The Offline Impact of Online Porn

Courtesy of Wallpaper Cave.

Written by Stephanie Yang

While normalizing sex can encourage healthier and safer sexual relations, mass media is also at fault for endorsing, or even advertising unprotected and consequence-free sex to children at an age where they are still developing emotionally and mentally.

Whether or not you’re a marketing major, it is no surprise to most people that “sex sells”. While popular media has long been sexualized, whether through beer ads, Top 40 song lyrics, or the Wolf of Wall Streets in Hollywood, the foundation of our sexualized society traces back to the taboo underworld of pornography. According to a 2008 study from the University of New Hampshire, 93% of males and 62% of females in college reported seeing porn as adolescents. Adolescence is already an extremely confusing time, and as a new wave of digital natives comes of age, online pornography has only become more accessible and normalized. As a result, the prevalence of porn has had an overwhelming influence on how young men and women treat each other, deal with their own loneliness, and even mold their beliefs on gender equality.

One of the most popular online pornography platforms today, PornHub, had 28.5 billion visits in 2017, averaging about 81 million people per day. Some trends according to PornHub’s Insights team highlight a growing number of female visitors. ‘Porn for Women’ became a top trending search in 2017, with a 1400% increase from the previous year. While the proportion of female to male visitors in the United States is 25% to 75% respectively, female visits grew 10% from 2016. 2017 was a pivotal year for women worldwide, no doubt fueled by the #MeToo movement and strong female voices amplified across social media.

Despite female empowerment manifesting in mainstream society and a similar momentum surfacing in online porn, adolescents in middle and high school have experienced a conflicting view on gender equality behind closed doors.

The public embrace of sexuality in American culture is a double-edged sword. While normalizing sex can encourage healthier and safer sexual relations, mass media is also at fault for endorsing, or even advertising unprotected and consequence-free sex to children at an age where they are still developing emotionally and mentally. Only 24 states require sex education in schools; 13 require sex education be ‘medically accurate’. Such a weak government focus on sex education is only exacerbated by the average age teenagers first view porn: 13 years old for boys, and 14 years old for girls. The reality of these two statistics bears the implication that porn is an alternative and influential form of sex education for teenagers. While a PornHub pop-up shop in SoHo or the daily headlines about Stormy Daniels may normalize and de-stigmatize sex during the day, the content that lives on porn websites tells a different story.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies conducted a review of the effects of pornography on children and young people in 2016. While there is porn out there that represents healthy and respectful sexual relations, porn is typically monopolized by sexism, violence, dehumanization, and objectification. According to the report, such content in porn reinforces many double standards around ‘active male sexuality’ and the ‘passive female receptacle’. The review also found that adolescent pornography is associated with stronger beliefs in gender stereotypes, especially for males, with frequent male viewers of pornography more likely to hold sexist attitudes. One of the key findings also found that pornography may strengthen attitudes that support sexual violence and violence against women. Overall, porn influences what young men and women expect from their partners, inform future sexual practices, and may generally have a negative impact on couples and their sexual relations.

The impact porn has on ourselves and our relationships starts early and can last through adolescence, college, and even into our marriages. Some studies have shown that teens who watch higher rates of porn engage in sex earlier than their peers. A 2018 study surveying 1,247 participants modeled statistically the different factors relating loneliness and pornography use. The study found that porn use was significantly associated with loneliness, as well as vice-versa. Despite the temporary relief porn provides, in the long-term it induces greater feelings of isolation, negatively affecting normal attachment behavior and the ability to form stable, satisfying relationships with others. In essence, porn acts as a substitute for intimacy with actual partners.

The trends and statistics about our generation and online pornography use can be unsettling and overwhelming. But as a society, we can only hope that sex can shift to a more respectful, empathetic, and safe demonstration of sexuality that we feel okay showing the next generation of digital natives. There are inherent issues studying porn due to the difficulty around distinguishing between correlation and causation. While porn can corrupt our mental health and relationships with others, it doesn’t have to be that way. Recognizing both the positives and negatives of porn is the first step to encourage positive connotations around sexuality and gender relations among today’s youth. As individuals, we can become more conscious consumers of porn and prevent it from affecting our mental health and relationships. As future parents and leaders of society, we can change the narrative surrounding porn, and push for more robust sex education in schools. While the role technology plays in porn makes this problem more large-scale and pervasive, shifts in cultural attitudes have more power than we think.

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