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Do we need to protect young people from porn?

Porn. Just utter the word aloud and hearts pound, pulses quicken, and minds start racing. Depending on the context, these effects may be the result of concern for young people’s well-being rather than…

The latest research has found that quite a lot of young people are accessing sexually explicit material. Alejandro Lorenzo

Porn. Just utter the word aloud and hearts pound, pulses quicken, and minds start racing. Depending on the context, these effects may be the result of concern for young people’s well-being rather than a sexual response.

Consider the UK prime minister David Cameron’s recent announcement that every household in the country will have a porn filter unless adult content is specifically allowed. This opt-in system will mean service providers will ask their customers whether they want unfiltered porn.

The plan is aimed at the “corroding” impact of porn on young people. But, instituting a policy like this is may be a bit preemptive.

Society has a long tradition of moral concern about young people and sex. And research in this field has long tried to prove or disprove that causal links exist between viewing explicit materials and actual behaviours. It hasn’t been very successful.

New research

Recent research looking at the impact of sexually explicit material on young people’s sexual behaviour provides more information, but not sufficient evidence, to guide public policy.

The study, which involved surveying 4,600 young Dutch people, found some association between the two but the authors acknowledge and emphasise that they were small. The authors said sexually explicit material was related to some sexual behaviours, specifically adventurous sex and transactional sex.

Adventurous sex includes experience with more than one partner at a time, experience with a same-sex partner, or with a partner met online.

Transactional sex is defined as money or goods being exchanged for sex. But the authors posited that there were likely other factors involved in the associations.

It’s impossible to determine causality in a study that didn’t involve follow-up or longitudinal methods. In a cross-sectional study such as this one (a study performed at a single point in time), we can only determine associations. That means that we don’t know the variable is causing certain behaviour.

This is a common gap in research about many aspects of young people’s sexual development. And we’ll need to do more carefully-controlled longitudinal research to capture the true causes of risky sex and promoters of healthy sexual attitudes and behaviours.

Is porn all bad?

Another problem with research in the field about the effects of sexually explicit material is that most of it focuses on negative outcomes. This means that only associations with negative behaviours, such as risky sex, are sought and found.

Safer sexual practices, mutuality between partners, and healthy enjoyment of sex are all positive things for young people to see and can be portrayed explicitly. Kendra/Flickr

Australian researchers have identified 15 domains of healthy sexual development. They span consent, safety, relationship and communication skills, and self-acceptance, to name just a few.

These researchers contend that the impact of sexually explicit materials should be evaluated across this range of domains to fully understand their influence on young people’s development. There are many examples of sexually explicit material having positive influences that could be explored in relation to young people’s viewing.

Some pornography emphasises positive sexual or body self-image, for instance, and may contain helpful examples of communication and negotiation. Some of it provides examples of people enjoying sex without anxieties.

So it may be useful to not paint all sexually explicit materials with a broad negative brush. Safer sexual practices, mutuality between partners, and healthy enjoyment of sex are all positive things for young people to see and can be portrayed explicitly.

And this kind of material will likely have a very different effect on development of sexual behaviour than other forms of sexually explicit media, which often portray unsafe sex, demeaning attitudes toward women and sexual violence, or all of these things together.

One thing that we can take from the Dutch research is that there are quite a lot of young people accessing sexually explicit material (88% of males and 45% of females reported watching some in the past year). This suggests that most adolescents are viewing some type of explicit media (in other words, such behaviour is statistically normative).

This data is valuable for understanding young people’s viewing behaviours. It also suggests that efforts to limit access to sexually explicit materials may be extremely difficult.

What else is important?

The link between sexually explicit materials and sexual behaviours most certainly needs to be explored further if we are to have a more concrete understanding of its harms or otherwise.

With this in mind, the filters planned by the UK government seem to overzealous and akin to banning all beverages so people don’t drink alcohol.

There are many factors other than viewing explicit material that influence young people’s sexual attitudes and behaviours. The mainstream media, education, family and friends, genetics and an individual’s broader environment and experiences all play a role.

While the potential effects of porn are quite interesting, let’s not get too excited about it. Rather, we should focus our enthusiasm on questioning the government’s role in controlling media.