The ubiquity of pornography has got to be one of the biggest changes in society in my lifetime. An acquaintance asked me what I thought the long-term effects of total access to porn would be for shaping the sexuality of kids growing up today and I really had no idea how to answer. There is much heat and little light on the subject because sexuality in general and kids' sexuality in particular is such a fraught topic.
On the one hand, today's nearly unlimited access to pornography via the internet is part of the demystification of sexuality which has been building steam over the last one hundred years. It is connected -- at least in a six-degrees-of-fornication kind of way -- to changes which I view as absolute social goods, like decriminalizing miscegenation and homosexuality, allowing women (and everybody) a greater degree of control over reproduction and generally removing some of the shame from sexuality for everyone, male, female, gay, straight etc. It is worth remembering that lynchings of non-white men for sex with white women, death by back-alley abortion and 'curbing' of gay people are pieces of North American history that happened within living memory (and are practices some would like us to return to). The impulse to curb sexual freedom, including the freedom to view porn, can be an instrument of sexual repression and shame. A lot of the conversation about pornography and young people -- any sexual topic and young people for that matter -- seems to smack of a old-person's cocktail of wistfulness and resentment ie. "If I can't have lots of crazy sex, then nobody should."
On the other hand, pornography has to own some of the criticisms made of it; it is hugely male-oriented and at least some significant portion is downright anti-women. It seems pretty intuitive that a barrage of woman-degrading porn would do anybody's developing sexuality harm. More generally, porn is, by definition, commercial sexual objectification. Young men and women who grow up viewing sexuality (and we are talking largely about women's sexuality) as an object for purchase or trade, rather than a subjective experience seem more likely to generalize some of those lessons to non-porn sex. These are both arguments that can be made about any type of pornography. There is also a particular techno-bent to some anti-porn writing that makes the argument that a quantitative difference of the internet makes for a qualitative difference.
Digression: Perhaps 2014 should be the year that nobody says "The area of the brain that lights up when..." Regular readers will know that I am sceptical of some of the claims of 'brain science'. The next post on "Your brain on porn" has fMRI images showing how sections of the brain "light up" when exposed to porn which proves that the subjects of the brain scans are addicted much as people get addicted to heroin. ( A primer on fMRI goofiness. ) Here is a picture of a dead fish in a fMRI with its brain lighting up when asked to imagine humans in social situations.
End digression: There is a growing set of men who say that they are addicted to internet porn and/or incapable of erections with actual humans as a result of using porn regularly. This is a tough claim to verify since it is so subjective. Men may experience less frequent erections and attribute that to the use of porn; that doesn't necessarily mean that was the primary cause. That is what is known as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. It does seem to make intuitive sense that if you don't masturbate for a long time you are more likely to experience an erection in a particular circumstance. It also seems like it would be pretty hard to look at a lot of porn and avoid masturbating, so the two do go hand in glove (as it were). There is a whole online Nofap community where people, mostly men, pledge to stop masturbating and/or viewing porn. They support one another to achieve goals in days. When does this shade over into shaming a normal and healthy sexual behaviour that has already been the target of a lot of shame? I wrote a blog post a while ago about Marty Klein's argument that the term "sex addiction" is a way for people living in a sex negative culture not to address their sexual desires about which they feel incredible shame.
There are a couple of things I am pretty confident about in all of this.
1. The whole "erectile dysfunction" piece of the conversation about porn and masturbation needs to get scaled way back. Men are easily goaded into thinking that a rock hard penis is the only legitimate route to sex. That's false and it isn't good for men's sexuality (or for their partners). Start having sex without an erection and you may get one. Keep having sex after an erection goes away, and it may come back. But if you make having and maintaining an erection a prerequisite, that can mean a lot of heart ache. Paradoxically, lots of porn and lots of nofap both seem to perpetuate the myth of no sex without an erection.
2. Porn is not sex education. Teens need to know that what they will see in porn is not what happens between most people's sheets. Talking to teens about what porn is and isn't is part of the job description of every parent, and that needs to go beyond telling them it's bad or women-hating. Porn:Human Sex::2Fast2Furious:Driving. A fantasy.
3. Teens will try to make their own porn. Not every teen but plenty of them. Maybe not your kid but plenty of kids your kid knows. As Dan Savage has pointed out, smart phones are -- among other things -- mobile porn production and distribution suites. And parents hand them over to kids without thinking about or talking about that. If you must give your teen a smart phone, disable the camera. Tell your kids you will search through the contents of their phones and then follow through. Millions of adult Americans use their phones this way, should we expect teens to act any more maturely?