Is porn the new normal?

Viewing porn is as normal as breathing for lots of young people. But a growing number are now trying to kick what they say has become a destructive habit. Bruce Munro takes a look at how a world awash with porn is shaping a generation.

Jenny Munro, of the Otago Youth Wellness Trust, is concerned about the way porn is shaping young...
Jenny Munro, of the Otago Youth Wellness Trust, is concerned about the way porn is shaping young people's views of sex and relationships. Photos by ODT.
He signed on as Ecopin.

I am a 17-year-old male from New Zealand, he wrote on the online message board last month..

The details were sparse.

''Wanting to stop all PMO,'' he stated.

''Tried to stop many times to no avail.''

His request was straightforward.

''Looking for an accountability partner. Would like someone who can email daily. Preferably around my age.''

During the same week, elsewhere in New Zealand, a twenty-something male with the username Immanuel was also posting his first message on the same public forum.

''For the past 10 years, I have struggled with M and P [masturbation and pornography],'' Immanuel explained.

''My admission to medical school [depends] completely on marks from university this year. I don't want P and M to stop me reaching my dream.''

Within a couple of hours of submitting their first posts, Immanuel and Ecopin each received messages from people elsewhere in the world offering encouragement and help.

Associate Professor Jesse Bering, of the University of Otago.
Associate Professor Jesse Bering, of the University of Otago.
They are part of the growing, global ''NoFap'' online community.

If you are waiting with trepidation for the internet pornography tidal wave to hit, you are too late.

That tsunami made landfall at least five years ago.

Now, in this cyber-porn version of Waterworld, a new phenomenon is emerging.

Individuals, mostly males, who are banding together to take up the challenge to give masturbation and porn (known collectively by the onomatopoeic ''fap'') the flick for anything from one month to forever.

They tend to be young men, swamped and feeling they are drowning in the worldwide flood of internet porn.

Global porn revenues were estimated to be $US97 billion in 2006.

Since then revenues have halved.

Not because there is less demand, but because the voracious appetite is being fed by free online porn.

One in four internet search engine requests is for sexually explicit material, an estimated 68 million porn searches every day.

Otago Secondary Principals' Association chairman Wayne Bosley.
Otago Secondary Principals' Association chairman Wayne Bosley.
It is predominantly, but by no means exclusively, the domain of men.

And it is just a click of the mouse away, no matter what age, gender or orientation the searcher.

On average, boys are first exposed to porn by the age of 12.

For girls it is a year or two later.

In one study, 42% of male university students surveyed said they regularly viewed pornographic material.

Others believe it is quite a bit higher.

Porn is now thoroughly mainstream among the under-25s.

Grant, Richard and Tom [not their real names] are all typical-looking students at the University of Otago.

Richard has shoulder-length hair and the start of a beard.

The other two are clean-shaven with short back and sides.

They are a little taken aback when approached at random in Dunedin's George St with questions about young people and porn.

After a few shy smirks and sideways glances at each other, they agree to talk honestly if their names are not used.

Each is from a different part of New Zealand, but all have been regularly viewing porn online since they were about 16 years old.

It is pretty much the same story with most guys they know.

''But usage certainly went up after I left home,'' Tom says.

None are in a relationship, although Richard was dating someone during the summer holidays.

The three friends view porn four or five times a week, usually for 15 to 20 minutes before going to bed.

The frequency can increase, however, if they are hung over or stressed.

''There's a lot more porn around exam time,'' Richard says.

Masturbation is always part of the package.

''Because masturbation without porn is no good,'' Richard explains.

During five years of consuming porn they have noticed a marked increase in the image quality and the variety of what is out there.

They are not aware of experiencing any specific negative impacts of fapping.

''But I do notice that when I'm having sex I'm expecting more,'' Grant adds.

Does that mean he asks partners to do things he has seen online?

''Not asking for it. And I realise it won't be up to that standard. But kind of expecting it,'' he replies.

University of Otago Associate Professor Jesse Bering says today's porn is different from that of pre-digital days in three fundamental ways.

Prof Bering, who has written several books on sexuality, says the ''modern urbanisation'' of porn has been made possible by the ''triple A effect: access, affordability and anonymity''.

''Prior to the internet, hardcore porn was only for those brazen enough to compromise their identity by walking into an adult video store,'' Prof Bering says.

But with an dizzying variety of porn now on tap, and repeated ''hits'' of the brain's pleasure chemical dopamine able to be self-administered with each click of the mouse, the spectre of porn addiction is looming large.

The notion is still controversial in some quarters, Prof Bering says.

''But there's no denying that, for some young people, excessive porn use can be a major problem,'' he says.

''One university student emailed me to say that he'd been spending so much time locked in his dorm room `porning' that he'd been skipping meals, losing sleep and failing classes.

''With recurrent exposure to the arousing stimulus, some people eventually require more and more extreme porn to achieve the same initial effect.''

Prof Bering warns against accepting the idea that porn is wrong without examining why someone is claiming it is wrong.

Some porn users seem unable to ''ration or balance their use judiciously''. But for most people the occasional, or even more than occasional, viewing of porn ''isn't terribly worrisome'', he says.

''At the moment there's no strong evidence that occasional pornography use leads to any destructive or violent behaviour or any more objectification of others than we otherwise would engage in.''

That is not the view of Jenny Munro.

The Otago Youth Wellness Trust senior practitioner is no Patricia Bartlett.

But she is deeply concerned about the negative impact she sees porn having on young people's attitudes to sex, women and relationships.

''Porn is informing young people's understandings of sex,'' Mrs Munro, who has taught and lectured on sexuality and health at secondary and tertiary level, says.

''We're being very naive if we don't think it is.''

The whole social media world is extremely sexualized, she says.

Take, for example, this month's hugely popular film adaptation of the bestseller 50 Shades of Grey.

''It is reinforcing sexualized violence in a gratuitous way.

"It is part of the smorgasbord of sexualized social media content which is in young people's everyday lives.''

The point was forcefully made by half a dozen older teenagers for whom she was running a sexual health and wellbeing workshop late last year. The aim was to explore the notion of respectful, healthy relationships.

''When it came to talking about relationships there was chatter amongst the boys and then laughter. And I heard what they said.''

The comments were about rough anal sex. Mrs Munro stopped and asked what made them think girls liked that.

''Oh no, they're gagging for it, Miss. We've seen it,'' they replied.

Porn is an informal but formative educator that is no respecter of social or economic boundaries.

About 90% of children aged 8 to 16 say that they have viewed porn.

By the age of 18, almost 40% of boys and 23% of girls have seen sex acts involving bondage online.

With pupils now encouraged to bring their own internet-capable devices to school, the risk of first time and repeat exposure to porn is high.

Because its impact is already pervasive, porn should be discussed as part of secondary school sexuality education which addresses healthy, respectful relationships, Mrs Munro believes.

''I think it would be welcomed by parents. Parents themselves don't know how to handle it,'' she says.

Wayne Bosley, who is chairman of the Otago Secondary Principals Association and principal of Mt Aspiring College, says ''student safety ... is paramount to all schools''.

Each school develops its own health programmes in consultation with its communities, he says.

This month, national guidelines were issued to clarify teachers' rights if they caught pupils using digital technology inappropriately.

Pupils spotted ''sexting'', cyber-bullying or storing information ''harmful to their peers and the learning environment'' can be asked to show the content and delete it or face having their phone or laptop seized and handed to police.

It has been said that we live in such a porn-saturated environment that it is difficult to measure the impacts because it is hard to find a control group that is not using. But such a group is beginning to re-emerge.

Its most visible face is the quickly growing NoFap online community.

It began in June 2011, when a link to a United States health study was posted on the social networking website Reddit.

The study, which suggested men who did not masturbate for seven days had a 46% increase in testosterone, led to a week-long online challenge to abstain from fapping.

One of those who took part suggested ''fapstinence'' could be a powerful motivational tool.

And so NoFap was born.

In the past 14 months, the NoFap community has almost doubled to 141,922 members, including New Zealanders.

In the NoFap universe, this is Fapless February.

Those who sign up to a challenge, whether for a week, a month, or longer, do so for a variety of reasons.

For some it is to test their self-control. For others it is to improve their attitudes to sex and relationships, or to try to get free of what has become a compulsive habit.

For a surprisingly large number of young men it is also an attempt to cure excessive porn-induced erectile dysfunction.

There are online testimonies of those who have gone no fap. But so far, there is no clear data on its value, safety or efficacy.

During the past week, three Dunedin-based young people - Grant and Richard (who were approached on George St) and a 21-year-old female student - agreed to test the waters with a few days of no fap.

Sarah [not her real name] has used erotic literature since high school and began viewing online porn last year.

Four days into a fap-free week, she says it has not been difficult to cut out the porn.

Not masturbating is making her feel ''hornier'', she says.

Richard ''caved in'' just short of a week.

''It got more difficult once I knew I wasn't allowed to,'' he says.

''I think seven days without fapping is a bit much.''

Grant managed three and a-half days.

He had not given in during the weekend despite feeling tempted.

But by Monday afternoon he was ready to call it quits.

''I was certainly more inclined to pull [girls] when I was in town over the weekend, because I wasn't allowed to fap,'' he says.

Their efforts pale in comparison to NoBrainer, a 19-year-old New Zealand student who first signed on to the NoFap website in January last year.

At the top of his posts is some biographical detail and his thoughts on fap.

''I get a rush searching for porn,'' he writes.

''It's boring, and I can never find the perfect video, only more to get off to. It's the same sh** over and over again.

''I have let this habit get out of control. I'm addicted to both porn and masturbation and they will destroy my life if I don't destroy them.''

Since starting, he has posted 635 times, creating monthly journals of his progress.

It has not been without relapses. But this week he was 20 days shy of reaching his latest goal of 180 days without porn.

The bottom of each post lists a short set of goals and then three fap-defying affirmations.

''I can do this. I WILL do this. I MUST DO THIS.''

 


PORN: THE STATISTICS

• In 2006, global porn revenues were estimated at some $US97 billion. Global porn revenues have halved since 2007, largely due to the amount of free porn online.

• Every day, an estimated 68 million internet search engine requests (25% of all search terms entered) are for pornography.

• About three-quarters of those visiting hardcore porn websites are males aged 18 to 45.

• On average, the first exposure to pornography among males is at age 12.

• By the age of 18, almost 40% of boys and 23% of girls have seen acts of sex involving bondage online.

• About 88% of scenes in porn films contain acts of physical aggression, and 49% of scenes contain verbal aggression.

• In one study, 42% of male university students surveyed said they regularly viewed pornographic material. Of those, 19% said they felt ''controlled'' by their sexual desires.

• In the past 14 months, the online global NoFap community has almost doubled to 141,922 members.


 

 

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