Although there are hundreds upon hundreds of studies exploring the effects of pornography, only a small portion of them analyze porn’s potential effects on teenagers or kids.
That’s partly because it can be understandably difficult to get approval to study minors, but regardless, it’s estimated that 84.4% of 14 to 18-year-old males and 57% of 14 to 18-year-old females have viewed pornography, according to a nationally representative survey of U.S. teens.
In other words, the reality is that porn is a part of the world that kids are growing up with, and it’s important to be aware of the potential consequences porn may be having on young people.
The research on this subject is pretty clear—pornography harms young people, especially when it comes to the ways they view sex and relationships.
In fact, one study showed that approximately 45% of teens who consumed porn did so in part to learn about sex, and another study showed that 44% of boys who watched porn reported that online pornography gave them ideas about the type of sex they wanted to try.
Despite how unrealistic and toxic porn can be, survey results also show that over half of 11 to 16-year-old boys (53%) and over a third of 11 to 16-year-old girls (39%) reported believing that pornography was a realistic depiction of sex. Pretty concerning, right?
But what about teens’ perceptions of porn? Do they recognize that porn can be harmful? How do they describe their experiences with porn?
Well, three different studies set out to answer these questions by asking teens themselves—2020 research by the British Board of Film Classification, 2015 research by Emily Rothman and her team, and 2016 research out of Middlesex University. Here’s what they found.
“It was like a cigarette: I did it once [aged 14] and I was hooked. I usually watch it once a day during the week, and on the weekend, who knows, every hour if I’m bored?” – Jay, 18, Leicester
Porn normalizes sexual violence
- “I’ve made a link between the violence that I saw and my sexual preferences, I’m very sexually submissive… I don’t know whether I’d be like that regardless of the porn. It’s hard to say, I really don’t know.” – April, 18, London
- “I didn’t like [porn] because it came on by accident and I don’t want my parents to find out, and the man looked like he was hurting her—he was holding her down and she was screaming and swearing. I know about sex but it didn’t look nice. It makes me feel sick if I think about my parents doing it like that.” – Female, 11-12, describing the first time she saw porn
- “Some guys just open up the porn [site], and then they just start watchin’ it. And then like the boys start like slapping girls’ butts, grabbing their boobs and stuff. And actually one time this dude… kept reachin’ for my boob, and then I smacked him. Like really hard. And then he hit me back, and I started punchin’ him, and then I got expelled.” – Female, 17
It’s no secret that porn glorifies sexual violence. In fact, a 2021 study found that 1 out of every 8 porn titles shown to first-time visitors to porn sites described acts of sexual violence.
Also, it’s estimated that at least 1 in 3 porn videos and as many as 9 in 10 videos show acts of physical aggression or violence, while about half contain verbal aggression. These studies also found that despite the levels of violence and aggression, the targets were almost always portrayed as responding with pleasure or neutrality. What type of message does that send to young people who turn to porn to learn about sex?
Porn perpetuates sexual misinformation
- “What shocked me is how those females can take anal sex. I tried it once. I seen how the woman and stuff is so—they look like they get an orgasm from it. But when I tried it, I was so stunned, like, I ended up getting ibuprofens and stuff because I was in so much pain.” – Female, 17
- “My friend tried to choke his girlfriend once when they were having sex because he had seen it in a porno… it ended with the girlfriend slapping him and when he asked why she slapped him she said, ‘Because you were choking me.’” – Nicholas, 16, Glasgow
- “Without porn, I wouldn’t know the positions, I wouldn’t know half the things I know now. I never knew even in health class, biology class, everything I’d gone through, that the female body has an ability to squirt.” – Female, 18
Considering how unrealistic porn is, and how common it is for teens to view it, it’s not a shock that young people are learning all the wrong lessons about sex. In fact, a 2021 study suggests that pornography is actively making young people more sexually illiterate.
That last quote, for example, references “squirting,” which is a common porn trope. In porn, “squirting” is usually portrayed as a dramatic expulsion of fluid when a woman orgasms. It’s so common in porn that many people expect or request it from their partners, even though research has found it’s much less common in real life.
Some women may even find themselves wondering what’s wrong with them if they can’t squirt. Research suggests, however, that what porn portrays as “squirting” is likely just urination.
Regardless of any sex act or response in question, it’s not healthy to heap unfair sexual expectations on others simply because it’s common in porn. Because—spoiler alert—porn is not realistic. Like, at all.
As one Fighter wrote to us, “We were having sex when, out of nowhere, he spit on me. I didn’t know how to react. He was embarrassed when he saw that he wasn’t getting the reaction he was expecting…. What he’d seen [in porn] had created unrealistic expectations for what sex would be like. He saw people do things to each other and get certain reactions, and assumed they’d transfer into real life.”
Porn is a lie, not an education.
Porn fuels unhealthy relationship expectations
- “If I watch porn and, like, I see a male porn star, and sometimes like, if I’m with a female, I try to do the exact same thing as they’re doing, ‘cause I figure that they’re stars.” – Male, 17
- “I just thought [of sex] as if it was like a porn video, and I was like, okay, I can do what I want with this girl because whatever I do she is enjoying it.” – Calum, 18, Manchester, reflecting on early sexual experiences
- “You see what is happening in porn and you almost get worried about other people’s relationships, and it puts me off having any future relationships as it is very male-dominated and not romantic or trusting—or promoting good relationships.” – Female, 13
- “At this time we was together, so she really couldn’t tell me no, ya know? I mean, she could have, ‘cause, ya know, but I don’t think she would have told me no. Just because, ya know, I was her boyfriend, and if I wanted to take a video… ya know?” – Male, 17, describing how he filmed sex with his girlfriend
In Rothman’s study, the researchers found a theme in what teens told them about trying to copy porn in their own sexual encounters, and found that this is often an aspect of unhealthy relationships.
For example, a UK survey of over 22,000 adult women, 16% reported having been forced or coerced to perform sex acts the other person had seen in porn.
In porn, consent is not a priority. In fact, a lack of consent is often an intentional part of the storyline. But when it comes to sex, clear consent is not a suggestion—it’s a requirement. Filming someone in a sexual situation without their consent, sharing sexual images or video without consent, or pressuring someone into sex acts they’re uncomfortable with is never okay.
Just because something is common in porn does not mean a partner likes or wants it. All healthy relationships require open communication, respect, and boundaries. Ask your partner—not porn—what they like. Don’t let porn set the standards or boundaries for your relationships.
You deserve better than what porn has to offer
All in all, the research is clear—porn is not creating or perpetuating a healthy sexual environment for young people.
The good news is that we can limit those negative effects by rejecting porn’s toxic narratives and raising awareness on this issue, especially to young people. Let’s refocus on healthy relationships and consider the facts before consuming.
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