Pornography: what impact on adolescent sexuality?

Pornography what impacts on adolescent sexuality

As early as 2003, Gérard Bonnet, professor of psychology and psychoanalyst, posed pornography as a "modesty challenge". Today it stands out more widely as a "challenge for the construction of adolescent sexuality".

Until very recently, in France, this subject was not really taken seriously. And even if the current government has spoken out to deplore young people's access to pornographic content, if it has expressed its intention to regulate it better, if not to prevent it, the project has not yet led to any concrete measure.

From prohibited use to sexual liberation, pornography seems, in our contemporary digital environment, to know no limits. On the Web, pornographic sites are flourishing, and are moreover the most represented (and the most consulted) with hundreds of millions of pages, which do not fail to insinuate themselves into trivial searches through the pop-up windows. So that, without even looking for it, theeye seems irremediably forced to see pornographic images…

The rise of new technologies has therefore offered pornography an exponential distribution medium, accessible to all… including (and even above all) children and adolescents who always know how to handle these tools better than adults.

Various surveys carried out in France estimate that around half of adolescents, girls and boys, have been confronted with pornographic images before the age of 13, that 63% of boys and 37% of girls, aged between 15 and 17, regularly visit pornographic sites. Even more recently, 30% of Internet users consulting these sites are minors, and that daily, a minors in ten consult this type of content – especially from their personal cell phone (smartphone) (for three-quarters of them).

In short, the Internet has "democratized" (the use of) pornography, making its access easy, immediate, permanent and without real regulation. It no longer calls for any effort to see, in what it underlies of transgression, pleasure, guilt or shame. From astonishment to disgust via compulsion to see, adolescents have to deal with cyberpornography in their spaces of experience, of encounter… and its repercussions on their puberty upheavals.

Representations of sexuality and women

Research, mainly North American, conducted with adolescents since the 2000s, questions the influence of pornography on their representations of sexuality and of women, as well as on their sexual practices. It appears that the confrontation with pornographic codes would lead adolescents – both girls and boys – to consider women more as "a sexual object", and to modify their relationship to their body, which is therefore invested in an anxiety-provoking mode.

Thus adolescents, using cyberpornography as a main source of information, mention the impact of this medium in their sexual activities, adopting more diversified practices, mirroring the models conveyed. But, at the same time, they may recognize some associated negative effects. This recognition would have a moderating effect, so that the consumption of pornography could be part of an “adolescent developmental process”, responding to a quest for guidance in matters of sexuality.

This quest is also put forward by certain adolescents themselves: it is a question ofvisit, out of curiosity, before the first sexual intercourse. This curiosity is driven by the awakening of adolescent sexuality. The instinctual invasion at this moment and the need for relief which results from it alter any critical discourse on the nature of the images and the representations thus constituted.

However, this positioning is reversed with the transition to an emotional and sexual relationship with a partner “in real life”. From then on, porn viewing decreases, feelings of futility or shame emerge... as well as the experimentation that "porn is not reality".

Pornography: A Short-Circuit of Fantasy Activity

In short, psychopathological or addictive drifts appear marginal, they concern the most fragile adolescents, whose imagination remains captive to this iconography. Moreover, to date, the link between pornography consumption and sexual assault in adolescence has not been established. Nevertheless, it is in our practice with adolescents presenting a worrying sexuality, even perpetrators of sexual violence, that this question has come to the fore. These young people frequently mention repeated, massive contact with pornography.

While obviously not all adolescents who view this type of image engage in this type of action, the fact that pornography is integrated into the current digital uses of young people with problematic behavior invites us to question the impact of theviolence of seeing" cyberpornographic on the construction of adolescent sexuality.

We made the assumption that the consumption of pornography in adolescence would proceed as a short circuit of fantasy activity. While the imagination, and therefore thought, occupies a large place in the development of romantic and sexual relationships, pornography reduces them to the sexes (visible, real) and to an act-exploit(ation) freed from emotional issues, annihilating any potential for reverie.

Moreover, in its most common form (scenes, “clips”), there is no longer even a scenario – or even possible scripting? – where the image crushes all projection, all fantastical movement. Under the pretext of showing everything, pornography dismantles sexuality (limited to the act, to hyper-specific practices) and the process of unification of the body, therefore restricted to the organ.

Traumatic potential

These characteristics lead us to consider the traumatic potential of pornographic images (massiveness of the excitement caused, break-in, astonishment, etc.); especially since the subject is confronted with it early on. In these cases, the encounter with sex, with the brutality of sex precedes any understanding of (adult) sexuality, risking triggering fixations, splitting… in short, a traumatic experience. Note also that the contexts in which we observed problematic consumption are often marked by previous traumatic experiences (relating to sexuality or not).

Finally, at the same time and from a dynamic perspective, the use of pornography in adolescence could be understood as an attempt to (psychically) integrate adult sexuality. In adolescence, pornographic iconography constitutes a projection surface for the enigma of the sexual, a way, albeit fragile, of putting outside the strangeness and violence of the puberty phenomenon.

In this sense, like all images, the pornography is neither good nor bad. It presents itself for many adolescents as an inexhaustible source of information, a guide to "good practices" in terms of sexuality. According to this perspective, as shown by François Marty (2008) regarding violent images, pornographic images would allow adolescents to contain the overflow of impulses, offer it a first form of representation, or even symbolize it.

However, by fueling both excitement and relief, while ignoring fantasy and relationships, pornography risks subjugating the most fragile adolescents (such as we meet them in consultation). This is also one of the challenges of our therapeutic proposal: putting words to the excitement caused by sex and images of sex.

Because it is the absence of words around these "shock figures" and the sensations generated by pornography that can prove pernicious. Where the crushing of the imagination risks leading to a split between affectivity and sexuality; between the superficial ego of the adolescent apparently satisfied in its needs and its deep ego unsatisfied in its desires.

Barbara Smaniotto, Lecturer-HDR in Psychopathology and Clinical Psychology, CRPPC, Lumière Lyon 2 University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock/ Aleksandra Suzi

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