of porn were clearly wrong, the old Feminist puritans who hated its misogyny had a point. The fact that 30 per cent of women now regularly view internet porn - according to the new survey - seems to undermine this, until you study the figures and see that women are typing dirty in chatrooms rather than watching men being splayed and debased.

But what can we do? Even if we concluded that the negative effects of our new pornutopia outweigh the positive - and I'm genuinely not sure about that - we can't stop it. The web is uncensorable. The police can't even remove images of children being raped from search engines, when we all agree they should. We are, to borrow a phrase from Jean-Paul Sartre, "condemned to be free".

That doesn't mean we should go back into denial. It means we need to start to prepare children to cope with porn from an early age. Young people need to be taught as they approach adolescence to be porn-savvy. Everybody knows from the time they're a child to be wary of advertising, but young people don't know to be sceptical about the claims implicit in porn. As one 17-year-old told me, "My first experience of women in a sexual context was seeing them on websites as 'cum-hungry bitches'. I guess I started looking at it when I was 11 or 12, and it led me to make some terrible mistakes, approaching girls and expecting them to be into the stuff I'd seen."

But the sex education he received was "like something from another age. We were told in class what a vulva was when I was 14, but by that time I had been inspecting them in detail on my computer screen for years, and so had every other lad in the room." He knew what vaginas looked like; what he didn't know was that there was such a huge emotional gap between porn and reality.

Next time there is a vicious row about sex education targeted at pre-teens, remember that very soon, they will be looking at much worse. The only question now is - do you want your kids to plunge into the world of internet porn naive and believing everything they see is normal? Or do you want them to be prepared for this powerful, perilous intoxicant?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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