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Pornography and Sexting

Many gay teens first confront the reality of their same-sex attractions by viewing pornography, and learn from it what Sex Ed in schools didn’t teach them. While underage exposure is not necessarily harmful, they need to learn that the scenarios of pornography are usually not realistic.

 

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Pornographic images, that is, representations of sexualized acts and bodies for the purpose of sexual arousal, date back to ancient times, and these have grown more realistic and explicit since the advent of photography and motion pictures. Images deemed as “pornographic” may have other uses besides pure arousal, such as Baroque paintings which have artistic merit or ancient Mesopotamian erotic figurines and votive plaques that likely had religious significance. Even the consumption of pornography for sexual gratification can stem from several different motivations, including relieving stress, managing intimacy needs after sexual trauma, exploring sexual identities, and much more.

Cultures prior to the 19th century made little effort to hide such images from the young or thought that sexual knowledge harmed them. Our culture is far more anxious about their impact and influence, particularly inasmuch as some of the material now available conveys highly unrealistic or even abusive sexual scenarios that we would not want to see inexperienced youngsters imitate. Young people, especially those on the rainbow spectrum, have unavoidable vulnerabilities, which make the proper balance of liberty and paternalism a difficult problem for parents.

Parents of gay teens in particular need tact, receptiveness, and respect when discussing all aspects of sex with their children, as heterosexual parents cannot as easily connect their own experiences to the distinct doubts and anxieties of rainbow youths. Specifically, how should parents of a gay or bisexual teen deal with their use of pornography? Is it ever prudent to limit what they can do or see on the internet? What should a parent do if they discover their son or daughter is sending sexually explicit images of themselves to others? Porn has some risks for sexual minorities, but also has some unique benefits that should not be ignored.

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Teens are by nature curious about sex and their developing bodies. Today, they can access, create, and send pornography near instantaneously via the internet, chat rooms, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media platforms. Over the last 20 years, researchers have found that the use of pornography is ubiquitous for both those over 18 and under.

In some samples, as much as 80% of the population report regular use of pornography, with the average age of onset around 14 [1]. A more  recent review of the literature on pornography and teens found varying rates of use across different cultures, with between 7% and 59% of teens reporting that they seek out pornography, and more males than females reporting intentional pornography use [2]. One study in the UK showed that 50% of all Britons below 30 have watched pornography while underaged [57].

In another large population study in the Czech Republic, researchers found that 65% of young women and 81% of young men watched pornography alone [3].  Over 60% of teens spoke to a same-gender peer about their pornography use, but fewer than 20% of teens spoke with parents about their pornography use. On the other hand, parents who hold more conservative values about pornography and premarital sex tend to have teens that use less pornography [4]. 

Some older studies from the UK found that teens who used pornography watched an average of about 40 minutes per week. In newer studies researchers have found that up to 30% of teens watch porn “regularly”, meaning at least weekly [5].  The problem with trying to get clear data on amount of time or frequency of pornography use is that researchers use varying definitions for what exactly constitutes pornography [6]. So, as of right now, minimal quality data exists.

Among the reasons why people view pornography, sexual stimulation is primary. For example, studies on teens’ porn consumption which measure the trait “sensation seeking” show that high scores on sensation seeking correlate with higher rates of porn use [2]. Family stress correlated with more pornography use as well, and more pornography use correlates with stronger feelings of shame [2].

Roughly 60% of young men reported watching pornography out of curiosity, compared to only 33% of females. Between 20-40% of teens watched pornography out of a desire to learn about sex, while 22% of young women and 70% of young men reported watching pornography purely for the sake of satisfying arousal [3]. Some teens use pornography as an unhealthy coping mechanism, sometimes due to pre-existing mental health issues such as excessive aggression [7].

Teens don’t have to look very hard. Although what is called the “Golden Age of Porn” in American history is said to have occurred between 1969 and 1984, when production values were higher and it attempted to maintain a veneer of artistic merit [53], never has it been more prevalent or more attainable than it is today in the digital age. For anyone with internet access, more pornography than can be viewed in several lifetimes is just a few clicks away.

Considering that digital technology is deeply connected to the daily lives of teenagers, not only for entertainment and socialization, but for their education as well (most significantly throughout the recent Covid-19 pandemic), prohibiting these devices from teens is unwise. Instead, many parents have chosen to activate “parental controls” in their kids’ devices to prevent them from seeing sexually explicit material, and other media such as violent films. These controls range from “content filters” which automatically detect and block content deemed inappropriate, to “system monitors” which allow parents to track their teens’ activity remotely.

Ultimately, though, these blockades are only minor inconveniences to a significant population of today’s youth, who can find as many ways of getting around these controls as you can of installing them [54, 55]. They can also see it on their friends’ devices, store it on shared flash drives, or find it on your computer. Short of following them around 24/7, or locking them up in a cage, there are just no good ways to guarantee that they won’t be looking at porn.

But it’s more than just them watching porn; you also need to worry about them making porn. Not infrequently, many minors photograph and videotape themselves in the nude and/or performing sexual acts and sent these images to others, or even post them online. This is interpreted by many prosecutors as the production and distribution of child pornography and can induce harsh legal penalties, including registration as a sex offender (see below).

This is important to keep in mind when considering how teenagers come across pornography, as porn production is sometimes thought of as occurring in distinct and shadowy realms, and that it only depicts people who are “porn actors.” In fact, the law makes everyone a potential pornographic subject, regardless of what is commonly thought of as “pornography.”

Of importance for this discussion is the social and historical context related to sex and pornography in the United States. Many Americans believe that pornography is bad for people, teens especially, and it seems that this narrative is driven in part by hyper-conservative Christian groups [8], who provide minimal or no quality data to back up the assertion that pornography harms the developing brain. For example, little to no experimental research is conducted on teenagers regarding pornography use, because showing sexually explicit materials to minors is illegal in most jurisdictions and such research would therefore not be approved by universities [36].

The few studies that exist have very small samples pointing to vague (typically short-term) deficits in brain areas for skills like verbal working memory [9]. In psychological science, the use of small samples with no long-term follow-up measures is highly questionable and conclusive about nothing. According to a brief report by Brown and Wisco (2019), developmental differences may theoretically make adolescents more sensitive to sexually explicit material [37]. However, they never define in what way teens may be “sensitive” to this material, and they conclude that too little data is currently available to answer this question definitively. 

Some therapists propose to treat pornography as an addiction, but the concept of porn addiction is highly contested and typically based upon self-report measures of poor quality. For one thing, there is no falsifiable way of measuring the point at which the frequency of porn use becomes “problematic.” Specifically, according to a study published in 2020, there was no direct correlation between the frequency of use and poor mental health outcomes [35].

What we know from adults is that, for example, those who express concern about their “pornography addiction” or “sex addiction” are most likely to be individuals from deeply religious backgrounds or sexually conservative cultures. Here’s how this works for most people studied: experiencing shaming attitudes about their desires to have sex or their sexual needs leads people to see sexual behavior or even interests outside of “normal sex” (i.e., marriage or procreation) as morally problematic. For example, according to a 2022 meta-analysis, self-perceived problematic pornography use was more closely associated with the quantity of porn use in sexually conservative nations than in sexually permissive ones [47].

Another common focus of concern is that premature exposure to “adult” material will make a teen hypersexual, morally corrupt, or psychologically damaged. However, according to a multi-year analysis, porn use had no adverse effect on the psychological well-being of middle to late adolescent males or females (although there was some correlation between pornography use in early adolescent females and lower self-esteem) [60]. As for behavioral issues, while it is true that some teens with a predisposition to aggression and sensation-seeking may access pornography at a higher rate, the evidence does not suggest that pornography introduces new mental health issues in the viewer that did not previously exist [10].

According to one study, sexual aggression among adolescent porn users was linked with their belief that the pornography they viewed was realistic and normative in its portrayal of sex [59, see also 58]. However, it was only marginally linked to the viewer’s identification with the pornographic actors/actresses, and there was no link between sexual aggression and watching porn for the purposes of learning more about sex [59]. Additionally, another study revealed that pre-existing callousness, rather than porn use, was predictive of greater aggression. Among participants who scored high on callousness, increased porn use was linked to decreased reports of sexual aggression [61]. This is supported by the observation that rates of rape and child sex abuse decrease with the greater availability of pornography, even amidst a general rise in crime [62,63].

Notwithstanding, some feminist theorists have staunchly opposed pornography on the ground that it demeans and objectifies women. This, however, is based on a subjective value-judgment about what it means for a woman to be “demeaned” or “objectified.” It also assumes that men’s motivations for viewing pornography can be at all times known, and that they are centered around male dominance and control. These moral concerns about the status of women are completely irrelevant to consideration of gay pornography that involves only male actors, and are questionable with regard to lesbian pornography designed for lesbian audiences.

Generally speaking, if pornography use is so excessive that it is interfering with necessary activities or is causing subjective distress, it needs to be addressed. For example, if you find your teen watching pornography on their computer when they are supposed to be doing homework, you should talk with them about it. Otherwise, it is a fairly harmless manifestation of teenage curiosity.

The use of pornography by rainbow teens is often ignored in debates over the effects of porn to the young. According to one researcher, “Studies have addressed pornography through the lenses of addiction, misogyny, sexual exploration, and sexual liberation. Yet, few studies focus on anything but the heteronormative effects of pornography consumption” [38]. To fill this gap, the researcher interviewed 23 LGTBQ+ individuals ages 18-25, asking them to reflect on their experiences with pornography during their adolescence.

Many participants claimed that it was through pornography that they first confronted the reality of their same-sex attractions and described it as the space where they explored their desires [38]. This supports the view that gay adolescent porn use plays a strong role in their formation of sexual identity, particularly if they do not see other same-sex attracted role models in the media and in their daily lives [13]. Some young people expressed concerns that the pornography they viewed left out much of the communication needed in a real sexual encounter and failed to depict any of the ways an encounter could go wrong [38].

In a systematic literature review from 2019, the authors found that the motives LGBTQ+ teens expressed for seeking out pornography could be divided into three themes: “(1) development of sexual identity; (2) information seeking and learning; and (3) sexual pleasure” [12]. Many studies analyzed by the authors suggested that rainbow teens, particularly boys, rely on pornography more than their heterosexual peers. However, they are not more likely than heterosexual teens to experience problematic pornography use [12]. 

It is sometimes supposed that higher use of pornography by rainbow teens is a result of inadequate sex education with regard to gay sex, and it is true that the majority of gay and bisexual adolescents report dissatisfaction with their school’s sex ed curriculum [14]. A majority of gay and bisexual participants in one recent study reported use of pornography for sexual information, but this was independent of their satisfaction level with their school’s sex ed [39]. Porn use among sexual minority males does show the need for greater attention to condom use in sex education, as gay teens are more likely to have condomless anal sex if they see it in most of the porn they’ve watched [64].

Pleasure, plain and simple, may be uncomfortable to talk about, but should not be overlooked. According to a sample of 12,000 Norwegians ages 18-59, estimated time using pornography while masturbating was “51% among gays/bisexuals, 42% among heterosexual men, 24% among lesbians/bisexuals, and 12% among heterosexual women” [40]. The study also showed that LGB people were notably more likely to use pornography while having partnered sex than both heterosexual men and women [40].

Trans people are not often depicted in porn, and when they are, they are usually cis-presenting (i.e., appearing as the other sex entirely without displaying the range of gender presentations) [41]. With the diversity of ways to be trans and non-binary, it is important for genderqueer people to be able to see others like themselves and the various ways people transition. According to one man with phalloplasty, it was important for him to see others with the same procedure [42]. This has become more difficult in recent years, however. Because of the limited space in mainstream porn for trans people, Tumblr was described as “a space where queer potential flourishes, where new expansive ways to think about the future materialize” [43]. However, censorship policies like the 2018 ban of adult content on Tumblr has made it increasingly difficult for trans content creators to grow their audience and represent trans bodies, even in non-sexual ways [42, 44].

Another topic that is often troubling for parents and teens alike is the common practice of sending sexually explicit messages, with or without images/videos attached, among same-aged peers. This is referred to as “sexting.” In one study that took place over four years researchers found: “reported rates of sending (males 15.8%; females 13.6%) and receiving (males 40.5%; females 30.6%) sexually explicit cell phone pictures (revealing genitals, buttocks, and breasts) were generally similar to those reported at the same school 4 years earlier. Rates of forwarding sexts (males 12.2%; females 7.6%) were much lower than those previously acknowledged at this school” [19]. Similar frequencies are found in other large-scale studies [22].

Why adolescents have been sexting at an increasing rate has been debated, but like the motivations for viewing sexually explicit material, the motivations for sending it are numerous. Teens are often fascinated with their developing bodies: girls may be proud of their breasts or boys of their penis. One may tape or photograph oneself in the nude as a way to feel attractive, to display sexual confidence, to let somebody know that they are interested in them, for the thrill of making others feel aroused, to make some extra cash, or as a result of being pressured or harassed.

Sexting is a difficult behavior to investigate because there are both emotional/developmental concerns and legal concerns. In one recent meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that there was a negligible increased risk of anxiety, depression, and drug or alcohol use with more sexting, but, importantly, more sexting correlated with an increased risk of multiple partners, unsafe sex, and more sexual activity generally [23]. According to another meta-analysis, adolescents who sext are 6.3 times more likely to report sexual activity than those who do not [52].

This does not necessarily mean that sexting leads to sex, as the causality may be in the other direction: sexually active youth with multiple partners are more likely to sext as a way of finding or pleasing partners. If you discover that your teenager has been sexting, there is a very high likelihood that they are sexually active in other ways as well.

Legally, it’s still unsafe for teens to engage in sexting or sending sexual pictures or videos between minor teens. On the one hand First Amendment rights do not protect child pornography, but there is fierce debate about whether or not sexting or media sent between consenting minors should be considered child pornography [15, 17]. Moreover, in at least 23 states teens can still be prosecuted for production and distribution of child pornography when they sext. Generally, if a teen is caught with sexually explicit images or videos then there is a decent chance of legal intervention, which can result in sex offender registration and even federal felony charges if shared across state lines.

Minors can also be convicted of possessing sexually explicit images of underage people, even if they are underage themselves. They can acquire these images by receiving them as sexts from their peers or by downloading them off the internet. This is understandable, as, if teenagers are expected to be primarily attracted to people similar to them in age, it’s logical that they should also desire to look at sexual images of people their own age as well. However, this, too, is illegal and can have major repercussions [56]. If nothing else, warn your son or daughter about the dangers of distributing and acquiring explicit materials depicting underage people, even if they themselves are the ones depicted, as the consequences can follow them for life. 

Some legal scholars advocate decriminalization of adolescent sexting and sending sexually explicit media [17], but states have been slow to do so, largely because of the beliefs that these behaviors are inherently pathological. Sexting comes with other risks as well. For example, images can be accidentally leaked, or purposefully shown to people they were not intended for. There is also a phenomenon known as “revenge porn,” wherein an ex-partner posts on the internet or circulates to everyone in their social circle the intimate material another person sent to them.

This being said, however, the risk of such victimization is statistically rather low for most teens, regardless of gender [19]. The one exception is that teens with a prior history of victimization or who felt “forced” into sexting were at increased odds of reporting victimization. In other studies, young women (but not men) with insecure attachment styles were at greater risk of “unwanted but consensual” sexting [20], with 52% of this sample reporting unwanted sexting. More research is needed to design ways to intervene in problematic sexting behavior that do not cause more harm than they eliminate.

With regard to rainbow teens, we see varying rates of sexting compared to heterosexual counterparts across different cultures and age groups [23-27]. For example, in one study with 18-24 year old men who have sex with men, it was found that at least 80% (~45% above the typical average) of the sample engaged in sexting [28]. Another study using a Canadian sample found a similar result, with non-heterosexual teens 3-4 times more likely to engage in sexting than their heterosexual peers [29]. Why this is the case is unclear. It could be a correlate of rainbow youth’s propensity to meet sexual and romantic partners over the internet [45]. In terms of male homosexual sexting behavior, one should consider the fact that males in same-sex relationships frequently use nonverbal cues to indicate sexual desire and consent [46]. This may factor into their higher exports of sexually explicit images: exchanging a “dick pic” is frequently part of the back and forth prior to an encounter negotiated via hook-up apps like Grindr.

Studies suggest no solid correlation between sexting and condom use, body image, or other mental health issues, varying greatly among samples [23-27]. However, given that rainbow teens are at a greater risk of cyberbullying, they should keep in mind that if somebody pretending to be a potential partner gains intimate depictions of them, they may be humiliated by seeing those distributed as a way of outing them [30, Bullying and Mental Health].

There is no current scientifically accepted definition of problematic sexting or pornography use for teens [34]. That said, here are signs you can monitor that might indicate sexting or pornography use could be problematic:

  • Important activities (i.e., school, sports, friend times) are being given up or significantly reduced to engage in sexting or pornography use.
  • The teen reports feeling “out of control” when sexting or using pornography.
  • The teen reports being bullied or shamed.
  • The teen appears particularly secretive.
  • Signs of mental health conditions are present (i.e., drastic shifts in socializing, isolation, emotional outbursts).
  • Drastic changes in phone usage behavior.
  • Drastic changes in substance use behavior.

Minimal quality literature addresses parental monitoring. Being aware of and curious about your teen’s exploratory process is natural. The amount of monitoring (i.e., from a simple casual conversation up to more formal monitoring) should depend upon how problematic their behavior is.  There are parental controls that can be installed on your teen’s laptop, smartphone, etc., that can block adult-rated videos and images. However, it’s not improbable that they are more technologically literate than you are, and even if they aren’t, they can still easily find ways to circumnavigate these blockers, or bypass them entirely [51]. Moreover, these controls have the potential to make young people feel belittled and infantilized. Explaining your concerns to your teens and listening to what they have to say in return is a more reliable way to provide for their online safety [51].   

However, asking too many questions can be intrusive and counter-productive, making it more likely that teens will actively break off lines of communication and conceal their activities. Regular surveillance of a teen’s electronic devices will usually foster distrust and cause more problems than it solves [48,49,50], except in the most extreme circumstances where you see the development of serious behavioral problems.

Generally, the more the teen discloses, the less likely they are to struggle with “problem behaviors” (e.g., drug use, sexual promiscuity, etc.) [33]. So, a parent’s job is to provide an environment wherein teens feel open to sharing. As a general rule for communicating: always do your best to engage with your rainbow teen in a non-shaming manner. Since shame about sexuality and sexual identity is highly correlated to mental health problems, problematic pornography use, and substance use disorders, we hope you can express any concerns you may have in a clear, direct, compassionate, and “curious” manner. 

Second, understand your own level of sexual and sexual identity comfort/discomfort. We typically can only go as “deep” into a conversation as we ourselves have delved. If we are very uncomfortable about sex or have biases about non-heterosexual identities, then our teen will likely sense it in our conversation [32]. If you would like some tips before you get started, here are a few helpful articles on talking about difficult subjects with your kids. https://www.moms.com/talk-teenagers-about-sensitive-topics/https://www.commonsensemedia.org/articles/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-difficult-subjects,   https://raisingchildren.net.au/teens/communicating-relationships/tough-topics/difficult-conversations-with-teens

It is important that inexperienced teens who access pornography understand that its scenarios have little correspondence to real life and do not provide a road-map for what they can expect in their sexual interactions with others. Since sex education in schools typically does not address or acknowledge pornography, parents are best situated to impart this lesson and thus contextualize the pornographic media to which the majority of teens are exposed.

Most importantly, if you notice negative changes in your teen, do not automatically assume that it is connected to their sexual identity or their pornography use. There are many difficulties that they may be experiencing, and to what extent they are interrelated with the issues discussed in this installment is not for you to tell them, but for the both of you to reflect on together.

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