COMMENT: We need a comprehensive national plan to address the harmful impacts that pornography can have upon young people.
I don't know if you've visited Pornhub.com recently. Given that New Zealand ranks 13th per head of capita in Pornhub's list of most porn-watching nations, I suspect some of you may have.
I have to confess that last week I was one of those Pornhub-visiting New Zealanders, as I visited the site to conduct some research for a talk I was giving on the impacts of pornography on young people. And yes, I was there for research, not "research".
And boy. A lot has changed since I was last there… Full disclosure: porn isn't really my thing – though no kink-shaming here – so I hadn't popped by the online porn giant since 2017 when I was researching for my book, and in the intervening time a few disturbing trends have emerged.
I visited Pornhub last week primarily to check on the categories on the site. If you haven't been to a porn site, they're basically libraries of every form of sexual activity you can imagine.
And many kinds that you couldn't (and wouldn't want to) imagine. If there's a sexual proclivity out there, there's a porn category to cater to it, and I wanted to know what was new, or newly popular.
Sure enough, many of the categories were the same as when I last stopped by (lesbian, big boobs, threesomes… and other staples that are probably a bit too risque for a Saturday morning column) but there was one I hadn't noticed before.
It was labelled, fairly innocuously (or terrifyingly, depending on your perspective), "Teen".
Now, the idea that teenagers are sexual beings is profoundly unshocking to someone who has made a webseries about sexuality education, but I found the discovery of the "Teen" porn category both surprising and concerning.
For a start, the idea of adults watching pornography in which the actors look very young – and even, in some cases, look underage – sets off my gag reflex, but what really worries me is the content of the videos.
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These "teen" videos do not depict hand-holding, first kisses, or even fumbling vanilla teen sex.
They depict things that I, as a 30-year-old woman, have never done and would never want to do. Sometimes with a Snapchat filter thrown in, so instead of watching an underage-looking actress perform an extremely x-rated sex act, you're watching a childlike woman with a bunny for a face perform an extremely x-rated sex act. Which I guess is supposed to be hot?
One particular title that is burned into my brain begins "Barely legal teenager struggles through rough sex".
A number of videos in the category contain what is euphemistically described as "family sex" (and is actually incest). Many of them also feature full-grown men having sex with very young-looking women. From my perspective, it's not a very happy place to be.
Another very unhappy place, in my humble opinion, is a genre of pornography called, again euphemistically, "forced sex". In reality, forced sex porn depicts acts that in the real world would be described as sexual assault or rape.
Though it can be argued that porn is a fantasy and has no relation to real life, it's worthwhile keeping in mind that Jaymes Todd, the killer of Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon, typed the words "strangulation and rape porn" into Google, and his psychologist told the court that he was someone who "watched videos of these things", and "had a degree of understanding of how much force could hurt someone".
Despite my grisly recent discoveries I'm not going to fall into the alarmist and reactionary trap of declaring that all pornography is bad and should be banned, but I am even more convinced that we need a comprehensive national plan to address the harmful impacts that pornography can have upon young people.
In a recent report, more than 71 per cent of the 2000 New Zealand teenagers surveyed said that they wanted there to be more restrictions around pornography, and the same survey found that one in 10 Kiwi teens had become regular viewers of pornography by the time they were 14.
When I visit sites like Pornhub and read studies about teenagers' views around pornography, I feel profoundly grateful that I grew up when I did.
Although online porn was becoming more accessible when I was a teenager, and I stumbled upon pornographic material from time to time, the ubiquity of porn wasn't yet at the stage where I either watched it regularly or saw particularly disturbing imagery. My first sexual experiences were the traditional nerve-racking, awkward, exciting and frankly quaint fumblings of youth.
I feel grateful that unlike many teens today, I wasn't pressured to engage in anal sex, or other more uncommon/advanced sex acts.
And for those dismissing the current porn landscape, it's worth bearing in mind that the last generation's most popular porn source, Playboy Magazine, had a subscription base of 7 million in its heyday. Currently, Pornhub receives over 90 million visitors every single day.
So what do we do? At this stage I remain sceptical about whether legislative censorship would be either effective or enforceable.
We all know, for example, that teenagers are capable of accessing fake identification. If you have to provide a passport or driver's licence number in order to access porn, what's to stop young people from grabbing a parent or older sibling's ID?
There is one absolute no-brainer tool we could use to address the situation – and it blows my mind that we still haven't.
I've been saying for years that we need to address our sexuality education curriculum, which to this day remains basically optional and extremely variable across the nation's schools.
While some students are learning about consent, healthy relationships, and the unreality of pornography, other kids are learning the bare basics of sperm fertilising ova. Education around porn, critical thinking about pornographic imagery, and sex and sexuality in general needs to be part of our school system.
Or I fear that within a generation, the sexual landscape will be unrecognisable.