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January 21, 2009

Generation XXX - Sex and Censorship

POLITICS/SEX - Ask a teenager what he or she thinks about the effect of Internet pornography on developing minds, and after the expected awkward silence, their answer is nuanced and thoughtful.

The contortionist, multi-orifice displays are "ridiculous" says one 17-year-old. They leave a "tainted perception, a fantasy about what to expect from girls, and that men are always in charge." There's a danger that, over time, you'd get desensitized, he reckons. "It's a showcase. Being intimate with someone is what I think sex is."

Isn't that just what parents and sexual educators want to hear?

Our kids are smarter than we give them credit. Naive at times maybe, but they're as smart as ever when it comes to figuring these things out.

In Canada, where the Internet is wide open, not regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, teens and children can view almost anything. (Content is subject to the Criminal Code and human rights legislation.)

In Australia, access may soon be restricted by a program called "clean feed", a mandatory Internet filter – a pilot project scheduled for last month didn't proceed, and no future date has been set – to block excessively violent and pornographic material. The program has yet to be approved by Australian Parliament.

It used to be when teenagers were curious about what sex looked like they went to Playboy and Penthouse magazines. Very softcore stuff. Depending on who their friends were they might be able to find something hardcore and pretty graphic. In the 1980s VHS tapes spread like wildfire, as did DVDs in the 1990s. By the late 1990s porn was the most rampant thing on the internet and continues to grow at an alarming rate.

In Australia and North America there's been considerable resistance to programs like "clean feed". Even some feminists are against the idea of censorship, arguing that while some porn demeans women, most in fact does not as it depicts women who are sexually liberated. More liberally minded parents also are against the idea, arguing that while the medium has changed from magazines to computers, the content is still pretty much the same... and argue teenagers are smarter than we give them credit for.

But you see there's the essential problem: The parents that are in favour of internet censorship want their kids to be naive and innocent (and stupid). They want "Good Christian Children" who know very little about sex and virgins until their wedding day.

What they really need then is a program they can install at home that filters the content (just like schools use). Not forcing it onto other families that disagree with it. It should be optional and up to the parents, not mandatory.

A 2008 University of Amsterdam study of 2,343 Dutch teens showed that more frequent exposure to explicit Internet porn was related to having a more open attitude to casual hookups, one-night stands and a "recreational" view of sex. These are links, researchers caution, not necessarily cause and effect; teens who are more interested and curious about sex than their peers are going to be more interested in finding sexual content in the first place. (In the 1980s they would have been the teens more likely to borrow a Playboy magazine, how times have changed.)

"The bottom line is that you can't put the genie back in the bottle," says Alex McKay, research co-ordinator for the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. "Kids in the 21st century are going to be exposed to sexually explicit images, and it's naive to think they won't be."

Imagine for a moment if the filter does pass. The teens in question will find new ways to share porn. They can go back to old-fashioned magazines, or they can share it via USB devices, download on their cellphones, send it in email via zip files, etc, etc.

The better way is to make sure kids are educated about healthy sex and are media literate, says Alex McKay. "Any other approach is doomed to failure."

Children viewing the polished, pruned and well-endowed bodies on porn sites get a distorted picture of human physiology and sexuality. Or do they?

"It can make you feel insecure, because your body doesn't look like that," says Alicia, a university student who says she and her boyfriend use Internet porn to add spark to their sex life and "change it up."

Dan, a 21-year-old student, says that he assumed, having watched porn before he actually had sex, he assumed "that the bigger a guy was, the better it is." Seeing airbrushed porn stars also raised his expectations of what sex would be, he says. "I wasn't disappointed, but I realized that's not really how normal people have sex."

So teens aren't just smart, they're also resilient. Their values aren't being twisted, nor their sexual health compromised.

And how has sex on the internet changed teens?

According to Statistics Canada, Canada's teen pregnancy rate is at an all-time low, the average age of first sexual intercourse has stabilized at 16 1/2, the number of teens reporting they've had sex is dropping, and the proportion of teens having sex at an early age is declining (12 per cent reported having sex before they were 15 in 1997, compared to 8 per cent in 2005). Teens' use of condoms is greater than 20 years ago, and the percentage of teens with multiple sexual partners has remained stable.

Sexual health researchers argue that porn has actually had a positive effect, causing teens to be more cautious, and for some they're replaced sex with masturbation.

"We're living in an increasingly sexually saturated culture," explains Alex McKay. He goes on to explain that "young people are better educated and more responsible. They are more knowledgeable and literate about their own sexual health than in past generations, and this has coincided with our progressively relaxed attitude to sexuality."

So... the kids may be all right. Fine and dandy.

Younger children who stumble onto sex sites tend not to linger over them. They quickly move on to something more interesting to them, like dinosaurs or hockey. (Some researchers view this differently, saying the images are stored away in memory, not completely forgotten.) McKay notes it's true that more kids are reporting having oral sex. (In 1994, 47 per cent of Grade 11 girls in Canada said they'd had oral sex; eight years later 52 per cent said they had.) "But more adults have oral sex than in the past – it has become normative sexual behaviour."

But that isn't the internet's fault. That is the Monica Lewinsky effect, when the mass media made the word blowjob a household term.

The notion of a nation-wide filter blocking out pornography does not appeal to Sharon Haniford, a lawyer and mother of two teenagers. "Do I know exactly what my kids are doing? No. Do I have a lot of trust in them? Yes."

"There are more hurtful things out there – hate mongering is one. As long as it's legal, it's up to the parents to control it."

Valid point Sharon. Why have governments not moved to remove racist websites like StormFront? Children may not be suffering ill effects from internet porn, but they could be getting bad information from websites promoting hatred.

See Also:
Teen Sex Obsession and Sex Education
Globalization, Sex & Profits
The Lolita Complex - Sex in Hollywood
Lolitas Bad Role Models
Sixteen and ready for sex?
Censoring Sex, Homosexuality and Violence in Canadian Film

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