It’s one of the most pressing social science questions of our day, and one we do not know the full answer to: What is porn doing to the first generation that has been exposed to it in an almost ubiquitous manner from an early age?
In an unflinching manner, The New York Times delved in with an expose titled “What Teenagers Are Learning from Online Porn.” Here’s the headline: “American adolescents watch much more pornography than their parents know—and it’s shaping their ideas about pleasure, power and intimacy.” The interviews are disturbingly enlightening and the findings graphic.
Consider this your warning before continuing to read.
Drew’s exposure began at the age of eight, and by the ninth grade videos accessed through his phone were teaching him (in his own estimation) about future sex positions with future girlfriends. He says he learned the importance of being buff and dominant, flipping girls around and over at will, and that girls are turned on by pretty much everything. Oh, and the more aggressive the guy is, the better.
Fifteen-year-old “Q” simply said that porn “gets in your head.”
Another boy, when asked if he would ask for a girl’s permission before doing something to her sexually, including anal sex, said “no.” “I would just do it.” Why? He assumed that girls like it because women in porn do.
On average, boys are around 13 and girls around 14 when they first see pornography. Ninety-three percent of boys have viewed porn online by the time they are 18.
It’s not hard to understand why. Again, from The New York Times:
“Imagine that you are a 14-year-old today. A friend might show you a short porn clip on his phone during the bus ride to school or after soccer practice. A pornographic GIF appears on Snapchat. Or you mistype the word “fishing” and end up with a bunch of links to “fisting” videos. Like most 14-year-olds, you haven’t had sex, but you’re curious, so maybe you start searching and land on one of the many porn sites that work much like YouTube… all of them among the 100 most-frequented websites in the world, according to Alexa Top Sites. [The most popular of the group has] 80 million visitors a day and more traffic than Pinterest, Tumblr or PayPal. The mainstream websites aren’t verifying your age, and your phone allows you to watch porn away from the scrutinizing eyes of adults. If you still have parental-control filters, you probably have ways around them. Besides, there’s a decent chance your parents don’t think you are watching porn. Preliminary analysis of data from a 2016 Indiana University survey of more than 600 pairs of children and their parents reveals a parental naïveté gap: Half as many parents thought their 14- and 18-year-olds had seen porn as had in fact watched it. And depending on the sex act, parents underestimated what their kids saw by as much as 10 times.”
There is a lack of specifics on what children and teenagers actually watch or are drawn to in terms of online porn, as federal funding for research on children and pornography is difficult to obtain. But one study found that it includes, at the very least, men ejaculating on women’s faces, B.D.S.M. (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism), and double penetration, described in the study as “one or more penises or objects in a woman’s anus and/or in her vagina.” Also prevalent were “gang bangs,” or group sex, and “rough oral sex” (a man aggressively thrusting his penis in and out of a mouth).
How does this translate into behavior? It would be hard to imagine “positively.” Some studies are revealing that teens who watch porn engage in earlier sex as well as gender stereotyping, not to mention sexual relationships that are less affectionate than their peers. Other studies are revealing that the kinds of sex teens are having are changing, with a rapid rise in anal intercourse. In fact, anal sex doubles among those who watched pornography.
Even more disturbing is an Indiana University national survey of teenagers that found that of the teenagers who had sex, around one-sixth had ejaculated on someone’s face or choked a sex partner. As you would imagine in this new day or exposure to porn, we don’t have longitudinal data to determine what constitutes a “rise” in such behaviors.
On a wider cultural front, it would be hard to imagine teens having much of a filter that would critique what they are seeing with online porn. Much of it has gone mainstream. The TV show “Family Guy” references choking and anal sex. Nicki Minaj has a song that alludes to anal sex followed by vaginal sex. Rihanna’s “S&M” talks of being excited by chains and whips. And need we mention Fifty Shades of Grey?
“These images confound many teenagers about the kinds of sex they want or think they should have,” writes Maggie Jones in the New York Times article. “In part, that’s because they aren’t always sure what is fake and what is real in porn.” Regardless, “it’s not surprising, then, that some adolescents use porn as a how-to guide.” A 2016 study found that “teenagers reported that porn was their primary source for information about sex—more than friends, siblings, schools or parents.”
Or as one boy put it, “porn stars know what they are doing.” Consider that statement in light of the fact that one study found that 88% of all pornographic videos showed verbal or physical aggression. And women were on the receiving end 90 percent of the time.
Christians must realize how far the sexual conversation has left the moral norms of abstinence before marriage, or faithfulness within marriage. The onslaught of online pornography has coarsened, numbed, distorted and infected an entire generation.
So what have teenagers learned from porn?
Everything that is wrong.
James Emery White
Maggie Jones, “What Teenagers Are Learning From Online Porn,” The New York Times, February 7, 2018, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.