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Dublin: 13 °C Monday 21 April, 2014

Lisa McInerney: Pornification of teen sexuality – but we can’t just blame porn

The UK plans to make online pornography an ‘opt-in’ choice to try and shield children from it – but will that really protect kids from early sexualisation?

Lisa McInerney

LET’S PUT ASIDE for a moment the political motivation behind the UK government’s plans  to limit access to online pornography.

Let’s take it that Cameron’s ambitious new opt-in plan doesn’t sound like such a bad idea… in theory.

Pornography is, after all, made for and marketed to adults, and with non-obligatory filters set as defaults until customers direct their ISPs to remove them, youngsters should be unable to access the inappropriate material the British PM says has a “corroding” influence on childhood. Perhaps such a scheme could be rolled out here, too.

In practice, however, the plan is more than problematic. First of all, it potentially creates a censorship precedent to apply to any morally questionable material on that last bastion of human knowledge (and stupidity): the internet. Default blocking of legal adult sites which can already be filtered out through child-safe functions and active parental supervision may seem an overblown response. Cynics may ask if this reeks more of political showboating than real concern for British society.

Pornography is not something that springs forth from a cultural vacuum

Cameron’s scheme centres on the belief that filtering pornographic material will protect kids from early sexualisation, from developing unhealthy sexual attitudes, and from predatory adults. The problem with this rationale is that access to pornography isn’t the sole reason any of these issues come into effect; pornography is not something that springs forth from a cultural vacuum.

Every denizen of the internet will have heard of (and possibly tested) Rule 34, which states: “if it exists, there is porn of it”. The implication is that the internet has provided a kind of deviant’s playground, where if you wish to read erotic fiction about My Little Pony or watch a video about alien insectoids mating with the cast of The Apprentice, some enterprising scamp out there has made it possible.

Unfortunately, there’s a Rule 34 of pornography studies too. Whatever stance you wish to take on the issue, you’ll find someone out there has put together the statistics to reinforce your opinion. There is a dearth of conclusive studies on the relationship between pornography and sexual identity, with many of the links drawn being correlative rather than causal.

While many researchers agree that exposure to rape pornography (which Cameron proposes to ban as a second prong of the same scheme) normalises sexual crime, there is little evidence to suggest that society’s complicity in rape culture has directly created more rapists. Likewise, pornographic entertainment made for adults makes inappropriate viewing for young teens and children, but there’s no concrete evidence to suggest it is as massively detrimental to their sexual development as is commonly thought.

Little influence on teenage sexuality

Two recent surveys of teen attitudes towards sex and pornography – one in Sweden for the Journal of Sex Research – suggest that pornography has little influence on teenage sexuality. In fact, the former suggested that teenage viewers of pornography were quite able to differentiate between “real” sex and the fantasy scenarios acted out in sexual entertainment, concluding that while porn “functioned as a frame of reference”, most of the participants were able to deal with it “in a sensible and reflective manner”.

While Cameron attacks explicit material that exists on dedicated adult sites, the Daily Mail (which spearheaded the campaign to block online pornography) continues to revel in its infamous “sidebar of shame”. The Sun stands proud against public pressure to retire the fleshy dinosaur that is its Page 3. For his catchy single ‘Blurred Lines’, Robin Thicke released a eponymously-appropriate video in which the male stars stand around in sharp suits while topless women dance around them.

Smut created for the express purpose of being smutty is condemned while smut created to sell us stuff and uphold the sexual status quo gets a free pass. Giving a little more credence to the former and a little less to the latter would be far less “corrosive” to childhood than sweeping pornography under the carpet whilst wholeheartedly assimilating its fantastical principles into reality.

In short, pornography has its place, but only in a society which treats human sexuality with respect, rather than as a clever way to sell body-shaping sneakers. Parents worry that teenage boys who view porn are likely to view their female counterparts as passive objects, thus becoming less attuned to issues of consent, intimacy, or respect. They worry that their teenage girls, led by their own contact with porn or by boyfriends who’ve seen too much of it, will develop problems with body image and self-esteem.

No amount of prohibition will prevent young people from seeking out the taboo

These concerns are entirely valid – hugely valid – but in the meantime, women’s magazines continue to tell their readers that they’re fat sows in need of shopping holidays, and “lad culture” appropriates titillation as if men have a monopoly on desire, visual stimulation and sexual expression.

There’s no doubt that there has been a kind of pornification of teenage sexuality, but we can’t just blame porn, congratulate ourselves and expect inequality to right itself. Girls need to be taught assertive ways to explore their sexuality. Boys need to be taught that it is possible to enjoy intimacy without dominance. Both genders need to be reassured that they are not expected to imitate what they see in porn, and that pressuring partners to engage in acts they’re uncomfortable with is unacceptable. It is entirely possible to achieve that whilst recognising that porn exists and will continue to exist and that no amount of stern prohibition will prevent curious young people from seeking out the taboo and trying to make sense of it.

Rather, the holistic treatment for the issues that Cameron’s ban seeks to remedy is to provide real sex-positive education so that young people know sex is healthy, and in turn learn healthy ways to express themselves.

Human sexuality is hugely complex, not least because it’s suffered from generations of repression. It would be an odd move to advocate free teen access to pornography – what’s made for adult appetites and experience is rarely suitable for children – but making a great taboo of the stuff without the justification of real, positive effects smacks of counterproductivity and action-for-action’s-sake. We can only hope that if a similar measure is proposed here in Ireland, our elected representatives will put a little bit more thought into it.

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here >
Column: We should follow Britain’s lead and crack down on internet porn>
Poll: Should Ireland follow the UK’s lead in blocking online porn?>

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