Concerned About Porn? Here’s What We Should Really Worry About

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There were media reports this week that viewing “soft core” pornographic images causes harm to young people. But the evidence presented simply does not support these claims. A tiny, unpublished study asking undergraduates about their recollections of viewing pornographic images and their opinions about them is not a sound basis for claims of a “threat to public health”.

Even a nuanced study such as this week’s NSPCC report is being reduced to a simplistic news story about young people seeing porn and being harmed.

Although it’s true that young people’s sexual lives can involve harms, including experiences of violence and coercion, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections, there is very little direct evidence that these harms are caused by viewing pornography.

There is good evidence that sexual harms are caused by a number of factors, such as gender inequalities, young people’s ideas about maintaining a good reputation, competition to be the first to do certain practices, lack of awareness of safer sex practices, or an unwillingness to engage in safer sex. Pornography may affect or be affected by any of these factors, but it is too simplistic to assume that it causes harm in a direct way. And it is also difficult to see why it would be more harmful than other depictions of sex or violence, or sexist imagery in mainstream media which even the youngest children may be exposed to via billboards or TV programmes.

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