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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
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Column Easy access to pornographic images is adversely affecting young people

Early exposure to online pornography – much of which is violent or degrading – is desensitising young people and contributing to the normalisation of rape and domestic violence, writes Joanna Fortune.

A STATEMENT BY a UK judge in recent weeks concluded that the violent and heinous crime of rape perpetrated by a 15-year-old boy and his friend against a 14-year-old girl was provoked by him being in a state of high sexual charge without release following on from months of exposure to pornography.

The judge at the centre of this case interpreted that the teenagers’ “interest in sexual matters was heightened and heightened unfulfilled and you wanted to experiment”. I concur that the prolonged exposure to violent and sadistic pornographic material heightened the sadistic sexual drive but would not agree that what they were compelled to do was ‘experiment’ as this would imply some degree of consent, what it did was compel and drive them to attack, rape and traumatise a teenage girl who will live with the impact of this attack for the rest of her life. I don’t believe that the judge was excusing the crime committed by these two teenage boys, both of whom received custodial sentences, but I feel he was trying to explain the motivation while highlighting a growing societal concern around the easy access for our young people to pornography.

The Steubenville rape case

Every teenager with a smart phone has instant and easy access to pornography and sexual fetishism. Indeed with the US Steubenville rape case of the two high school football stars being charged with rape of a teenage girl who they also video recorded and photographed and shared their assault on her while she was unconscious, on social media, leading to the additional charge of illegal use of a minor in sexually nudity oriented material. The media’s handling of this case has been internationally criticised for how they have glorified the perpetrators and demonised the victim.

One of the perpetrators broke down in court upon sentencing and apologised for the damage he has caused this girl and her family and how the footage should never have been taken let alone shared… so what compelled them to do this, to so violently objectify another human being and see their crime as something entertaining to others and worthy of posting on social media with little acknowledgement of the consequences of their actions?

Teenage brain development

The prefrontal cortex area of the teenage brain is not fully developed and will not be until a person’s mid 20s. This is the area of the brain that assesses situations, weighs up outcomes, makes judgements and ultimately controls impulses and emotions. It is also the area of the brain linked to understanding and reading responses in others. Neuroimaging scans do show that the area of the teenage brain that is well developed is the nucleus accumbens, which is the area associated with pleasure and reward seeking drives.

This explains a lot of what we would call “typical teenage behaviour” – but also what can happen to a teenage brain immersed in exposure to violent sadistic online porn for prolonged periods of time. The developing brain is unable to fully differentiate between fantasy and reality in this regard and as such young people’s natural developmental pathways through their gradual emerging sexuality is short circuited and they are catapulted way ahead of where they should be developmentally and they cannot process.

It can be said that the base line for healthy/normal sexual desire and behaviour was skewed and altered having spent months immersed in viewing this sexually explicit and sadistic material. Again, this in no way excuses the actions and crime of these teenagers, but is moreover and attempt to explain and understand what could drive two young boys to do such a thing and what can we, as society, change to keep our children safer.

Desensitivity to degrading and violent sexual images

We are hearing more and more about how young people are turning to the Internet and more specifically to pornography for their sexual education. Teenagers are becoming increasingly desensitised to the, often degrading and violent, sexual content and as such teenage girls report being under immense pressure to perform the acts that are seen in this material. It has become commonplace amongst teenagers to request and send naked photos of yourself to establish a relationship, such images fast becoming currency in sexual relationships without awareness of the long term implications of these images living forever online – and that the moment they hit ‘send’ they have lost all control of where that image ends up.

This highly charged sexualisation has also altered the due weight and import given to language such as “rape”. It has become a casual phrase to express finding someone attractive. I recently overheard two teenage boys on public transport exclaim over a girls Facebook photo “She is hot, I would so rape that” apparently unaware of what they were actually saying. Similarly teenage girls referring to each other as “sluts” and “bitches” is making it ok for men to address them in the same way.

Rape and domestic violence becoming increasingly normalised

We have recently seen the company (American based ‘Solid Gold Bomb’) behind the “Stay Calm and… ” T-shirts in serious trouble over how their t-shirts bearing slogans “Keep Calm and Rape A Lot” and “Keep Calm and Hit Her” ended up for sale on Amazon, this alleged computer auto-generated error going unnoticed by either company until strong backlash on Twitter from outraged consumers. Whether or not this was a computer error, it remains appalling that no quality control measures in either company detected the matter prior to going on sale and because of this they must take full responsibility for the product going to market.

The consequence for this company for this apparent computer error is that Amazon has dropped their entire line but beyond this there is something to be considered in how the crime of rape and domestic violence is becoming increasingly normalised; this is having a detrimental impact on young people and society in general. I do wonder, however, how many people attempted to buy these T-shirts before they were pulled off-line.

Calls for online pornography be banned and blocked

Getting back to the story reported above, the father of the young girl who was so brutally raped and traumatised has joined growing calls that online pornography be banned and blocked. The UK are exploring the “default on” option meaning that consumers will be asked when buying new computer systems whether or not they want such sites filtered automatically or left on. This would mean that access to online porn is blocked unless you opt-in for it, giving parents a much greater degree of control when it comes to the access their children have to online porn. The expectation would be that mobile phone service providers would work alongside this to block access on handsets purchased by/for under-18s, though parents can already control this by not allowing their teenagers have smartphones and instead using more basic handsets.

This is not mass hysteria, as some are claiming, nor is it a rush to censorship: it is child-protection. Studies show that early exposure (ie 14-years-old and younger) to pornography is linked to significantly higher levels of deviant sexual behaviour, and specifically rape. There is evidence that the more pornographic material young people view the increasingly explicit material they seek out to achieve the same level of stimulation and furthermore there is a direct link between continued exposure to pornographic material and sexually deviant behaviour. With online pornographic material becoming easier and easier to access at younger and younger ages, I fully support the call for tighter protective measures including a ban on online pornography along the “default on” model the UK are exploring.

Joanna Fortune is a clinical psychotherapist and the director of the Solamh Parent-Child Relationship Clinic in Dublin. You can find out more at calling 01-6976568 or follow her on Twitter @solamh

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