Arguments are made all the time in defense of the “harmlessness” of pornography.
All it takes is one quick Twitter search to find consumers who aren’t afraid to express their love for XXX content and argue that porn is a personal issue above all else.
The trouble with these statements? They’re usually pretty misinformed. Pornography’s harmful effects on the brain, relationships, and society are shocking and sad. For instance, there is building evidence that links child exploitation and the mainstream adult entertainment industry.
So if you’re new to the idea that porn is harmful, or you’ve already been aware of the science and research, check out just one more reason to raise awareness that porn is not harmless.
How once-shocking content can become normal for consumers
Every single day, children are filmed or photographed while they’re sexually abused in order to create content that is then distributed for entertainment and arousal worldwide. The exploitation of minors is not discriminated by age, gender, or social status, and the victims are all too often abused by someone they know and trust.
The question is: why has child exploitation become such a global issue and so normalized? While the answer is more complex, part of it is that the adult entertainment industry isn’t exactly blameless, here.
Claiming to be a harmless porn consumer may sound acceptable, but even mainstream content normalizes the exploitation of children, and no matter content creators’ intentions, that’s not acceptable.
As internet pornography has evolved to become more extreme, so has the sexual preferences of its consumers. Genres that weren’t necessarily the top choice twenty years ago are now some of the most sought-after materials. Words like “teen” now appear as one of the top search terms on popular porn sites, year after year. Performers portray underage tweens—or, for all the consumer knows, they are underage—and are often shown in a scenario where they are taken advantage of by an older male, which normalizes illegal and unacceptable situations.
And here’s where “sexy” gets scary.
Research has shown that our brains learn better when they’re sexually aroused and countless studies have shown porn’s effects on rewiring people’s sexual template. “Normal,” softcore porn may be the consumer’s original genre of choice, but clicking from performer to performer, image to image, changes more than just what’s on the computer screen; it can change the consumer’s arousal template as well.
An arousal template consists of the “total constellation of thoughts, images, behaviors, sounds, smells, sights, fantasies, and objects that arouse us sexually” according to Patrick Carnes, Ph.D. These templates are developed over time—throughout our childhood, relationships with families, communities we’re involved in, and (of course) the media. It’s in these arousal templates that a person develops a “type,” and while you may believe that your type is set in stone it can, in fact, be changed.
Consider how pornography is an escalating habit—if a consumer starts with static images, they will eventually move on to videos. And from one type of video, they’ll move on to more extreme versions of porn in greater amounts to achieve the same arousal. What someone sees in porn, and what they are aroused by in seeing different types of porn, can eventually be incorporated into a consumer’s arousal template.
This escalation mixed with a high tolerance for otherwise shocking or concerning material can create a dangerous mixture in some extreme cases—enter sexual exploitation.
Animated porn, like the crazy popular hentai porn that originated in Japan, has the ability to portray unrealistic or illegal scenes without any of the roadblocks that come with recording real footage. After all, with animation, you can create people to look and act however you want.
Because the bodies aren’t real, cartoon porn can show completely unrealistic people and animals in acts of extreme sexual violence as a form of sexual entertainment. A sub-genre of hentai called Lolicon is intended to make the subject of sexual attraction look like a young girl—or even a toddler. The children are often portrayed as frightened or resisting, and even sometimes are depicted to be enjoying the sexual abuse. Even if the consumer does not initially look for pictures of young girls in the hentai world, chances are, they will eventually stumble across them.
And, what’s more, now consumers can act out their sexual fantasies through interactive games. These virtual worlds allow the player to wander through a little girl’s room, where they can then touch and strip her while she sleeps.
What about what research says?
Like we said before, for some people, an interest in softcore porn will eventually evolve into a curiosity for more shocking and violent material—or in some more extreme cases, child exploitation images. Child sexual abuse material (CSAM), or “child pornography” as it’s commonly known, desensitizes the consumer to the harm against the children depicted, and this content can begin to normalize a sexual interest in children.
A study done by Fortin & Proulx in 2018 analyzed data extracted from the hard drives of 40 convicted CSAM collectors. What they found is that the tastes of these individuals grew more severe over time. 37.5% of the collections increased in severity in terms of both age and extremeness (measured using the Combating Paedophile Information Networks in Europe [COPINE] scale), meaning that the children depicted became younger and the acts became more extreme over time. They also noted that all of the child pornography collections included mainstream pornography content.
This is consistent with research that discusses the novelty-seeking behavior of pornography users.
And even aside from adult offenders of child abuse, consider how mainstream porn inspires minors to try what they’ve acted out on their peers.
“In nearly every case we’ve heard, pornography has had a role to play. Take, for instance, the story of a 13-year-old boy who raped an 8-year-old neighbor girl multiple times in front of other children. The boy appears to have been addicted to hardcore pornography at the time of the incident. In another case, a teen girl in Ireland was brutally raped, tortured, and murdered just last year by two male classmates—one of whom had thousands of pornographic images on his cell phones.”
Why This Matters
There is an undeniable supply-and-demand connection between pornography and exploitation—especially when consuming habits and fantasies involve violence or other fetishes. It increases the demand for the sexual exploitation of minors, as more and more consumers want to act out what they see.
A child, any child, should never be at risk of exploitation because of the sexual interest of another. “Harmful” pornography all too often escalates into a rampant desire for more shocking material—even if that means a child was taken advantage of in the process of creating content. Even one child’s exploitation for the entertainment of another is too much.
There is nothing sexy about exploiting the most vulnerable and defenseless members of our society for personal entertainment. No child abuse should be sold as a sexual fantasy.