There is concern in the UK over young people’s access to pornography: some want to block it, some want to see more vigilant age restrictions. Either way, the relationship that teenagers have with porn is rarely discussed with the nuance and patience it deserves. Today’s twenty-somethings are our lab rats: the first generation to go through puberty with unlimited access to online porn. The most interesting among them are those who now identify as post-porn.
Chris*, 24, watched porn to learn about sex: “I started watching porn when I was 13, firstly out of a curiosity; I didn’t know a lot about sex. It’s where I got my sexual education. I realise now there might have been a few side effects from that…When I was 17 and began having sex, four years of porn watching had given me a conception of what sex should be like. I had an idealised picture of what it would be like; an awareness of certain standards I would have to achieve in order for it to be ‘successful’”.
“I was watching a lot of porn that had anal sex in and developed an anal fixation. When I was with one of my first girlfriends, I would always hint, “Do you want to try this? I want to try this”. As soon as we actually did, I remember feeling so ashamed. She didn’t get anything from it; I got nothing from it. It wasn’t how I thought it was meant to be. That’s when it truly hit me; it wasn’t something that I actually even wanted.”
Chris isn’t alone: a recent study into anal sex among young heterosexual couples found a “climate of coercion” that echoes Chris’ experience: young boys wanted to copy what they saw in pornography, and pressured their partners to do so.
Chris is uncomfortable about the normalisation of aggressive content: “I developed a tolerance to the videos I was watching. I would seek out things that were more and more hard-core. There’s some really f****d up porn online, like incest imitation, that there’s clearly a large market for because you can’t avoid it. There are websites where you can access horrific compilation videos of women crying during sex… But, because you watch a lot of porn and build up a lot of tolerance, you can build up increasing desires to watch extreme videos.”
Although porn audiences are predominantly male, with studies citing that men watch 72% of all online porn, women watch too. Thanks to the internet however, not everyone who sees porn is an adult.
An Italian study from 2006 found that young women’s porn consumption correlated with their experiences of forced, violent sex. This finding resonated with Lara, 21, whose teenage sexual experiences were directly influenced by the violence she saw in porn:
“Sex as displayed in almost all porn I have encountered is mostly focused on women having little control or power, and the connection between the two people participating is usually purely sexual and violent. Porn enforced my tendency to sleep with much older men, not to mention forcing myself to endure incredibly painful sexual experiences. None of it was remotely pleasurable for me. Since stopping, I no longer have abusive sex in which I am treated violently, or called degrading names.”
“Throughout my teenage years I ended up shaping myself into a sexual object. I was dressing like the women I saw in porn: bleaching my hair, wearing heavier and heavier makeup, tanning, all because of the image of sexuality I drew from porn.” 60% of teenagers surveyed for Channel 4’s The Sex Education Show stated that porn had affected their self-esteem and body image. 45% of girls said they were unhappy with their breasts and would consider plastic surgery, whereas 27% of boys expressed concerns about the size and shape of their penis.
Lara recalls the day she stopped: “I ended up watching a video where rape was simulated as part of the fantasy. After the actress stated that a family member raped her as a child, the men proceeded to violently choke and penetrate her. It was while this was happening that I couldn't watch it anymore…all I could notice were the expressions of pain on her face, and her screams masked as sounds of pleasure. I stopped watching it and afterwards couldn't stop thinking about how painful that sex must have been and how ruined she must have felt afterwards.”
Not all porn is violent, however, and not everyone gets off on violence. Feminist porn aims to present sex as enjoyable for both sexes. However, not all are aware the concept even exists:
“What’s feminist porn? I’ve never heard of that. It’s never been available on any of the websites I’ve seen,” says Chris. “It sounds to me that it would only be people that are already that way inclined who would seek it out, but the battle’s already won for those people. The majority of people are watching mainstream porn that doesn’t cater for that, and feminist porn won’t be winning those people over.”
If heterosexual porn is often aggressive, is gay porn any different? Saeed, 25, described the impact that porn had on his conceptions of sex: “Porn gave me an assumption that receptive anal intercourse is always painful. There’s ideas that when you’re a virgin and you’re being deflowered, or whatever, you have to get through it and get over it. All these things indicate that it will always be painful, but it doesn’t have to be. But it takes actually doing it to learn that. A lot of the f*****g, and I mean that, is very hard-core [in porn]. Rough and aggressive like meat being tenderized. There is material that does cater to the idea of a more gentle, emotional interaction, but by and large it is desensitized f*****g.”
“Gay porn almost always leads to anal intercourse. I believed that this is the terminus, this is what it has to be,” he adds. “In porn, that is the whole point, unless the title specifically refers to an act that isn’t anal sex. But in reality, a lot of men don’t do anal.”
Arguably, not all porn is realistic because some viewers want to indulge in fantasy acts they cannot, or maybe would not really want to, perform in reality. However Jake, 23, is alarmed that real people are involved, and even hurt, in the creation of someone else’s fantasy:
“One time I was watching and the woman was clearly not happy. It was pretty evident that she didn’t really want to be there. And it all came together in my head, I thought: ‘“If that woman didn’t want to be there, how many women do want to be there?”. When you realise that person you’re using to fulfil your imagination is being put in a situation they don’t want to be, it’s like, hang on a minute, I’m having an erection over a girl who looks like she's being forced to have sex with some dude.”
“I don’t understand violent porn. Who wants to beat up a girl?,” he asks. “Even if it’s just a “fantasy”, guys are still sitting there watching it with an erection. What’s sexually appealing about that?”
Gary Wilson, a North American neuroscientist, might be able to answer. He created a website called Your Brain On Porn, which explains the effect that porn can have on the brain, addiction and erectile dysfunction.
Wilson claims the novelty of accessing limitless amounts of porn releases dopamine in the viewer’s brain. Porn users get hooked on the dopamine release and keep chasing it with more (and more novel, or extreme) porn. However, too much dopamine can lead to numbed pleasure response in other areas of life, a hyper-reactivity to porn and an arousal addiction. This finding is backed up by research from the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, which recently found the part of the human brain that activates when people feel motivated or rewarded, shrinks and works less efficiently in regular porn viewers.
Wilson's website contains numerous testimonials from young men who report increased happiness, energy and self-confidence after giving it up. Among these young men is Richard. At 21, he was watching porn five to seven times a week. At 23, he believes regular porn use is a “mentally damaging habit”. Like any scientific theory, Wilson’s is hotly contested. However, Richard believes it:
“After I stopped watching porn, I was more likely to achieve climax during sex. I was saving time because I wasn’t wasting it on porn, and I also had more meaningful relationships and sexual encounters. Porn puts something very important in your life - happiness and relations with the opposite sex - on a virtual medium. It’s something you will not miss out of your life. It’s completely pointless.”
This year, a study from ATVOD found that in one month, 6% of children aged 15 or under viewed an ‘adult’ website and, over the course of 12 months, at least 473,000 children between the ages of six and 17 accessed an ‘adult internet service’. That’s a lot of young people watching porn, and the figures only took computer access into consideration; never mind smartphones and tablets.
As porn is such so diverse and often secretive, it’s unclear exactly how many people are shunning porn, as there are currently no studies or statistics. It is clear, however, that there is a growing number of young people who are willing to talk about how uncomfortable they are with both the content and impact of porn.
When asked about what should be done to help young people navigate their way through the vast realms of porn and sex, most dismissed David Cameron’s proposed internet porn filter, claiming that it wouldn’t work and wouldn’t address the real issues with porn use. A more popular option was good quality sex education that allows young people to discuss porn. Currently, the Everyday Sexism project and the End Violence Against Women coalition are calling for exactly that with a petition that demands online porn is discussed in classrooms alongside consent and healthy relationships.
So are filters and bans just another way of avoiding conversations with young people about porn? We've been told it can become addictive and that it can increase tolerance towards sexually violent attitudes, but statistics from sites like PornHub and interviews with porn-addicted teenagers don’t provide much information about the confusing relationship that adolescents have with porn. Without a decent understanding and education on the topic, will the next generation of teenagers be consigned to great masturbation and confusing, harmful sex?
*In order to protect the identities of interviewees, no real names have been used.
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