The danger when porn becomes sex ed

Question: Is your teenage son or daughter watching pornography online? Answer: Yes, almost certainly.

As new figures show 93 per cent of boys and 61 per cent of girls aged 13 to 16 are exposed to porn online, experts are raising the alarm over its impact on young people.

Young women, according to one Melbourne doctor, are being pressured into trying the sexual activities that both sexes are watching on their screens. And many young men are describing porn as "their sex ed".

Online porn is promoting among young people an unrealistic view of sex.

Online porn is promoting among young people an unrealistic view of sex. Photo: Rodger Cummins

"What really worries me is I'm seeing a lot more young women having sexual pain due to unaroused sex and thinking there is something wrong with them because things like hard, aggressive sex, anal sex, do not appeal," says Dr Anita Elias, a specialist in sexual medicine for around 20 years.

To her male patients she says: "It's not real, it's like a movie, like James Bond. You might like Bond movies but you wouldn't jump out of a helicopter without a parachute".

Researcher Maree Crabbe​, who has interviewed more than 70 teenagers as well as doctors, researchers and others in the field, says there is clear evidence of teenage boys demanding or expecting porn's so-called signature practices including deep throating​ (pushing the penis far into the throat), anal sex and ejaculating onto faces and bodies.

With this forming the new reality for teenagers, the traditional sex education taught in schools seems archaic and irrelevant.

Alice, 17, said while she knew some boys watched porn, no one spoke openly about it. She said it should be included in sex ed but kids generally didn't pay much attention to that.

"It's (sex ed) pretty unrealistic and kids mainly don't listen," she said.

Brandon, 23, who watched online porn for the first time at about 15, says it was often the only reference point for people when they started having sex because school sex ed gave so little information about what to expect.

"I remember losing my virginity and there's really no way to know that you're doing the right thing. Especially for me, because sex ed only deals with straight men. It takes a while to work out that you don't have to be aggressive, you don't have to be a porn star."

"But it's not so much about porn, it's about education. People are going to be watching porn, that's how the internet works, and they're going to be doing it at a younger age. But we need to educate young people about what they're seeing."

Jessica, now 24, clearly recalls the first time she saw online porn. The teacher had walked out of her year nine class and one of the boys opened up his laptop and started playing "some pretty harrowing stuff".

"I was disgusted, I thought, 'Oh my god that's a woman'. I think most of the girls felt the same but nobody said anything. Some of the guys were laughing."

Jessica says it is recognised in her circle that most of the men watch at least some porn online, but it's not openly discussed. She​ has been in a relationship for some time and has never been pressured to do anything she is uncomfortable with, but she worries about this happening if she was dating again.

"It feels like (porn) would create this unrealistic idea of, 'OK, this is sex and this is what women want from sex'."

She was among many who spoke to Fairfax Media who said pornography should be discussed in schools.

The State Government last week announced that pornography and sexting​, including the impact of online porn on teenagers and young adults, would be included in new curriculum aimed at countering violence against women. The new subject will be introduced at a year 10 level.

Dr Megan Lim, Head of Sexual Health and Young People Research at the Burnet Institute, sounds a note of caution: young people urgently needed to know about the potential impact of pornography on them and their peers, but tackling this in sex education would be very challenging.

"We need to be educating young people about the things in porn that are fake and [to let them know] that porn is not a teaching tool."

Lim recently interviewed 1000 young people (aged 15 to 29) about pornography and found that those who watch porn at a young age are more likely to be sexually active at a younger age. People who watch porn more often are also more likely to engage in some riskier sexual practices such as having casual sexual partners and anal sex.

The study found that the average age of first seeing porn was 13 years old for men and 16 years old for women.

Crabbe​ says with porn now "the most prominent form of sex education for many teenagers" it was wrong and naive​ to confuse the kind of porn that most teenagers are viewing online with milder examples of erotica.

"They're learning things about bodies, about sexual health, about pleasure, about consent, or the absence of it. Porn is shaping young people's sexual understanding."

Crabbe says the teenage boys she has interviewed frequently talk about having initiated some of the things they have seen in porn, and many teenage girls "talked again and again about really struggling" with this pressure.

Particularly disturbing was the amount of aggression and violence in porn, with over 80 per cent including aggression directed at women. Ms Crabbe​ said this gave young men and women very confusing messages.

"In porn, almost every incident of aggression is met with a pleasured response. The message to the viewer is that girls and women like it when men gag them, choke them, slap them. It doesn't necessarily look like aggression when you see a woman smiling when she's being gagged and penetrated aggressively by multiple men."

Researchers also raised concerns about young people who watched porn online becoming desensitised to what they saw and watching more and more extreme material.

In a recent study at the University of Sydney, researcher Dr Gomathi​ Sitharthan​, found that over time some people's viewing habits escalated to involve more extreme and even illegal material.

 Sitharthan's​ work also found that for young people who watchporn excessively the consequences included skipping school, grades going down, not engaging in social and sporting activities, secretive behaviour and moodiness, and forming unrealistic expectations when interacting with the opposite sex.

"We have seen some young adults who seem to think it's OK to approach a girl and expect she will have sex with them immediately, says Dr Sitharthan​. "This is what happens in porn movies where there is limited 'meaningful dialogue' and all action starts as soon as people meet for the first time."


As originally published on The Age website: 


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