There were media reports this week that viewing “soft core” pornographic images causes harm to young people. But the evidence presented simply does not support these claims. A tiny, unpublished study asking undergraduates about their recollections of viewing pornographic images and their opinions about them is not a sound basis for claims of a “threat to public health”.
Although it’s true that young people’s sexual lives can involve harms, including experiences of violence and coercion, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections, there is very little direct evidence that these harms are caused by viewing pornography.
There is good evidence that sexual harms are caused by a number of factors, such as gender inequalities, young people’s ideas about maintaining a good reputation, competition to be the first to do certain practices, lack of awareness of safer sex practices, or an unwillingness to engage in safer sex. Pornography may affect or be affected by any of these factors, but it is too simplistic to assume that it causes harm in a direct way. And it is also difficult to see why it would be more harmful than other depictions of sex or violence, or sexist imagery in mainstream media which even the youngest children may be exposed to via billboards or TV programmes.
Give young people some credit
Young people are depicted in news stories about porn almost as though they are passive “blank canvases”, prone to being influenced by anything that is put in front of them. Yet they are probably the most media-savvy generation ever. They can distinguish between fact and fiction in other areas of media. If some genuinely cannot tell that pornography is fiction, then older adults must take responsibility for that and work to address it by providing better sex education.
There is an often-repeated worry that young people will copy what they see in porn. But when we talked to young men as part of our sixteen18 project, they told us that if they watched porn, they and their friends generally watched vagina-penis and oral-penis sex and so any causal link between what they viewed and their sexual practices is very unclear.
These young men were already engaging in these practices with partners and may or may not have seen images of these practices beforehand, but it is difficult to imagine the practices are “caused” by porn. Wanting to have sex is a feature of many people’s adolescence. What we can do as older adults is provide better information and guidance to help young people think through how best to start their sexual lives.
The context of viewing is important: there is a clear difference between young people seeking out titillating imagery for their own pleasure and their accidentally seeing (or being forced to watch) a disturbing pornographic scene. Young people in our study said they did sometimes watch extreme sex, too, but described it as a “gross out” activity with friends. Those sexual practices were not ones they seemed interested in replicating for sexual pleasure.
Telling a simplistic story about pornography being the key danger in young people’s sex lives distracts us from our responsibility for sexuality education. Children and young people are increasingly portrayed as dupes at the mercy of the images they view rather than critical and thoughtful people who happen to be young. It is in any case unlikely that we can stop under-age viewers from getting access to content adults can watch legally. The story at present is one of adults fighting an unceasing war to age-restrict porn rather than one in which children and young people are empowered to assess the imagery they see in a critical way.
While we wring our hands about pornography, we are distracted from the need to help young people build the fundamentals of healthy sexual relationships including good communication with their partners and mutual respect. When it comes to sexual harms for young people, pornography is only part of the story, and probably not the most important part.