It’s no secret that today’s children are guinea pigs in a colossal porn experiment. Whereas (mostly) boys of previous generations might have passed around a filched copy of Playboy, today anyone with a broadband connection can instantly access anything you can imagine — and a whole lot of stuff you don’t want to imagine.
Some boys felt that their porn use had no effect on them, many of them asserting: “I can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.” That, as it happens, is the instinctive response people give to any suggestion of media influence — none of us wants to think we’re so impressionable, though we’re quick to recognise that others are. But decades of research show that what we consume becomes part of our psyches, unconsciously affecting how we feel, think and behave.
Porn use has been associated with boys’ real-life badgering of girls for nude pictures. Both boys and girls who consume porn at younger ages are more likely to become sexually active sooner than peers, to have more partners, to have higher rates of pregnancy, to view sexual aggression more positively and women more negatively, and to engage in the riskier and more atypical behaviours porn depicts.
Male porn users report less satisfaction than others with their sex lives, their own performance in bed and with their female partners’ bodies. There is even speculation that because of its convenience as well as low physical and emotional investment — porn never rejects you, never makes demands of you, never wants you to talk about your feelings — the rise in porn use is partially responsible for the lower rates of intercourse among millennials. That reduction of pleasure in partnered sex was what concerned most of my interviewees.
One student called Reza believed porn increased his awareness of real women’s physical imperfections. “I’ve got things narrowed down to a very, very specific body type that turns me on,” he explained. “It’s probably not all driven by porn, but I figured out what I liked from that and I think I wouldn’t have otherwise. It doesn’t ruin my relationships, but it’s not nice when I’m trying to talk my girlfriend into liking a part of her body, but I’m secretly thinking, well, actually, I would prefer …” And Kevin, a school pupil, said that after watching “all those skinny white women” (he’s Caucasian), he was having a hard time becoming aroused by his black girlfriend’s body.
Some boys fretted more over their own bodies’ contours than their partners’, especially (and perhaps not surprisingly) their penis size. A few boys were so concerned about size that they avoided sexual situations. “I had a girlfriend at 16,” said Mitchell, “and as we started being more sexual, I became very nervous about being … sufficient. I couldn’t perform during our first real sexual experience because that was so much on my mind. And once you feel like you can’t, you can’t. You’re done.” With time, and maybe a little maturity, he got past it. In retrospect, he said: “Comparing myself to porn was obviously ridiculous. But, you know, it’s also kind of understandable.”
Like every boy I spoke with, Mitchell claimed to know that, of course, porn wasn’t realistic. But that line between fact and fiction was not clear; after all, porn is depicting something, and what other point of reference do young people have? “If you’re a teenage guy and you don’t have much sexual experience, and you’ve been watching porn for the past six or seven years, you can develop almost a … fear, really,” said another university student. “A fear that you would not be able to perform up to those standards, though, of course, no one really can. But maybe the starkest contrast is your perception of the kind of feedback that you’re going to be getting from a girl. Like that they will be moaning and having orgasms all over the place. That’s obviously not the case.”
“I don’t consider the porn I watch to be representative of the person I am,” said Daniel, a lantern-jawed student with hipster glasses. “The whole category of ‘Unwilling’ [women who say no to sex, then change their mind when forced]. It’s very appealing to me, even though I know it’s wrong. And I do truly believe it’s wrong. I would never do it. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it.”
In real life, Daniel was consciously trying to curb his use of the thoughtlessly sexist, homophobic language that had been common at secondary school. He also said he considered any form of sexual interaction to have “spiritual significance” and claimed to prize intimacy over “raw sex”.
But that’s not what got him off. Real sex with his school girlfriend wasn’t stimulating enough. “I felt like I was never really satisfied,” he said. “There was always more to try. Like, ‘Oh, this is pretty good, she’s letting me do a lot, but we haven’t done this yet, we haven’t done this, done this, done this.’ ”
As another boy put it: “I think porn affects your ability to be innocent in a sexual relationship. The whole idea of exploring sex without any preconceived ideas of what it is, you know? That natural organic process has just been f***** by porn.”