When the moaning stops: How p*rn is damaging young people
In July last year, Eureka Street editors asked me to join selected Australian thinkers and commentators – to contribute a long-form essay on a major social issue. I chose to write on the malign impact of pornography on a generation of young people, drawing from alarming stories girls were sharing with me in schools across the country, and from the global literature. The 6000 words are a lament, yes, but go beyond that, pointing to some hopeful signs and a better path forward for our young people. While originally subscriber access only, Eureka has kindly agreed to allow me to reprint the essay in full and make it available to a wider readership.
Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence.
The noise greets her the moment she walks into the classroom. The sound is guttural, a low, insistent moaning. It begins with one boy. Quickly others join in, enjoying her confusion and embarrassment when she understands the intended meaning. It is a daily sport. I first became aware of the phenomenon of sexual moaning in our institutions of learning when visiting a large public school in regional Queensland early in 2021. I asked the girls what messages they would like conveyed to their male peers.
‘Please ask the boys to stop making sexual moaning noises in class.’ This was new to me. ‘How many of you have heard boys make these noises?’ I asked. In unison, 300 girls raised their hands.
It wasn’t just in the classroom either, they told me. It was on the school bus. At weekend sport. At a party. In the line-up at Maccas. While walking down the street. Even at home, where an older brother had trained the younger in the art of sexual groaning. But this community was not an outlier.
From then on, I asked every female student in every school I was able to enter in the COVID-disrupted year that followed if they had been similarly confronted. ‘Yes, of course we hear these noises.’ ‘It’s normal.’ ‘We thought we just had to put up with it.’ They think this practice of boys simulating the noise of orgasm at any female in their midst is normal. Not unusual, not rare, not out of the ordinary, but normal.
I added ‘Please ask boys to stop making sexual moaning noises’ to other messages girls routinely asked me to relay, including:
Please ask the boys to stop telling us about the porn they watched last night. Please ask the boys to stop ranking us according to the bodies of porn stars. Please ask the boys to stop making jokes about our bodies. Please ask the boys to stop rubbing up against us in the corridors. Please ask the boys to stop sending us dick pics. Please ask the boys to stop pressuring us for nudes.
These everyday sexual affronts tell us a great deal about how entrenched the objectification of girls is. They also tell us how widespread is the callousing of our young men, the erosion of empathy, the decay of civil behaviour, and the social arson caused by mass pornography saturation.
‘These everyday sexual affronts tell us a great deal about how entrenched the objectification of girls is.’
At a NSW Christian School just before the June 2021 lockdown, girls said boys were filming themselves simulating masturbation using hand sanitiser bottles.
At a Perth public school, girls arrived on their first day back after lockdown to be greeted with photocopies of boys’ penises taped to their lockers. And the most recent story, from a regional NSW public school: boys were masturbating on the school bus in front of girls.
Choking, bruising, bondage, whipping, rape-play: p*rn-driven expectations
Exposure to pornography has been linked to an increase in in sexually aggressive behaviour and adolescent dating violence. Boys wanting to enact the signature acts of pornography on girls has also become more common. More young men expect facials (ejaculation on the face), anal, and oral sex. Debby Herbenick, a leading sex researcher at Indiana University, advises students, ‘If you’re with somebody for the first time, don’t choke them, don’t ejaculate on their face, don’t try to have anal sex with them. These are all things that are just unlikely to go over well.’
More girls tell me boys expect to choke them: ‘He put his hands around my neck without even asking.’ Young women experience fear and some suffer injuries after young men carry out porn-inspired sex acts on them, including anal sex and strangulation. Strangulation is not ‘kink’; it is a red flag for homicide and should be treated as such.
A UK study found that girls were being coerced into anal sex they didn’t want and found painful. The main reason they gave for engaging in the act was that boys ‘wanted to copy what they saw in pornography’.
‘If I have a girlfriend, do I need to strangle her when I have sex with her?’ queried a boy, as recorded in a 2016 report by UK Labour MP Sarah Champion titled Dare2Care: national action plan for preventing child abuse and violence in teenage relationships.
Allison Pearson wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald about a conversation she had over dinner: ‘A GP, let’s call her Sue, said: “I’m afraid things are much worse than people suspect.” In recent years, Sue had treated growing numbers of teenage girls with internal injuries caused by frequent anal sex; not, as Sue found out, because they wanted to, or because they enjoyed it, but because a boy expected them to.’
And yet Teen Vogue has published an anal sex guide for teens, further normalising the practice.
These porn-inspired behaviours spill over into TikTok. ‘KinkTok’, a popular genre within TikTok, has 6.2 billion views on a platform where more than 30 per cent of users are minors. There you will find teens promoting choking, whipping, bondage, sadism and submission. A 15-year-old is depicted fantasising about being choked. Many girls present themselves covered in bruises from rough sex. Growing in popularity is the ‘consensual/non-consensual’ (con-non-con) genre, also known as ‘rape play’.
Our Watch, Australia’s peak body addressing violence against women, notes the concerns of young people themselves in their background paper Pornography, young people, and preventing violence against women, including: ‘that pornography could create uncertainty and demands around sexual relationships from their male peers and partners’ and ‘that young men may pressure young girls to perform unwanted, degrading, painful or violating sexual acts that they have seen in pornography’. As one 17-year-old female observed: ‘I am worried about the effect porn has on boys my age i.e. the expectations they will place on me and other women as a result of viewing porn.’
Girls are expected to provide sex acts for tokens of affection. Asked, ‘How do you know a guy likes you?’, a Year 8 female student replied: ‘He still wants to talk to you after you suck him off.’ A male high school student said to a girl: ‘If you suck my dick I’ll give you a kiss.’
Young women are saying yes when they mean no — what Katherine Kersten in the Star Tribune describes as ‘the default of the yes’. They don’t want to appear inexperienced or unwilling or anything other than ‘sex positive’, even when it means compliance with degrading acts that leave them feeling cold and used.
The culture around young women tells them that depersonalised, hurtful sex is actually hot and this is what empowerment looks like, so you really should be up for it and if you’re not, there is something wrong with you.
The ubiquity of porn also leads to girls being classified based on how they compare, which is taking a toll on their mental health. UK author, journalist and mental health advocate Rachel Kelly writes:
While both sexes have ready access to pornography, girls tend to be more objectified by it. Studies suggest that porn use can reduce the capacity for intimacy, feed body shame or encourage coercion into unwanted sexual acts. According to [David] James [deputy head of Lady Eleanor Holles, a private girls’ school in south-west London], ‘Girls are objectified and classified more quickly and publicly than ever before.’
The behaviours described should not surprise us. They are the inevitable outcome of a generation of young people having grown up alongside the global commodification of sexuality: coming-of-age in a society in which the sex industry, harnessed to aggressive consumerism, has popularised the selling of female flesh.
P*rn’s grooming starts young
Parents and carers share with me distressing stories that demonstrate the gangrenous impact of porn on children, and how it influences children’s ideas of sexuality. One mother writes a harrowing account about how her child’s life unravelled after being exposed to porn from the age of eight. I’m told of children inappropriately touching other children, using sexual language, playing ‘sex games’, requesting sexual favours:
‘My 10-year-old granddaughter was approached by a boy while waiting for the school bus and asked, “do you do arse?”’
‘My eight-year-old found a note in her school bag which read, “Ready for sex?”’
‘An eight-year-old boy told my eight-year-old girl he wanted to “f**k you hard”’
‘A 10 year-old boy told my 10-year-old daughter that he was going to break in and rape her.’
‘My daughter was sexually assaulted at her primary school, aged six, in a four-month campaign of violence by six boys in her class and the year above. They called her a bitch, hit, punched, kicked and pushed her over as well as touching her genitals to frighten her. The school called it rough play — I wonder where all the men got the idea that sexist terrorism was play?’
In a chilling submission to the 2016 Senate Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the internet, the late Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs AO drew links between pornography and child sexual abuse, paedophilia and child-on-child sexual abuse. She cites evidence of a four-year-old boy requiring a chaperone to stop him assaulting other children in ‘sex games’ at a South Australian kindergarten, a six-year-old boy who forced oral sex on boys in the school cubbyhouse, and a group of boys who followed a five-year-old girl into the toilets, held her down and urinated on her in a ‘golden shower’.
Heidi Olsen, a US sexual assault nurse at a children’s hospital in Kansas City, echoes Professor Briggs’ findings regarding child-on-child sexual abuse. The most common group of perpetrators of sexual assaults that she sees is children aged 11 to 15 years old. ‘These kids aren’t even old enough to drive. Yet they are committing the most sexual assaults in our region.’
When Olsen looked through past records, she found hundreds of child sexual assaults that had been perpetrated by another child. She notes that pornography was often the main or only factor that influenced a child to act out in a sexually harmful way.
‘To compound the issue,’ she writes, ‘we live in a culture that continuously normalises pornography and refuses to acknowledge the ugly truth that it fuels sexual assault and rape culture … I see kids who think that anal and oral sex are normal before you’ve even gone through puberty. I come face-to-face with stories about kids who do not listen when a victim repeatedly tells them “No!” Why? Because they’ve seen the violence, the strangulation, the slapping, the name-calling of women a thousand times in pornography and they think that it is “normal”.’
The situation is similar in the UK, according to the findings of a study conducted at Middlesex University: the extensive survey of 11–16-year-olds regarding online pornography found that some of the children’s approach to sex was informed by pornographic scenes, with 21 per cent of the 11- to 12-year-olds and 39 per cent of the 13- to 14-year-olds saying they wanted to emulate the behaviour they had seen.
‘This mass, industrial-level grooming of our young is causing lasting damage to their social and sexual development and leading to even more women and girls being viewed as less human.’
A 13-year-old boy quoted in the report said: ‘One of my friends has started treating women like he sees on the videos – not major – just a slap here or there.’ And a girl the same age observed: ‘It can make a boy not look for love, just look for sex, and it can pressure us girls to act and look and behave in a certain way before we might be ready for it.’
And in this Australian qualitative study, workers on the frontline observed a strong link between pornography and harmful sexual behaviour in children: ‘from a young age they’ve accessed pornography … and they’re exposed to this idea that sex and aggression [are] linked and … that you don’t necessarily need consent, and that “no” might mean “try harder”.’
This mass, industrial-level grooming of our young is causing lasting damage to their social and sexual development and leading to even more women and girls being viewed as ‘less human’ and ‘more object’; undoubtedly, it will see more reports of sexually motivated crimes involving young men.
Breeding a generation of sociopaths: women as sex objects, sexual playthings, and rape myth acceptance
Pornography inhibits men from integrating empathy with their sexuality, resulting in the socialisation of a generation of sexual sociopaths. – Benjamin Nolot
Terry Schilling observed in First Things that ‘a 13-year-old with a smartphone in 2019 has greater access to pornography than the most depraved deviant could have dreamed possible two decades ago.’
The 2020 Our Watch report Pornography, young people, and preventing violence against women highlights frequent depictions of violence and stereotypical representations of men and women in pornography:
Studies have highlighted the high frequency of specific violent behaviours, largely directed at women, including gagging and verbally abusive language, and the more generally prevalent portrayal of male dominance and female submission … research suggests greater pornography use is associated with less progressive attitudes about gender roles, a belief that women are sex objects, and rape myth acceptance.
An alarming account from the frontlines was relayed to me by Di McLeod, Director of the Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence:
In the past few years, we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender. With offenders not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, believing women are ‘up for it’ 24/7, ascribing to the myth that ‘no means yes and yes means anal,’ oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent.
Research shows a clear difference between adolescent male sex offenders and their non-offending peers: early exposure to porn. A meta-analysis involving 59 studies and 17,000 adolescents found that those who offended were significantly more likely to have had early exposure to pornography. And a study of 4564 young people aged 14 to 17 in five European countries found a significant association between boys’ regular viewing of pornography and perpetration of sexual abuse and coercion.
The number of sexual offences recorded in the Republic of Ireland has almost doubled since 2003, with most of this increase occurring in the past three years. In 2016, one in five rapes in Ireland was committed by a juvenile. Authorities are linking the increase in sexual violence to porn consumption. Eileen Finnegan is the clinical director of One in Four, a national organisation counselling sex crime victims and also treating offenders, all of whom had begun offending by 10 or 11 years of age. They developed what Finnegan calls ‘a deviant interest’ in sexual violence. ‘The escalation is astonishing,’ she says of the rise of rape porn and its access by children.
The long-term impacts of porn-as-sexual-training-wheels have been occupying my mind. The boy who makes sexual moaning noises at girls and doesn’t get pulled up for it. The boy who sexually harasses them in the school yard and never gets called out. The boy who shares his cache of female student nudes (many underage) and is rewarded with the back slapping of his mates. The entitled boy, never penalised — in fact enabled and covered for by apologists everywhere — is then let loose upon the world. Perhaps he ends up in law enforcement as a police officer or judge. If he has absorbed the rape myth that no means yes, and then ends up presiding over a rape trial, how will he judge fairly? Is this the reason we see over and over suspended sentences, community service orders, and minimal sentences applied to men who assault women and girls and create, consume and distribute child sexploitation material?
I fear we have allowed a diminishing of the seriousness of these crimes — and a significant reason is because porn conditioning transforms the criminal debasing of the female body into extreme pleasure.
Talk dirty: The pornification of consent education
Millions in Federal Government funding is being thrown at the development of consent and ‘respectful relationships’ programs. Of course, we are all desperate for something to be done following Chanel Contos’s collection of 6,756 testimonials of sexual assault, unwanted sex, and coercion shared by female students and the subsequent campaign to ‘Teach us Consent’.
But early indications are that a number of the emerging groups ‘educating’ on these issues will only make matters worse. One prominent group shared on Instagram its advice to purchase a ‘sex worker’ to practice on, experiment with sex toys and ‘sexual furniture’, role play, swinging, group sex, sexting (‘fun’) and ‘talking dirty’ during sex.
A large all-male troupe (claiming to “empower boys to become great men”) engaged a male porn performer – in an industry renowned for eroticising the denial of consent – to make a video for boys on consent.
Links to his pages (which include the performer on porn sets) were provided. Making its way around boy schools, including Catholic schools, this group also features a presenter who photographs himself in porn-style poses on his Instagram, semi-naked, lying face down on a bed with his bum exposed, fantasising about being watched through his window and taking selfies in bulging high cut jocks with the wording ‘delivery for I.C. Wiener??’
How does promoting a male porn performer, providing links to pages which will take boys to porn, and providing links to a presenter’s Instagram account where he poses semi-naked and fantasising about voyeurs peeking through his window ‘provide boys with the critical emotional and social skills they need to lead flourishing lives for themselves, their relationships and their communities?’
And in Victoria, primary school children are being taught how to engaging in sexting ‘safely’ and to ask permission before sending other children sexually explicit images.
In a March 2022 tweet, Professor Alan McKee, a pro-porn academic, asked ‘What’s the best porn for young people?’ His advice is found on the Sex School hub, which offers ‘a carefully curated selection of independent porn films that are worth watching’, along with tutorials on BDSM, ‘Squirting’ and porn. While the site is for supposedly for over-18’s, Sex School hub is easily accessible to any student. McKee talks about ‘healthy’ or ‘ethical’ porn. But there is no way to make porn ‘ethical’ or ‘feminist’, as my colleague Caitlin Roper explains.
We are teaching young people how to avail themselves of the sex industry, generate their own porn and share it, tie each other up, inflict pain, consume porn and talk dirty as pleasurable constituent elements of enjoying sexuality.
There’s no sweet talk, no love letters (texts), no sensual touching, no intimate whispering. No slow burn, no gradual unfolding, no emotional investment, no beauty, no transcendence.
The young man who has never known the sweetness of holding the hand of a girl he likes is instead trained to use his hands to whip her, to wrap around her neck, to put her own hands in handcuffs. The exquisite sensation of the first brush of one hand against another is replaced with detached cruelty. Girls are reduced to porn fantasy sex props and treated with sexualised contempt. They are expected to acquiesce to cultural expectations formed by pornography — and when they do, it’s called ‘consent’.
If boys don’t experience girls as human, if they are socialised by what I have elsewhere labelled ‘the world’s largest department of education’ to be without inhibition and predatory in their sexual behaviours, how does even the best consent education program stand a chance?
And, given this, how do they learn about the meaning, purpose, and ethics of sex? As Angela Franks writes: ‘Without a sense of a true good in relationships we don’t know to what we should consent.’
Away from intimacy and tenderness
In their 2013 paper ‘Pornography and the male sexual script’, Chyng Sun and colleagues describe the nature of most porn: ‘with online mainstream pornography overwhelmingly centered on acts of violence and degradation toward women, the sexual behaviours exemplified in pornography skew away from intimacy and tenderness and typify patriarchal constructions of masculinity and femininity.’
What does it mean to skew most of a generation away from intimacy and tenderness and towards a woman-as-masturbatory-aid model? It means any woman is up for grabs, the subject of casual dehumanisation by men indoctrinated with a power-over-pornographic-vision of entitlement. And it makes consent a mere hurdle to get over. As Emma Pitman observed in a 2018 essay in Meanjin:
The prioritising of dominance means that these men are always taking, but never receiving; they are always exerting, but never engaging. Mutuality is not welcome. At worse, consent is not only irrelevant, but actually runs counter to their objective. Uncurbed entitlement precludes them from the emotional intimacy that comes from shared vulnerability. Objectification thrives where empathy is lacking; the two cannot comfortably co-exist.
Because of porn-created malformed desires, ejaculation trumps (fun-killing) empathy every time. This leaching of empathy leads to the trivialising of relationships, to disposable connections, and to the development of a class of automatons robbed of loving intimate experiences, including the incomparable sensuality of skin-on-skin contact. Preferring techno seclusion with inanimate screens, they become aroused when walking to a room and seeing their laptop open and always ready. Says Gabe Deem, activist at Reboot Nation:
When we become sexually aroused or have a sexual thought, we crave a screen, we crave novelty, we crave a shock, something new, something we can keep clicking on. But when we’re with a real partner, you see her once, there’s no novelty, there’s nothing new, and your body hasn’t been trained for skin-on-skin contact, it’s been trained for hand-on-keyboard contact.
I explore the impact on real-world partners in my forthcoming book, He Chose Porn Over Me: Women Harmed By Men Who Use Porn, published by Spinifex Press this month. From the introduction:
The women — and, for those who were mothers, their children — were collateral damage in their partner’s insatiable greed for porn. Their stories tell of the crushing of intimacy. Sex became mechanical. ‘We only ever had porn style sex, we never made love,’ writes Maggie. Respect, connection, and love — the bindings that keep a relationship intact — unravelled. Porn colonised their union, their families and homes, and seeped into every aspect of their lives, leaving women rejected and scarred and knowing they were being compared to other women and would never match up.
The 25 personal accounts painfully illustrate Robert Jensen’s critique in his book The End of Patriarchy: ‘If we look honestly at pornography, we see a world in which empathy and compassion — the emotions that make stable, decent human communities possible — are overwhelmed by a self-centered, emotionally detached pleasure-seeking.’
The time is surely overdue for a cultural reckoning.
It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them. – Thomas Merton
How do we reverse this loss? How do we rescue humanity’s soul from this poisonous pornified ecosystem, resist atomisation, build healthy human bonds and create a society in which all can flourish?
The welfare of the community must come before vested interests
I hope this essay has made it clear that we cannot leave the sexual formation of the young in the hands of the global pornography industry. It is an unfair battle, with struggling parents pitched against the might of a multi-billion-dollar industry. The porn industry must be reined in.
Fortunately, MindGeek, parent company of PornHub, was hauled before the Canadian Parliament’s ethics committee last year to account for allowing trafficking, rape videos, non-consensual image sharing and content involving minors to be posted on its platform. Moves are afoot for criminal investigations and multiple civil lawsuits are being filed by victims. As a result of a global campaign, Mastercard stopped processing Pornhub transactions.
‘We have an entire generation exposed to this material really in the absence of any government or industry regulation.’
We need government regulation. As Professor Michael Salter from the University of NSW has said: ‘It is well past time we had a serious conversation about regulation around adult content; we have age verification for online gambling sites — there’s no reason why this should not be applied to adult content sites as well. Basically, we have an entire generation exposed to this material really in the absence of any government or industry regulation.’
The Federal Government in 2021 committed to proof-of-age protections as one obstacle in the way of children accessing porn sites. It instructed the eSafety Commission to come up with a roadmap for the rollout of an age-verification system. The Commission is to report by the end of the year. The new government must not allow this process to be derailed by vested interests who desire zero regulation of the internet. Those selling access to pornography will always oppose legislation that in any way limits it.
Researchers Keen, France and Kramer note that neoliberal policies that favour the interests of corporate players ‘may be too optimistic, if not naïve’. Australian and UK internet service provider companies have resisted regulatory practices, as this conflicts with their corporate objective to ‘sell access’; restrictive policies that would limit children’s Internet use would ultimately affect their bottom lines.
Deradicalising boys and a porn-critical insurgency
Men and boys are experiencing ‘moral injury’ caused by participation in gravely unethical behaviour. My colleague James (not his real name), a research scientist at Oxford, has written profoundly about the need to deradicalise boys from porn. After being exposed to porn aged 11 and following decades of consumption, he ‘stopped seeing women as human beings’. Immersion in dehumanising online subcultures resulted in ‘a radicalisation behind laptop screens and smartphones that preaches the objectification, dehumanisation and hatred of women and normalises sexual harassment, rape and child abuse.’
James said he needed to rebuild his sense of morality in order to ‘return to thinking that abuse is wrong and should be condemned and stopped, not something you masturbate to. I had to re-learn empathy. I had to start seeing women as human beings again and not just living sex dolls.’
Growing numbers of men like James are speaking out against porn’s toxic scripts. My colleague Daniel Principe this year launched a popular interview series Reimagining Masculinity, featuring men fighting porn culture globally. This is a sign of hope.
Another sign of hope is that young people themselves express a desire for something better. They know this culture is making them sick, leading to disharmony and wounding, a hatred of self and hatred of life. They are seeking emotional and community connections. I see more teen girls, recognising the damage the porn experiment has inflicted on them, now refusing to play its game. They are acting personally and politically.
A young woman, Tylor Jean, tweeted last year: ‘Why am I supposed to empower myself as a girl by “reclaiming” everything misogynistic and degrading and pornified … I’d rather “reclaim” my rightful dignity, and humanity IMAO omg’
And more young women are contacting me to say: We stood up for ourselves! We called the boys out for moaning at us and now they’ve stopped doing it!
Growing numbers of the new generation are signing up to activist movements campaigning against porn and rape culture, including Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation, the movement I founded with friends more than a decade ago. It is wonderful to witness. Where we, the adults, have failed them, perhaps it is they who will turn this mess around.
Melinda Tankard Reist is a writer, speaker and Movement Director of Collective Shout. Her seventh book, He Chose Porn Over Me is available now.
 Benjamin Nolot is an American filmmaker and founder of Exodus Cry, a Christian social activist group focussed on the issue of human trafficking
 See also Sophie Shead (13 Apr 2022), ‘Sexual assault is not a crime of ignorance: Why consent education does not address the real problem’ https://www.abc.net.au/religion/sophie-shead-sexual-assault-is-not-a-crime-of-ignorance/13838672, and Emma Wood (16 Mar 2021), ‘The significance of sex — can it be recovered through consent alone?’ https://www.abc.net.au/religion/consent-and-the-sex-dilemma/13253782
 See alsoEmma Wood (16 Mar 2021), ‘The significance of sex – can it be recovered through consent alone?’ https://www.abc.net.au/religion/consent-and-the-sex-dilemma/13253782
 Robert Jensen (2017), The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. Spinifex Press, p 161.