Monday 19 August 2019

Sex, violence and misogyny: We need to talk to our children about porn

What have we done to our teenagers by giving them the means to watch extreme pornography? John Meagher explores the dark smartphone habit no parent wants to contemplate

Age of the smartphone: porn dependence among young men is rapidly growing. Picture posed
Age of the smartphone: porn dependence among young men is rapidly growing. Picture posed
Implications: child psychologist Joanna Fortune. Photo by Ronan Lang
Psychotherapist: Stella O’Malley says teenage boys’ sexual expectations are often based on what they see in porn

Joanna Fortune ponders the question for a moment. "I cannot remember," she says, "the last time I met a teenager who hadn't watched pornography."

The child and family psychotherapist says it was different just 10 years ago. "Even as recently as that, I would have been able to count on the fingers of one hand the number of teens who said they watched pornography.

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"What's changed," she adds, "is the access. They're no longer dependent on the computer at home and how restrictive that could be.

"They've all got smartphones and tablets now, and once you give a child a Wi-Fi-enabled device, you have to be aware that there is a huge world of pornography just waiting for them to find. And they're finding it - deliberately or not." And children are finding it difficult to look the other way.

When Fortune started her Dublin-based practice, Solamh, in 2010, smartphones were in their infancy. Now, they're everywhere.

It's become customary for many parents to simply hand their primary school-going children a phone or tablet computer.

"Young children are using pornography as a means of sex education," Fortune says. "They're not internalising that this is a performance, it's not real sex - it's acting. It's not how sex is between people.

"Their brains are not fully developed, yet they're seeing more and more hardcore pornography. They're not able to process it. And it can have far-reaching implications for them."

Implications: child psychologist Joanna Fortune. Photo by Ronan Lang
Implications: child psychologist Joanna Fortune. Photo by Ronan Lang

Psychotherapist Stella O'Malley hopes for a national conversation about pornography.

"It needs to happen," she says, "because our children are viewing the most graphic of content and we can't just look the other way.

"[As a society] we thought we were all so open, but we didn't realise the darkness that was there. This is not just ordinary porn. There's a huge amount of pain and misogyny. Unethical porn is so degrading to women - it's about hurting them."

Much like Joanna Fortune's experience, O'Malley says pornography has only become an all-consuming issue for her teenage clients this decade.

'Appalled by themselves'

"My teenage boy clients are sort of appalled by themselves," she says.

Psychotherapist: Stella O’Malley says teenage boys’ sexual expectations are often based on what they see in porn
Psychotherapist: Stella O’Malley says teenage boys’ sexual expectations are often based on what they see in porn

"They've been lured into seeing porn they never intended to see. They probably wanted to see boobs, or maybe a bit of sex, but then they end up watching a rape scene. It's being inflicted on them and they're half turned-on, half revolted.

"Boys are being lured into a weird space about sex and it's sort of happened under the radar for the past few years.

"I'd have girls say to me that if they are with a lad, he will often have expectations that came straight from pornography. There's no, 'Can we have anal sex?' The boys are just whacking it in - there's no lubrication or anything. And these are young girls."

O'Malley believes there is a natural progression to the world of hardcore pornography for young boys.

"They go from video games, to sexualised video games, to regular pornography and then to hardcore, extreme porn. It's a straight line - they're all interconnected."

She believes it is essential that parents have conversations with their children about pornography.

"My children are 11 and nine, and I've locked access for them to certain material," she says. "Parents need to get tough. They need to talk to other parents, too. Limiting access is essential. I'm 44 and my generation wasn't exposed to anything like that as a child."

Belfast-based Marcella Leonard is one of the UK and Ireland's leading experts on teenage perpetrators of serious crime.

She is adamant pornography plays a part. "There's a lot of sexual violence in that world," she says.

"There's a culture of aggression - and you've got more and more of our young people who are struggling to interact with their peers. They're becoming more isolated, spending increasingly longer periods on their phones and when they have unfiltered access to the internet, they can very easily come across violent and distressing content, much of it sexualised.

"The Dark Web has now become available on mobile. Up to recently, you could only get it on your desktop and laptop, but now, with so any children in possessions of phones, this very dark place is accessible to them."

Extreme content

Leonard has noticed that many young sexual offenders have become fixated on pornography.

"If they watch extreme content, they wouldn't have just downloaded it straight away. They would likely have watched pornography for months or years and had a need for more extreme material. A 13-year-old boy shouldn't need any stimulus, so why would they need violence to achieve arousal?"

When she assesses a teenage boy about his criminal behaviour, she looks at multiple factors, but these would include his consumption of pornography.

"What's his life been like up to then? What has he been exposed to? You'd look at his school - has he been the victim of a bully? Has he come from a neglectful home? Has he been exposed to domestic violence? We'd be trying to eliminate the possible reasons. At that point, we'd look at pornography - the quantity and nature of what he has been watching online."

Eileen Finnegan is the clinical director of One in Four, the charity that helps victims of sexual violence. She also works in the rehabilitation of sexual offenders.

"I remember being at a conference in Edinburgh five or six years ago and it was about young people and how they were being sexually educated online. I came back to my office in Dublin and said to my colleagues, 'Oh my God, we have no idea what's coming down the line. It was really scary."

That frightening vista has already arrived, she says.

"I would urge parents to be mindful of what their children are viewing online. If you let your child go to a playground, you'd tell them, 'Don't go on this, don't go on that.' But when you give a child a phone, the same conversation just doesn't happen. Maybe the parent thinks, 'My child wouldn't look at pornography.' But they just can't be sure.

Violent video games

"The truth is, young people have access to graphic, horrific sexual material that can be very violent in nature. Of course, not everybody who looks at that sort of content on the internet, or plays violent video games, goes off and acts on it. But, by the same token, what they're watching can influence them, especially if they can't process just what they're seeing. There's no such thing as context in pornography - raping somebody is presented as normal."

Finnegan says limiting children's access to pornography has become far more difficult since the proliferation of smartphones.

"It's easier for children to hide what they've been doing online than if they were drinking or smoking. I have huge empathy for families because it's not easy to constantly be aware of what their children are up to, but from a child protection point of view, they need to know. They have to have those conversations."

Globally, pornographic consumption is on a sharp increase and there's little reason to doubt that it's any different in Ireland. According to alexa.com, which keeps track of traffic to the world's most popular websites, the Canadian porn aggregator site, Pornhub, is the largest. It had more visitors than LinkedIn last year and was ranked the 25th largest site in the world - a jump of 26 places on the previous year.

The UK journalist Jon Ronson, whose podcast series The Butterfly Effect looked at the impact of Pornhub on the pornographic industry, has noted that porn dependence among young people is rapidly growing.

He has pointed out that there has been a 1,000pc increase in erectile dysfunction among teenage boys in the past 10 years, according to a US study.

For one Dublin-based counsellor who works with troubled teenage boys, pornography has been a warping game changer.

"It's destroying kids," he says. "And that's not being melodramatic.

"Porn always existed, but its sheer accessibility today makes it deadly. I see boys who are looking at pornography every spare hour they can. They've become so dependent, they're even sneakily looking at their phones in the classroom.

"Then, I'd see young lads in their early 20s, who cannot have a functioning sex life with their girlfriend or boyfriend because they've become so conditioned to ejaculating after really long periods of masturbation.

"In fact, it's not an exaggeration to say, there's a cohort of young men who are unable to manually satisfy themselves without looking at pornography.

"And many of them can't stay in a relationship. They're so used to seeing women as objects that they can't rationalise what normal sex is like. So, to act out their thrills, they're having to pay for sex."

The notion of porn addiction may have raised quizzical eyebrows in the past, but not any more.

One of the country's leading addiction facilities, the Rutland Centre in Dublin, offers specialist counselling for those who cannot shake the habit.

Cyber security expert Dr Mary Aiken was a key campaigner for having the digital age of consent set to 16 years of age rather than 13, as proposed by the Government.

She believes that children under 14 should not have a smartphone.

"They could have basic phones to contact their parents and friends," she says.

"They don't need the sort of ready access to the net that so many of them are getting now. There's so much harmful material that they can access, and all kinds of pornography can be viewed in a matter of seconds."

Meanwhile, an internet safety consultant, who does not wish to be named due to "the sort of abuse I get from the pro-gaming lobby whenever I put my head above the parapet", says it is difficult to categorically say whether or not exposure to violent pornography and other online material can lead to crime.

Taboo topic

"It's a huge area of debate, but look at what happened when that gamer went rogue and killed people at a gaming conference [in Jacksonville, Florida last year]," according to the consultant.

"The point at which people in the conference knew that something was going wrong was when a red dot appeared on the chest just before somebody got shot. The killer had bought a gun and modified it to put a red laser on it, and he hunted his prey exactly as you would in a first-person shooter game.

"There have been studies to show that impressionable people, including children, act out what they're seeing others do.

Look at the landmark 'Bobo doll' study from [American psychologist] Albert Bandura [officially known as the Social Learning Theory of Aggression].

He had created this plastic, blow-up doll and he showed children a film of adults either beating it or being kind to it and when they let the children into the room with the doll, they acted out exactly what they had seen."

Joanna Fortune believes pornography should not be swept under the carpet at schools and should form part of any sex education programme. It shouldn't be treated as "a taboo topic to be danced around".

And, she says, that goes for parents as well as teachers.

But it's not just pornography that needs to be talked about head on, she argues, but empathy, too.

"There's no empathy in pornography," she says. "It's just instant gratification and objectification. The woman isn't even seen as a person.

"The pros of the internet far outweigh the cons, but it can make us less empathetic and we really have to have that conversation with our children. Before it's too late."

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