We must act now to stop online pornography teaching what it means to be a man

Guest blog by Lord Farmer 

When, almost a decade ago, I began to argue against unrestricted access to online pornography and its dangers, vitriolic pushback asserted that adult freedoms had to be prioritised.

Since then, a deep seam of academic research has developed which has fatally undermined the case for untrammelled cyber-libertarianism. More and more people are waking up to the far-reaching negative impacts online pornography is having on individuals, relationships and society. Research from CEASE (the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation) has found over 80% of the public would support new laws to limit free and easy access to online pornography. 

Its impact on the mental, emotional and physical health of women and girls is now uncontestable yet many have been groomed by the pornography industry into accepting as commonplace violent and degrading sexual acts like slapping, choking and anal sex.

Research is also building up on the harms to men and boys, amidst hotly contested notions of masculinity. At one end of the spectrum is Andrew Tate and his kind, who promote misogyny and wealth-chasing as emblematic. At the other end are men identifying as feminists who propagate the myth that pornography empowers women. 

Both groups have been exposed to a hyper-profitable and ubiquitous pornography industry telling them it’s their right, as men, to objectify and abuse women during sex – and that women like it. Yet female pornography performers have no choice but to respond either neutrally or with pleasure when they are at the receiving end of aggressive and humiliating sex acts. 

There is enormous peer pressure on teenage boys and young men to view pornography and its addictive-by-design nature means children and young people are particularly susceptible. Reward centres in their developing brains respond 2-4 times more powerfully to dopamine and other pleasure chemicals than those of adults.

As with any addiction, users can gradually build up a tolerance to pornography, become desensitised and require more novel, extreme and violent sex acts to achieve the same level of arousal. The Laurel Centre, a specialist private clinic for people addicted to pornography, reports a sharp rise in the number affected, with some patients consuming up to 14 hours a day. 

Men and boys are brutalised by these depictions of rape, incest, violence and coercion. This is not niche footage only available on the dark web or behind a paywall but mainstream content available on every pornography platform. 

Once sexual arousal becomes chained to pornography, many heavy users find intimate, physical sex impossible to achieve, and struggle with Pornography Induced Erectile Dysfunction (PIED). Research finds between 17% and 58% of men who self-identify as heavy, compulsive or addicted users of pornography, struggle with some form of sexual dysfunction.

Their ability to sustain a healthy relationship is also severely impacted. Studies find that after watching pornography men feel less “in love” with their partners and find them less sexually attractive.

Given its impact on boys’ and young men’s sexual, emotional and physical sense of self, the unregulated pornography industry is uniquely unsuited to give lessons on healthy masculinity.

Excellent work is being done by the likes of Michael Conroy, The Reward Foundation and The Naked Truth Project to help men and boys fight the misogyny, objectification and sexual violence that big porn tells them is just normal harmless fun. 

But education alone was not enough to make people quit smoking or wear seatbelts.  Education, combined with legislation, resulted in safer practices and lives saved. 

This should be an inflection point in history and future generations will judge the decisions we make now. If the Online Safety Bill is to deliver on its pledge to make the UK the safest place to be online, the Government must ensure it includes robust age verification, regulates online content as stringently as offline content, and introduces age and consent checks for all pornography performers. 

This Bill is the opportunity to end big porn’s dictation of our sexual and relational norms. We cannot miss it. 

The Lord Farmer has been a Conservative peer in the House of Lords since 2014.