Pornography used to be relegated to suspicious movie theatres, back rooms at video stores, and expensive cable channels in hotels. The Internet has made porn accessible to anyone with a computer or a smart phone, and porn use by teenagers is steadily rising. Besides setting up unrealistic expectations about sex, heavy porn use may correlate with poorer mental health, according to new research from an Australian study.
Dr. Megan Lim from the Burnet Institute conducted a study of 940 young Australians. Some of the findings: almost all young Australian men frequently watched porn, porn watching starts at a younger age than ever before (13 for boys, 16 for girls), and young people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer watched pornography more frequently and from a younger age than straight teens. The study was based on an online survey of 941 participants recruited via social media in 2015, and it was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.
Dr. Lim said of the results: “All the young men in our study said they’d seen pornography, and so did the majority of women.” Besides this,
“Around 80 per cent of young men said they watched weekly, and among the women who watched pornography, nearly two-thirds viewed at least monthly.” She and her research team found a link between pornography use, mental health problems, and sexually activity at a younger age.
The impact of porn on young people and their relationships
When your first (and most frequent) source of sexual information is porn, the likely emotional result is feeling inadequate. Young people can feel intimidated about dating and their sexual performance because they fear they can’t live up to the expectations set by porn.
The actors in pornography are always sexually performing. The male actors never lose their erections, (thanks in part to overuse of erectile dysfunction drugs) and the women are constantly aroused and ready for sex.
That’s not how it plays out with actual people and real relationships, but if you’ve never had a sexual encounter, you don’t know this. The average age of first exposure to pornography is declining—this is another result the researchers discovered—so very likely most young Australian teens watch a virtual sexual encounter before experiencing one with another person.
LGBT youth use pornography for sex education
Pornography use has become a main form of sex education for LGBT youth in Australia. Dr. Lim on this subject: “While we’re not clear on what kind of influence it might be having on [young people’s] sexual development, with such high rates of use pornography needs to be considered in teaching people about sex in a changing world.”
And the researchers also found that young people who did not identify as heterosexual often felt excluded from sexual education at school, which is often focused on heterosexual behaviour. “Our hypothesis is that these teenagers are being missed in traditional sex education and even in the media,” Dr. Lim said. Standard sex ed doesn’t cover anal sex, and it usually approaches oral sex from a heterosexual angle. The terminology, the imagery, and the underlying message are aimed at heterosexual teenagers, to the exclusion of LGBT youth.
Sex education needs to address pornography
There’s a real need to include pornography in sex education, so young people can understand it has little to do with real sex—it’s actually people performing for a camera. For mental and physical health, early and useful sex education is crucial. A boring talk from a gym teacher or school nurse can’t hold up next to flashy Internet sex—if a school’s sexual education program doesn’t acknowledge pornography, it’s not going to reach the majority of kids listening.
Besides teaching teenagers to be responsible (and knowledgeable on sex, which is important for a functional society), a stronger and more comprehensive sexual education program—that address LGBT sex—might help slow the growing mental health statistics in that group.
The link between pornography and poor mental health
Dr. Lim’s study found a correlation between the use of pornography and poor mental health. “We’re not out to prove that watching porn is a bad thing. But definitely watching pornography more frequently is associated with some negative outcomes such as poor mental health, though we can’t say from this study if one is causing the other,” Dr. Lim said.
Hearing adults—who are still some sort of authority figures to teens—discuss the differences between sex in porn versus sex in real life could clear up some of the confusion around why screen sex seems so much better than real sex. And it might remind teens that they don’t have to look like the bodies in porn films (or magazines, or movies), which are so unrealistic as to be unattainable.
Body related anxiety and its related mental health issues are another side effect of watching a lot of porn. Dr. Lim, again: “Pornography is designed for entertainment and it’s a performance. It doesn’t reflect what people necessarily do in the real world. I’m not suggesting schools provide details about how to have anal sex, but they need to acknowledge it does exist in the real world as well as in porn and to discuss the differences in how it’s portrayed in pornography as opposed to how it’s practiced in the real world.”
The inventions of verification and Internet filtering software are not very good at preventing a motivated young person’s access to pornography—the young person is going to find what they’re looking for, without a lot of effort. Denying that pornography exists and influences youth, like too many schools do, perpetuates isolation (especially among LBGT youth) and affects mental health. Developing relevant, current sexual education programs is one way to meet this challenge, and educating parents of teens is another.
About Clinton Power
Clinton is a relationship therapist with over 14 years of experience working with individuals and couples with relationship issues. He is the founder of Clinton Power + Associates, a private practice dedicated to helping singles and couples move out of relationship pain in Sydney, Australia.
Clinton Power is the former founder of Australia Counselling, which is a free directory for finding counsellors and psychologists in Australia. Clinton’s book 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship has been downloaded over 4,000 times and is available for Kindle on Amazon. Follow Clinton on Twitter or Facebook.
(June, 2017) Pornography the norm for young Australians. Retrieved from https://www.burnet.edu.au/news/852_pornography_the_norm_for_young_australians
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.