This guest post was written by Matt Morrissey, a licensed therapist in Seattle, WA. 6 minute read.

Boys Exposed: How Porn Traumatizes

According to most research, the average age of a child being exposed to pornography is 11 years old. As a therapist in a city home to one of the largest tech industries in the nation, I can tell you that the number is probably closer to 8 and is often as young as 6.

New research from security technology companies suggests that children under the age of 10 now account for 1 in 10 visitors to porn video sites.

We know this. We’ve been talking about this for more than a decade. We know that children have access to graphic sexual images. And we know that our culture is over-sexualized and desensitized to the impact of sexual violence. So in our understandable effort to protect our kids and ourselves, we set passwords, install software, and make sure everyone gets “the talk.” We fight to educate and protect our friends and family from the negative impact of porn, all the while most everyone else is still living in denial. We are pioneers.

And yet, we need to continue to take a closer look.

My work as a therapist is primarily with boys and men, and my research has been on how gender socialization impacts how boys and men internalize and code unwanted childhood sexual experiences. Though we know porn’s effects don’t discriminate based on gender, I want to help boys and men learn to see and name how toxic masculinity impacts their own development and healing.

So while porn can affect everyone, let’s look at the particularity of how exposure to porn impacts boys.

How exposure to porn traumatize boys

The body always responds in the way that it was meant to. More specifically, when a boy’s body is first exposed to pornographic language, images, or sounds often the first response is fear and his cortisol levels begin to rise. [1] Soon after fear moves to arousal and pleasure, dopamine and oxytocin begin to flood the brain, and within seconds we have the biochemical cocktail of a sexual traumatic experience. As a young child, he has not yet developed the capacity to process and understand what is happening in his body. He knows he is experiencing something deeply arousing and exciting, and at the same time often feels scared, anxious, and unprepared.

Related: True Story: What Shame Had To Do With Fueling My Porn Obsession

A boy’s anatomy allows for little subtly in the realm of arousal. His sexual organs live outside of him. And despite the brain’s signals of danger and fear, often his penis exposes just how alive his heart feels. His ambivalence is concretized; he is both afraid and intrigued. And often, he will begin to chase the feelings of fear and pleasure, continuing to link them in his brain. [2] And in a toxic masculinity culture, the loop of risk-taking and pleasure-seeking is praised and expected, even if it only happens in secret.

This is all a setup.

Young boys of the upcoming generations are being exposed, traumatized, and bound to sexual tastes and behaviors that are almost always dishonorable, exploitative, and dehumanizing. And this type of sexuality inevitably leads to only a greater level of degradation [3] and sexual violent behavior in adulthood.

A child is not meant to participate in sexual acts. We have laws against that. And yet, the very nature of the exposure to pornography requires a boy to join in with the actors on the screen. He’s required to be sexual in a way that he had never known before. And while often this happens accidentally in isolation, it is far more likely for this to occur through the introduction of a more sophisticated and mature peer or adolescent, and even in some cases, an adult. He is required to participate twofold: both with the images on the screen and with the persons providing the access.

Related: Is The Problem Porn Or Shame (Or Both)?

And so here lies the most harmful level of our collective sexuality: most of us have been given access to pornography through our fathers and our grandfathers, through our cousins and our uncles, through our mothers and our sisters, and most definitely through our best friends and our classmates. Our bodies, our sexualities, and our identities are then bound together through shame and contempt. [4]

As boys, we’re told that it’s a type of sexual initiation. It’s assumed that we should be grateful and proud, that “boys will be boys” and “erections don’t lie.” And at the end of the day, our sexual worth is based merely on our authority and power. And while it is often introduced communally or relationally, it always leads boys into deeper levels of isolation and deprivation. It both divides and unites us, resulting in a boyhood traumatized and fragmented.

What now?

How do we begin to address both our own stories of being exposed and how our friends and family also live in this paradox each and every day?

First, we need to begin to engage our own first encounters with the words, images, and sounds that both enticed and stunned us. How was it that you discovered your dad’s stash? Who taught you what to type in the search bar? How was pornography either displayed or stored in your home? And if not there, where were you when you were first exposed?

Related: Research Reveals How These 3 Factors Fuel A Toxic Porn Habit

There are stories of exposure and introduction that live inside a guy’s body and psyche. In my experience, often it is in these stories that boys hold the most shame, disgust, and contempt toward their young bodies and desires. And yet, the stories we tell ourselves about these early memories are usually fogged through the lenses of unhealthy masculinity. And so the tragic truth is hidden behind the humor, the subtly, or our own passive complicity. Your body remembers the encounter in more ways than you may know. But too often, shame keeps us silent.

You need to know that your story matters.

Share your stories

As boys and men, we are often taught to dismiss and hide our emotional experiences. In order to effectively speak out against the harm of porn, we must also tell our own stories truthfully and with vulnerability. And in this process, may we also create a movement of boys and men who speak honestly about their complicated, arousing, and confusing feelings. Together, we can redefine masculinity. May we teach our friends and family that sexuality is meant to be whole, healthy, and beautiful—full of both receiving and giving pleasure in a way that brings honor and gratitude to all parties involved.

Related: Why Being Anti-Porn & Anti-Shame Go Hand In Hand

The reality is that exposure to pornography is often a traumatic experience – most of us were exposed before our bodies were meant to be sexual. And yet, trauma can be healed. Research shows that healing always requires us to enter into the depths of the story with others in order to offer care and safety to the fragmented pieces of our bodies and our hearts. [5]

I have witnessed dozens of boys and men find freedom from unwanted porn addiction by first going back to the scenes of when they were first exposed.

They begin to see that in fact, they are not dirty, shameful men. Instead, more often than not their young boyhood curiosity, desire, and imagination were taken and used against them, sexualized in unwanted fantasies. We can shift our identity and behaviors by allowing other people to help us see our narratives more clearly. [6] And weekly, I see men free themselves to thrive in relationship with their families, partners, and friends.

When we tell both our own stories and give space for others to tell theirs, we help reconstruct a masculinity and sexuality that does not require boys and men to continue in cycles of isolation, shame, and self-contempt.

About the Author

Matt Morrissey is a licensed therapist in Seattle, WA, helping boys and men unmask the shame, fear, and loneliness often hidden behind unwanted porn and sexual addictions. He is passionate about helping teen boys and men learn to connect and thrive both relationally and sexually, and overcoming boyhood sexual trauma. You can check him out on Facebook or visit his website for more information.

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Citations

[1] Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience Of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review And Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. Doi:10.3390/Bs5030388;
[2] Morgan, E. M. (2011). Associations Between Young Adults’ Use Of Sexually Explicit Materials And Their Sexual Preferences, Behaviors, And Satisfaction. Journal Of Sex Research, 48(6), 520-530. Doi:10.1080/00224499.2010.543960
[3] Morgan, E. M. (2011). Associations Between Young Adults’ Use Of Sexually Explicit Materials And Their Sexual Preferences, Behaviors, And Satisfaction. Journal Of Sex Research, 48(6), 520-530. Doi:10.1080/00224499.2010.543960; Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography And Violence: A New Look At The Research. In J. Stoner & D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs Of Pornography: A Collection Of Papers (Pp. 57–68). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Carroll, J. S., Padilla-Walker, L. M., & Nelson, L. J. (2008). Generation XXX: Pornography Acceptance And Use Among Emerging Adults. Journal Of Adolescent Research 23(1), 6–30. Doi:10.1177/0743558407306348; Haggstrom-Nordin, E., Tyden, T., & Hanson, U. (2005). Associations Between Pornography Consumption And Sexual Practices Among Adolescents In Sweden. International Journal Of STD & AIDS, 16(2), 102–7. Doi:10.1258/0956462053057512; Wingood, G. M., Et Al. (2001). Exposure To X-Rated Movies And Adolescents’ Sexual And Contraceptive-Related Attitudes And Behaviors. Pediatrics, 107(5), 1116–19. Retrieved From Https://Www.Ncbi.Nlm.Nih.Gov/Pubmed/11331695
[4] “Chapter 6.” Healing the Wounded Heart: the Heartache of Sexual Abuse and the Hope of Transformation, by Dan B. Allender, Baker Books, a Division of the Baker Publishing Group, 2016
[5] Rose, S.D. (2004). Naming and claiming: The integration of traumatic experience and the reconstruction of self in survivors’ stories of sexual abuse. In K.L. Rogers and S. Leydersdorff (Eds.), Trauma: Life stories of survivors (pp. 160–179). New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
[6] Kearney, R. (2007). Narrating pain: The power of catharsis. Paragraph, 30(1):51-66.

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