Adolescence, Pornography and Harm

Article excerpt

Foreword

The probability that a young person will have exposure to pornography prior to the age of 18-the legal age in Australia at which it is permissible to view and purchase such materials-is very high. Concern exists, among both parents and policymakers, that widespread, premature exposure to pornography is changing the nature of sexual attitudes, behaviours, and intimate relationships and potentially contributing to sexual violence in society. The extent to which it is difficult to determine, owing to the scarcity of adolescent-based research and differing conceptions about harm. This paper examines the many factors that underpin pornography exposure, and stresses how the risk factors for exposure and problematic sexual behaviours intersect to contribute to harm. An understanding of the complex interplay of factors such as gender, age, attitude, personal characteristics and social context of use is important in the development of strategies that will assist young people to avoid any potential adverse outcomes. The available evidence remains highly incomplete, and its interpretation is highly contested, so the paper highlights the need for longitudinal studies of use and of actual behaviour, and for studies that focus on cultural contexts and emerging media.

Judy Putt

General Manager of Research Services

The proliferation of pornographic materials and their ease of access are such that it is not a matter of whether a young person will be exposed to pornography but when. Exposure may be inadvertent (such as through unsolicited e-mails or an accidental encounter with pornography online) or intentional. Concern exists that young people are being inundated with sexual information before they are developmental Iy capable of integrating it into a healthy sexual identity, with ramifications for both individual and society. Drawing on recent Australian and international research, this paper examines social factors that place young people at increased risk of exposure, or of experiencing potentially negative outcomes from early exposure, to pornography. In this paper, the term pornography refers to materials that are, or would be, classified as X1 8+ rated (movies on DVD, video, film) or Category 1 and Category 2 Restricted (magazines, books and publications with differing levels of sexual explicitness) or that would be refused classification based on their sexual content under the National Classification Code (May 2005). As such, it includes sexual content ranging from nudity to explicit sexual activity and includes sexual content involving violence or extreme sexual practices.

Factors affecting exposure

Though pornography exposure is widespread among Australian adolescents, the degree and risks of it vary markedly with demographic, social and personal characteristics.

Demographics

Gender: Males not only are exposed to more pornography inadvertently as they undertake activities and socialise within environments that place them at higher risk, but also will more actively seek out sexually explicit material than females will. When they do so, they tend to consume pornography at greater rates than their female counterparts. Though possibly affected by the willingness to disclose, a telephone survey of 200 young Australians aged 16 to 17 by Flood and Hamilton (2003) found rates of exposure as follows:

* X-rated videos: 73 percent of males (5% exposed weekly; 1 6% exposed every three to four weeks), compared with 1 1 percent of females (all exposed less than once every three months);

* Inadvertent online exposure: 84 percent of males (24% exposed weekly; 22%, every three to four weeks) compared with 60 percent of females (7% weekly; 6% every three to four weeks);

* Deliberate online exposure: 38 percent of males (4% exposed every week; 7%, every three to four weeks), compared with two percent of females (less frequently).

Males may also differ from females in how they prefer to engage with pornographic media. …