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Guess who's watching porn

These days it's kids as young as eight or 10. As boys get hooked ever earlier, Net porn is reshaping youth sexuality.

MONIQUE POLAK | June 18, 2008 |

Also from
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Marc first looked at Internet porn when he was in Grade 4. "We were at a Pokémon birthday party," he recalled. His 10-year-old host had something better than Pokémon cards to show his guests: a website full of naked busty blonds. Now 19, and a recent graduate of a Montreal college, Marc checks out Internet porn sites about as often as he brushes his teeth. "I look at least twice a day," he says.

Marc and his friend Christian, 18, visit sites with names like Bookworm Bitches, My Sister's Best Friend and My First Sex Teacher. Having a girlfriend with whom he regularly has sex doesn't deter Marc from visiting porn websites. "I have a girlfriend, but hey, we've been together three years," he says. "Besides, this is good quality HD. It's fun and it helps you sleep."

The pornification of culture is something that we encounter at every turn: it's in Snoop Dogg and Pussycat Dolls videos; it keeps the Girls Gone Wild franchise going strong; it guides the fashion trends of females six to 60; and it's behind prime-time reality shows, like the E! Network's The Girls Next Door chronicling the life of Hugh Hefner. But when it comes to explicit materials, nothing compares to the Wild West of cyberporn. There's been an explosion of pornographic websites in the last decade, with tens of millions of sites literally a click away, according to Frederick S. Lane, author of Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age. Lane estimates the North American cyperporn industry brings in about $2 billion dollars a year.

More than just big business, this wave of easy-to-access online images, videos and chat rooms is shaping the way young people indulge their sexual curiosity. Back when parents of today's teens were growing up, porn meant girlie magazines like Playboy or Hustler. And accessing porn took effort — and courage. Magazine stands weren't supposed to sell pornography to minors. Curious teens had to sneak into their older brothers' bedrooms — or their dads' tool sheds — to find their secret stashes.

Today, airbrushed Playboy playmates are tame compared to what's out there: oral sex, anal sex, same-sex sex, sex with animals and vegetables, ménages ŕ trois, quatre and many more — all of this going on right under the parental roof. Although it's hard to quantify exactly what and how much online porn kids are looking at, a report from the London School of Economics found that nine out of 10 children between the ages of eight and 16 have viewed at least something that qualifies. According to a 2004 Columbia University study, 25 per cent of 12- and 13-year-old girls, and 37 per cent of boys the same age, say they have friends who regularly view and download Internet pornography.

And these are only approximations — probably lowball ones. "I don't think we know anywhere near as much as we need to know," says Gary Brooks, a professor of psychology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who studies the effects of pornography on men. "In my writing, I say that we knew a little bit about the amount of usage and the amount of damage before cyberspace — and now we have no clue."

In the majority of cases, the London School of Economics report says, children's exposure to online pornography is inadvertent — the result of misspelled words and Web addresses, or confusing a .com suffix for a .net. In her book Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families, journalist Pamela Paul reports that 94 per cent of the porn images children ages 10 to 17 encountered accidentally were of naked people, 38 per cent were of people having sex, and eight per cent involved sexual violence. Forty-five per cent of kids who stumble upon porn in this way report being upset by what they saw.

But a great many others, at ever-younger ages, are far from upset about it. In fact, a 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation Study found that almost one-third of kids in Grades 7 through 12 have lied about their ages in order to access adult-only websites.

Which begs the question: to what extent can — and should — parents be monitoring what their teenage sons are up to when they're supposedly surfing the Web or doing their homework? Like many young people (roughly a fifth of eight- to 18-year-olds), Christian and Marc have their own computers. "My parents have no idea," Marc says. How could they? Monitoring what kids are up to in cyberspace has become virtually impossible since most of them have Internet access in multiple venues: at home, at school, at friends' houses, in public libraries, and Internet cafés, for instance.

Patricia, who lives in Montreal and has a 13-year-old son, has a pretty good idea about what he's been up to at home on Saturday nights after she and her husband go to bed. One recent Sunday morning, Patricia checked out the history on the family computer. "I spotted some very explicit titles that were obviously way out there. I said to my husband, 'What is this?' " she said.

"I almost chuckled," she said, "because my son's so not like that. The girls like him because he's not macho at all. Other parents always say how nice and polite he is. But he's growing up. He's sprouting body hair and he takes longer showers than he used to." Patricia and her husband decided not to confront their son. Instead, they came up with another solution: "We changed the code to log on to the computer. Now he can only use it when we're around."

Jane, another Montreal mom, had a similar experience five years ago. The mother of three sons, now aged between 18 and 25, she happened to be looking at the history on the family computer when she came across a link to a pornographic website. "You can tell from the titles, like Wet and Wild P---ies or whatever, and my sons aren't animal lovers."

Jane didn't realize that by clicking on the link, she'd access the website. "I'd been married a long time," she said, "but I saw stuff I'd never seen or dreamt of. There was everything. Sex between old people. People defecating on other people." She was traumatized. "I was trying to close the website with my eyes closed," she said. (Getting trapped in a sort of smutty hall of mirrors online is a common experience. A 2003 study in the journal Youth & Society found that, in a quarter of cases where youth accidentally opened pornographic websites, they were exposed to multiple sex sites when they tried to close the first one.)

Jane and her husband confronted their sons. "No one confessed, but I did get a written confession later from one," she said. "He was absolutely horrified I was so upset. He told me the sites keep opening to stuff that's disturbing even for him."

The couple also took action. They moved the computer from the basement den. "It's on an Ikea desk — right in the middle of the kitchen," she said. Now with only her youngest son still living at home, Jane occasionally monitors his Internet use. She's also become more computer savvy. "Smart kids erase the history. But on our computer, I can look up something called, 'recently changed,' " she said. She admits she's still anxious about her sons' use of Internet porn. How can she be sure they won't do something that might bring the police to her door — like download child porn? "It's kind of terrifying. Let's face it, any parent has to be concerned," she said.

It's not only parents dealing with this kind of trouble at home. Devon, a Grade 12 student in Calgary, recently discovered her 13-year-old brother was visiting porn websites. She made the discovery when she typed in a Web address on her parents' laptop and another website popped up. "There were these weird sexual positions. I thought, 'This isn't where I want to be.' I checked the history and there were tons of porn websites mixed in with skateboard sites, so I knew it was him."

Devon, who is 17, talked with her brother. "I told him, 'If you want to be looking at that stuff, it's not the smartest way to be looking on your parents' computer.' He said it was his friends daring him. I knew that wasn't true."

Devon herself has seen her fair share of Internet porn. "I've had it happen quite a few times that I'm at a guy's house and he says, 'Come look at this!' or 'Isn't this hilarious?' " According to Paul's book, Pornified, 41 per cent of 15- to 17-year-olds now say viewing porn online underage is "no big deal." "Now I'm totally desensitized to the issue," she says. "I just laugh it off with them."

But her boyfriend, who is 18, isn't like that. "He claims he doesn't look at porn at all, that it disgusts him and that porn is demeaning and icky," she said. Still, Devon is skeptical. "I can't tell if that's him trying to be the opposite of the guys I laugh about or if it's really true. I swear to God, all boys look. That's my experience," she said.

For parents, when it comes to Internet porn, not only do they have to deal with logistical concerns — how can they monitor their kids' activity — they also have to ask themselves what, if any, are the long-term effects of all of this exposure? "Pornography in all its permutations affects developing sexuality," writes Paul in Pornified. "The younger the age of exposure and the more hard-core the material, the more intense the effects." These effects can include everything from a skewed sense of sexual norms to difficulty maintaining a healthy, loving relationship; an unrealistic view of women; and potentially, pornography addiction, which can interfere with school work, friendships and family relationships.

Sex therapists, like Toronto-based Robert Burgoyne, have a term for what these young men are up to: cybersexual auto-eroticism. In itself, says Burgoyne, it's not a problem. The danger with pornography in general is that it encourages users to isolate sexuality from emotional intimacy. "It becomes problematic if it interferes with other aspects of life such as school, work and relationships or if these young men are getting harmful information or locked into objectifying women sexually," he said.

Most of Burgoyne's clients are grown men seeking help for sexual addiction. But lately, he's been counselling several young men struggling with a cybersexual habit that began in early adolescence and continues to occupy far too much of their time and attention. As a result, Internet porn is interfering with their relationships. "Some want support or coaching to reduce or manage this habit," he says.

David Marcus, a psychologist at the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center in California, who treats men of all ages struggling with pornography addiction, says one of biggest problems with Internet porn in particular is that people's tolerance to it becomes accelerated. "What people really, really don't get is that what was enough yesterday — and exciting yesterday — is not enough today," he says. In other words, very soon a naked woman is old news, and users are seeking out different, increasingly graphic, and in extreme cases criminal, content — things that will continue to shock and arouse. "They have to keep getting more and more, so it becomes this insatiable thirst for it."

Marcus says that when the men he sees look back on their own childhoods, there are often two common indicators of future trouble. The first is early exposure to particularly graphic or disturbing sexual images. "As an analogy, it's like trauma in that people can only tolerate a certain degree of intensity," says Marcus. Especially for very young or immature children. "Their central nervous system can only take in so much. And so if the experience is so intense or so mind-altering, what happens is it really affects their sense of social norms — what they can expect from a partner and what their own desires are get so flooded that they can't really make contact with what would be a more 'normal' progression of sexual desire."

Of course, just because a kid is exploring pornography online doesn't mean he will develop an addiction, or become more likely to engage in "deviant" behaviour. "With the Internet, the images are interacting with whatever the person brings to the table," Marcus says. "If there's a lot of rage in the person that's not being dealt with then it's going to find its expression there."

But the combination of unbridled Internet access and a predilection toward, for instance, violent sexuality or images of children is a recipe for trouble. "It's sort of like whatever is latent in a person is going to get aroused and supercharged through the Internet images," he says. "People could live their whole lives without knowing they have that propensity or that desire and then all of a sudden they go online and it finds a voice and expression and Pandora's box opens."

Another indicator, he says, is that men with addiction often report having used pornography from a young age as a form of self-help — something they do to soothe themselves in the face of stress or anxiety. "I have people who will talk about getting into it because they didn't like what was going on at school, so they got onto chat rooms and websites with pornography," he says. "And they continued that through college every time they had a problem and now they're finished college and they're struggling because they want to be in certain types of relationships but the pornography is messing up those relationships for them."

It often becomes a self-esteem issue for the women involved, says Marcus. "They say, 'If you expect that from me, then forget it. I can't compete with how that girl looks, what that girl does, what you see online.' "

So how are parents — particularly of boys — supposed to know the difference between healthy curiosity and the early signs of a problem? Therapists say the standard signs of addiction apply: they're spending more and more time on it; they use it to cope with external problems; they become isolated; and they try to keep it a secret. "The more of a secret it is," says Marcus, "the more of a problem."

While conclusive data is impossible to come by, many sex therapists believe pornography addiction is growing exponentially with the Internet. In health centres on university campuses, it has become a growing concern. "I have some students at Baylor involved with a 'Christian responsibility group,' " says Brooks, "and they have 'accountability partners,' which is very much like having a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous to help them kick the pornography habit."

Of course, the majority continue to see a little bit of pornography, even among young people, as good, healthy fun. Burgoyne, for instance, is not surprised to hear that teenagers like Christian and Marc openly compare notes about which porn sites offer the "hottest" images, or that Devon's male friends ask her to view pornographic images with them. For Burgoyne, this is all part of growing up male in the digital age: they're unlikely to talk "love" with each other. "If teenage boys admit to having romantic fantasies it could be social suicide," he says, "like saying you're passionate about your stamp collection."

Burgoyne believes parents should discuss sexuality and issues like Internet porn with their teenagers. He does not think parents who discover that their sons are accessing pornographic websites should necessarily panic. "We shouldn't assume that a teen boy who self-pleasures while looking at erotica on the Internet isn't, at heart, just a hopeless romantic," he said. With Lianne George




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