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Pornography: The Public Health Crisis of the Digital Age

Globally children are getting their sex education from pornography.

Key points

  • Pornography is the world’s de facto system for sex education
  • Porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined.
  • Children are learning that sex means violence, degradation, and humiliation.

One of the puzzling aspects of porn is why do porn consumers want to watch violent, degrading and abusing sex acts against women? What makes this kind of “sex” so much more compelling than actually participating in consensual, intimate, and egalitarian sex?

This question becomes especially important in relation to the growing phenomenon of young boys sexually abusing even younger girls.

For the little girl who is the victim of this, the experience of sexual abuse is horribly painful and almost unimaginably traumatizing. It’s going to leave reverberations that will influence the rest of her life.

It is also going to have major consequences for the child perpetrator. It will shape his future life in multiple ways, including his capacity for connection, love, empathy and connection. Not to mention the legal ramifications that will follow him throughout his adulthood.

It’s possible to look at the situation and think, “A 10-year-old girl isn’t by any normal standards sexy. Why on earth would the boy choose to rape her?”

A woman who’s known as one of the world’s leading scholars and activists on the effects of pornography has an answer. Dr. Gail Dines, professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, is president of Culture Reframed, the first non-profit in the world to take a public health approach to tackling the harms of porn.

She states, “It used to be that we could assume, with some accuracy, that this teenage boy is acting out the abuse that he’s endured. Today it is more complicated because he could be acting out scenes he has seen in pornography.”

In Dines’ view, pornography isn’t just bad, or even terrible. It’s a major public health crisis that undermines the health and well-being of individuals, communities, and the culture as a whole.

Her view of pornography as a threat to civilization may sound jarring and extreme, but she makes a convincing case for why this may be so.

The World’s De Facto Sex Education System.

As Dines sees it, pornography has become the world’s de facto system of sex education. It’s surprising how pervasive this system is.

Stock Adobe
Kids are learning about sex from porn sites.
Source: Stock Adobe

For someone who has an 11-year-old boy in his or her life life (maybe a son, a nephew, a neighbor, a student) there’s a good chance he’s already seen hard-core pornography. Studies show that approximately 53% of 11- to 16-year-olds have seen online porn.

Violence. Degradation. Humiliation.

So, if pornography is how kids are learning about sex, just what are they learning? “They’re learning that violence, degradation, and humiliation are what makes sex “hot," points out Dines.

Dines continues, “Porn undermines the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical health of young people. Porn shapes how we think about gender, sexuality, relationships, intimacy, sexual violence, and gender equality.”

There’s abundant research showing that boys exposed to porn from a young age:

  • Have attitudes that support sexual harassment and violence against women
  • Demonstrate decreased academic performance
  • Have decreased empathy for rape victims
  • Have increasingly aggressive behavioral tendencies
  • Pressure their partners to engage in porn-style sex, including harmful, painful, degrading, and aggressive anal sex.

Why Isn’t This More Widely Known?

We can learn a lot about why the harm pornography causes isn’t more widely known, and a good lens for looking at it is the lens of what the tobacco industry was doing in the 1950s and early 1960s. As in the case of pornography, the tobacco industry had a product that was extraordinarily harmful, and at the same time, they had an overwhelming economic incentive to keep the industry going.

The tobacco industry argued, despite numerous studies, that there was no proven connection between smoking and lung cancer. With the help of a well-oiled and well-funded public relations machine, the industry denied the existence of more than 40 years of empirical research on the cancer-causing impact of its products.

In Dines’ view, the porn industry deploys a similar effort to keep us from being aware of the harms of pornography. She gives as an example what happened when the Utah House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring pornography a “public health hazard.”

Attacks against the Utah resolution were instant and pervasive. Dines catalogued some of them. Media people said, “The measure as an antiquated bit of conservative moralizing.” Others called it “hypocritical” and “short-sighted.” An online journal dedicated to dispelling misinformation reported that “the science just isn’t there.”

Dines is pretty sure these critiques didn’t come out of thin air. It’s easy for her to discern the same techniques the tobacco industry used in the past to keep us from realizing that tobacco kills.

And as for “The science just isn’t there,” her answer is: “The science is there. We have 40 years of peer-reviewed research.”

Pornography Has an Extraordinary Reach

Unlike tobacco use, porn for young people is almost universally available. It’s free and a person doesn’t have to go to the neighborhood convenience store to get it.

The fact is, porn is widely available for free online—whether via Snapchat and Instagram or by clicking on the largest porn site on the internet, Pornhub. Compounding the problem is the extraordinary reach of pornography. Dines cites research that shows that:

  • Porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined
  • About one-third of all web downloads in the U.S. are porn-related
  • Pornhub—self-described as “the world’s leading free porn-site—received 42 billion visits in 2019.
  • In a content analysis of best-selling and most rented porn films, researchers found that 88% of analyzed scenes contained physical aggression: gagging, choking, spanking, and slapping

It Can Be Prevented

If Dines is right, that pornography is the world’s de facto sex education system, what can be done about it?

Here are three things that can be done right now:

1. Discuss the harms of porn with your tween or teen. Sex educators suggest that rather than having one 100-minute conversation, have a hundred one-minute conversations.

2. Put a filter on your kid’s devices. While filters are not foolproof, they do limit access to porn, and also signal to your child that you are “adulting up” to protect them from this predatory industry.

3. Organize your friends and colleagues to lobby policy makers to introduce Age-Verification Legislation so minors can no longer have easy access to porn sites

Longer term, she suggests that that people visit the free online training programs that she and others at Culture Reframed, have developed. There are online toolkits including the Program for Parents of Tweens and the Program for Parents of Teens to help parents raise porn-resilient kids.

To get back to the question asked at the beginning of this essay, why would a teenage boy rape a 10-year old girl? Today it’s known that this kind of behavior is linked to the toxic cultural messages inflicted on children when they get their sex education from pornography.

It’s a public health crisis. A generation of young people are being raised who don’t understand love and mutuality and empathy. It’s critical to do better. It’s critical to act.

References

Vera-Gray, F., McGlynn, C., Kureshi, I., & Butterby, K. (2021). Sexual violence as a sexual script in mainstream online pornography. The British Journal of Criminology.https://academic.oup.com/bjc/advance-article/doi/10.1093/bjc/azab035/62…

Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C., & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: A content analysis update. Violence against women, 16(10), 1065-1085.https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1077801210382866?casa_toke…

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