Porn, a bad education – making hate, not love in the digital age

Sept 2014 – this is a piece recently published on the journalism website Contributoria.

“When you mention the word pornography most people think you’re talking about a Playboy centrefold. They have no idea of the kind of material out on the internet today that kids as young as six can look at for free. This is misogynistic, woman-hating violence, the word pornography is completely inapplicable to it.” John Carr (UK government advisor on child internet safety)

“Innocent teen girls face their worst sex-related nightmare … men lose control and don’t give a f@@k whether she says yes or no, in fact, the guys enjoy a ‘no’ more. It doesn’t matter if they want it or not, it’s time to become Tough Guys. Right now.” (Text from a rape porn website)

Watching pornography has become normal for many young people; the average age to view is 11 and in 2012 a parliamentary committee found that four out of five 16-year-olds regularly access porn online. But in the last decade, with high speed internet feeding the growth of a £1bn industry, extreme porn once relegated to pay-per-view sites or adult sex shops is now freely available to watch online. There is a disturbing rise in violence against women, including sites depicting rape porn.

Extreme porn, clicks away

Imagine a curious 10-year-old child typing “porn” into a search engine for the first time. Perhaps he or she has an idea of sex: some kissing, breasts, naked flesh. Here are some examples of what they could find with just a few clicks of the mouse: a man using a woman so roughly for oral sex she gags and vomits, a woman being penetrated by three men, a man choking a woman as he pulls her hair, spits on her and slaps her. This is the world of “gonzo” porn – no dodgy script just straight into brutalised sex, where anal, not vaginal, intercourse is the norm.

If you haven’t seen porn on the web then your idea of it is probably 20 years out of date. Gone are the days of soft-core, soft-focus images in magazines on top shelves. The kind of sex peddled in cyberspace on aggregate sites such as Pornhub or YouPorn is rough, hard and fast, operating on an industrial scale: a smorgasbord of plasticised, hairless, female bodies servicing men with sexual preferences of all kinds.

Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, Boston, has been campaigning against pornography for 20 years but is sobered by the changes she’s seen in the last decade. The author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, she says: “Boys don’t start with non-violent and go to violent, they are catapulted at 12 into a world of sexual violence. If you put porn into Google, that’s all you come up with. On these sites they do pretty much everything they can do to violate a woman without breaking the law, without killing her.”

She adds: “I use a quote in my talks from Jules Jordan (porn producer) who says the industry can’t keep up with the fans because they want such hardcore stuff. They’ve got a consumer base that is increasingly desensitised.”

While many sites containing child abuse are blocked in the UK, sites containing violence against women are flourishing. There are calls from anti-porn campaigners for the government to block or filter content as the trajectory gets more extreme.

Last year, a report from the office from the Children’s Commissioner for England, Basically…Porn is Everywhere, called for urgent action to develop children’s defences against pornography. Drawing together studies from worldwide research and using a focus group of 16-18-year-olds, it found young people were turning to pornography for guidance on sex, leading to risky behaviours, uncertainty as to what constitutes consent and the development of harmful attitudes towards women and girls.

Despite these dangers, young people I interviewed told me repeatedly that porn was their “education”, a reference manual they used to learn about how to have sex, swap tips and share clips with each other. One girl said: “It’s like you go on YouTube to search to learn how to do a flip on your skateboard and you go to Pornhub search how to deep throat or how to do anal – to learn skills or tricks.”

Rape porn

Although it is a criminal offence to possess extreme pornography in England and Wales, the current law does not extend to rape pornography. A reform to close this loophole is currently making its way through the House of Lords (Section 16 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill) and should become law by the end of the year.

It is becoming harder to find soft porn on the web simply because practices from more extreme pornographic pages are mimicked all over aggregate sites, trailed before users often not actively seeking it. Among the most disturbing are pages depicting rape with titles such as “Little schoolgirl raped by teacher” and “Tiny girl sleep rape”.

Research conducted by Rape Crisis South London in 2011 revealed that of the top 50 rape porn sites found through a Google search, 78% advertise rape content of under 18-year-olds (e.g. “schoolgirl rape”) and 67% advertise rape content involving guns or knives. They also found that of the top 10 Google search results for “free porn”, half the websites host free rape porn.

Professor Claire McGlynn of Durham University, a long-term critic of the law on pornography, gave briefings to both political parties to extend the bill. She says: “Some people would argue a lot of porn on the internet involves violence and restraint anyway but what is new about this material is it’s labelling itself as ‘rape pornography,’ it celebrates and glorifies the act of rape, creating a climate of harm where sexual violence is condoned.”

The internet trend of eroticised violence can have devastating results for both young men and women, leading to a preoccupation with material that would have previously remained hidden.

Jo’s story

Jo (not her real name) is an articulate, intelligent 22-year-old from Norwich who works in the education sector. She is still suffering from an abusive relationship involving rape pornography when she was 16. She first saw porn at 11 when a friend’s brother was watching a film.

“They were laughing in a disgusted way because she had pubic hair. I realised then there were expectations as to how a woman should look.

“It was the start of a very complicated feeling that sex was about competing with what was on screen. Why would a boy have sex with you when he can masturbate over a woman better looking than you? It’s a constant one-upmanship, particularly when it comes to doing more extreme things.”

During her teenage years, Jo says she began studying porn with a platonic male friend to “take notes”. “I watched porn because I thought it was cool and trendy and would make boys interested in me.”

She met a boy at her sixth-form college who she now realises was “completely addicted” to porn. “He would watch it up to 20 times a day. He would text his friends links during lessons and go to the toilet to watch porn alone so he could masturbate.”

She found herself coerced into increasingly disturbing sex with him. “It started off being soft stuff but then it became gonzo stuff. He couldn’t have sex with me unless he was watching something at the same time. He couldn’t get erect or have an orgasm.

‘As time went on he felt more comfortable putting on things he actually wanted to watch, like simulation rape. I knew that it was acting, but then a few months down the line I didn’t think the women being filmed were acting any more. I now know was he was watching real rape he found online.

“It didn’t matter who was lying beneath him, his eyes were on the screen mimicking what he was seeing. He was very violent with anal sex, I would cry and ask him to stop, but because that was what the women in the films were doing, he wouldn’t accept me saying ‘no’ as meaning ‘no’. He thought it was all part of the game, he thought he was doing his acting while I was doing the girls’ acting.”

Jo and her boyfriend didn’t discuss what happened.

“Afterwards, he’d go back to being a normal boy again and make me a cup of tea or something to eat.” But she does describe his emotional cruelty. “He used to say he could replace me quite easily. He thought life was like porn, that you’re replaceable, disposable.”

Jo says repercussions from the abuse have made it difficult to maintain other relationships. She also says she’s never been able to have an orgasm from sex with men.

“It’s alien even now to think that sex is for women. In my experience, sex is for men. This has come from learning how to have sex through porn. I didn’t learn how to have sex, but how to do sex. It’s being done to me or on me but I’m not really engaged in it because it’s not for me.”

When she turned to a counsellor at 19 she realised what had happened to her was abuse and that women do not have to capitulate to men’s sexual needs.

“I wasn’t aware of what consent was until I was 19. I thought you just do what happens and just say yes.”

Jo stresses the importance of a “counter-education” to pornography. What would have really helped her was an awareness of it as a scripted performance with a disclaimer, rather like the health warnings on cigarette packets.

She says: “I wish someone had told me that the woman in that first film had signed a contract, that they’d planned what she and the men were going to do, that there was an element of agreement.”

Porn: the corporate model

The bottom line for pornographers isn’t love or sex of course, it’s money. Porn is big business. Profits lie in the region of $10-14bn worldwide and Mindgeek (formally Manwin), the world’s largest multinational porn conglomerate, owns nine out of 15 most profitable websites online. Internet porn in the UK receives more traffic than social networks, shopping, news and media, email, finance, gaming and travel. Pornhub serves 14.7 billion consumers annually – that’s 1.68 million visitors an hour.

Dines says: “Because porn is now above ground it interfaces with all other capitalist industries such as media, satellite companies, ISP providers, venture capitalists, banks, credit card companies and payment systems. When a guy puts his credit card in, think how many companies make money in that feeding chain.

“Porn has now become corporatised. Increasingly, kids are part of the business plan. The younger they get the boys and young men, the more they shape their sexual template and the more they’ll keep coming back for more.”

Ever younger, ever harder trajectory

In a bid to make more profit, pornographers will do anything to attract attention to their sites, including sex with increasingly young women. It won’t be a surprise to learn that “teen” or “youth” is one of the most searched-for items.

On Pornhub, some of the banners above video feeds read “Teen in pink pants”, “Slender Russian Teen Taking It In The A**”, “Teen girl gets rough double penetration”, etc. Porn performers are supposed to be 18, but many of the women look much younger: hairless, make-up free and sometimes in girlish clothes or uniform.

There is an insidious message here, that so-called “childified” porn is somehow acceptable and so it isn’t surprising that a poll conducted for the Internet Watch Foundation last year found that 1 million men and 500,000 women have reported coming across the sexual abuse of children accidentally while looking at other sites. This despite 91% of 2,058 adults polled who said all child porn content should be removed from the internet.

The use of pornography has been cited in more than one recent criminal case involving sexual offences against children. John Woods, a psychotherapist working at the Portman Clinic in London, says he has seen a dramatic increase in referrals for patients with problematic use of pornography in the last eight years. Woods also describes criminal cases where judges refer to the assailant’s use of pornography for the first time, including, in 2012, judge Gareth Hawkesworth giving a community order to a 14-year-old boy found guilty of raping a five-year-old girl. Despite the horrific nature of the offence, the judge said, “I’m satisfied that the rape was impulsive and I believe you have become sexualised by exposure to the corruption of pornography. It was the fault of society”.

Porn and young men

Sex therapists have seen a dramatic rise in young men coming to their clinics with stories of addiction and porn-induced sexual dysfunction as well as an inability to develop relationships. The website Your Teenage Brain on Porn shows the science of when the malleable teenage brain high on dopamine meets high speed internet pornography.

One consultant forensic psychologist, a specialist in the assessment and treatment of sexual offenders, says: “Puberty is a very sensitive time for boys – a huge dump of testosterone can lead to an upswing in aggression and interest in sex and it is crucial that the two don’t become linked together – pornography often links aggression and sex and therefore if a boy’s only sex education is coming from pornography this can set up problems for later.”

Studies now show porn can be as addictive as drink or drugs. Valerie Voon, a neuro-psychiatrist at Cambridge University, carried out MRI scans on 19 compulsive porn users as they watched explicit material. She found that the ventral straitum, the “reward centre” part of the brain, reacts to pornography in the same way an alcoholic or drug addict reacts to seeing drink or drugs.

Paula Hall, who runs treatment programmes for sex addiction in the UK, has seen the demographic of her clients change in the last decade, from men in their 40s to men in their 20s. She says 95% of patients she sees have problems with porn. In a recent survey of almost 6,000 young people, 38% said their problems with porn started under the age of 16. Hall says: “If you escalate arousal all the time, you’re going to end up needing more to get the same effect. They become so hard-wired to porn that they find it hard to function sexually in a normal way.”

The problem is so acute that sites like NoFap have sprung up, places where young men agree to abstain from porn and masturbation for a period of time to help with addiction and damaging sexual behaviours. Many report a normalisation of sexual impulses and improvement in their mental health.

Jayden’s story

Engineering student Jayden, 22, is from East London and started watching porn films when he was 12. He says porn has shaped him to such a degree – the hard-wiring that Hall refers to – that he finds he can orgasm less than 30% of the time when he’s with a girl.

He admits: “Porn is quick and doesn’t take as much time as being with someone else. Sometimes having sex can become a chore because I know most of the time, I’m not going to be able to have an orgasm.

“Porn definitely desensitises you. It’s like someone smoking weed, eventually they’ll need a harder drug. The more you see something, the less interested you get, you always want something with more of a hit. I can’t really be pleasured by someone else, it had to be me. If you’re used to looking at models, you’re going to find normal women less sexy.”

This certainly goes against the idea that pornography enhances sex for young men – for Jayden, it seems to be a replacement for it.

The problem became so acute that he decided to stop using porn for a month two years ago when he was with a girl he cared about. He found his sexual appetite returned. But he admits he found sex “boring” after a while and went back to looking at porn.

Jayden seems to feel more in control now. “As I get older I’m more in tune with myself. Porn has less of a hold on me and I’ve learnt more about myself. There’s nothing wrong with fantasies but porn is a performance, real life isn’t like that.”

Dines believes that some boys become so used to masturbating to “industrial strength sex” porn that normal “vanilla” sex seems dull. “She’s not going to have screaming orgasms, she’s not going to want to have anal sex like the women in porn, she’s not going to want semen all over her face, she’s going to seem extremely boring.”

Perhaps teenagers are tiring of porn’s aggressive marketing approach. A recent poll by thinktank Institute for Public Policy Research found that eight out of 10 18-year-olds surveyed felt it was too easy to accidentally view explicit images while surfing the internet, while 72% said pornography led to “unrealistic” views about sex.

The future

Porn critics are so concerned about its ubiquity they’re calling for it to be treated as a public health issue for children. They recommend a multi-pronged approach, using a UK-wide education programme, health warnings on porn sites, filters for extreme content and governmental legislative controls as the only way to challenge the porn industry, which is barely regulated at all.

Dines says: ‘The only way we’re going to deal with this is if we treat it the same as underage drinking and smoking or drugs. We have to bring everyone to the table – doctors, lawyers, therapists, youth workers, the government and kids themselves – everyone who has a collective interest in the wellbeing of the next generation.”

By the end of the year in Britain, the four largest ISPs – BT, Talktalk, Virgin and Sky – will be in theory rolling out an option for all customers to block explicit and illegal material. It will be voluntary, not mandatory, but David Cameron has said that if the big four don’t act, he will bring it to parliament. That will constitute 95% of the market, but the question remains as to how strongly the ISPs will push the filtering system and how many customers will choose to block. It will also leave thousands of other households that use other ISPs wide open to extreme content.

But is blocking content enough? With mobile devices, neither parents, schools nor the government can filter content in the digital cloud. YouTube, Google images, Tumbler, Instagram and other social media platforms are places where kids and teenagers access and create their own pictures and images.

John Carr, a key advisor to the government on child internet safety, believes we should be looking to the wider porn feeding chain: credit card companies and banks making revenue from hardcore pornographic sites without over-18 systems in place.

“Under English law, you’re not supposed to publish extreme material without an age-verification system in place to make sure kids can’t get at it. It’s illegal. If the banks and credit card companies refused to allow Pornhub revenues through their financial services, the porn sites would close down overnight. They’re helping those sites thrive.”

To get to the roots of the problem, Dines believes in the “Gulliver strategy”, whereby “you limit the power of an industry by tying it down piece by piece with legislation”. In the States, where free-speech lobbyists exert huge control in congress, there has been tentative progress as Measure B was passed last year, which asks that all porn performers wear condoms.

Jo whose boyfriend was so abusive, believes education is the only way forward: “We should be teaching about the dangers of pornography from reception up. It should be age-appropriate but children are perfectly capable of understanding the differences between men and women’s bodies.’

What is clear is that we have a generation of young people who have grown up with pornography in a way no previous ones have and they need alternative views on sex. The message should be, if you look at porn, you’ve going to give away something that you don’t even own yet – your sexual identity.

Jo says: “I would pay a ridiculous amount of money to turn it off. I would love to have sex and not think about performing.”

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