Tuesday, 16 February 2010


How teenage access to pornography is killing intimacy in sex

The television drama Skins reflects the increasingly casual attitude of teenagers towards sex

Teenagers have such easy access to hardcore porn that a
skewed view of sex is becoming the norm in society and the idea of intimacy is dying

Natasha Walter
January 17, 2010
Sunday Times

One day I found myself ringing on the doorbell in a
suburban street in Essex to talk to a self-confessed
pornography addict. Jim, a quiet man in his early forties,
was embarrassed by what we discussed over the following
couple of hours but also eager to tell a story that he
feels is probably less unusual than one might think.

“I know I’m not the only guy who’s like this,” he kept
saying. Nor is he: there is a great leviathan of obscenity
on the internet that anyone can access at any time with a
couple of clicks of a mouse.

Jim first became aware of pornography long before the
internet era. “My dad was really into pornography. I was
five when I found a copy of his Mayfair. I found it quite
captivating, to be honest.”

When he was about seven, Jim discovered hardcore European
pornography in his father’s wardrobe, and he can remember
some of those first images he saw. “I found them quite
disturbing. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, of course,
because the whole point is that it’s hidden. You know that
you’re not supposed to know about it.”

From then on he would get up before his parents woke,
before six in the morning, to look through his father’s
briefcase and find the porn magazines. “Then my dad got a
Super 8 projector, when I was about 11 or 12, and he would
hire porn films. He would lock himself in the dining room
to watch them. But the real change came when he got a
video, and I persevered till I found the films. I was about
14 and I would find them and watch them when I was alone in
the house. Constantly.”

At this age, Jim did not have any relationships to set
against this obsession. He was going to a boys’ school and
never met girls socially. “I was obsessed with pornography,
I wanted to be pornography, I wanted to live pornography,”
he said. “It wasn’t good for me, I can see that now. I knew
that even then, I think, but it was an addiction from the
start. It had such a powerful hold on me. It had a huge
effect on my behaviour with women.

“I was unable to think of women except as potential
pornography. I looked at them in a purely sexual way. I
remember one day I was walking to school, I was about 15,
and I got talking to a girl who must have been about 18. I
immediately said I wanted to grope her breasts. I had no
idea how to interact with women as people.”

Even though Jim began to have girlfriends from the age of
19, he never managed to shrug off the power of the fantasy
world. “The power of pornography has continued throughout
my adult life. Nothing has really measured up to the world
of porn, for me. I’ve seen thousands of strangers having
sex. So when I have sex, I am watching myself having sex.”

In his thirties, he started a relationship with Ali, a
direct-talking, well-read woman. He told her about his
interest in porn and they used to watch videos together. At
first she could see the “high” but when she became
uncomfortable, he agreed to try to abstain. Once the
internet was part of their lives, he could no longer
control himself and began to use pornography again. The
relationship broke down after seven years. “Pornography has
made him only able to see sex one way,” Ali said. “He has
always seen sex as something that has to be performed, not

She would like to see a public debate about the effects of
pornography. “Porn has been so normalised that anyone
objecting to it now is just going to be laughed at. I think
we need to hear again about how pornography threatens

For Jim, pornography “has destroyed my ability to have
intimate relationships”. One might think that someone who
has seen as much as he has would not be unsettled by
anything, but he is shocked by the way that the growing
acceptability of pornography is putting into the mainstream
a dehumanising view of women.

He finds the internet — with its images of rape, incest and
abuse — “quite disturbing”. He said: “The stuff I saw as a
kid was what we called hardcore, but the idea in the text
alongside was that it was based on mutual consent — mutual
pleasure — but what I see now is more male domination.”

Jim believes that very young men are beginning to see as
normal images that would once have been seen as far beyond
the pale. “It’s like bravado, they want to look at worse
and worse stuff. When I was a kid what you saw was limited
by what you could physically buy on paper. Now it all
flashes around so quickly and the taboos have just fallen.”

Jim feels that, even for young men who don’t seek it out,
the exposure to these images simply changes their attitudes
to sex. “I think that kind of violence associated with sex
lodges in your mind and you never forget it, however much
you want to. It’s always there.”

Not only is the tone of pornography so often reliant on
real or imaginary abuse of women, it is consumed in
increasing numbers by young people who have little real
experience to set against it.

Ali worries that what happened with Jim could be repeated
with her own son. “I was first aware that he was looking at
pornography when he was 14. But how can boys not see it?
Unless they make a concerted decision not to look at it, to
delete it from their mobiles when it’s sent to them, or
from their emails. You’d be making a singular, probably a
unique decision.

“Once someone like Jim was unusual, now every boy has seen
all of that. I know what it does to young minds, and now it
is more and more prevalent. God knows how we can begin to
challenge this. Once upon a time, kids could experiment,
you know, privately, but now all the innocence is lost.”

For a long time I was sceptical about the claim that the
internet had really changed people’s access and attitudes
to pornography. Those who want it have surely always been
able to find it, whether they were living in 5th-century
Athens or the 1950s. But the evidence has convinced me that
the internet has driven a real change for many people,
especially younger people.

Once upon a time, someone who was truly fascinated by
pornography might have found, with some difficulty, 10, or
20, or 100 images to satisfy themselves. Now anyone can
click on a single website and find 20, 100, 1,000 choices
of videos and images, with the most specialist and violent
next to the most gentle and consensual.

Statistics tell a story that is hard to ignore. A survey
carried out in 2006 found that one in four men aged 25-49
had viewed hardcore online pornography in the previous
month and that nearly 40% of men had viewed pornographic
websites in the previous year.

It is the prevalence of pornography consumption among
children that is most striking. In a study in 2000, 25% of
children aged 10-17 had seen unwanted online pornography in
the form of pop-ups or spam. By 2005 the figure was 34% —
and 42% of children aged 10-17 had seen pornography,
whether wanted or unwanted. In another study in Canada, 90%
of boys aged 13 and 14 and 70% of girls the same age had
viewed pornography. Most of this porn use had been over the
internet. More than one-third of the boys reported viewing
pornographic DVDs or videos “too many times to count”.

While once someone could live their whole lives without
ever seeing anyone but themselves and their own partners
having sex, now the voyeur’s view of sex has been
normalised, even for children.

For an increasing number of young people, pornography is no
longer something that goes alongside sex but something that
precedes sex. Before they have touched another person
sexually or entered into any kind of sexual relationship,
many children have seen hundreds of adult strangers having

When I spoke to one teenager who is studying for his
A-levels and quoted statistics to him that said that the
majority of young teenagers have looked at pornography, he

“More like 100%,” he said. “It’s when you’re 13 and 14 that
everyone starts looking and talking about it at school —
before you’re having sex, you’re watching it.

“I think that those lads’ mags are only read by certain
kinds of boys. My friends wouldn’t read them, to be honest,
just like they wouldn’t buy The Sun. But pornography — it
crosses every social class, every cultural background.

“Everyone watches porn. And I think that’s entirely down to
the internet; not just your home computer, but everything
that can connect — your phone, your BlackBerry, whatever
you’ve got — everyone’s watching porn.

“Adults have got to know what teenagers are doing, and if
you’re caught, you get told off. But I never had a serious
discussion with a teacher or anyone about it.”

I heard from teenagers that they want more chance to
discuss seriously what they are seeing, since they seem to
find that this world of pornography is absolutely open to
them and yet is rarely referred to openly.

Now that the classic feminist critique of pornography —
that it necessarily involves or encourages abuse of women —
has disappeared from view, there are few places that young
people are likely to hear much criticism or even discussion
about its effects.

Many women who would call themselves feminists have come to
accept that they are growing up in a world where
pornography is ubiquitous and will be part of almost
everyone’s sexual experiences. I can see why some are
arguing that the way forward really rests on creating more
opportunities for women in pornography, yet I think it is
worth looking at why some of us still feel such unease with
the situation as it is now.

I do not believe that all pornography inevitably degrades
women, and I do see that the classic feminist critique of
pornography is too simplistic to embrace the great range of
explicit sexual materials and people’s reactions to them.
Yet let’s be honest. The overuse of pornography does
threaten many erotic relationships, and this is a growing
problem. What’s more, too much pornography does still rely
on or promote the exploitation or abuse of women. Even if
you can find porn for women and couples on the internet,
nevertheless a vein of real contempt for women
characterises so much pornography.

The massive colonisation of teenagers’ erotic life by
commercial pornographic materials is something that it is
hard to feel sanguine about. By expanding so much in a
world that is still so unequal, pornography has often
reinforced and reflected the inequalities around us.

This means that men are still encouraged, through most
pornographic materials, to see women as objects, and women
are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on
their sexual allure rather than their imagination or
pleasure. No wonder we have seen the rise of the idea that
erotic experience will necessarily involve, for women, a
performance in which they will be judged visually.

When I interviewed young women about their attitudes to
sexuality, I was struck by one apparently trivial fact:
that all of them agreed that they would never want to have
sex if they hadn’t depilated their pubic hair.

“I would never want a man to see me if I hadn’t been waxed
recently,” said one young woman from Cambridge University,
and her friends nodded in agreement. “I don’t need to have
all the hair removed, but it has to be neat,” said another.

“That is definitely tied into porn,” said another. “We know
what men will have seen and what they will expect.”

Where the rise of expectations from pornography result just
in depilation, that is one thing, but the rise of interest
in surgery to change the appearance of the labia is
another, far more worrying development. The number of
operations carried out in the UK to cut women’s labia to a
preconceived norm is currently rising steeply.

This development has been covered extensively in magazines
and television programmes, often in a way calculated to
increase anxiety among female viewers. In an episode of
Embarrassing Teenage Bodies, screened on Channel 4 in 2008,
a young woman consulted a doctor about the fact that her
labia minora extended slightly beyond her labia majora and
that this caused her embarrassment. Instead of reassuring
her that this was entirely normal, the doctor recommended,
and carried out, surgery on her labia.

The comments left on the programme’s website showed how
this decision to carry out plastic surgery to fit a young
woman’s body to a so-called norm made other young women
feel intensely anxious.

“I’m 15 and I thought I was fine, but since I’ve watched
the programme I’ve become worried, as mine seem larger than
the girl who had hers made surgically smaller! It doesn’t
make any difference to my life, but I worry now that when
I’m older and start having sex I might have problems!” one
girl said.

This idea that there is one correct way for female genitals
to look is undoubtedly tied into the rise of pornography.
One website for a doctor who specialises in this form of
plastic surgery makes this explicit: “Laser reduction
labioplasty can sculpture the elongated or unequal labial
minora (small inner lips) according to one’s specification
... Many women bring us Playboy and say that they want to
look like this. With laser reduction labioplasty, we work
with women to try to accomplish their desires.”

If the rise of pornography was really tied up with women’s
liberation and empowerment, it would not be increasing
women’s anxiety about fitting into a narrow physical ideal.

The tide of pornography is so huge, and so easily
accessible, that it often seems impossible to think about
turning it back. Yet I don’t think we have to slip into
despair. There is this idea that “innocence”, once lost, is
lost for ever, that, as Jim put it, once pornography is
viewed, “You never forget it, however much you want to.”

It is true that we cannot turn back the clock and wipe
pornography out of our individual experience or the
memories of our society. Yet there are still ways to move
forward and to create places where the influence of
pornography will be resisted. This will entail giving more
support to people who are struggling with its dehumanising
effects on their own relationships.

The starting point is public debate. A woman I’ll call
Lara, who has been trying for several years to persuade her
husband to give up pornography, wrote to me: “From some
discussions I’ve had online I can see that many wives are
struggling with their husband’s porn use. If the mainstream
media began talking about porn addiction in the same way as
they talk freely about drug abuse, gambling or alcoholism,
then maybe my husband would see that he’s not the only man
in the world who has this problem and would see that he
should deal with it.”

Women scarred by the myth that selling sex is a positive
career choice

Ellie is an articulate, well-educated woman who went to
private school and a good university and was brought up to
believe she could do anything in any profession — law,
medicine, politics.

She decided she wanted to be an actress, but when jobs were
hard to find and she found herself financially desperate,
she took a sideways step in her twenties by going for an
audition at a lap-dancing club in London.

“You just had to stand there and hold the pole and take
your clothes off,” Ellie remembered. “I don’t think I’d
thought it through. I was surprised when I saw what the
other girls were wearing. I was just in a skirt and T-shirt
and when they asked me to take my clothes off I was like,
uh-oh, I’m wearing really bad pants. But they said, shave
your pubes, get a fake tan, sort out your nails, dye your
hair, pluck your eyebrows, come back next week. So I said
okay, and I went and made myself orange. I did it for about
six months, every night.”

For her it didn’t feel like a big step at first to go into
the sex industry, because of the way that lap-dancing clubs
have become an unremarkable part of British urban life in
an incredibly short space of time. From only a few in the
1990s, there were an estimated 300 by 2008.

Ellie told me she had picked up the message that lap
dancing was pretty straightforward and even empowering for
the women who do it. “People say that, don’t they? There’s
this myth that women are expressing their sexuality freely
in this way, and that as they can make lots of money out of
it, it gives them power over the men who are paying.”

She was shocked by quite how demeaning and dehumanising the
work actually was. “There’s something about the club — the
lights, the make-up, the clothes you wear, those huge
platform heels, the way that so many women have fake boobs.
You look like cartoons. You give yourself a fake girlie
name, like a doll. You’re encouraged to look like dolls. No
wonder the men don’t see you as people.”

Stripping in various styles is not the only element of the
sex industry that has become far more acceptable.
Prostitution has also moved from the margins to the
mainstream of our culture in a development that one can
track in the popularity of bestselling memoirs of
prostitutes such as Belle de Jour. They have a
matter-of-fact tone, and tend to emphasise how very normal
the occupation is and how close to any liberated woman’s
sex life.

Rather than being seen as shameful, prostitution can now be
seen as an aspirational occupation for a woman. “My body is
a big deal,” ran the advertising caption for the television
series based on Belle de Jour’s book over huge images of
the actress Billie Piper in underwear.

It would be naive to assume that the promotion of such a
view of prostitution in the mainstream media does not have
an effect on the real-life behaviour of men and women. A
woman I’ll call Angela, who has been working as a
prostitute for four years, explained to me how she had come
to this point.

Although in some ways Angela was quite formal, and uneasy
about sharing the details of her life, from time to time
her rage would burst out in a torrent of words. In the
sitting room of her chilly, scrupulously clean flat in
Middlesex, where there were no comfortable chairs, but
where there was a metal pole running floor to ceiling with
a pair of patent high heels next to it, she told me how she
had become involved in prostitution.

She first began to think about charging for sex when her
marriage broke down. As a woman in her thirties who had not
dated for a long time, she was eager to look for new
experiences. Her friends said to her that she should go
out, have a good time, find a man and have sex, and she
began to use internet chat rooms to meet men. When she met
them, she found “they would expect me to just get on with
it, in the name of sexual liberation and fun”.

These experiences in the new world of unemotional sex
surprised Angela, as things had changed so much since
before her marriage. “When I had had relationships with men
in the past, I have to say that they were usually equal and
pleasurable experiences. There wasn’t the surround sound,
the cultural imperative that it was all about sex, only
about sex. What men expect you to do has really changed —
anal sex, threesomes, even when you’ve just met them.”

At first she did not question what she was experiencing. “I
believed what everyone said, that all this promiscuous sex
was so empowering.” But as she went on having sex with men
without much emotional engagement, Angela thought it would
not be a huge step to begin charging. Since none of the men
she met wanted a relationship, she felt they could give her
something in exchange. She needed the money.

“I was pretty desperate to find a way to survive, to be
honest. It dawned on me that I could get paid for this. I
thought that it would be fun — I remember seeing a
documentary on television about kids of rich Hollywood
stars and there was one girl who said sometimes she went
down to the Sunset Strip and got paid for sex as a bit of
fun. I thought, okay, there’s no harm in it.

“When I went into it, I thought it would be easy. That’s
what you’re asked to believe, isn’t it? I thought, okay, if
this is empowering, let’s suck it and see.”

Angela was shocked by what she discovered about both the
physical and the psychological impact of the work. “I saw
it’s not empowering; it’s very disempowering. It’s harmful.
It narrows how you value yourself, how you define yourself.
It’s very dangerous to define yourself through the eyes of
these men who are buying your body. I see that now — I wish
I could get other women to see it. I feel as though this
hypersexualisation of society — everyone’s falling for it,
and more and more young girls think that prostitution is
about being Billie Piper, being Belle de Jour, and it just
isn’t. It really isn’t like that.

“There are a lot of clients who are respectful but it’s all
over the spectrum. Really young ones want to experiment:
they’ve seen stuff on the internet — violence and rape.
What was extreme five years ago is commonplace now. I get
inquiries about being tied up, being gagged. They want to
tie you up; they want threesomes. I get the feeling that
some of the men get off on the fact that the woman doesn’t
want it. Basically you’ve consented to being raped
sometimes for money.”

The matter-of-fact way that some women enter prostitution
is also connected to the way that many men are now much
more open about buying sex. The internet has been
particularly useful in allowing men to believe they need
not feel ashamed about buying sex from prostitutes. There
are places on the internet where reviewing sex for sale is
taken as naturally as reviewing books on Amazon. Men can
discuss without hesitation how to satisfy their various
tastes for larger, or older, or younger, or smaller women.

© Natasha Walter 2010 Extracted from Living Dolls by Natasha Walter, to be published by Virago on February 4 at £12.99. Copies can be ordered for £11.69, including postage, from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0845 271 2135


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