Mia Sorenti explores the complexities regarding young people and exposure to online pornography.

It is likely the majority of us have come into contact with online pornography at some point in our youth; unintentional pop-ups, jokes by friends, a curiosity that resulted in a hesitant “boobs” Google search. The premise of young people being exposed to this sort of content causes much discomfort and contention in society; the idea that innocent minds may be corrupted and warped by such unrealistic and unsavoury material prompts nationwide mobilisation against this ‘social evil’. Through looking at historic campaigns against pornography within second-wave feminism and the failed attempts of our government to regulate and restrict exposure to explicit material online, we can see how underlying attitudes towards pornography may fail to tackle the root problems that prompt unhealthy sexual attitudes and behaviour, and why restriction may not be the answer.

Pornography in the past – The ‘Porn Wars’ of the 80s

In her lecture series ‘feminism and philosophy’ in Michaelmas 2019, Professor Amia Srinivasan drew attention to the ways consumption of pornography and its consequences have been viewed in the past. In the 1980s, the feminist movement became deeply polarized over issues of sexuality in the United States. Some, such as radical feminist scholars Catherine MacKinnon saw sexuality in itself as a construct of male power: defined by men, forced on women, and constitutive in the meaning of gender. Pornography, then, was the ‘eroticisation of inequality’ which prompted harmful and violent attitudes towards women; as expressed in the notorious quote by Robin Morgan “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice”. Groups such as Women Against Pornography (or WAP) organised protests against ‘blue’ films and led anti-pornography tours of sex shops and pornographic theatres. Most significantly, MacKinnon and fellow radical feminist Andrea Dworkin strived to combat pornography through civil rights legislation. The Dworkin-MacKinnon Anti-Porn Ordinances of 1983 attempted to define pornography as a civil rights violation against women and would have allowed women who saw themselves as being harmed by pornography to sue the producers and distributors in civil court for damages. Whilst many courts accepted that depictions of subordination tended to perpetuate subordination, the ordinances were blocked by city officials and struck down by courts as pornography came to be seen as ‘speech’ and therefore protected as a constitutional right. 

What is most notable about these debates is the idea that pornography, and the consumption of it, is inherently corrupting and holds legitimate power to perpetrate anti-feminist rhetoric in society. It is possible to draw similarities with attitudes towards pornography today, at least at a governmental level. 

Contemporary combat with porn

So how do these attitudes manifest themselves in legislation? Regulations and restrictions on the production and consumption of pornography in the UK have increased dramatically in the last decade. The Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 displayed how certain sexual acts are perceived as ‘undesirable’ and ‘harmful’, regardless of consent; a ban was placed on the production of pornography that contained acts such as female ejaculation, spanking and facesitting, with the latter deemed ‘potentially life-threatening’. Jokes and censorship of female pleasure aside, this apparent set of subjective moral judgments of what is or isn’t acceptable was one of a culminating series of attempts to regulate and restrict pornography in the UK. The climax of these attempts came into fruition in April 2017. 

In 2016 the NSPCC commissioned a study of children and young people’s interactions with pornography; this study found that 53% of 11-16 year olds had ‘stumbled across’ explicit material online. Regardless of the questionable research methods involved (the majority of information was derived from online discussion forums and online surveys), moral panic and outrage ensued to cries of ‘save the children’. In part a result of this hysteria, the Conservative government produced the 2017 Digital Economy Act, an element of which was the notorious ‘porn block’. The ambition was to prevent young people under the age of 18 accessing pornography online by enforcing the use of age verification software on all websites promoting explicit material. A user would be required to upload a photo of their driver’s license, passport or credit card to the government approved software AgeID (the manufacturers of this software, MindGeek, coincidentally happen to own a number of the ‘big-hitter’ pornography sites, including PornHub, RedTube and YouPorn… draw your own conclusions from that one). Alternatively, you could visit a newsagent to buy a ‘porn pass’! Initially intended to be implemented April 2018, the block became increasingly postponed until finally it was brushed under the rug late 2019.

Concerns with privacy and surveillance aside, there were some serious flaws with the block. In contrast to the 80s, the prevalence of the internet today means that the availability of pornography is unparalleled. Not only would VPNs render to block useless, the internet in itself is never easily tamed by the demands of a government: just look at the proliferation of piracy sites. More significant though, is the disparity between this attempted age regulation and the realities of sexual development in young people. The Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool, a guide to sexual behaviours in children and young people, is linked on the NSPCC website. The tool allows one to distinguish healthy from harmful sexual behaviour. Between the ages of 13-17, an ‘interest in erotica/pornography’ is deemed a ‘green light’ behaviour, essentially considered a healthy part of natural curiosity and sexual development of young people in this bracket. With these factors in tandem it would seem inevitable, or at least a very likely possibility, that young people will encounter or actively search out pornography before they turn 18.

Yet it is not only the government’s inefficient handling of the matter that is cause for concern; the porn block is a symptom of a skewed fundamental understanding of the ‘problem’ of porn. The intention behind the attempted age restriction was to prevent young people accessing online pornography in order to prevent them forming unhealthy ideas surrounding sex and relationships, and thus preventing them from perpertrating harmful acts and attitudes. Yet figures such as Dr Cicely Marston, whose research on porn and anal sex was cited by the government in the lead up to the attempted ‘porn block’, disagree with the governemnt’s conclusions. 

Amid concerns that exposure to pornography was prompting young people to coerce partners (namely in heterosexual couples) into anal sex, debatable assumptions were being drawn from Marston’s work. Firstly, it was assumed that viewing pornography online directly resulted in a rise in heterosexual couples trying anal sex, to which Marston emphasises that there was no clear link between the two. Problems with research finding correlations between pornography and sexual behaviour include the neglecting of other factors that are likely to influence sexual behaviour, such as personal dispositions, and difficulty of measuring potentially problematic and moralistic effects. There is merely a correlation, but nothing overtly conclusive. Secondly, there is the assumption that sexual behaviours such as anal sex are inherently harmful, to be discouraged and ‘unwanted’. This idea distinctly blurs the essential distinction between coercive and consensual sexual practices, and becomes more a subjective judgment on what sexual practices are ‘acceptable’ (as seen in the 2014 Regulations). The harms Marston identified in her studies did not stem from the anal sex itself, but from the elements of coercion that were part of many young people’s experience and expectations. Her findings indicated that young, straight men derived “kudos” from having anal sex with women, and that some placed low value on their partner’s wishes. She expresses how the fundamental problems behind coercion – of women’s desires being ignored, the men pushing/women resisting model of heterosex, and sex acts as goals for men – all long pre-date the era of easy access to online porn, as does sexual coercion itself, and can be found in many forms of media not considered pornographic.

The rhetoric behind the government’s attempts to regulate and restrict online pornography runs along the same strand as those campaigning against pornography in the 80s. Pornography is seen to have a significant ability to negatively shape young people’s ideas of sex and relationships, but as Professor Srinivasan articulated in her lecture, porn in itself does not have authority to perpetuate harmful ideals of sexuality. Pornographers, within this, certainly have ‘informal power’, in dictating the nature of the sex that is presented. 

I will take the opportunity to state that whilst there certainly are legitimate problems within the porn industry. The ethics of the production of the content and the types of content pushed by companies such as MindGeek, who have power in shaping society’s tastes, stands as evidently problematic. But, that is a whole other conversation in itself. More pressingly, in order for porn to have an impact in our society, it requires our participation. As asserted by Nancy Bauer in her book ‘How to Do Things with Pornography’: “the idea that women are essentially sexual objects for men, along with the idea that the happiest and most womanly women embrace this status, is ubiquitously accepted in our culture”. Marston, similarly, points to the idea that it is not exposure to portrayals of sexual acts themselves which cause problems such as sexual coercion; the fundamental causes go far deeper than copying what is on screen, and are tied to broader issues and attitudes within our society. Consequently, it is insufficient to suggest that reducing access to pornography will reduce the problems at hand, when the socio-cultural attitudes that support these problems remain unchallenged. 

The solution? Sufficient sex education

Ironically, the consensus of the young people involved in the contentious NSPCC study was that relevant and engaging sex education is necessary. So how about actually listening to the young people themselves instead of threatening the privacy of the majority of the adult population?

Better education and more frank and open discussion would help young people take a more critical view of pornographic imagery and challenge some of the harmful gender dynamics that promote problematic sexual activities. Essentially, within this, online pornography itself needs to be addressed and discussed. As explored, young people in the age of the internet are highly likely to come into contact with explicit material online, whether intentionally or not. Whilst not condemning pornography or associating it with shame, it is important that porn is identified as something created, directed and acted, and not as a depiction of reality. Not all pornography depicts harmful representations of sexuality, but it is important to make clear to young people that many forms of prevalent explicit material may not depict consent, may only include specific body types and appearances etc. 

Yet most essential is education on things that may otherwise be neglected from depictions of sexuality in online pornography: consent; the importance of communication; trust and openness in healthy relationships and how to identify unhealthy ones; body variation and  positivity; informed information about contraception; lgbtq+ visibility and information regarding sex; that you don’t have to have sex until you’re ready, or even ever at all. In doing so, we effectively remove the authority pornography has in dictating the attitudes and approaches of young people towards sex, and ensure the responsibility for doing so lies in a regulated and approved curriculum. With relationships and sex education becoming statutory in all secondary schools across England from September 2020, there are certainly steps being taken in the right direction, but we have a long way to go to ensuring the sexual and emotional wellbeing of young people and our society as a whole.

If you feel that your sex education was pretty inadequate, or feel like your attitudes to sex and relationships may have been negatively impacted by porn, or just have questions that want legitimate answers that aren’t dodgy search results on google, try sites such as Bish UK or Brook. These websites have really good information and resources for young people about all kinds of topics such as contraception, relationships, gender, sexuality and wellbeing.