Generation Porn – is mainstream pornography shaping children’s sexual understanding?

17 May 2021

By Michael Sheath, principal practitioner at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation

Imagine conducting an experiment where children aged 8 to 16 were allowed to watch as much pornography as they liked. There would be no adult guidance; they could just find whatever is online and learn whatever from it.

Once they reached adulthood it would be possible to measure their attitudes to consent, sexual violence and incest. Their attitudes could then be compared to children who had not viewed the same things.

Would it be possible, in any country, for such an experiment to be given the blessing of the authorities? Would such a proposal pass ethical guidelines? Obviously not.

The problem for our children and for wider society is that, for the last 20 years or so, a similar experiment has already been happening. No one gave permission for it, but no one prevented it either. And now we’re beginning to learn about its effects.

Before the advent of online porn

My first engagement with a man who was found in possession of sexual images of children was around 1990, when I was a probation officer. There was no question he was anything other than a profound risk to children; what the newspapers would call a paedophile.

He had already abused children at the school where he worked before travelling to Amsterdam on a ferry and spending around £200 on a single VHS videotape that he smuggled back into the UK. He remembered the feeling of terror that he would be stopped by customs officers. He knew where his sexual interests lay, and the illegality of his behaviour caused him great anxiety.

Pornography as sex education

Since 2000, I’ve worked with hundreds of men who have viewed sexual images of children online. A small number are just like the 1990 man, with a clear sexual preference for children or young people. But most don’t appear to show this same clear preference. Instead, they describe a trajectory, often starting in their own childhoods, where they ‘learned’ about sex and explored their sexuality and its boundaries using online pornography.

Pornography is completely different from human interaction as a source of sexual stimulation because it does not offer feedback, does not resist, and does not require anything in return.

Love, compassion, or a simple recognition that pornography shows real people who, at some level, might wish to be recognised as such rather than as body parts, are generally missing.

Many of the men I work with describe how as young adults they relied on pornography for entertainment, distraction and escape. They describe how a lot of the material they viewed was misogynistic and exploitative, even if it was legal. A quick study of the Pornhub annual report shows how popular ‘teen’ imagery has become, and how common incest themes are.

Pushing boundaries in mainstream pornography

Research has shown that sexual arousal often leads people to take greater risks in what they view online. Habituation – boredom with what they have already seen – leads many viewers to push the boundaries of their own tastes, moral constraints and legality. Searches for legal pornography may shift over time to fetishistic pornography, ‘teen’ pornography, and sometimes even to child sexual abuse material, in a series of imperceptible steps.

Men who think of their own children as innocent and in need of their protection are at the same time able to view other people’s children as a source of distraction, sexual fascination and sexual arousal. The reality and consequences of what they’re doing often arrives with an early morning knock on the door from the police, and the life changing impact that has.

Although most people can and do watch pornography without ever making the choice to view illegal material, for some, what they learned as a child or teenager from their unfiltered viewing of legal pornography online can lead them to making abusive and harmful choices.

The generation of men who may have had random access to a pornographic magazine will eventually become extinct. The future rests with men who, as children, were able to view whatever their imagination and sophisticated algorithms dictated that they should view.

What’s the solution?

New research, which suggests that the majority of teens aged 16-17 have recently seen pornography online, has sparked calls by parents and campaigners for the government to introduce age verification for users of porn sites.

The government’s recently-published draft Online Safety Bill promises to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”, placing a duty of care on companies to protect children from inappropriate content and harmful activity. But enforcing age verification for accessing porn, although expected by some campaigners to be included in the bill, was notably absent.

One arm of prevention has to be to provide children with protection from their own curiosity, to counter the pornographic culture that shapes and distorts the sexual understanding of both boys and girls, and to regulate an industry which has, so far, appeared to make only tokenistic efforts to regulate itself.

Parents and carers can help to protect children online by having open, honest, age-appropriate conversations with them about sex, respect, relationships and consent, as well as helping them to set healthy boundaries for their internet use. Our Parents Protect website offers tips and advice on how to safely navigate the online – and offline – world with your children.

If you’re worried about your own thoughts or online behaviour, or about someone else’s, our helpline can give you anonymous, non-judgemental help and support. Call us on 0808 1000 900, or if you’re not ready to speak to someone, you can use our online self-help resources, or get in touch via our live chat or secure messaging service.

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