Exposing youth to porn is dangerous, but the harms of pornography don’t end there

We know porn consumption harms children. But is it fine, as a New Zealand PSA implies, if it is watched only by adults who understand the acts they see on film are “not real”?

 

In June, the government of New Zealand launched a public advertising campaign to warn about the consequences of pornography on minor consumers.

The ad shows a male and a female porn actor walking up to a house, naked, to inform the shocked mother who opens the door that her young son is consuming pornography from all the available electronic devices in the house. They tell her this is harmful for the boy as, “he does not know how relationships actually work,” and because, in porn, they don’t talk about consent. The female porn actress, “Sue,” tells the mother she and her partner “usually perform for adults, but your son’s just a kid.” The male actor, “Derrick,” stresses that he “would never act like that in real life.” The distressed mother is prompted to talk to her son “about the difference between what you see online and real-life relationships.”

Derrick and Sue are presented as attractive, friendly, responsible, even funny. They are “performers” who enjoy what they do. Pornography is presented as nothing more than a performance of two consenting adults for an adult public. (Noteworthy that the ad only involves the mother, not the father — or both parents — confirming family gender stereotypes that give fathers no responsibility, in terms of raising children.)

Ulrica Stigberg and Maria Ahlin interviewed Lars Olsson, professor of neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet of Stockholm, for their 2016 book, Visual drug: On kids, youth, and online porn, (Visuell drog: Om barn, unga och nätporr). He explained that the brain of a young person is fragile and far from being consolidated and structured. The dopamine release system works like this: when something very emotionally impactful (positive or negative) hits us, the brain looks for a system to “restore balance.” The brain does this by lowering the level of reaction, inhibiting the emotional response to a given stimulus. In short, to protect us from strong emotions, our brain makes us less responsive, making us insensitive to a certain stimulus (which, in turn, can potentially lead to addiction). The result is that we end up feeling indifferent or bored with something that initially excited us. Easy access to and high consumption of pornography means that, often, whatever was initially arousing and led to an orgasm becomes “boring.” Soon enough, the brain will need to go a step further in order to receive the same level of dopamine release. This is why the research conducted on people who developed an addiction to pornography for Visual Drug finds a personal journey from hardcore pornography, escalating to porn featuring violent/humiliating sex, rape, rape of people with mental and/or physical handicaps, rape of children (including infants), and passive or active incest. It is easy to understand why it is crucial to protect young people from accessing pornography.

But there is more. A 2018 investigative report conducted by the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet based on criminal cases related to gang rapes found that 70 per cent of the rapists were between 15 and 20 years old, while the victims’ average age was 15. In some cases, both the perpetrators and the victims were younger than 15. In April, Metro spoke with Norfolk Police Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the national police lead for child protection, who reported “a new group of young men aged between 18 and 26” brought up on porn, and began to no longer be stimulated by “regular porn,” so moved on to child abuse imagery.

A 2019 study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior also confirms links between porn consumption and “adolescent dating violence and sexual aggression,” showing that violent pornography exposure was associated with all types of teen dating violence. In fact, the study reports that “adolescents who intentionally viewed violent pornography were almost six times more likely to report sexually aggressive behavior than those who had not.”

So, we know porn consumption harms children. But is it fine, as the New Zealand PSA implies, if it is watched only by adults who understand the acts they see on film are “not real”? The clean, healthy, attractive, bruise-free bodies in the ad communicate that we are really just talking about “soft porn,” which is what many women like the mother depicted might assume porn is. In his 2014 dissertation, Max Waltman looked at data from multiple studies and countries, finding that 70 per cent of women do not ever even watch pornography. Those who are not active porn consumers may well believe that pornography is simply sex, not the humiliating, violent, sadistic imagery available online.

Today, a majority of scenes in mainstream porn contain both physical and verbal abuse targeted against the female performers. Psychologist Ana Bridges and her team at the University of Arkansas also found that 90 percent of scenes contained at least one aggressive act (if both physical and verbal aggression were combined). And that’s just the regular stuff. There is even harder material available (the so-called “dark web” material, which is illegal) for those who can afford it — snuff movies where the violence can reach a point of no return for the female victim, including death.

The ad presents porn as just acting, as if the scenes shot on camera were not really happening. But the women on camera really do experience pain, abuse, and rape. Under the “it’s just a fantasy”/“it’s not real” narrative, the choking, spanking, gagging, open hand slapping, hair pulling, ass-to-mouth (ATM), and double anal penetration becomes acceptable. The fact that “Derrick” says “he would never act like that in real life” should not be comforting — it only sends the message that the women in porn are not real, unlike the women men have sex with in “real life.” Erasing the fact that the women being filmed experience real physical and psychological pain only confirms the dehumanization and objectification of the female body in pornography.

That the porn stars are presented as cool, happy people reinforces the myth of the “happy hooker” — a self-driven, consenting woman who is in the industry by choice, making great money. She simply likes the job — it is a job like any other, after all. We are told there is no problem with porn per se, when consumed by adults − a notion that goes hand in hand with the current sex trade policies in New Zealand, where prostitution is fully decriminalized. Considering that the only difference between prostitution and porn is being on camera, and that the word “pornography” originates from the Greek words, “porné” (meaning “prostitute”) and “graphein” (meaning “to record”), it is easy to understand why the New Zealand government would view pornography just as it views prostitution: a harmless profession chosen by empowered women.

But perhaps the most tragic mistake this ad commits is that it does not comprehend the reality of pornographic material circulating online today, just two clicks away. Dark web aside, the regular pornographic content accessible by non-premium Pornhub visitors is documented rape, torture, and sadism perpetrated on female bodies − many of them minors. They are real human beings, who often will struggle with trauma and PTSD for life as a result of their experience in the sex trade.

This is what porn is about, and there is no trace of it in this superficial, harmful, naïve ad. No, children should not be watching porn. But that content doesn’t magically become harmless the moment an individual turns 18.

Monica Mazzitelli is an Italian directress, novelist and activist living in Sweden. She has worked and volunteered for many organizations that aim to protect women and children from sexual harm, among them Talita. She is a member of European Network of Migrant Women and is currently working for the Swedish incest victims organization Rise.

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