Beyond age verification: towards a more nuanced understanding of young people’s experiences of pornography

By Emily Setty and Ellen Harris

The government has recently announced that it is finally knocking on the head the perhaps well-intentioned but inevitably ill-conceived idea for an age verification system for online pornography. Under the law, porn websites would have had to establish that UK-based visitors to the sites are over the age of 18. Aside from well-documented privacy concerns, the ease of users circumventing such requirements through the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and debates over what constitutes ‘sexually explicit’ material online, there is a question here about the stated aim of the policy to ‘protect’ children and young people from sexual content deemed harmful to them and the role of pornography in their broader sexual lives, development and self-concepts.

Given that evidence suggests that younger teenagers tend to first encounter online pornography ‘accidentally’ (e.g. via a ‘pop-up’), there may be some rationale to a system designed to block ‘sexually explicit’ material until a user has verified their age. Perspectives and experiences seem, however, to become more multifaceted and nuanced as young people get older. Older teenagers disclose various motivations for accessing pornography and their attitudes and experiences are gendered in that older boys are seemingly more likely to deliberately access pornography and to perceive it positively. The irrelevance of the proposed age verification system in light of older young people’s willingness and ability to circumvent attempts to monitor and block their access to online content (both sexual and non-sexual) cannot be denied.

The implications of pornography for young people may be complex and contradictory. It has the potential to challenge “repression and restrictive sexual” norms and aid in the development of sexual knowledge, self-efficacy and self-esteem but also to reflect and reinforce gender and sexual inequalities and stereotypes. There is, therefore, a need to understand what young people are viewing and how they are engaging with it. Efforts to block their access to pornography will not diminish the need for these open and honest conversations, however awkward and challenging they may be both for young people and adults.

In research with teenagers, Emily Setty, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Surrey, found that interventions and education that are negative in tone and seek only highlight the ‘dangers’ of pornography are unlikely to suffice. This research revealed that pornography is part of young people’s broader sexual and relational cultures; significant is not just what they are watching but how they are engaging with it and how it relates and contributes to their sexual self-concepts. As found in other research, young people tended to normalise teenage boys’ use of pornography and the boys were often resistant to attempts to problematise and curtail their access to pornography. For some boys, uncritical celebration of pornography was part of masculine participation within male peer groups. The girls, meanwhile, often constructed pornography as ‘weird’, ‘shameful’ and ‘anti-feminist’ for them to watch, but also threatening to them in terms of the objectified and unrealistic depictions of women’s appearance and sexuality, and the risk that boys may ‘prefer’ pornography to ‘real-life’ sex and may ‘betray’ them by continuing to watch pornography when in relationships.

The boys’ perspectives were complex, however, with some experiencing feelings of shame and self-doubt connected to their use of pornography. The materiality of pornography – in terms of the depiction of male appearance and sexual performance – was disconcerting to some of them. Some also described feeling desensitised to ever-more extreme pornography characterised by pain and degradation. While some felt this means that pornography is just a harmless fantasy and perfectly ‘healthy’ so long as they can still enjoy ‘real-life’ sex, others questioned the ethics of the industry and described feeling ashamed by what they find arousing and confused about what girls find pleasurable.

Young people are, it seems, critically engaging with pornography. They tussle with what is ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ and the nature of pleasure, desire and arousal. They were, however, quite individualistic in their narratives. They tended not to connect their feelings of confusion and ambivalence to broader gender and sexual inequalities and stereotypes. Some boys, for example, ‘suspected’ that girls are more sexual and watch pornography more than they let on; they seemed to eroticise this ‘secret sexuality’, however, and did not reflect on why girls may feel compelled to construct themselves as uninterested in pornography. The girls, meanwhile, often harnessed discourses of ‘feminism’ and ‘empowerment’ in their opposition to pornography, but their taken-for-granted beliefs that women are not ‘visually-stimulated’ and are more interested in emotion and relationships than embodied sexual pleasure reflected and reinforced the gender double standards within their broader relational and sexual cultures.

Ellen Harris, PhD Researcher at the University of Surrey, intends for her research to shed further light on girls’ and young women’s perspectives on pornography. While there is increasing recognition that boys’ perspectives are complex, Ellen’s research will explore what underlies the socially-approved narrative that girls don’t watch pornography. Rather than accepting that girls are inherently uninterested in (albeit potentially threatened by) pornography, Ellen is interested in why girls produce these narratives. Her research aims to explore and understand their perspectives and the role pornography plays in their sexual and relational lives. She hopes for the findings to reveal the diversity and complexity of girls’ experiences, as well as inform an educational and policy context which often assumes that pornography viewers are heterosexual boys whose use of porn is problematic for girls.

With Sex and Relationships Education to soon become mandatory in most schools in England, the time is ripe for considering how pornography could represent a resource for bringing to life the complexities around sex, relationships, gender and sexuality. These issues are not just pertinent to young people; pornography is designed by and – ostensibly – intended for adults, and there is a need for openness about what the norms and values contained within pornography reveal about society more broadly as well as the implications for young people’s sexual development and learning. Rather than problematising young people’s perspectives, we should reflect on what we are modelling and the value systems that shape how we engage with young people. Neither blocking nor simply just ‘more education’ is, therefore, enough; targeted interventions and education should be more meaningful and youth-centred, but we should also acknowledge what young people are learning and experiencing within their situated cultures more broadly, of which adults may play a part.