Stopping young people viewing porn may be unrealistic, but we can prevent them from replicating violent behaviour they may see, writes
Recent tragic events have revived concerns over the rising prevalence of pornography use among teenagers in Ireland. Adolescence is an important time in a person’s life where beliefs about acceptable behaviour begin to form. Therefore, the impact of using porn during this developmental stage has drawn a great deal of attention, particularly with regard to the impact of watching violent pornography on committing acts of sexual violence.
Porn use in Ireland is commonplace among teenagers. A recent study conducted by the Active Consent Programme at the School of Psychology, NUI Galway shows that almost 60% of teenage boys living in Ireland see porn before the age of 13, and 99% see porn before they reach the age of 18.
It is difficult to say what the prevalence of non-consensual aggression in pornography is.
Previous estimates have ranged from 2% to 90%, depending on which study you read. The research to date suggests that watching porn featuring non-consensual depictions is quite rare and that people are likely to be repulsed by this content.
Over the years, however, there have been a number of theories presented in the debate on the link between porn and sexual violence. Some academics argue that there is little to no effect on aggression because so few people engage with non-consensual and violent porn and that positive societal influences, which penalise acts of aggression, deter people from replicating violence that they see in porn.
Others suggest that porn poses a risk to those who watch it by contributing to the normalisation of violence against women. This is argued to happen over time following frequent exposure to porn that includes violence or degradation — resulting in a person becoming desensitised to violence. However, these assumptions are contrary to much of the current research evidence.
Instead, it appears that individual personality traits play a larger role in the replication of violent behaviour seen in porn. In our recent study, conducted in collaboration with Professor Aleksandar Stulhofer at the Zagreb University, we found that having a previous history of non-sexual aggression, such as bullying or delinquency, predicted sexual aggression.
We also found that those who report being sexually aggressive also report watching pornography more regularly. Most importantly, our findings show that pornography use is only associated with sexual violence when an individual is predisposed to aggression. In other words, frequently watching pornography, for a typically functioning young person, will not lead to sexual violence.
There is also the issue of the type of content that a person chooses to watch. Although sexual aggression is commonly portrayed in porn, studies show that most of this aggression is portrayed in a consensual way, for example — porn performers portraying rough sex which appears to be consensual.
Non-consensual sexual aggression is depicted less often, because there is far less demand for this type of content. However, a preference for non-consensual aggression may indicate an interest in or acceptance of sexual violence — previous studies have shown that preferring this content is associated with perpetrating sexual violence.
Porn was not designed for young people to watch. Yet, its use is pervasive in Irish society among teenagers. So, what can we do to reduce young people’s access to it? One solution that was recently proposed in the UK called for legislation around implementing age restrictions for pornography websites. However, these legislative proposals have recently been retracted.
There are a number of reasons why implementing such a ban would be difficult. First, there are issues that come with collecting and storing sensitive data (like a person’s porn content choices). Ultimately, such restrictions may not achieve the desired outcomes — would an age verification system on porn websites prevent young people from accessing porn?
In truth, it would probably prevent some young people who accidentally see porn through internet pop-ups. However, for the young person who is actively searching for it, a porn block could easily be circumvented. Anyone with a VPN (Virtual Private Network) could get around the block — a VPN essentially makes it look like you are searching from another country.
Most worryingly, employing age verification systems might lead to young people digging deeper to find unregulated porn sites (websites that have not signed up for the age verification system).
These unregulated sites would likely host more problematic content. Therefore, a ban might inadvertently lead to more young people seeing extremely problematic and violent content.
We may not be able to prevent youth porn engagement but we have the capacity to prevent young people from replicating violent behaviour that they may see in porn. Porn literacy has been proposed as a potential solution to this. Porn literacy involves developing young people’s critical thinking skills around sexually explicit media. This means that they would have the knowledge to recognise that coercive or violent behaviours they may see in porn is not acceptable nor is it reflective of healthy and happy sexual relationships.
Porn literacy does not involve showing porn as part of sex education programmes. Instead, it involves discussing pornography, as well as the realities of sex so that young people can make decisions about their future sexual lives that coincide with their values.
Parents can also support porn literacy efforts by acknowledging that it is normal to be curious about sex, but that sex in porn and sex in real-life relationships are very different from one another, and that communication between partners is always necessary, and coercion and violence is never OK.