Before the Internet, that is pre-1995, hardcore pornography was difficult for teens to obtain. Today, with a few clicks, millions of photos and videos are available for free to anyone. This change has triggered great anguish among many parents and social conservatives, who wring their hands that young people are coming of age in a world awash in X-rated imagery that’s sweeping them down a sewer of filth.
In a previous blog post (Does Pornography Cause Social Harm?), I compared rates of sexual assault, teen sex, and teen contraception before and after free porn became easily accessible on the Internet. Comparing the early 1990s and today, rates of teen intercourse and sexual assault have declined considerably, while teen condom use has increased. These changes don’t prove that porn causes no social harm, but they show that social conservatives are mistaken when they argue that exposure to porn causes rape and teen sexual irresponsibility. That’s simply not the case.
But broad social indices don’t get inside young people’s heads and tell us what teens think of pornography. That’s why I was delighted to read a study in the Journal of Sex Research that explored how 73 middle-class Swedish teens, age 14 to 20, actually felt about pornography. I find the results reassuring. The researchers conclude: “Most participants had acquired the skills to navigate the pornographic landscape in a sensible manner. Most had the ability to distinguish between pornographic fantasies on the one hand, and real sexual interactions and relationships on the other.”
Previous studies have shown that 92 percent of Swedish teens admit having viewed Internet porn. Girls often stumble on it accidentally. Boys are much more likely to seek it out. No surprise there.
Boys generally enjoy porn as pure sexual entertainment. They also consider it a source of sex education. As one boy remarked, porn teaches “other ways to have sex.”
Girls feel more ambivalent. The majority called porn repulsive, but one-third called it interesting and exciting. Those who found it exciting did not broadcast that opinion, especially to boys for fear of winding up with a bad reputation. Most girls embraced what the researchers called “the love ideology,” the idea that love legitimates sex. Girls’ disapproved of porn because it represents sex without emotional involvement, without love. Girls said they might be open to viewing porn, but only with a boy they loved.
In the study, both boys and girls understood that porn indulges men’s sexual fantasies, that the men in porn have only one thing on their minds, and that the women are there solely to satisfy the men’s needs—even when their own needs are ignored. Boys accepted this more or less uncritically, but girls disapproved of porn’s lack of interest in women’s sexual pleasure.
Girls also admitted that they compared their own bodies to those of the women in porn. They expressed insecurity about their bodies, and worried that boys would find them not sexy enough to be adequate sex partners.
Boys expressed some surprise about this—and with good reason. Today, there’s porn involving every female body type: thin, plump, fat, small breasts, big breasts, natural breasts, surgically augmented breasts, natural pubic hair, trimmed hair, partly shaved, and fully shaved.
Girls feared that boys wanted to do everything they saw in porn, notably anal play. Boys “fervently denied” this. “They asserted that sex in real life is something completely different from sex in porn,” and insisted that they can distinguish between the two, just as they can differentiate cartoon violence and real violence.
Girls and boys agreed that porn’s ubiquity means that it affects everyone to some degree, but they also agreed that “the majority [of their peers] managed to avoid becoming psychologically harmed by it.”
Both girls and boys understood that porn is like the chase scenes in action movies—exciting to watch, but not the way to drive. Far from being carried away by porn, the teens in this study viewed it critically and had successfully integrated it into healthy emotional lives.
Lofgren-Martenson, L. and S. S.A. Mansson. “Lust, Love, and Life: A Qualitative Study of Swedish Adolescents’ Perceptions and Experiences with Pornography,” Journal of Sex Research (2010) 47:568.