Morten Lundgren is a specialist in clinical pedagogy. He works as a senior advisor in Bufetat. In addition, he is a university lector at the Regional center of knowledge for children and young people – mental health and child welfare (RKBU, Mid-Norway). Lundgren has, for many years, worked as a practitioner at BUP where he was responsible for assessing children and young people’s aggressive and violent behaviour as well as problematic and harmful sexual behaviour. He is in the Resource team for problematic or harmful sexual behaviour (REBESSA).
Many young people are curious about sex, and use porn, as one of several sources, to find information on sexual activities. According to the Children and Media-study from 2020, 70% of boys and 25% of girls between the ages 13 and 18 have watched porn. The boys especially look up porn regularly, some from they are 10 years old. Most adolescents are able to separate pornography from reality, but others find it difficult. Younger children may find pornography very frightening. Looking up porn is a normal part of sexual development, but can at the same time affect attitude and sexual behaviour, sometimes concerningly so (Pratt, 2015, Save the Children 2020).
Pornography is easily accessible, and some children and young people are in danger of developing a form of addiction to porn which can affect normal sexual development, developing a tolerance for “hardcore porn” which leads to needing more and more extreme stimuli to achieve sexual arousal. A frequently occurring aspect of addiction is a reduced ability to regulate emotions and mentalize. Watching violent pornography seems to increase the risk of sexual aggression compared to watching non-violent pornography.
“Porne” means “hore”, and “graph” means “illustration” or “depiction”. These two Greek words combined in 18th century France to create what we today understand as pornography. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary pornography is defined as “the depiction of erotic behaviour (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement”. We have discovered illustrations, statues and paintings from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire which may be examples of pornography, but could also have served other purposes – religious ones, for instance.
If we skip to all the way to the 1960s, we see very different pornography from the 18th and 19th centuries. Denmark and Sweden were first to legalize porn, and were also the primary exporters of it, producing material like movies and magazines. This kept up until the 70s, when the USA took the lead – a lead they haven’t given up since.
The evolution of pornography from the 70s and until today is an interesting one. Looking at porn in the 70s, it turns out pornographic movies were made for cinema, and shown in public theaters. Then came the 80s, bringing video and revolutionizing pornographic content. What followed was an increase in so-called “home production”, where everything was more intimate, shown from several angles, and resulted in pornographic content changing yet again. This change continued with DVDs entering the scene in the late 80s and early 90s, and subsequently dominating the market until around year 2000. After that the internet took over, resulting in pornography changing even more. “Gonzo porn” appeared, a kind of pornography that was rougher, more brutal, and contained more violence and aggression, exemplified through choking, beating, lack of consent, and front and center a dominant man with a submissive woman who was never asked if she wanted any of it. Several studies have shown that mainstream porn contains violence against women in 90% of scenes.
Use of pornography is pretty widespread. According to The Aim Project in England between 50-75% of men and women regularly use porn. Internationally, the porn industry has a turnover of around 97 billion dollars – more than Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Microsoft and Apple put together. This gives us an idea of the industry’s massive scale; there are 28 million internet searches about pornography daily.
So we see that porn is extensive and far-reaching, but what are the consequences? Is this good and healthy, or are there downsides to such a wide-spread use of pornography, and the fact the porn industry is defining what we see as sexuality?
We can confidently say we are born with a biological drive to breed, but our sexual practice or sexual behaviour is shaped by the culture we live in; norms and values affect us and our sexuality, as well as our arousal patterns after a while. Based on this we can reason that what is presented through pornography – especially the more brutal acts depicted – influences the sexuality of the viewers, particularly children and young people, who are usually in the phase where they learn the difference between right and wrong.
In other words, pornography can be meaningful, especially to developing children and young people. The Norwegian Media Authority published a report in May 2020 which looked into the media habits of children and adolescents. 49% of adolescents between the ages 13-18 reported watching porn, which is an increase from 2018, when the number was 42%. This means even though we discuss pornography publicly and point out the positive and negative effects it has, the percentage of young people watching porn is increasing. The number of young people who watch porn increases with age, and more boys than girls report having done so. Of those having watched pornography, 57% reported doing it before turning 13. In the age group 17-18, 77% of boys and 39% of girls reported having watched porn on the internet. The majority of adolescents found it exciting and interesting, but a not insignificant percentage did not – instead finding it nasty and a bit disgusting. Looking at the genders we see that girls don’t like pornography as much, with boys liking it more frequently.
In general we can say that watching pornography – the type called Gonzo porn from the year 2000 and upwards – shapes inner values, fantasies and what you imagine sex is. Save the Children published a study in May 2020 where they had asked children and adolescents about their thoughts on internet-related pornography. The study is called “A damaged picture of what sex is”. Is this affecting adolescents?
The study reports: adolescents say they have very easy access to pornography, both what we call soft porn and the more hardcore type closer to Gonzo porn. Adolescents use pornography to learn about what sex is – they report it as not accurately depicting reality, but still being a source of information on what happens during sex.
A survey in Australia questioned adolescents about their sexual behaviour, once in 2013 and a second time in 2015. In 2015 they found the percentage of adolescents who had performed anal sex had increased from 0% in 2013 to 10%. And you start to wonder what could have caused this; lessons at school? Talking to a neighbour? Watching pornography? It is definitely easy to stumble across porn containing both abuse and violence. A lot of people find it uncomfortable, and there are doubts about if girls understand that it does not reflect reality. Similarly, there are doubts about if boys manage to separate fantasy from reality, or if they conflate them and want to try out their fantasies in real life, only to find reality very different from the porn they watched online.
The adolescents themselves report both negative and positive effects from watching pornography. One aspect is the excitement, provocation and arousal. Another aspect is finding porn scary and disgusting, and thinking “wow, is that what it’s really like”. The adolescents do question if porn can give someone false expectations of what men’s and women’s sexuality is.
Children and young people are of the opinion pornography increases interest in sending and looking at nude photos. They also think it goes further – that watching porn leads to wanting to see more brutal sex. Someone who often watches porn will, after a while, not be satisfied by what used to be normal, instead craving more and more brutal porn. This is proven to be correct!
Adolescents think children should be shielded from pornography. They also seek adults who can talk about it openly and free of judgement, so they can explore what it actually is, what you can and can’t say. Another thing adolescents want are teachers and teaching arrangements to help them find good analyses or observations, and methods of evaluation and determining what is alright and what isn’t alright.
I have a personal story as a practical example, as I have visited quite a few grade 11-classes to speak to them about mental issues. One of those was a mixed-gender class with some tough footballer boys, and a few girls. We were talking about different kinds of emotions, and a tough guy in the back row shouted “horny”, to which I replied “THAT is a good feeling, we’ll talk about it after”. The class went silent. So I talked about being horny, about adolescents and sexuality, and pornography. The class had been rowdy before I started speaking about it, but when I asked them if they watched porn, what porn depicts, what are some good and bad things about porn? It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. These are important subjects for all adolescents, and may even affect the arousal patterns and sexuality for all of our society. Porn affects us all in many other ways, too, like how the porn industry is a big proponent of technological advancement; video, DVD, internet, high resolution, etc. were all invented in part because of the demand created by the industry.
Virtual Reality – where you put on special glasses to experience being in another world – is apparently being integrated into the porn industry as we speak. Some version of this already exists, but is now being developed further into a product where you can walk into virtual rooms and choose what happens. You feel like you are actually inside the room. The main point of this section of the talk is to establish how extensive pornography is. Adults watch porn and children and adolescents watch porn; porn affects us all to some degree.
The next subject I want to bring up is: does pornography contribute to sexual assaults and violations committed by children and young people against other children and young people? One answer is some types of porn under some conditions may be harmful to some people. When it comes to adolescents, those who have violated others report having seen more pornography. Comparing adolescents who have violated others sexually to those who have committed normal crimes – very broadly defined – finds that those who have committed sexual crimes have watched more pornography.
Exposure to the more brutal types of porn will, for some people, lead towards recreating things from the videos in real life. An Australian study asked 193 therapists world-wide who had worked with adolescents, especially boys, who had committed sexual assault, whether the adolescents had watched pornography, and if this was impactful to their crime in some way. The answer was yes. The adolescents had watched a lot of pornography, and over 60% had recreated an assault from mainstream porn in real life, either against someone random or a family member. The Aim Project points out how watching porn negatively affects adult men and adolescent boys with a masculine hostility. They like to control, humiliate and dominate women, and porn pushes them in the wrong direction. But you can also ask: is this the chicken or the egg? On behalf of us men, I’d like to point out how not all of us become sex offenders, but there is a small group with those bad attitudes. Pornography only exacerbates and validates those attitudes and values through its fantastical depictions of sex, which leads these people closer to committing a sexual assault.
Regularly watching porn containing hostile masculinity, impersonal sex and degradation of women may lead to becoming less aware of others’ feelings, experiences and boundaries. This kind of pornography is especially effective with vulnerable children, who might not have had a great childhood, or trusted adults, or had problems academically, and makes them more liable to violate others.
Now, we know those who violate others are a heterogenous group of people, but within it one of the largest groups is comprised of those with learning difficulties combined with other challenges and risk factors. It’s all about “where do I end and others begin”, and if someone has trouble understanding it already, expecting them to understand it in a sexual context is unreasonable. Especially so when they learn from the internet with no adult supervision, and no way to correct what they see and talk about.
The knowledge we have on pornography and its effect on sexuality and sexual violations are not causal explanations, but rather implied connections, which is an important distinction to make in this context. There lives a wise old woman named Gayle Ryan in Colorado, who said that adolescents who sexually violate others are confused about their own sexuality, and also have the potential to do so. I at least know one thing for sure: adolescents are confused by the porn industry, the internet and pornography. We can therefore speculate on how this leads some vulnerable individuals to being deluded, and then violate others more or less “knowingly”.
What do we do about this? The porn industry is staying put, yielding large sums and earning a lot of people good money. Adolescents watch porn increasingly, as shown by the study from the Norwegian Media Authority in May 2020. Maybe we should offer the adolescents – and children, too – more realistic depictions of sexuality which focus more on relations and emotions, consent and safe exploration.
Finally, we want to describe how the fantasies depicted by porn and other internet-related mediums aren’t representative of what normal sex between people who love each other, or meet under equal circumstances, is like. Our children and adolescents need to hear that. They need a description of realistic sexuality; what happens to them, what happens between people. We are in this case referring to consent, safe environments, the ability to say no at any time, and choosing freely to participate without any external pressure or expectations, like from the internet.
Morten Jensås Lundgren, Klinisk pedagog.