01 Jun The sexualization of the young – Learning a Social Script through Porn and the rise of new sexual and reproductive health issues
Porn is big business with an annual profit of $25 billion dollars, driving 30% of all Internet traffic around the world.
What is the real impact on how young perceive sex in our rapidly changing social landscape that makes porn so readily available?
Walker et al. 2015 states that “young people’s exposure to pornography has increased, as has the violent and sexist nature of mainstream porn. Contemporary content means young people are exposed to violent porn whether they like it or not, and it is no longer a question of whether they will be exposed, but rather when”.
A survey of 11- to 18-year-olds in a study produced in the UK by The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and commissioned by The Telegraph in 2013 exposes that almost a third believe pornography dictates the way they should behave in relationships. “Girls think they have to look and ‘perform like porn stars’ in order to be liked by boys”, the NSPCC study also found.
In the same year, experts at ChildLine say “that there has been a 70 per cent increase in the past 12 months in boys calling specifically to talk about pornography – about how guilty and confused it’s making them feel. Last year alone, 50 girls called the service every day because they felt under pressure to have sex”.
In a European study N Stanley et al. (2016) state that viewing online porn has been associated with a significantly increase in sending sexual images and/or messages so-called ‘sexting’. This normalised social practice reproduces sexist features of pornography, such as control and humiliation. In addition, boys who regularly watch online pornography are more likely to hold negative gender attitudes.
The process of growing up is determined by observation, copying and aligning to what is lived around the young and they develop behaviours according to those so-called social scripts. Porn transmits social scripts that are acquired through observation of others, specifically through consumption of the mass media. The exposure to porn shapes expectations and it is influencing the way people relate to each other and with this how pleasure, intimacy, sexuality and bodily integrity is lived. Studies have shown that the frequent exposure and use of pornography led to perceptions of porn being realistic and socially useful and that these perceptions contribute to a more instrumental attitude towards sex – an understanding of sex as a predominantly physical experience, rather than something affectionate and relational. (Stanley et al. 2016)
Porn presents a cultural context and standard that is then reinforced. Today, porn plays a determining role in the development of interpersonal values. For example, the sexual double standard that women engaging in sexual relationships are seen as sluts and men are rewarded. Or the deeply rooted notion that girls and young women’s bodies are somehow the property of boys and young men, playing out competition and rivalry with other boys on girls’ bodies (Ringrose: 2012)
As Maree Crabbe, producer of ‘The Porn Factor’ states: “It is anything [but] sex, [however] it communicates a lot of things about sex and pleasure and mainly communicates that women like to be treated like this.”
Specifically the rise of gonzo porn transmits boys and young men to be violent, to act rough, to choke, gag and spank women and behave overall aggressively against them, together with humiliation and degradation, being controlling and overpowering towards women. David Rosen (2013) describes Gonzo porn as “sexual performance in which the male actor violates or appears to harm the female performer, depicting sex acts that no actual woman would want to engage in” symbolising and reinforcing the violence women face everyday on multiple levels, not only sexually.
Young women learn their role to play in it and consent to highly abusive sexual practices that then are normalised, such as forced anal sex, ejaculating on the face, forced oral sex, Ass-to-mouth, etc. Porn fosters an attitude that is lived in young men and young women and the normalised standard is to see the body as an instrument to be used by function and a very specifically determined form of pleasure – that is mainly abuse, and that women are assets and that when it comes to sex they are just used, as they themselves don’t hold a value on their own to know what they want.
The consumption of porn is for many teens a way to deal with emotions and the lack of connection, intimacy and the inability to express their feelings. Similar to alcohol and other recreational drugs it is used as a ‘de-stressor’ by creating a temporary elation that numbs away painful feelings. A vicious cycle of a downward spiral into a tragic epidemic of porn addiction with a total loss of the ability to establish loving relationships with oneself and others – and it has already proven to cause serious health issues. We only have to look at the new sexual and reproductive health conditions that are added on to the already existing and increasing ones such as STI’s, HIV, teenage pregnancies, unsafe abortions, etc.:
- Chronic pain and painful sexual conditions in young women, due to engaging in sexual practices they are not aroused by, are abusive and often violent. Lots of unwanted and non-pleasurable sexual experiences are leading to these conditions as their bodies shut down and develop chronic pain.
- Serious injuries in the genital area due to abusive and violent sexual practices. “Splitting”, “Rape style” sex, etc.
- Consented gender-based violence and sexual abuse. Self-objectification leads women to consent to harming and violent sexual practices. Self-objectification is massive in a world where women do not hold any value on themselves and therefore have no awareness for the lived abuse. What is consent in a world where women are pigeonholed as sex objects?
- Body shame and negative body images. Normalized sexual imagery that leads to a body image girls try to keep up with leading to many psychological and physical disorders. A massive misperception about what is normal for bodies. Expectations on appearance (being very thin, having large breasts or big muscles) or actions (viewing porn, tripping and touching up, performing blow jobs, sending images of own body parts). “Teenage girls who are influenced by porn today have a normative expectation around what their pubic area is supposed to look like” Susan Scutti (2016) .
- Complications from plastic surgery (Labiaplasty and Labia Minora Reduction, so-called ‘designer vaginas’, breasts augmentation, etc.) causing chronic pain due to nerve damage and loss of sensitivity, etc.
- Porn addiction, specifically in young men with health consequences such as erectile dysfunction, anxiety, depression, loneliness and the inability to relate to others leading to social isolation and physical and psychological disorders.
- The social and psychological consequences of sexting, revenge porn, rape style sex, etc. Sexting – Sexually Explicit Internet Material (SEIM) – is often coercive and linked to harassment, bullying and violence. Sexting has become such a normalised practice that the self-objectification from young girls is so extreme, that they even initiate the sexting without the direct pressure from boys.
- Threats from peers. Ringrose et al (2012) in their report for the NSPCC evidence that “for young people, the primary technology-related threat is not the ‘stranger danger’, but technology-mediated sexual pressure from their peers. […] This poses a challenge for school-based awareness strategies, as a class is likely to contain varieties of victims, abusers and bystanders simultaneously”.
- General Internet addiction – specifically addiction to violent and sexist video games, like Grand Theft Auto V, where women are humiliated, degraded and even killed for so-called pleasure.
The normalisation of violence (including bullying, cyberbullying, controlling and psychological and sexual violence) in intimate relationships is becoming more and more the norm. Ultimately it all comes together in the disregard of the body. When the body is disregarded it becomes an empty vessel for pure functioning.
When opening the conversation with young women and men it is evidenced that they all want to have this conversation and that they feel quite lonely. Young men talk about being lost, depressed, addicted and young women share in Maree Crabbe’s ‘Porn Factor’ that they want to please their partner, but don’t really feel to do those things, but submit to normalised sexual practices they are expected to do, although it is considered pleasurable for men and painful and very un-pleasurable for women: “When you love someone you are willing to make them happy and pretend that we like it. We give them false ideas of what we find enjoyable”. There is no communication between them, just a silent following of the dictated social script.
Hence, when considering sex education in school for the young do we truly understand the nature, form, frequency and dynamics of sexual violence the young are exposed to and have already started to live with each other?
By Rachel Andras