Research Blog: How Does Internet Pornography Shape Girls’ Understandings of Sex?

By Laura Hooberman

A few months ago, I was with a group of friends, discussing what we recalled of the sexual education we received as adolescents. As a diverse group of New York City transplants, our experiences varied. For one, a woman who grew up in a rural, conservative town in the Midwest, ‘sex ed’ in her school meant a curriculum focused exclusively on promoting abstinence until marriage. I fared, I felt, a bit better; having grown up in a more liberal community, I remembered frank and practical conversations about birth control and STI prevention. But despite certain unique differences, and despite the diversity of our backgrounds, there were, we realized, distinct commonalities across all of our experiences.

For one, each of us recalled that boys and girls had separate sexual education courses. Further, we all remembered feeling that the programming offered to the girls was fundamentally different from that which was offered to the boys. The boys, we agreed, were given a space in sex ed in which to learn about their own sexual pleasure through conversations centered on masturbation and ejaculation. The curricula designed for the girls, in contrast – and here I’ll note that as a group of people in our twenties, all of whom were socialized female, we agreed vehemently on this point – were encouraged to consider our sexuality exclusively in the context of conversations about menstruation and pregnancy prevention.

In discussing the gross unfairness of this design, a second commonality across our experiences became apparent: each of us recalled making the conscious effort to ‘fill in the gaps’ of our official sexual education through alternative sources. For many of us, that meant appealing to the knowledge of friends or older siblings, or looking to the media for representations of female sexuality (which, if you’re looking for accurate information, maybe don’t do this). Moreover, striking to me was that for nearly all of us, then teenagers in the mid 2000’s, it also meant turning to the Internet, where we could pose clumsy questions to Google. For many of us, this practice led to our first exposure to pornography.

I was reflecting on this conversation recently while reading an article about Tumblr’s new ban on pornographic content. Tumblr’s decision is worth reading and thinking about – not only because the results thus far have been an often hilarious slew of misfires – but also because it feeds into a broader conversation of just how significant a force the Internet has become in our lives, and in particular the extensive role the Internet plays in the production of sexual knowledge. Considering this led me to wonder: how is the rampant availability of Internet pornography connected to how teens today understand sexuality? And further, given how differently we seem to talk to girls versus boys about sexuality, I wondered whether adolescent girls might be using Internet pornography differently than adolescent boys.

As it turns out, I’m not the only person who’s been curious about this. In 2015, Scarcelli published a study examining the experiences of adolescent girls in Italy consuming Internet pornography[1]. Scarcelli interviewed 24 girls between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, and conducted an online focus group comprised of five girls in this same age range, during which Scarcelli asked participants general questions about their experiences with and attitudes toward Internet pornography. Conscious of the potential (okay, likely) awkwardness that might come up when an adult man (which Scarcelli is) asks teenage girls to talk about sexuality, Scarcelli described taking efforts to ensure that participants felt respected, and elaborated on his fundamental interest in utilizing the research as a means of foregrounding and honoring the knowledge of these participants.

The results? First and foremost, the girls with whom Scarcelli spoke described the use of pornography for self-pleasure as an exclusively male practice. They felt that girls, on the other hand, often found pornography ‘boring,’ or not relevant in the same way it was for boys. In other words, participants believed that boys have higher sex drives and therefore ‘need’ to watch porn, and girls do not. Notably, however, Scarcelli did not find it to be the case that girls did not watch porn at all. Rather, despite not finding pornography “interesting,” the girls reported finding it at times to be useful: it helped them anticipate what sexual encounters might look like, allowed them to develop an understanding of boys’ desires, and “help[ed] them understand what their peer group defined as ‘normal’ sexual practices.” In sum, in alignment with the accounts given by my friends, pornography was often used by these girls as an unofficial form of ‘sex ed,’ allowing them to develop what they perceived as more comprehensive understandings of sexuality and group sexual norms.

So, where do these results leave us? To start, we should consider what it might mean for girls to turn to pornography – which, as Scarcelli notes, all too often is “a product created by [cis] men for [cis] men” – as a means of self-edification. Further, in contemplating the gendered split in the manner in which pornograhy appears to be consumed in adolescence, I am reminded of my gender-segregated sexual education courses. What, I wonder, are the broader social implications of discussing sexuality as a set of processes and developments that are either ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’? Wouldn’t it liberating if instead we spoke of sexuality in relational terms – highlighting the role it plays in creating intimacy among people of all gender identities?

I’m hopeful that we as a society will evolve toward this understanding. Further, I would argue that what moving in this direction might look like in a practical sense is not simply a ban on pornographic content. Rather, it might involve the expansion of sexually themed materials created for and by people of diverse gender identities as well as the expansion of open, sex-positive sexual education curricula. Moreover, in the 21st century, it arguably needs to involve a keen understanding of how profoundly the Internet is interwoven into the construction of sexual knowledge, and the Internet’s equal potential to exist as a tool of gender oppression or (fingers crossed!) liberation.

[1] Scarcelli, C.M. (2015) ‘It is disgusting, but…’: Adolescent girls’ relationship to internet pornography as gender performance. Porn Studies, 2(2:3), 237-249. DOI: 10.1080/23268743.2015.105914

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