Most American teenagers across genders have consumed pornography, according to a new report from Common Sense, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve the impact of media and technology on kids and families. Common Sense partnered with Benenson Strategy Group to administer a survey to teens ages 13 to 17. Of the 1,358 people who responded, nearly three-fourths said they’d either accidentally or intentionally encountered online pornography. Most had recently done so.
Teens aren’t simply watching porn to satisfy their curiosities or as a stimulant for self-pleasure. Seventy-nine percent of survey respondents who’d consumed porn said doing so taught them how to have sex. Just over half had consumed content that depicted actors choking, assaulting, or otherwise inflicting pain on co-stars. Researchers have long contended that what porn watchers see in films oftentimes shapes their current and future sexual expectations and behaviors. Men, women, and genderqueer people can be harmed by this, including those who themselves aren’t porn consumers but are in relationships with partners who are or have been.
“Exposure to pornography at too young an age can lead to poor mental health, sexual violence, and other negative outcomes,” notes Jim Steyer, Founder and CEO of Common Sense. “The overexposure by teens identified in our report can normalize unhealthy views and behaviors about sex and sexual relationships that we don’t want young people to think are commonplace. In addition, with so much exposure to violent pornographic material, a major concern is how this might impact the sensitivity levels of teens to other types of violence.” Teens across all genders are susceptible to these negative outcomes, but prior research shows the risks are more pronounced among young men.
Exposure and consumption rates presented in the Common Sense report varied by gender. Boys comprised 48% of the respondents, girls were 46%, and the remaining 6% were genderqueer. Despite the fairly even number of cisgender teens in the sample, there were differences on a survey question about intentionality. Fifty-two percent of boys said they’d intentionally watched porn, compared to just 36% of girls. In some ways, this is neither new nor unexpected. Think back to pre-internet times… teenage boys were considerably more likely than were girls to have pornographic magazines hidden beneath their mattresses.
Even though the Common Sense report is focused on teens, the consumption differences among cisgender respondents presented therein are consistent with other research that is inclusive of teens and adults. In a 2022 study published in Sexuality Research and Social Policy, a peer-reviewed academic journal, researchers found that more than 97% of boys and young men had consumed pornography, compared to approximately 77% of girls and young women.
San Diego State University Professor Frank Harris III is one of the most respected and highly-cited experts on college men and masculinities. “A consequence of porn consumption among teenage boys is their tendency to pursue inequitable and oppressive sexual relationships during their young adult years,” he says. “For example, some young men may seek to assert themselves as men in sexual relationships by mimicking the aggressive or violent sexual acts that are often depicted in pornography.” Harris and other researchers also acknowledge that porn consumption can result in some young men objectifying and engaging in abusive emotional, verbal, and physical interactions with their partners. This includes, but isn’t limited to heterosexual men’s relationships with women.
In addition to discovering higher consumption rates among boys, there were also sexual orientation and racial differences in the Common Sense survey. Just over 74% of respondents identified as heterosexual; seven out of 10 said they’d been exposed to porn. Among LGBTQ+ teens in the sample, it was 89%. In addition, 69% of Black teens who’d watched porn indicated they’d viewed films that portrayed their racial group in stereotypical ways. It was 61% among Latino survey respondents.
The Common Sense report doesn’t offer a three-way intersectional analysis of the survey results by gender, sexual orientation, and race. I’ve watched 150 pornographic films on a website that has thousands of videos showing men having sex with men. Obviously, I did so entirely for research purposes. Obviously. These videos did not involve boys, teens, or any men who appeared to be under the age of 18. I did an analysis of these videos by race. Specifically, I watched 50 videos in each of these three racial groupings: white men having sex with white men; Black men having sex with Black men; and Black men having sex with white men.
One set of findings from my analysis are particularly relevant to the Common Sense report. Films with white guys having sex with each other often had plots and story lines; the actors talked to each other more often before and during sex; and there was more intimacy between partners (emotional gazing in each other’s eyes, gentle caressing, kissing, etc.). Videos involving Black men had less of this – even less so when the videos included only Black men. Undoubtedly, some women and heterosexual men have either accidentally or intentionally watched gay porn. But queer guys are the overwhelming consumers of this specific genre. These production differences teach powerful, unfortunate, and oftentimes racist lessons to consumers. The Common Sense report confirms that queer teens are among these consumers.
“The ways in which dominant male partners appear in pornography – usually with impeccably fit bodies and well-endowed penises, along with the ability to simultaneously please multiple partners and perform sex for long periods of time without climaxing – are unrealistic,” Harris adds. “This may lead some young men to develop negative perceptions of themselves as sexual partners if they cannot meet these expectations.”
The Common Sense report concludes with three recommendations. The first is to resist the presumption that teens will avoid porn, especially since so many of them accidentally encounter it online. Instead, the report suggests parents and family members should talk with teens about porn, regardless of how awkward those conversations are. The report authors also advocate for age-appropriate sex education curriculum that includes learning about porn, as well as stricter legislation to protect kids from accessing online sexual content.
Because its profits are so massive, I believe that as an act of corporate social responsibility, the porn industry ought to invest a portion of its billions into organizations that seek to eradicate violence against women and LGBTQ+ persons. There is also a role for porn production companies in helping men become considerably more mindful of the dangers associated with internalizing or attempting to reenact what they see in porn.
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