Does Porn Harm Young People?

 

Most young people watch porn? Porn harms young people? They’re having non-consensual, unsafe sex as a result? No. The evidence points to a more inconclusive and also complicated picture.

Does Porn Have a Harmful Effect on Young People?

Many people worry that porn can cause young people harm – however there are many problems with both the evidence relating to porn causing an effect but also in the framing of the question itself.

Research into the effects that porn has on young people is very very difficult to conduct because of the ethical issues of asking young people under 18 to look at sexually explicit materials (SEM). Studies which have been conducted in this area are longitudinal ie they ask people over 18 about their past experiences or research into non-explicit exposures of sexuality.

Two literature reviews into the research into porn and young people (by commissioned by Ofcom and the Office for the Children’s Commissioner) found studies which demonstrated association between porn consumption and attitudes and values which have been taken to be problematic:

“greater sexual permissiveness; stronger support for recreational sex; stronger beliefs that women are sex objects; stronger belief in instrumental attitudes to sex; greater sexual uncertainty; higher endorsement of uncommitted sex; lower sexual satisfaction; higher sexual preoccupation; earlier sexual activity; a greater number of sexual partners; higher probability of anal intercourse.”

Some of these are pretty subjective measures which some people may see as problematic and others may not. One of the criticisms of many people researching porn is that the measures of ‘harm’ are simply ‘non-normative’ sex values: that is sex which is not in the context of a monogamous, committed and (presumably) heterosexual relationship.

“This kind of research also often rests on an implicit and moralistic view of certain kinds of sex – especially sex which is commodified, casual or kinky – as morally wrong or socially problematic.” Feona Attwood 2011

In addition to the outcomes being measured as being potentially problematic and moralistic the effects also very small. According to the Ofcom review “Typically, exposure to sexually explicit material might account for no more than 1-2% of the variance in sexual attitudes.” This means that there may have been other factors which might be having an effect on this variance in attitudes between people who do and don’t consume porn which haven’t been tested. This is backed up by another piece of research which shows that the effects of watching sexually explicit materials are small but should be read in with other factors which are likely to influence sexual behaviour:

“Our data suggest that other factors such as personal dispositions — specifically sexual sensation seeking — rather than consumption of sexually explicit material may play a more important role in a range of sexual behaviors of adolescents and young adults, and that the effects of sexually explicit media on sexual behaviors in reality need to be considered in conjunction with such factors,” Does Viewing Explain Doing

Furthermore there isn’t a proven causal link between porn and these attitudes. As the authors of the Sexualization Report point out, there are associations between consumption of porn and smoking – however an association does not mean something causes another. People may have these attitudes in order to be drawn to watching porn, so there could be a change in attitudes as a result of watching porn, or it could be that there isn’t. Or someone who is interested in porn may have some of these attitudes in the first place “Or it could be that there is a reciprocal relationship between the two.”

Recent government policy which tries to restrict young people’s access to porn, because it is making young men coerce young women into anal sex, is based on a false conclusion from research. The point is made very clearly in this article by Cicely Marston, one of the authors of the report.

What Young People Do With Porn

Trying to tease out whether porn has an effect on young people is problematic because the effects or ‘risk’ are very subjective and moralistic, the effects are very small and can’t usefully be separated from other influences and studies can’t demonstrate the porn causes any effect.

Many researchers think that it’s more useful to go further than looking at whether this media is harmful per se and to consider how people consume sexually explicit materials, why they view them, how they view their experience, to what extent they are critical viewers and in what way they feel it affects them.

Young people aren’t passive consumers of any media. Media literacy is something that children pick up from a very early age. For instance by the age of 5 they will know that what they see on the TV is sometimes real and sometimes made up. (Link page 15). The work of David Buckingham and Sara Bragg in the area of young people, media and sexually explicit materials suggests that young people are not passively exposed to sexually explicit materials but are critical and literate and that this material ‘an occasion for individuals to scrutinise their own desires, conduct and responses.’ Link

As Clare Bale wrote “Young people draw upon their own experiences and emerging identities to interpret the media and employ broader values such as trust and mutual respect to formulate their attitudes, beliefs and values in their readings of media texts.” Raunch or Romance

Not all use of porn is for the same reason either. Some young people are exposed to porn without their consent (pop-ups, email links etc), others are curious about what porn is and just have a quick look, others look because some of it is funny or shocking, some to rebel, some to learn and some to be sexually aroused by.

It’s important to remember that not all young people watch/consume/have been exposed to sexually explicit materials. The EU Kids Online project found that in 2010, in the UK, 24% of 9 – 16 year olds reported seeing a sexual image with 11% of those seeing an image online. By 2014, in a comparison report called Net Children Go Mobile, this figure, for the same age group was 17% seeing a sexual image anywhere with 12% reporting seeing a sexual image online.  

Sexual image in the EU Kids Online reports was defined as “pictures, photos, videos. Sometimes, these might be obviously sexual – for example, showing people naked or people having sex.” The most frequent source of these images in the 2010 and 2014 reports was television – which does not usually depict the same sexual imagery or representations as are shown in hardcore pornography (e.g. close ups of genitals, actual rather than simulated sex). This (really interesting and important) article points out that many young people (for the 2014 report) will have seen sexual imagery on Game of Thrones (as well as very violent imagery).  

Even in studies of older young people and not all of this would have featured hardcore pornography (scenes with people shown having sex) and only a small minority would have featured BDSM or scenes portraying violence (according to this study of Dutch young people <10% of 15-25 year olds).

According to EU Kids Online 24% of children in the UK were upset by sexual images they had seen but this represents just 3% of all 9-16 year olds who use the internet in the UK. Girls and younger children are more likely to be upset by images that they see. Their response is typically to close the image down and to tell either a parent or a friend about what they’ve seen. Older teens are less likely to be upset by them.

This all suggests that rather than being exposed to harmful images, young people are actively filtering and developing their own understanding of text which is concomitant with an increased interest in sex and their own emergent identities. Young people are perhaps setting their own rules for what they are ready for and if they see something they don’t like they switch off and/or they talk it through with someone – just as they might with any media which they may find upsetting.

So what’s the answer? Good SRE of course! If we teach really good SRE then we don’t even have to teach about porn. If we give young people the opportunity to be critical of media, to understand how we do and don’t get power in relationships, to think about choice and agency then we are giving young people their own built in filters.

For free resources on how to deliver great SRE, visit the DO… SRE for Schools website

This piece is taken from Planet Porn, a resource pack for teaching young people about porn. It’s available in the Big Bish Download.