The Children’s Commissioner for England rapid evidence assessment was starkly entitled - ‘Basically..porn is everywhere’. We know that through increased internet and mobile phone usage, pornography is easily available to at a younger age. Research show significant numbers of children seeing porn (generally accidentally) at around 10 or 11 years of age. This is generally the age many get a smart phone on starting secondary school. Rates of exposure for young people across the world have been reported from 43 per cent to 99 per cent, with exposure and access higher in boys.
We also know that more extreme porn is easy to get at and harder to avoid. Most scenes involve plots around force/violence of involving 'teens'. Most websites also offer 'non-consensual' image abuse material such as upskirting videos. The Internet Watch Foundation in 2015 reported that self-generated porn by young people on social media is harvested by adult porn sites. Work shows that in 88% of porn sites scenes, sex is ‘done to’ women using physical aggression and women’s reactions to sexual violence is commonly shown as either neutral or as pleasure. The interplay of males ‘assumed right’ versus female ‘awaited permission’ is clearly a problem. This provides porn consumers with a story line of men needing to overcome women’s passivity or resistance. How this goes on to fuel sexual violence may be on two levels, cultural and individual.
The first is about how norms of sex are set. Snap shot surveys of large groups (cross sectional studies) have suggested that young people do learn sexual behaviours from watching porn and that they also feel pressure to imitate it. It’s use as a source of education is not only normalised or considered acceptable but even expected. It is not hard to see that if there is no balancing source of information to correct the distortions of sex widely available through internet pornography, this can result in a distorted expectation of how you have sex for young men and women.
What is driving sexual violence goes beyond individuals acting out what they see but in the expectations they internalise about men taking and women being available to them to be taken.
The Children's Commissioner report states “We also found compelling evidence that too many boys believe that they have an absolute entitlement to sex at any time, in any place, in any way and with whomever they wish. Equally worryingly, we heard that too often girls feel they have no alternative but to submit to boys’ demands, regardless of their own wishes”
Most men and many women watch porn and may use it as a reference tool for the norms of how to have sex. With increasing access, the narrative and culture of porn has spread into mainstream culture from fashion (American Apparel) to food, (Porn Star Prosecco sold in Marks and Spencers).
Secondly, within this cultural framework of male entitlement and female passivity, we can see a direct link between watching porn and carrying out sexual violence in some young men. A comprehensive review of 20 years of research around the links between pornography and behaviour has shown effects on both genders with greater sexual aggression as well as more perpetration and victimisation.
The link between pornography use and sexual violence is not straightforward and research seems to show that what makes the difference between harmless and harmful consumptions may be the vulnerability of the user and their access to protective ‘buffers’ (background factors, sex education/family openness). It seems that more vulnerable young people who have experience of other risk factors such as witnessing domestic violence as a child or other significant Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are particularly at risk of internalizing norms of sexual violence within pornography but may also seek out the more extreme content. A comprehensive map by the EU Commission show us the pathways by which devaluing women, rigid definitions of masculinity and legal impunity for violence against women can combine with depersonalised norms of sex and intimacy deficits to create the conditions for sexual violence (13). For adolescents, the role of porn as a bad educator, particular around how to understand consent, can be seen as a direct contributor to getting it wrong.
So, combining two elements of being exposed to pornography and experiences that harm the development of empathy could enable sexual violence in providing the plot, the message that it is normal and the ability to objectify women (14). You need to believe a narrative that women want to submit and resistance should be overcome, and where does this plot come from? Porn films reproduce this plot again and again and it echoes through the rest of society, replicating common rape myths in mainstream media and informing rape trial juries.
Pornography in some men, may be the petrol that fuels the expression of problematic masculine norms of sexual avarice, dominance and entitlement. Not all men who view porn will go on to commit sexual violence and those who do are not the same and women also use pornography. Some men will only use porn for the purposes of fantasy. It is important to understand that porn consumption does not influence all individuals in the same way therefore, research looking at this link may show mixed results. The complexity of harm is not a reason to deny harm.
Research into police cases on sexual violence cited instances of boys and young men referring to pornography during sexual assaults. One gang member said to police after his involvement in a sexual assault, “it was like being in a porn film”.
The focus of research has been to track the influence of porn in individuals rather than in terms of what is arguably its wider impact of setting social and cultural norms. We need research on both and a wider framing of pathways at both individual and cultural levels, (ecological model).
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Select Committee Report