Thursday, August 15, 2019

Understanding and Responding to Pornography Use with Adolescents Who Have Engaged in Harmful Sexual Behavior: Developmental Considerations

By Russ Pratt & Cyra Fernandes

Introduction: ‘Teen rituals’

Fifteen-year-old Mikey* sits in his room, finishing his homework. From time to time, he closes the window on what he is working on, and watches a bit more of his most recent ‘favorite’ pornographic movie, After looking at this for a few minutes, and, becoming aroused, he picks up his phone, and scrolls through the dozen or so pictures of naked and semi-naked young women he goes to school with. All of them sent these ‘pics’ to him after he asked them to do so. They, in turn, have pictures of him, some requested, and some not. He hears his mother coming up the stairs, so quickly returns to his computer and homework. 

Is the above paragraph fantasy, fact, or somewhere between the two? Well, recent research suggests that this scenario is closer to the facts of the matter, rather than any responsible parents’ nightmare scenario. Not only is exposure to, or viewing of, pornography in adolescence now a normative experience, with research indicating that the majority of adolescents have viewed or been exposed to pornography by age 15 years (Lim et al, 2017), but also that the sending and receiving of naked pictures by adolescents has become a normative adolescent experience (Fisher, et. al., 2019; Smith, Mitchell, Barrett & Pitts, 2009; Mitchell et. al., 2014, Lim et. al., 2017).  In an Australian-based study of 2,136 15 to 17-year-olds, over half the sample had received a sexually explicit text message and had been sent a sexually explicit nude or nearly nude photo or video (Mitchell, et al., 2014). Over one-quarter of them had sent a sexually explicit photo to someone else. Thus it seems that sending and receiving sexually explicit (nude) pictures of themselves or others is the current broadly-acceptable, teenage courtship ritual.  

Does pornography influence sexual practices, behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions 

Well, the short answer to this question seems to be “yes” it does. And not only for adults, but clearly for adolescents commencing their sexual-developmental journey. Pornography significantly influences sexual practices, behaviors, and perceptions of both adults and adolescents when it comes to their view of “…what sex looks like. (Pratt & Fernandes, 2015)” In particular, it seems that consuming pornography (Fisher, et. al. 2019; Lim, et. al., 2017; Mitchell, et. al., 2014) is related to more permissive sexual attitudes and gender-stereotypical sexual beliefs, and, for those youths who view pornography at a very young age (pre-pubescent) we see earlier-onset sexual intercourse, higher rates of casual sex by early adulthood, and higher levels of sexual aggression by adults, in terms of both perpetration and victimization (Bridges, et. al., 2010; Wright, Tokunaga & Kraus, 2015),

The ‘young’ consumer

What do these young people who most frequently view pornography look like? As research indicates that the majority of young people have viewed pornography by 15 years of age, it seems more difficult now than ever before to ‘characterize’ what a ‘frequent consumer’ of pornography looks like, as compared to those who are not. As, authors, researchers, therapists, and even parents, we know how quickly the digital and online world is changing, and thus the patterns of usage we saw even ten years ago may not apply right now. This also means that less-recent research might not portray what the current situation is, as much as we would like. Peter and Valkenburg’s (2016) excellent 20-year summary of the research is a case in point. Findings cited by those authors may now relate to findings from before 1996 – well before the ‘digital revolution’. Given that pornography consumption is now ‘normative’ behavior for adolescents, it might be the case that we can only say that; more males than females view pornography; they (males) view it on a more frequent basis than females, and it is likely that the majority of young viewers do so for commonplace reasons, such as learning about sexual behaviors, and to achieve sexual arousal (Pratt & Fernandes, 2015). 

The role of pornography

So, what is the role of pornography in the development and maintenance of adolescent harmful sexual behavior? The answer is frustratingly unclear. While it is neither possible nor accurate to state that adolescent pornography use leads to harmful sexual behavior, it may be the case that repeated exposure to pornography might lead to desensitization and contribute to distorted views of what are normative, acceptable, or desired sexual behaviors and relationships. For some children and adolescents, this exposure could provide such a “skewed template” for the “how-to” and “what” of sexual behavior, and, more importantly, provide information and images that are so inappropriate for their developmental stage (Pratt & Fernandes, 2015) that it cannot be decoded nor understood; 

Young people who engage in sexually abusive behavior often present with deficits in important psychosocial skills (Peter & Valkenburg, 2016), and may lack the developmental maturity to both understand the explicit sexual content of pornography, and that it may not represent ‘real-life’ sexual relationships and behaviors and what people seek in sexual relationships (Pratt & Fernandes, 2015). 
In addition, due to sexual inexperience, learning disorders, intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders, some youth may be even less able to critique and comprehend that what they see in pornography is not what “real-world” sex looks like. They may also be either reluctant or unable to seek support from adults to help them make sense of what they saw in pornography.


To conclude (and there is so much more to say), educating adolescents about healthy sexuality is a key component of treatment. For adolescents who have engaged in harmful or sexually abusive behaviors, the development of healthy sexual practices is key. Whilst sex education should include a focus on the relational aspects and boundaries of sexual behavior, more is needed. The authors have created a developmentally focused, “savvy consumer” model for youth which advocates ‘zero-tolerance’ for pornography viewing for very young children, combined with a ‘harm-minimization’ model for older adolescents. The model has, at its heart, the belief that the ability to both critique the falseness of pornography, and highlight positive, real-world sexual health practices will ensure that the qualities of healthy, safe, and desired sexual practices remain in-focus during treatment. 
In particular:
Mutual consent,
Equality and partnership, 
The freedom to say no, and;
The freedom to negotiate equally regarding healthy, respectful sexual pleasure and activity.


Bridges, A J.,Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C., & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update, Violence Against Women 16(10), 1065-1085.

Fisher, C. M., Waling, A., Kerr, L., Bellamy, R., Ezer, P., Mikolajczak, G., Brown, G., Carman, M. & Lucke, J. (2019). 6th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2018, (ARCSHS Monograph Series No. 113), Bundoora: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University. 

Lim, M.S.C., Agius, P.A., Carrotte, E.R., Vella, A.M., & Hellard, M.E. (2017). Young Australian’s use of pornography and associations with sexual risk behaviours, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 2017 online, doi: 10.1111/1753-6405.12678.

Mitchell, A., Patrick. K., Heywood, W., Blackman, P., & Pitts, M. (2014). 5th National survey of Australian secondary students and sexual health 2013. ARCSHS Monograph Series No. 97,  Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2016) Adolescents and pornography: A Review of 20 Years of Research, The Journal of Sex Research, 53:4-5, 509-531.

Pratt, R., & Fernandes, C. (2015). How Pornography May Distort Risk Assessment of Children and Adolescents Who Sexually Harm. Children Australia, 40, pp 232-241 doi:10.1017/cha.2015.2.

Smith, A. P., Mitchell, A., Barrett, C., & Pitts, M. (2009) Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2008: Results of the 4th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students, HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (Latrobe).

Wright, P.J, Tokunaga, R.S., & Kraus, A., (2015), ‘A meta-analysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies’, Journal of Communication, 66(1), 183-205.

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