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Worldcrunch

The Digital-Sexual Revolution: Measuring The Real Effects Of Internet Porn

Article illustrative image Partner logo The way to sexual depravity?

A real-life experiment is playing out in front of computer screens all over the world, as millions of people regularly consume porn. Scientists, who have begun to study the potential consequences, are divided.

One person to have addressed the issue very openly is advertising maven Cindy Gallop. In 2009, during a TED conference in Monterrey, California, 49-year-old Gallop said she often dated men in their 20s.

"And when I date younger men, I have sex with younger men. And when I have sex with younger men, I encounter very directly and personally the real ramifications of the creeping ubiquity of hard pornography in our culture."

Gallop created a new website, MakeLoveNotPorn.com, to address the issue of the difference between hardcore porn and real-life sex. Increasingly, she says, young people are unaware that there's a difference.

Until now, the problem has been both overdramatized and underestimated. One would have to be a prude or a bigot not to ask the question at some point of how people are actually affected.

Images of naked people having sex go way back in human culture – but the images were not easily available. Adolescents used to satisfy their curiosity about sexual matters by looking at illustrations in their parents’ art books, better yet Dad’s poorly hidden copy of Playboy. If anybody got hold of a real porn magazine, it was a big deal.

But today nearly everybody has an inexpensive, anonymous access to pornography on the Internet. Statistics clue us in to the results. According to an online poll conducted several years ago by the German Society for Social-Scientific Sexuality Research (DGSS), 60% of men and around 10% of women watched porn daily or at least weekly. A study compiled by the Iconkids & Youth market research institute says that 30% of girls and boys see porn pictures or movies for the first time by the age of 11. By age 17, 93% of boys and 80% of girls have seen porn, although only 8% of boys and 1% of girls are regular consumers, with 35% of boys saying they consumed porn “now and again.”

According to the web traffic analysis engine Alexa, the porn video site xHamster is 24th on the list of most-visited sites in Germany, while the notorious Youporn occupies 39thplace (one place ahead of Süddeutsche Zeitung’s online edition.) So there is no question that porn is mainstream, and that the German law that states that making pornographic material available to those under 18 is punishable by law is little more than a joke.

Hardcore porn behavior

To some experts, this translates into sexually depraved youth imitating -- at ever-earlier ages --sex acts scripted by the porn industry. They tell of 14-year-old girls accepting to be gangbanged, of the use of brutally sexually explicit language, of the exploitation of younger children as sex objects.

And there are indeed plenty of such cases – just talk to social workers and specialized therapists. "I have treated several traumatized women who were sexually abused by brothers who had been watching a lot of porn, among them many women who came from homes where the parenting was good,” says therapist Tabea Freitag, a psychologist at a company that specializes in media addiction issues.

Freitag tells stories like this one: a mother finds 30 addresses listed in her computer's browser -- "horny Thai teens want hardcore action," "best horror sex," "best hard sex," etc. Her nine year-old son, it turns out, was in the habit of logging on to the sites when she was out shopping. "Although she and her husband tried to deal with it empathetically, they later found him sexually abusing his little sister," recalls the psychologist.

But just how representative are such cases? Is pornography the theory, and sexual depravity the practice? Nonsense, says sex researcher Silja Matthiesen at Hamburg’s University clinic: "There’s way too much alarmism and hysteria in this debate."

Sexual demographic data shows that since the sexual revolution in the 1970s, the age at which a young person becomes sexually active has remained fixed between 15 and 17 years of age. Pregnancies among minors have been decreasing steadily for years, and though relationship duration is shortening, Matthiesen says: "most young people want sex in the context of a love relationship. Fidelity is important to them.

"Of course they’ve all seen porn, but there’s nothing new or nothing particularly worrisome about that," she adds.

That was shown in 2011 by the results of a study conducted among 160 boys and girls between 16 and 19 attending high schools and vocational schools in Hamburg and Leipzig. They revealed a familiarity with Youporn videos and sex DVDs that the boys tended to watch alone and masturbate to, and the girls tended to watch in a group, laughing and giggling.

Matthiessen says that watching violent porn or particularly crass material is a kind of test of courage – and that the rejection of “pervy stuff” strengthens a young person’s sense of normality. By 18 or 19, the interest in porn tends to fade as more kids get into real-life relationships with real-life sex. According to Matthiesen, the young people were perfectly capable of making the distinction between porn and real life.

She says the Internet also offers young people, in chat rooms and forums, other opportunities to flirt and explore issues in a low-risk setting. There are of course unpleasant experiences as well -- "18% have been subject to chat-cam exhibitionism," but she believes that such experiences on and off-line are part of "sexual socialization in the 21st century."

Addiction and dependency

Matthiesen admits that her study was based on integrated mainstream kids – and not porn addicts. Even if they may not necessarily agree on what to call the phenomenon, or the causalities, psychiatrists all agree that massive consumption of Internet porn can create dependencies in a significant number of people of all ages. Therapist Freitag tells of a 45-year-old patient who worked in IT and to whom a colleague recommended porn sites to "pep up" his marriage. The patient was soon hooked and ended up losing his wife and his job.

In a 2011 article from the German Journal of Sex Research, Hamburg sex therapist Andreas Hill warned readers not to be lulled by “liberal optimism” on this serious issue: those strongly addicted to porn tended to be less than satisfied with their bodies and sex lives as they were comparing themselves to what they saw in porn movies.

They also tended to consume a lot of alcohol and engage in risky sex, while those who watched violent porn tended to become more violent in their own sexual practices. However, “reactionary pessimism” is not the way forward either, Hill noted, especially as it has yet to be established if certain types of porn lead to violence or if it is those with a penchant for violence that seek it out.

One way porn has influenced a significant number of people is in the trend for shaving pubic hair. "Male and female porn actors influence esthetic norms as far as breasts, abdomen, buttocks and genitals," says Professor Karla Etschenberg of the University of Flensburg and former chair of the German Society for Sex Education (DGG).

On the subject of porn in general, Etschenberg mistrusts the results of studies. "Who really knows what’s going on in a 12-year-old’s head when he or she watches stuff on Youporn for the first time – does that really appear as the answer on a questionnaire?” She also doesn’t see only positive things in the current trend among young people to show a certain reserve about sex. "If young people put off having sex it could also mean they’ve been frightened by porn imagery – and that would not be a healthy development."

Etschenberg therefore believes that children and teens should be taught how to deal with porn in school: it’s a subject they need to feel competent to deal with because those pictures on the Internet are never going to go away, she says. "A boy needs to understand that a man doesn’t have to have sex for three hours.” It should be clear to all that the actors are being paid to perform certain acts they may not necessarily enjoy.

The false image of sex that porn gives is the main problem, says sex researcher and DGSS president Jakob Pastötter. That’s why he believes children should be kept away from it, and why teens should avoid virtual sex until they’ve had a bit of sexual experience.

But Pastötter is no Puritan, he says: "Pornography is great if you can deal with it.” As many people can’t, he believes that every video should come with the warning: "Caution: watching porn can damage your sexual health."

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