View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
4 February 2023

There’s no point pretending we can stop teenagers watching porn

The question is how to respond. What does it say about sex education if no one is explaining to boys that violence isn’t OK in real life?

By Marie Le Conte

When I was about 13, in the mid-Noughties, some school friends and I decided to play a game. We all had about a week and had to find the weirdest, most disturbing piece of porn available on the internet.

A very competitive person by nature, I ended up winning by finding a clip of a man not-so-gently communing with the eye socket of a rotting sheep’s head. “Pyrrhic” doesn’t quite begin to cover it.

On our travels, we also stumbled upon a demonstration of what happens when a woman and a frozen fish love each other very much. I have just tried to find it again to confirm my vague memory that it was a trout – no, please, hold the Pulitzer – but wasn’t able to. There is too much porn on the internet now: trying to track down a specific video is akin to finding a lubed-up needle in a haystack. This is, most people agree, not a welcome development. All good things should be had in moderation and it isn’t even clear that porn was a good thing to begin with.

As a study published on 31 January by Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner, has found, 27 per cent of 11-year-olds have encountered porn online, and one in ten had seen some by the age of nine. The average age for the first exposure is 13. Perhaps more worryingly, the report found that 79 per cent of 18- to 21-year-olds said they had watched content depicting “coercive, degrading or pain-inducing sex acts” while underage. Nearly half of respondents aged between 16 and 21 said that they assumed women “expect” or “enjoy” sex that involves aggressive acts, such as choking or slapping.

“We urgently need to do more to protect children from the harms of online pornography. It should not be the case that young children are stumbling across violent and misogynistic pornography on social media sites,” De Souza concluded. “Now is a vital moment to ensure that we understand the impact of pornography on children’s lives, and to legislate for a commensurate response.”

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

The timing of the release wasn’t coincidental. The Online Safety Bill is making its way through parliament and the children’s commissioner hopes to convince politicians that more must be done to curtail young people’s ability to watch porn. It is a valiant attempt to address something that everyone acknowledges is a problem, but this increasingly feels like trying to fight a battle that was lost a long time ago.

Sex has always been an integral part of the internet, and it isn’t clear that this is about to change. It is also fair to say that, online as in life, few things can stop a teenager with enough motivation and time on their hands. If new rules are put in place today, teens will find a way to get around them tomorrow.

Moreover, it seems naive to assume that such an acute societal change can be forced through when several generations have already grown up with ever-present internet porn. I am, age-wise, roughly half way between De Souza, 55, and the survey’s younger respondents, but my formative experiences were clearly closer to the latter than the former. You can’t exactly turn back the tide if we’re all soaked already.

This doesn’t mean that nothing should be done to address the harms that online porn is causing to children and teenagers. Instead of trying to change the internet, though, it may be worth wondering if it should be society as a whole that changes.

Take teenage boys’ worrying belief that sex with women should involve some level of brutality. There are no prizes for guessing where they learnt it, but what does it say about sexual education elsewhere that no counters were offered? Children watch movies in which heroes and villains shoot each other yet most of them know that in real life, violence isn’t the answer. Is anyone telling them the same thing about sex?

Proper resources available both online and in person and targeting young people in a way that is compelling to them would surely help. The idea of creating realistic and ethical porn for young people was bandied around a few years ago and roundly condemned – but it was a smart proposal.

If there is curiosity it will be sated one way or another – adult squeamishness about teenage lust shouldn’t get in the way of good policymaking. Similarly, banning sexual content and nudity from every mainstream platform, as has been the trend for a number of years, will only make that content more alluring to those we are trying to keep from watching it.

Aiming to create a society in which healthy, respectful sex is seen as a normal part of adult life should be the goal. The levels of details and depictions in both materials and discussions should be age-appropriate, of course, but it should also be kept in mind that the world has changed. Educating young people on how to respond to the potentially harmful content they will inevitably see will be more effective than pretending there’s a way to prevent them from seeing it.

The fact is, online porn is here to stay and pretending it isn’t won’t help anyone. That should be the first step when trying to figure out what to do next. And for what it’s worth, I ended up fine. I think a lot of people do, in the end. We’re pretty resilient. I do really wonder if it was a trout though. Seems ambitious.

[See also: What a year of my thirties has taught me about growing up]

Content from our partners
Inside the UK's enduring love for chocolate
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU