This piece was published in The National Times on 29/6/2010
Teenagers view pornography.
It’s not exactly breaking news, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Australian law still prevents minors from legally viewing sexually explicit material, despite studies over recent decades that have shown that between 80 and 90% of 17 year old males have already been exposed to it on multiple occasions (1). In an age where the internet is fast becoming omnipresent, it’s likely that those figures have increased.
Some might see this as a reason to promote tighter regulation of new media, but the statistics overwhelmingly support a different conclusion: that a considerable, far from indefensible demand for this kind of material exists. It is, surely, completely normal for teenagers to seek out sexual depictions as part of their personal education and psychosexual development – to suggest otherwise is as archaic as condemning masturbation. Furthermore, it seems a major inconsistency that teenagers are legally permitted to sexually experiment within their own age group (2), yet not view the act itself (3).
The truth is that there is a major dichotomy between what medical professionals understand is healthy and positive and what Neo-Victorians wish to protect society from. We live in an age where the mere depiction of the human body can still create social panic, while a reactionary government turns to censorship in an effort to control new technology (technology which, as Senator Conroy’s defence of the Government’s internet filter scheme shows, is still being dealt with in ‘old media’ terms). The status quo reflects an almost wilful ignorance of the fact that, apart from sexual education classes and awareness campaigns about rape and sexual assault, a substantial proportion of information about sex available to (particularly male) adolescents is being provided through pornographic media.
While studies about the effects of pornography on children and adolescents are not entirely conclusive, one does not have to be a Rhodes Scholar to reach a self-evident conclusion: pornography, tool of personal pleasure that it is, must have some kind of impact on the way teenagers view sex. Thus, pornography which depicts sexual acts and the human form in a positive, respectful, non-sexist and healthy manner is going to have a positive effect on attitudes towards sex and women, particularly on the developing mind of the adolescent; likewise, pornography which portrays people in a degrading manner, promotes misogynistic attitudes, presents universalised, exaggerated depictions of the human form or normalises an unrealistic depiction of sexual acts, is likely to have a negative impact on the way adolescents view sex and other people in general. Unfortunately, the reality is that the vast majority of internet pornography falls into the latter category, and for curious, relatively undiscerning adolescents, this kind of material must surely play some role in the way their views of themselves, women and sex are formed.
Pornography is, by and large, a commercial enterprise. It is extraordinarily lucrative because it is far cheaper and simpler to produce than most other forms of entertainment media. It appeals to more basic cognitive processes (i.e. the sexual urge), and thus allows for far less of a critical interaction with what is portrayed. The law’s general failure to regulate it means that there are few, if any, ethical or artistic standards involved in the production of internet pornography, yet, the substandard and often exploitative product remains popular and commercially viable. This is far from an ideal situation.
Society must, at some stage, accept that not only is there a widespread demand for pornography, but that it also has the potential, in the process of adhering to certain values, to aid healthy adolescent sexual development. It may seem ludicrous to envision Government funded pornography, but there is no reason why such an enlightened initiative would not be theoretically feasible. Through broadcasters such as the ABC, the Government already gives funding to comedy, entertainment, current affairs programmes and sport; the only reason, it seems, that pornography could not join those ranks is its general lack of perceived legitimacy. It is something that is widely consumed, both by adults and adolescents, yet still treated as something dirty that ought to provoke feelings of shame and guilt. Part of the blame for this lies with the equation of the term ‘pornography’ with the degrading and exploitative material that is widespread on the internet. One might contend that feelings of shame that might occur whilst viewing that sort of material are in fact appropriate; nevertheless, its popularity remains sourceable to the lack of a widely available alternative.
Such an alternative could take many forms. A Government funded website or periodical aimed at adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18, for example, containing erotic and/or informative sexual content (written as well as visual); a high standard of journalism that is simultaneously accessible to the demographics in question; a feminist, but not misandrist, bent; a diverse, open-minded and celebratory view of sex; at least a small quota of queer material; healthy and realistic depictions of the human form, both male and female; opportunities for reader feedback; and rigorous production and employment standards that guard against exploitation. It is not expected that such a publication would eclipse the popularity of conventional internet pornography, but its key function would be to provide an alternative, and perhaps diversify the market. It may seem far-fetched, but there is little standing in the way of this being realised – little, that is, but alarmist and hypocritical societal attitudes towards sex and the depiction of it.
The sexual urge is healthy; responding to visual (and other) stimuli is healthy; curiosity and sexual self-awareness are healthy. It is natural for adolescents to wish to explore sex, and it is important that the right kinds of materials are available to them. The sooner our society accepts this, the better.
(1) Australian Institute of Criminology’s February 2009 report “Adolescence, Pornography and Harm”: http://www.aic.gov.au/upload/aic/publications/tandi2/tandi368.pdf
(2) Australian Age of Consent Laws: http://www.childwise.net/downloads/Age_of_consent.pdf
(3) Australian Classification Guidelines: http://www.comlaw.gov.au/ComLaw/Legislation/LegislativeInstrumentCompilation1.nsf/0/F0EC030A108C93DDCA2574120004F6B8/$file/FCGGuidelines2005.pdf