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InPsych 2015 | Vol 37

April | Issue 2

Cover feature : Psychological perspectives on pornography

The ‘porn genie’ is out of the bottle: Understanding and responding to the impact of pornography on young people

Thanks to modern technology, children and young people are able to access pornography whenever and wherever they want. I-phones, I-pads, laptops, tablets, gaming consoles and so on, all provide high-speed, high-quality access to the most graphic of images. Pornography has also changed over the past two decades. ‘Porn with a story’ from the mid-70s through to the early 80s is now replaced by every permutation and combination of category and sub-category you can imagine, and some you most likely can’t.

The growth in pornography

Pornography has been with us for thousands of years, but not like it is today. Pornography is big business. Annual US sales of pornography top $10 billion and worldwide pornography industry sales are more than Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft combined (Berman, 2011). It’s clear that the world likes – perhaps loves – pornography. Whilst we can talk about the dangers of pornography – its potential to corrupt young and old, and the possibility that it leads to either desensitisation regarding sexual violence, or perhaps even violence itself – the fact is that two-thirds of the population that have access to computers across the world watch pornography.

Young people’s exposure to pornography

What about our youth? Research has shown some worrying trends, particularly related to earlier onset exposure (Kraus & Russell, 2008; Mitchell et al., 2014), with one study indicating the average age of first-time exposure to pornography was 12.2 years old (Skau, 2007). Sabina and colleagues (2008) found that 93 per cent of males and 62 per cent of females in their sample reported exposure to pornography prior to age 18, the majority between the ages of 14 and 17. It also appears that youth are the main consumers of pornography, with research indicating that young males aged 12-17 years were the most frequent consumers of online pornography (Haggstrom-Nordin, Hanson & Tyden, 2005).

In addition, there is more pornography to view than ever before. In 1988, approximately 2,000 hardcore video titles were released, but by 2005 that number had exploded to more than 13,500 titles (Dines, Whisnant & Jensen, 2007). Of course, now with instant Internet access to a multitude of free sites, it is virtually impossible to calculate how many ‘titles’ are being released, as anybody with a mobile phone is now a potential producer. Type the word pornography into any online search engine and you will get 91 million results.

Impact on young people’s sexual practices

Not only are we struggling to comprehend the extent and type of pornography our youth are being exposed to, but we also have to grapple with the impact this is having on their sexual practices and relational templates. The pornography industry appears to have brought about changes to both body image and sexual practices among young people. Here’s some examples: the complete lack of pubic hair on virtually everyone under 30 – thank the porn industry; the research indicating that large cohorts of teenage girls do not regard oral sex as sex, but rather something that is provided to young men as a way of not having sex – thank the porn industry; the growing rates of reported anal sex amongst adult and teenaged heterosexual couples, to the point that for the first time ever, rates of practising anal sex were polled among Victorian school students in Years 10-12 in a recent survey of sexual practices (the rates were recorded as nine per cent of the sample of just over 2,000 youth in case you were interested; see Mitchell et al., 2014) – thank the porn industry.

Portrayal of sexual aggression

Along with impacting the sexual practices of our youth, pornography is also bringing an increasingly aggressive edge in its portrayal of sex. In an analysis of 50 randomly selected films from the top 250 grossing pornography films of 2007, Wosnitzer and Bridges (2007) found over 3,300 different acts of verbal and physical aggression, which averaged out at 11.5 acts of aggression per scene analysed. Further, the analysis found that the aggression (which was mainly displayed by the men in the scenes) was responded to with either neutral or pleasure expressions by the respondents (mainly women) in over 95 per cent of the scenes. And if you have watched pornography and think that no-one would believe that ‘porn sex’ is ‘real sex’, this is quickly refuted by the ground-breaking Australian research by Crabbe and Corlett (2013) showing very clearly that young men actually believe that what they are watching provides real templates for sexual activity (see Crabbe and Corlett’s 2013 film Love and sex in an age of pornography).

Over the past decade, we have seen a growing trend of younger children engaging in problem sexual and sexually abusive behaviours generally aimed at younger children – in other words, children sexually assaulting children. As well as a rise in the rate of such sexual abuse and the children committing the behaviours being younger, anecdotal evidence from agencies engaged with these youth suggests that the abusive behaviours also include more episodes of anal and oral penetration – both the staple fodder of pornography. Pornography is providing too many 10-year-olds with the mechanical knowledge to anally, orally and/or vaginally penetrate younger siblings, cousins and acquaintances.

Whilst the links between sexual violence, aggressive sexual practices and pornography consumption have been demonstrated in research of adult samples (e.g., Malamuth, Addison & Koss, 2000), no links have yet been established in adolescent populations. However, research does indicate that youth are engaging in sexual practices earlier, and that youth who view pornography engage in oral sex and intercourse at an earlier onset age than those who do not view pornography, with consumption before the age of 12 found to be particularly problematic (Kraus & Russell, 2008; Mitchell et al., 2014; Skau, 2007).

Can we ‘porn-proof’ our kids?

So what can we do and what is being done to ‘porn-proof’ our kids? There is particular concern for young people who have been subjected to trauma and sub-optimal home and school experiences, who often have already been exposed to large amounts of pornography and not a lot of sound sex education.

Quality sex education

Firstly, we must engage these youth in quality relationally-based sex education. We know that good, practical sex education is a protective factor against sexual exploitation and being a victim of sexual abuse. We also know that without it, youth relationships, both sexual and non-sexual, are heavily influenced by the pornography script. Young people need more than the usual sex education that provides information on ‘mechanics’, reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases. It’s up to the adults to give them this with no laughs, no shame and no lies. We must work on a school-based strategy in regards to the provision of such sex education, and we have to act now.

Training for those working with vulnerable youth

Secondly, we should continue to work individually with young people to ensure they have access to quality information about sex, particularly young people outside of mainstream systems such as school and family-based care situations. Some youth, due to background factors, are too traumatised to do this work in groups. It is vital that quality ongoing training in this area is provided to psychologists, child protection practitioners, youth justice and disability practitioners, residential care staff, therapeutic staff and others working with vulnerable youth, specifically around the issues of sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, client-to-client assault and managing risk situations. This training has been occurring now for a number of years and has been provided to thousands of staff across the sector by specialist practitioners, psychologists and social workers within the child protection system.

Working with parents

Finally, parents can be encouraged to assist young people to ‘decode’ pornography through attention to a couple of vital tasks. Parents need to model respectful, loving relationships – with partners, friends and the children themselves. Nothing will assist young people more than a healthy familial relationship that allows them to measure what they see in ‘porn world’ up against what they see in the real world they are immersed in. If young people are exposed to gender inequality, family violence, taboos about discussing sexual and relationship matters, or a harsh and unyielding parenting regime, then the relationships portrayed in pornography may not look that comic, sad or alien to them. The other duty for parents is to get over the embarrassment and talk with children about sex and relationships. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if parents create one then pornography is just waiting to fill it.

Conclusion

To end this article, I want you to think about your favourite Die Hard movie – the series of films with everyday hero John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) performing seemingly superhuman actions in a repeated story of a “…lone hero battling a multitude of single-minded opponents in an isolated setting”. We know that the actions of Willis could not be performed in real life with any expectations of surviving one of them, let alone all of them, yet we enjoy them for what they are – fantasy. Now I want you to think about pornography and what we can do to protect our youth from its unsavoury grip. First, the genie is out of the bottle; we are not going to stop the onslaught of pornography. What we can do is assist youth to understand that pornography is fantasy, and relates to real life sex the way that Die Hard and McClane do to real life conflict management. Yes, we must ensure that, as much as possible, younger children do not access pornography. But beyond that, guiding youth as ‘savvy consumers’ through the pornography maze to the healthy sexuality ‘other side’ seems a sensible way to react to a complex and ever-increasing problem.

Helpful resources for parents and professionals

  • In the picture: Supporting young people in an era of explicit sexual imagery (Secondary school resource; www.itstimewetalked.com, Brophy Family Services, 2014)
  • Love and sex in an age of pornography (2013 film; Rendered Visible and Looking Glass Pictures)
  • The impact of pornography on children, youth and culture (Anderson, 2011; NEARI Press)
  • Sex, power and consent: Youth culture and the unwritten rules (Powell, 2010; Cambridge University Press)

The author can be contacted at russpratt.psychologist@gmail.com

References

  • Berman, N. (2011). Gonzo Barbie – Empire of illusion. Retrieved from ninaberman.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/gonzo-barbie-empire-of-illusion/
  • Crabbe, M., & Corlett, D. (Directors) (2013). Love and sex in an age of pornography. Australia: Rendered Visible and Looking Glass Pictures.
  • Dines, G., Whisnant, R., & Jensen, R. (2007). Who wants to be a porn star? Sex and violence in today’s pornography industry.
  • Haggstrom-Nordin, E., Hanson, U., & Tyden, T. (2005). Associations between pornography consumption and sexual practices among adolescents in Sweden. International Journal of STD and AIDS, 16, 102-107.
  • Kraus, S. W. & Russell, B. (2008). Early sexual experiences: The role of internet access and sexually explicit material. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11(2), 162-168.
  • Malamuth, N. M., Addison, T., & Koss, M. (2000). Pornography and sexual aggression: Are there reliable effects and can we understand them? Annual Review of Sex Research, 11, 26-91.
  • Mitchell, A., Patrick, K., Haywood, W., Blackman, P., & Pitts, M. (2014). National survey of Australian secondary students and sexual health 2013, (ARCSHS Monograph Series No 97). Melbourne: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, Latrobe University.
  • Sabina, C., Wolak, J., & Finkelhor, D. (2008). The nature and dynamics of internet pornography exposure for youth. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11, 691-693.
  • Skau, B. (2007). Who has seen what when? Pornography’s contribution to the social construction of sexuality during childhood and adolescence. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, Wilfrid Laurier University, USA.
  • Wosnitzer, R. J. & Bridges, A. (2007). Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography: A content analysis update. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p170523_index.html

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on April 2015. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.