It may be time for the government to consider an all-out ban on online pornography, or at the very least health warnings on hardcore websites
Soho in the 1970s: Almost quaint compared to today ©Lesly HAMILTON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
As of April this year, anyone in the UK visiting an online pornographic website will be asked to give proof of age in the form of a driving licence, national insurance number or age verification card.
This long-overdue government initiative finally closes a loophole that allows anyone with a smartphone or laptop free and easy access to thousands of hours of hardcore pornographic material, no questions asked. While the new measures offer much-needed protection for vulnerable children, they will do little to stem the harm inflicted on adult males, who make up the bulk of consumers. For all the talk of how best to police the internet’s borderless, Wild West hinterlands, one question remains: does anyone actually enjoy watching pornography? Wouldn’t it be better for the future of mankind if we drew a discreet veil over our sordid love affair with online filth?
For most men — and, yes, men are still the main consumers of this stuff — porn is little more than a dispiriting exercise in itch-scratching. What dribble of pleasure there is tends to be fleeting, messy and mired in self-disgust. A few minutes or hours later and the itch is back. For a growing minority of users, porn’s unrequited promises are becoming a horrifying addiction, leading to dysfunctional sex lives, broken relationships, depression and even suicide. For a hardcore few, porn’s bottomless rabbit hole of degradation can land them in some seriously dark places.
For eight years Matthew Falder, a 29-year-old Cambridge graduate, lived a double life, researching geophysics at Birmingham university by day and trawling the dark web’s most extreme porn sites by night. Using several pseudonyms, he blackmailed young, vulnerable people he met online into sending him obscene images and videos that he then distributed to other criminals operating deep within a fetid corner of the dark web’s darkest reaches known as “Hurtcore”. The material found here makes mainstream porn look like an episode of The Good Life. The National Crime Agency (NCA), which carried out a four-year investigation into Falder’s crimes, named his site of choice, Hurt 2 The Core, as “the world’s worst website”. In February 2018, Falder was given a 32-year sentence after pleading guilty to 137 unimaginable acts of cruelty. During sentencing Judge Philip Parker QC described Falder’s crimes as “a tale of ever-increasing depravity”.
Of course, not everyone who watches porn goes on to become a Falder and most porn addicts manage to maintain functioning, if miserable lives. Clinical psychologist Heather Wood has made a special study of internet porn and believes that “pornography may be used to elaborate or amplify already deviant sexual interests, and for some people pornography use may contribute to increasing risk of enactment.” Psychotherapist John Woods has dealt with many patients who regularly view illegal imagery but who would never go on to become sex offenders.
Indeed, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that watching excessive amounts of porn turns you into a psychopathic criminal and it’s vital that vulnerable men suffering from addiction receive professional help and understanding. But Judge Parker’s description of “ever-increasing depravity” speaks volumes about the porn industry’s insidious grip on men’s minds. Those who have used online pornography for any length of time will know that material loses its potency with repeated viewing. Desensitisation soon kicks in; perverse or degrading acts become normalised. Cynical pornographers know that in order to hold onto their customers they must keep dopamine levels firing on all cylinders, which means offering ever more extreme material. Scenes of sadomasochism have become almost de rigueur in even the most pedestrian porn clips. One thing you will rarely, if ever, see in pornographic movies is a couple making love in the missionary position while gazing longingly into each other’s eyes — it seems real intimacy doesn’t go down well with viewers.
So why should we be concerned about pornography’s increasing reliance on ever more extreme and depraved content? Well, for those dealing with the fallout such as Dr Stephen Blumenthal, consultant clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst at the Portman Clinic, London, porn consumption has become a ticking time-bomb. “I am seeing more and more males habitually seeking out ever more disturbing sexual imagery. It is distorting their minds and making them seriously depressed.” And it isn’t just awkward adolescents who are having their minds and sex drives unalterably rewired. Middle-aged men are turning to porn in increasingly large numbers, either to spice up waning sex lives or as an easy substitute for the real thing. Although men have always sought sexual distractions, Blumenthal believes the ubiquity of internet porn is literally blowing their minds.
Before the internet, mainstream porn was limited to cheesy top-shelf magazines such as High Society, Razzle and Playbirds. The garishly-lit double-page spreads of pimply, bubble-permed “models” sprawled across nastily-fibred rugs in grim provincial backrooms seem almost quaint compared with today’s high-definition clips of perfectly-preened “adult entertainment stars” getting it on in honey-lit Hollywood mansions. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, publishers of “dirty mags” even felt obliged to include sexy photographs of speedboats and Ferraris simply to break up the tedium. Yes, there were hardcore videos out there but only if you were prepared to get your hands dirty browsing the unhygienic shelves of dank, Soho sex shops. But even then, the gaudy covers and titillating titles — Jet Sex, Up and Coming and Cinderotica spring depressingly to mind — gave little indication as to what was actually inside. Being ripped off came with the territory. An hour’s worth of material might set you back 30 quid but with much of the content consisting of excruciatingly-dull, appallingly-acted filler. Refunds were out of the question.
Before we were able to swipe our way to instant sexual gratification, tastes were governed by what was available and the effort and expense of acquiring it. Fine if you happened to be into bubble-permed girl-on-rug action; for everyone else, it was a case of using your imagination and hoping for the best. The internet has expanded our arousal horizons exponentially, providing a platform for every sexual proclivity imaginable (and many more besides). Users no longer have to worry about what other people might think (porn mag purchases often came with a discreet brown paper bag). Today there are no limits and no judgments — just you, your screen and a virtual button to anywhere. But the consequences of so much unregulated freedom are only now becoming clear. And it is doctors like Blumenthal who are having to pick up the pieces. He worries about the long-term impact on men’s mental and emotional wellbeing:
Humans have the capacity for rational, deliberating thought but we are also impulse-driven. When it comes to porn’s ease of access and the anonymity of being online, we are often powerless to say no and that can lead men to some very unedifying places, compounding feelings of shame and self-disgust.
More worryingly, pornography intrudes on men’s relationships and their capacity to form them, says Blumenthal. It has become a retreat from the real world, an uncomplicated, non-judgmental, private place where men can indulge fantasies and hide from their worries and anxieties. Indeed, older men will often turn to pornography in times of crisis, during marital difficulties for instance or when they feel isolated and afraid. For many men porn acts as a kind of anti-depressant but according to Blumenthal, all that unattainable imagery only exacerbates feelings of isolation. This is especially worrying for middle-aged male consumers who are most at risk of suicide, the leading cause of death for men under 50.
What is becoming abundantly clear is that action needs to be taken to protect not only vulnerable children but vulnerable adults too, and yet successive governments continue to scupper any meaningful regulation. Heather Wood believes that restricting availability and access is unrealistic: “What we need is more public awareness about the impact of internet porn on the unconscious mind, starting at primary school where children are already being exposed to hardcore pornography. There is so much more to adult relationships and sex than what they see online.” Perhaps Falder’s descent into depravity might have been averted had he been warned of the dangers early on in life.
Dr Blumenthal believes we need to go further and that the lack of effective regulation has been shortsighted and irresponsible in the extreme. “In a few years from now we will look back and wonder what on earth we were thinking in much the same way we look back in disbelief at 1950s attitudes to smoking.” It is still unclear what the long-term health consequences might be: mainstream sites such as PornHub and Brazzers are scarcely a decade old. All we do know is that right now men are suffering, often alone and in silence.
While researching my book The War on Masculinity (out later this year) I witnessed at first hand the devastating impact porn addiction is having on men’s lives. Lawyers, bankers, peers of the realm, teenagers, road-sweepers and fathers of young children, all of them living secretive double lives, shrouded in misery, shame and self-loathing. In light of the harm experienced by so many men, perhaps it is time a Conservative government considered introducing an all-out ban. Sites that feature child abuse or promote terrorist organisations are already regulated or monitored by police, so we know the technology exists. Concerns about freedom of expression should be weighed against evidence of actual harm.
Blumenthal thinks monitoring users might be a useful first step: “Experience-sampling is a highly reliable method of measuring how someone is feeling while they are engaged in online activities.” Indeed, Facebook has been using just such a method to monitor declines in subjective wellbeing experienced by social media junkies. And it’s relatively easy to implement: participants are sent text messages at random intervals throughout the day, with a link to an online survey. At the very least, this might provide some hard evidence, bringing all that private misery out into the open. Let’s hope Blumenthal receives the funding he needs to carry out his research.
In the meantime, how about this for an idea: in addition to age verification, we impel every registered porn site to carry a whopping great health warning, a bit like the ones used on cigarette packets. Instead of tar-encrusted lungs, the warning could feature a photograph of a lonely man staring anxiously at a computer screen, pants round ankles. The wording could read something like this.
DANGER — the site you are about to enter contains footage of actors engaging in fake sexual scenarios that bear little relationship to real life. Viewing such material can result in desensitisation, relationship breakdown, long-term damage to mental health, an inability to engage in meaningful sexual intercourse with another human being and low self-esteem. Side effects may include erectile dysfunction, an inability to reach orgasm, depression, anxiety, shame, self-disgust, isolation and suicidal thoughts. Proceed with extreme caution.