A few years ago I met a really smart polymath by the name of Mary Sharpe. She was the first person to introduce me to the idea of the “plasticity” of the human brain and how that plasticity means, inter alia, our grey matter gets rewired as a result of things we do, which includes what we look at.
Sharpe also explained it is good our brains work this way. It’s a big part of how we learn new stuff. The problem is not all “learning” is desirable, and that can be particularly the case if it becomes associated with certain kinds of highly pleasurable experiences e.g. involving food, drugs or sex. In some it can lead to addictions including different sorts of paraphilias.
Important parts of young people’s brains do not complete their development until they reach their 20s
Younger people can be specially susceptible because those parts of the brain which deal with, for example, impulse control are among the last to complete their development (who knew?). Indeed sections of the human brain only become fully mature physically when we reach our early to mid-20s. Thus particular types of “learning” among the young can be the polar opposite of good and this was an area where Sharpe was, er, at her absolute sharpest.
Influences on male behaviour
Wind forward several years. It’s December, 2014. In the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, a respected peer-review journal, an article appears under the not-terribly-appealing title of Pornography and the Male Sexual Script : An Analysis of Consumption and Sexual Relations.
In the abstract we find the following
Cognitive script theory argues media scripts create a readily accessible heuristic model for decision-making.
For those of us not immediately familiar with heuristic models for decision-making the article goes on to explain
The more a user watches a particular media script, the more embedded those codes of behavior become in their worldview and the more likely they are to use those scripts to act upon real life experiences.
Sounds sensible, even logical. Now think about some of the material that is instantly and always available online to anyone and everyone, including children as young as six.
We are talking about material that is a million miles away from a Playboy centrefold or What the Window Cleaner Saw. And whereas in previous years – pre-internet years – pornography was always around and available it was on an incomparably smaller scale and the terms of engagement were completely different.
Chimes with other findings
The article in the Archives of Sexual Behavior also resonated with some of the messages that came out of Beeban Kidron’s excellent movie In Real Life where both boys and girls spoke about how internet porn was shaping expectations of what real world sex was supposed to be, and what they had to say about that was far from reassuring.
In addition the Archives article reminded me of a presentation I heard recently at a fantastic conference in Winnipeg, organized by Beyond Borders, the Canadian chapter of ECPAT International. One of the keynote speakers was a 23 year old man from Texas named Gabriel Deem. He told us how he started looking at porn on the internet when he was about 11 and ended up in his late teens with no real life sex at all due to what he called “pornography induced erectile dysfunction”.
I make no claim to understand the science behind Gabriel’s story but his account of how he confronted his discovered problem and got back on track spoke of something authentic and serious which merits closer examination and again echoes both with In Real Life and similar accounts one hears from psychiatrists, therapists and counsellors who describe some of the issues they are now having to deal with in their consulting rooms every day where the internet and porn are recurring themes in their patients’ troubled lives. If ever there was a reason to evoke the precautionary principle surely this it?
A lesson from the past
In April 1974 the authoritarian Caetano regime in Portugal was finally overthrown in a coup that was led by left leaning army officers. When the summer holidays arrived that year lots of us made a beeline for Lisbon – it was irresistibly convenient having an actual revolution almost in your back yard. We went to see if we could learn from and drink up any of the revolutionary atmosphere which soon started to stalk the streets of our oldest ally. Among the many astonishing sights that greeted me when I arrived in the Portuguese capital was how much porn was plastered about the place. Every other shop window seemed to carry some, or that’s how it felt.
Because porn had been so severely restricted by the ancien regime it was almost as if making it much more easily available was solid evidence that the nation was somehow free at last. Eventually the Portuguese relented on this unthinking libertarianism.
There is no doubt that over the years censorship – particularly in relation to matters sexual – has gained a bad reputation and most of us instinctively and rightly react against it but it is just sloppy thinking of an inordinately unintelligent kind to leap from one premise to the conclusion that any and all forms of limitations on porn must be wrong.
Must do better
Such is not the view we have taken hitherto in the UK and in most other countries where in the real world there are quite strict but nonetheless widely accepted rules governing access to porn by legal minors. However, today for all practical purposes the porn industry is almost entirely an online industry, so unless we say we are prepared to give up trying to limit access to porn by kids we have to find better ways than those available now in most countries of the world.
This is less of a pressing issue in the UK because we we are in the middle of a large scale experiment in which the mobile networks, the WiFi providers and the ISPs are trialing one possible approach to restricting kids’ access to online porn, using filters, but the banks and credit card companies could add their considerable weight to the effort by refusing to provide services to any web site that does not have a robust age verification mechanism in place. Web hosting companies and others providing ancillary services could do likewse.