I grew up pre-internet but I’m in my early 30s so it doesn’t seem that long ago. I had the fortune of dodging porn culture in my developmental years. My parents, along with a number of wise older friends, instilled in me attitudes about love and sex that contributed to the happy and fulfilling adult life I now live.
From a very early age I saw that my father and mother loved each other deeply. Mum and Dad modelled how men and women should treat one another. In their marriage they exhibited emotional support, unconditional commitment, passion, intellectual appreciation, and sexual faithfulness. To their friends both male and female, Mum and Dad exhibited warmth, respect, and appreciation for each of their personal qualities.
When it came to teaching me about love and sex, Mum, Dad, and a number of wise friends taught me that the most important quality in a romantic partner is character, and that whilst a partner’s good looks are fun to enjoy, attraction to them alone is not enough for a truly loving and lasting relationship – especially since looks change over time. They taught me that long term relationships are wonderful and rewarding, but that they do take hard work, patience, and a willingness to forgive.
They taught me that sex is much better in the context of a loving relationship, with a partner who cares about you as a whole person. They instilled in me the idea that there is something boring, in a way, about sleeping with a person at the first available opportunity: there’s no romantic build-up. I was also taught that, though it’s special, good sex with a loving partner may not come naturally, given the different ideas and expectations two partners bring to the bedroom, and often has to be lovingly worked toward. I was taught that trust and the highest form of love and respect between partners was essential for good sex, free of fear. Finally, my parents taught me that I shouldn’t feel pressured by anyone to do anything sexually that I wasn’t ready for or comfortable with. I can say that so far, at age 31, that my childhood lessons have truly paid off. I owe a happy marriage, a fulfilling sex life, and a relatively regret-free past, in large part much of the wisdom my parents and friends passed on.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that I grew up in an age of innocence that was free of unhelpful messages about sex. Popular culture has been rife with objectification of women, ‘cheap’ views of sex, and cynicism about long term love for several generations now. But there is a new and more extreme element present today: widespread exposure of children and teens to online hardcore pornography. I often feel grateful to have been born in 1985, rather than 1995 or later, for this reason alone.
A description of what has now become normal in online porn today will help illustrate why I feel this way. Scenes in which multiple men take turns penetrating a woman are common, as are scenes in which men penetrate different orifices of a woman at once. Ass-to-mouth (when a man has anal sex with a woman (or man) and then inserts his penis into their mouth, without washing) is common. Violence is common: gagging, punching, slapping, strangling, and simulated rape make up a significant proportion of porn scenes online. Verbal insults: men referring to women as ‘cum-dumpsters’, ‘whores’, ‘bitches’, and ‘sluts’ are everywhere online. Porn designed to trigger fantasies of paedophilia or racial domination is not hard to find either.
If you’re surprised, or think I’m exaggerating the extent to which this material has become mainstream porn, consider this.
Research has shown that when porn is consumed, viewers are desensitised to the material they consume, and typically have a trajectory toward harder, more violent material.
People have been viewing porn on high-speed broadband for about fifteen years now. It is only natural that the porn found online has become so violent by now. Porn producers escalate content because they know that this is what keeps consumers hooked. That’s how we’ve arrived at the level of widespread degradation we see now online.
Research shows that this material has a range of negative effects on adult consumers.
Consumers of porn become less empathetic to the opposite sex, less able to be aroused by real-life partners, more likely to believe rape myths, less able to sustain a long-term sexual relationship, and male consumers are less likely to hold progressive views about women’s roles and abilities.
All this happens to adult brains that are already formed. The effect on children whose brains are still forming is far worse.
Many children today are first exposed to online porn before puberty, and addiction often ensues. Children’s brains, at such a young age, are not yet developed enough to critique media messages in the way that adults are. If you show a healthy adult the kind of porn scene above, they are capable of reasoning that the images we’re being shown do not represent good sex. But when children are shown images or words through any type of media, their default response is ‘this is normal. This must be the way things are.’ This is, after all, why adults and authority figures can so easily shape a child’s mind.
We’re seeing the impact porn exposure is having on children. Child-on-child sexual assault is on the rise, and unsolicited requests from boys to act out porn scenes is an everyday experience for highschool girls. Many of these boys are completely unaware of the fact that such behaviour is harassment. What is ‘normal’ behaviour has changed: where flirting used to be the way you showed interest in a girl, requests for naked selfies have taken its place.
The world of porn teaches boys that girls are sexual service stations, not people to be cherished. The world of porn teaches kids that sex is just another bodily function, like going to the toilet, rather than a profound act that bonds two people together. The world of porn teaches boys that sex is what they do to a girl to express dominance over her, and it teaches girls that sex is for gratifying male desires and forgetting about their own.
Personally, I’m angry that the porn industry is robbing kids. It is selling them a horrible picture of sex while taking away something better: the chance to develop life-enriching views about sex unhindered. Of course, some kids will receive these positive messages about sex from their family just like I did. For others, the only place they will get any sort of helpful messages about sex and relationships is at school. One thing is certain: our kids need us to paint a picture for them of the way sex can be – affirming, safe, pleasurable, romantic, trusting, loving and lasting. There is far too strong a force sending the opposite message.
Emma Wood completed her PhD in Ethics in 2015 and currently works as a research associate at the Institute for Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame.