The heavily constructed realm of pornography is not going away anytime soon. How can we mitigate the effects it has on young people?
Pornography, once shrouded in darkness, has worked its way out of the brown paper bag and into the mainstream. Porn stars pose in fashion ads, music videos resemble something soft core, and song lyrics shout about sex. Academics argue young people are growing up in a ‘pornified culture’ underpinned by a blurring of the boundaries between pornography and mainstream media. Engaging young people in a conversation about the erotic images they are exposed to means considering both the benefits and harms of growing up in a highly sexualised culture.
Pornography is sexually explicit media produced with the primary intention to sexually arouse the audience. Pornographic content has long pushed the boundaries of what is sexually acceptable. As early as 1902, Ivan Bloch, physician and sexologist said: “[t]here is no sexual aberration, no perverse act, however frightful, that is not photographically represented today.” However, many believe the industry is producing increasingly dark, more degrading and violent content, with the majority of aggressive acts being perpetrated by men against women.
The age of first pornography access, whether intentional or inadvertent, is 11 years old; 100% of 15-year-old males and 80% of 15-year-old females report exposure to violent or degrading online pornography. The most common users are heterosexual males, and researchers have branded pornography “a cornerstone of autoerotic sexuality” amongst men. Heterosexual women’s engagement in pornography use is more likely to be with, or at the encouragement of, a male partner.
A divisive debate
Anti-pornographers assert that pornography has a major impact upon users’ views on gender equality and on young people’s relationships. Opposing views range from libertarian, to sex positive, to the more radical pro-pornography stance. Some argue that pornography has no impact on relationships, or that it’s simply a form of entertainment with which consenting adults may freely choose to engage. However, Associate Professor Michael Flood of the Faculty of Law and School of Justice at the Queensland University of Technology views this position as “either naive or dishonest.” Flood explains: “Porn has clear and identifiable impacts on people’s attitudes, on their behaviour and on their sexual interactions with others.”
Overly simplified statements about porn’s impacts emerge from both sides of the debate. Flood said: “In popular culture we sometimes see claims…which represent pornography’s effects as all powerful.” According to Flood, what’s clear is that pornography is a risk factor for sexual violence. Yet, it is a risk factor alongside a series of other risk factors, and its impact is neither inevitable nor deterministic. On the other hand, Flood also said that he is “frustrated by [those who] suggest that users…have an extraordinary power or sense of agency to resist or reject harmful messages in pornography”.
Many individuals report learning their sex education from porn, and this may shape their sexuality. Flood explains that pornography “has an increasingly significant effect on what young men desire and how young men behave sexually”. Co-producer of The Porn Factor and sexuality educator for young people Maree Crabbe likens the plastic nature of human sexuality to one’s everyday tastes. “I don’t like coffee, but if I drank coffee every day for a month, I would probably acquire a taste for it,” she said.
For Crabbe, the pairing of pornographic stimuli with the powerful physiological rush of orgasm heightens the neural association. As a result, sexual tastes and interests evolve and eventually sexual practices change accordingly. Sexual health physician Dr Smith*, who works out of a major public hospital, agrees. ''Erogenous zones have plasticity,'' she said. ''Our brains and nervous systems can adapt to changing circumstances if we train them to.''
The effect of pornography on sexual behaviours has been well documented with regards to heterosexual anal intercourse. A study of 130 men and women aged 16–18 from diverse social backgrounds found that young men commonly cited pornography as the inspiration for engaging in anal intercourse with female partners, despite both parties anticipating the experience would be painful for the female. The authors of the study hypothesised that sexual scripts, which are often driven by pornography, “normalised coercive, painful and unsafe anal heterosex [acts]”.
Young people often expressed the belief that, despite the anticipated experience of pain, most women find anal penetration enjoyable. Those who do not enjoy it were commonly described as naive or flawed. Men reported engaging in practices such as coercion and purported accidental penetration. Importantly, interventions in harm reduction can focus on engaging young people in conversations around mutuality and consent practices.
Pornography as educational
“[Porn] gave me that shade of hope that [gay] people are intimate and there are lots of gay guys out there.” – Young same-sex attracted male
Whilst mainstream media is increasingly sexualised, it mostly features heterosexual sex. Pornography may be a place for same-sex attracted young people to turn. Flood explains: “[Some] young people report that same-sex pornography was one important source of positive representations of lesbian and gay sexualities.” Pornography may provide not only identity affirmation, but also practical instruction. Flood explains that young people may see pornography as “an important source of information about what to do”.
However, Crabbe views homosexual pornography as being vulnerable to the same critiques as the heterosexual industry. The vast majority of pornography showing lesbian sex is produced with the male consumer in mind. Flood agrees. “[It’s] not really been produced in a way that will speak to lesbian women’s sexualities,” he said. Similarly, homosexual male porn has been critiqued for playing to exaggerated and often degrading roles in which a submissive, often feminised male is subject to domination and subordination.
Porn as anti-woman and anti-sensuality
In a time where good sex education may be difficult to access, some information, even if in the form of mainstream pornography, may be better than none. Dr Smith agrees. “Lack of information is the issue in women’s health,” she said. “But, in this clinic, it’s the lack of emotion and playfulness that we find offensive.” She makes the observation that sex in pornography is mechanical and exists without sensuality.
Dr Smith takes quite a measured stance of visual sexual information. She reports counseling a lot of young people from diverse cultures and who have no sexual knowledge. She said: “I think there’s a place for normative [porn].” However, she acknowledges that even ‘alternative’ pornography fails to provide “visual information about sexual pleasure and pleasing one another”.
Yet, Dr Smith views pornography and erotica as distinct. “Erotica can be very stimulating and educational.” She said that, “sometimes I would suggest that people look at erotica.” However, Flood disagrees. He said: “What some people call erotica is essentially good porn.” For Flood, there’s better and there’s worse pornography, or even good and bad pornography. According to him, ideally, sexual health organisations would provide checklists for good porn, opting to give some the “tick of approval” similar to a Heart Foundation approval for healthy foods.
However, Crabbe doesn’t see this so simply. “There isn’t a clear distinction between amateur porn and commercial porn,” she said. For pornography to be ‘ethical’ or ‘good’ it must be produced ethically. Crabbe explains that with regards to both production and content, “there’s no formal certification process for ethical porn or feminist porn”. She pointed to a study demonstrating that gender inequalities may be played out to a greater degree in amateur pornography than in the mainstream. Researchers hypothesise amateur actors have viewed pornography and either intentionally or unintentionally act out mainstream tropes.
Porn and violence promotion
That some pornography depicts violent sexual content is irrefutable. However, the frequency and severity of violence is debatable. According to Flood, heterogeneous findings stem from the variable and subjective definition violence. Flood views a 2010 study as the leading authority on this topic. The researchers analysed 304 pornographic scenes, selected at random from 50 of the best-selling and most rented pornographic films in the United States. Of these, 88.2% featured physical displays of aggression (spanking, gagging, and slapping). Verbal aggression was featured in 48.7% of scenes. Unsurprisingly, males were the most common perpetrator with the target being overwhelmingly female.
Crabbe sees her work in this space as a violence prevention project. She explains: “Gender inequality is the key driver of violence against women and pornography not only commonly depicts gender inequality, it suggests it’s sexy.” Quoting three meta-analyses (1, 2, 3), Flood feels that, whilst pornography certainly shapes sexually aggressive attitudes and behaviours, some individuals are more likely to be influenced than others.
Another study on sexual aggression and porn illuminates the complexities of the pornography-aggression association. The researchers acknowledge that pornographic content is a mere component of the media that pervades the life of any twenty-first-century individual. Causation should not be conceived of as in a legal model, whereby it is determined that ‘but for’ the given factor, the result would not have occurred (e.g. but for the slippery road, the driver would not have crashed). Rather, a considered approach means acknowledging interactive and potentially synergistic variables.
Where research demonstrates a relationship between men’s pornography use and aggressive behaviour toward women, a circular relationship is likely to be at play. Men with high coercive tendencies, who are drawn to and aroused by sexual aggression, are more likely than their less coercive counterparts to seek and engage with violent pornography. Additionally, the material will likely have a greater influence on their attitudes and behaviours. The same study found that “for the majority of American men, pornography exposure is not associated with high levels of sexual aggression”. Yet, among high-risk individuals who engage in frequent pornography consumption, levels of sexual aggression were found to be four fold that of high-risk counterparts who did not use pornography with frequency. However, objective measurement of aggression-risk remains difficult and a causal relationship hard to establish.
Where to from here?
Many wonder if, similar to contentious issues of substance use, the discussion around pornography should focus upon harm minimisation. However, asked whether there is a place for benefit maximisation, Flood suggested that talking about the benefits of pornography could be part of a productive community conversation. He said: “Pornography celebrates sex for sex’s sake; it rejects the notion that sex is guilty until proven innocent, [it] challenges erotophobia and the notion that sex is only ethical if it’s heterosexual, monogamous, married.” He argues that an acknowledgement of the harms of pornography, which he feels predominate, need not negate the benefits.
Pornography, like most media, does not reproduce reality. The interactions conveyed in pornography are heavily constructed, and often do not represent sex acts that are likely to be fulfilling or pleasurable. Crabbe said: “What we want young people to know is that they can do better than pornography.” The conversation about pornography needs to shift away from criminalising sex, or men, towards a more positive, playful, and relationships-focused conversation. According to Flood: “There should be much more energetic community conversations around what good sex is…what good sexual relationships are and the role that porn can or cannot play in [facilitating] that.” After all, pornography is well and truly out of the shadows, living in the bedroom, and here to stay.
Edited by Deborah Kane. "Margaret Petit" is a pseudonym.