QotD: “she says she believes that coercive sex is the price she has to pay for being in a relationship”
When Jed first heard from friends about websites where you could see naked women, it sounded too good to be true. So one afternoon, aged 11 and with his mind straying from homework, and while his mother was busy, he typed “boobs” and “sex” into the search bar of the family laptop.
“My first reaction was: ‘This is confusing.’ I knew a bit about sex, but there were men doing painful stuff to women,” he recalls.
After trying to make sense of what he was seeing, Jed clicked off the page and cleared the browsing history. “But I couldn’t put it out of my mind, so half an hour later, I had another look.”
Now, eight years on and in his first year of an engineering course at university, Jed is a member of a generation that has grown up with porn, and estimates he spends five or six hours a week looking at it.
Indeed, a 2016 analysis of 1,001 11- to 16-year-olds by Middlesex University for the children’s commissioner and the NSPCC found that at least 56% of boys and 40% of girls had been exposed to online pornography by the age of 16. The study also found that not only are boys more likely to keep seeking it out after they first see it (59%, compared with 25% of girls) but they are more likely to be positive about it.
“It’s normal,” says Jake, 19, echoing many of the boys I spoke to. “If one of my friends hadn’t seen it, I’d consider that weird.” For Jason, a swaggering 17-year-old, porn is a comforting routine, something functional that he wakes up with and winds down to at the end of the day. “It’s stress relief, and less work than girls,” he says.
When Samuel’s parents found a list of what they considered to be extreme sexual acts in his browsing history (“Nothing too serious,” Samuel, who is 16, says: “double and triple penetration”) he wasn’t embarrassed. He was annoyed: “I thought, ‘So what? Everyone watches it.’” Tom, 17, says: “We know it’s fake. My mates laugh about it.”
“They may be laughing about it,” says Dr Gail Dines, a scholar of pornography and professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, Boston, “but they are also masturbating to it. They say they know it’s fake, but what does that mean? You haven’t got one brain that processes fake stuff and one that processes real stuff. You have one brain and one body that’s aroused. If you begin by masturbating to cruel, hardcore, violent porn, studies show that you are not going to grow up wired for intimacy and connection.”
Most of the girls I spoke to seemed to be concerned about a loss of intimacy that comes from their male peers’ porn use. Although there are some girls who watch porn, most I speak to are exasperated by the groups of lads accessing it on GCSE field trips or talking in the school cafeteria about videos they’ve seen.
Nia is 14, and though she avoids porn, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t felt its influence. Among the boys, she says it’s easy to tell which ones are the heavy users. “They’re the ones who don’t know what to say at parties, and then write sexual comments on your Instagram posts.”
Megan, 15, has visited porn sites a few times because she heard about her friends giving blowjobs and thought, “it sounds like a skill you’d better learn how to do. You don’t want to get it wrong.” Ayeesha, 17, talks about how porn warps things. “Boys like to spice it up because ordinary sex is considered boring,” she says. “And girls think having anal sex will make the boys love them.” When Ayeesha had sex, she rated her performance as if through the pornographer’s lens. “The first time I did it, I was thinking, ‘My body looks good.’”
When Rhianna, 21, looks back on her teenage sexual relationships, she recalls being asked to replicate scenes her boyfriends had seen on porn. “It wasn’t about what I wanted. It was as if you were some prototype female they got to act out their favourite videos with.”
Now she’s older, Rhianna has started to demand sex on her own terms and enjoys porn herself. “As long as it’s not violent, or shows rape, it’s fine for people over 18 to watch. I think it can be fun to use with a partner.”
But it’s impossible not to hear the angst and confusion in the voice of Ciara, a 20-year-old retail trainee, when she says she believes that coercive sex is the price she has to pay for being in a relationship. “Boys all want the things they’ve seen in porn. If you say it hurts, they don’t seem to take it seriously. It’s as if that’s a normal part of the experience.”
There is some hope, though: a few of the older boys I speak to seem to be gaining some perspective on the downsides of porn. Henry, 20, decided to wean himself off it when he felt he couldn’t masturbate without it. “You’re entranced by it. Denying myself and forcing myself to use my imagination instead was really tough.”
Beyond that, he also started to recognise how it affected his view of women. “I’d see girls in the street and realise I couldn’t just click a button and see them naked. I’d be talking to someone and get frustrated that I couldn’t just make sex happen.”
Mitchell, 19, has begun to understand the connection between what he watches and how he behaves. “If girls are reluctant to do something, you pressure them because you think, ‘Lots of women do it in porn. Why don’t you?’” He says he began to feel “like I wasn’t in my own body”.
The effects of porn run deep – 53% of boys and 39% of girls in the Middlesex University study saw it as “a realistic depiction” of sex – and even with the anticipated new verification checks, free porn will bubble up in other ways; it is already increasingly appearing on platforms children use from a young age, such as Snapchat and Instagram.