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Porn - let's talk about it

Posted on 09 December 2019 by Chief Censor David Shanks

Lots of New Zealanders watch porn.

We don’t know exactly how many of us watch it, or how often. But it is undeniably popular. Per capita, we are 13th in the world for frequency of visits to the biggest online site, Pornhub. 

That site recorded over 33 billion unique visits last year – and that is just one commercial site out of hundreds of thousands of commercial sites on the net.

Given how popular porn is today, it is remarkable how little we really know about it. The research most cited about what porn contains is 10 years out of date – a lifetime in digital content terms. Meanwhile, our 2018 study, NZ Youth and Porn, put it beyond doubt that our children and teens often see it.

As we found in our earlier study, the simple fact that in the digital age children and young people can routinely access a limitless array of graphic, ‘R18’ adult pornography online is not something to be ignored. I have heard commentators claim that there is no problem here, that ‘kids have always seen porn’, or alternatively that there is nothing that can be done ‘because the internet’.

Looking away from this issue just isn’t good enough. Many of the young people responding to our survey recognised that porn wasn’t for kids, and many recognised that porn had the power to shape sexual attitudes and behaviours. Some expressed real concerns about what that might mean for them and their relationships. Many noted that porn was a primary source of information for them about sex.

Given that reality, we felt it was time to get some sense of what was contained in the porn that New Zealanders were actually viewing. This report contains our assessment of nearly 200 pornographic clips that were most popular with New Zealanders on one large site.

This can only represent a snapshot in time of popular videos on one site, reviewing all of the videos uploaded to Pornhub last year alone would take one researcher more than 100 years. Nonetheless, it represents an up-to-date assessment of current popular pornographic content, and is the first study looking at what New Zealanders are commonly watching.

The results will be surprising and challenging for both sides in the porn debate – to both those who would condemn all porn as degrading and harmful, and to those who see all porn as harmless erotic entertainment. What we have found is not a simple, good vs bad story. Porn is complicated, much like human sexuality.

A key finding is that New Zealanders seem to prefer not to see violence, aggression and degradation in porn. Violence and aggression was found in 10% of the videos. While many would observe that this is 10% too much, and I agree, this level is much lower than that indicated in various international studies, some of which are dated enough to be reliant on porn content on physical media such as DVDs.

The treatment of consent in these clips is problematic. Some 35% of the clips assessed contained some non-consensual behaviour. Often the videos with this content would start with a reluctant partner, usually the female, who starts out saying ‘no’ to sex but whose initial resistance is overcome through insistence and subtle pressure by the male. The actress is then portrayed as enjoying the sexual contact – female pleasure was notable in 99% of the videos. For most adult viewers the contrived, unrealistic ‘porny’ narrative is evident. But for young people, or people inclined to coercion, the repeated theme of ‘no’ becoming ‘yes’ could very easily be problematic.

Related to this issue is the surprising popularity of ‘step-porn’, with nearly half of the titles of clips assessed indicating family ‘step’ relationship sex. This isn’t just a Kiwi thing, as it appears that ‘step-porn’ has become a major trend in popular pornography internationally, and it could well be that major online porn providers have found that this narrative is a simple and expedient way to introduce a ‘taboo’ element to an otherwise simplistic porn narrative. Again, for most mature viewers these scenarios appear obviously fake and contrived. For others, such as teens in the process of forming their views on sex and sexuality, the fantasy aspect of this content may be much less clear.

The fact that commercial online porn sites use social media style ‘big-data’ analytics to watch what people are watching and to curate and generate their content, means that what is popular today may not be popular tomorrow. The ‘step-porn’ theme that is popular today could be replaced by who knows what next week. What we can say is that New Zealanders viewing content on one popular site seem to prefer to watch mutual enjoyment over aggression and violence, but that we also consume a significant amount of porn that eroticises sex within blended family units, and which can portray consent as ‘flexible’ with insistence and persuasion ultimately being rewarded.

We know from our research so far that many New Zealand kids and teens will have seen these sorts of clips. The way this material treats consent and family relationships, the relative lack of affection, disregard of safe-sex practice and so on emphasises the simple fact that adult porn is a terrible product for young people to be drawing on to shape their views on sex. And yet they are doing exactly that.

We can’t look away any more. We know that young people are looking for a better narrative around sex than porn. Let’s do the right thing, step up and have some brave conversations with them.

David Shanks is New Zealand's Chief Censor.

Breaking Down Porn

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