The digital era of sex
29th November 2023
I don’t think we realise the amount of sexual content and ‘soft porn’ we see daily.
Throughout and after the pandemic, the seclusion changed many things worldwide and digitately evolved many things massively – including the sex industry.
This leaves us wondering - is this having an impact on people’s real lives?
Bea Garrard explores the nature of sex online and the part it currently plays in our society how it directly impacts people – our behaviours and sexual relationship especially with the wide accessibility we have to it.
We can’t deny we are entering a new era when it comes to society and sex.
Focusing on exploring the nature of porn and how it affects sexual behaviour and relationships also how younger generations are experiencing sex from an alternate lens.
Social media platforms are experiencing a growth in explicit nature and with vast availability and access.
One industry that has skyrocketed and become very impactful when speaking about sex today is pornography. It has been around long enough to be able to observe the effect it is starting to have on people and its direct impact on people.
The internet and sex are both massively addictive. Webroot reported that a shocking 25% of all internet searches are related to pornography.
This can influence what people expect out of sex and impact sexual desire. Not to mention that ‘pornstars’ are professionals who are being filmed and need to look a certain way aesthetically– this can create feelings of inadequacy within their sex appeal and body image.
A Study by The National Institutes of Health on ‘Major Motivators and Sociodemographic Features of Women Undergoing Labiaplasty’ shows half of the patients reported that they had an idea about the female genitalia (50.7%) and they were influenced through the media (47.9%).
The pornography consumption rate in the last month was 19.7% and was significantly related with lower genital self-image and self-esteem.
The prevalence of porn has in the world, how quickly we can access it online – one in five smartphone search queries are porn-related and data shows that the three most visited adult sites PornHub, Xnxx and Xvideos generate 4.7 billion search visits per month.
Younger generations are much less likely to see porn as a taboo, growing up with the internet meant much earlier and more frequent exposure to porn.
Defend Young Minds an organisation offering advice to parents and carers on children being exposed to pornography, say.
“In the world we live in, it is safe to assume if they haven’t already, almost all kids will be exposed to porn at some point. It is not an if but a when. There are lots of steps parents can take to help children avoid pornography, but we also need to be arming them with the tools to combat it when they inevitably come across it, so they know how to respond to it in a healthy way.”—Jessie Kuntz Defend Young Minds
Many young people having the internet has created opportunity for access more sexual education and resources for learning and growth. However, due to higher levels of permissive sexual attitudes sexual preoccupation, and earlier sexual experimentation have been correlated with more frequent consumption of pornography and findings have linked adolescent use of pornography that depicts violence can increase sexually aggressive behaviour.
It’s been found young people who are watching porn regularly are also more prone to less interest in socialising, higher levels of depression and decreased ability to bond with caregiver. This was all found in a 2023 study by Fam Med Community Health on Pornography use among adolescents and the role of primary care.
Young people are expected to have sex a lot earlier than before and generally have or think they have more of an idea on sex due to social media. The NSPCC found that 40% of teenage girls feel pressured into having sex.
Social media platforms, such as Instagram, have allowed many people gain large followings and earn money off sex-appeal alone, which has also led to the success of Only Fans. It’s possibly more appealing to work in sex.
This has the potential to create several issues teenagers are having when it comes to navigating relationships and sexuality in 2023.
Josh Towers, who runs a charity called the Teenage Helpline – a confidential support line for people ages 10-25 can contact for support with any issues they may have, having an emphasis on relationship and sexuality issues.
Josh set up the charity at aged just 14.
I'm all for expressing yourself in any way that makes you feel comfortable. But websites, like Only Fans are incredibly unhealthy—Josh Towers
“I think some of the positives around that are people do tend to be a bit safer now because they have the conversations, and they understand some of the some of the risks. But equally we find probably more than ever before young people in situations that are risky.
“The use of Snapchat triggered it, but think about Instagram messaging, where you can send disappearing pictures, and I think you can on Facebook as well, all that kind of stuff is promoting unhealthy relationships that then also can't be tracked or monitored or dealt with.
“I think it puts pressure on people now as well to have relationships before they’re ready for them.
“I do see the stuff on their phones that their friends post and, especially, younger girls are a lot more I would say sexualized online.”
Josh believes there are some common issues in relation to sexual or ‘sexy’ content on social media and young people today.
“Then promotes that kind of idea of, well, this person's getting attention because they're acting in a particular way,” he said. “So, now, I want that attention so I'm going to act in that way. A lot of their goal is to get likes on social media, that sort of social validation nowadays I suppose has changed.
“15 years ago, 10 years ago, even five years ago, you were less exposed to fitting into those kinds of norms. But now it's so normal that it becomes an issue - the normalisation of inappropriate behaviour.
“I'm all for expressing yourself in any way that makes you feel comfortable. But websites, like Only Fans are incredibly unhealthy.”
Josh says society can collectively help young people to safely and transparently navigate issues related to sex and relationship issues playing out with massive involvement from social media.
He said: “It's all about schools and parents seeking that understanding of what apps are there out there that my children or young people around me are using. What does that mean? What are the risks of those apps?
“Understanding the settings that can be put in place, parents can go on and they can change the settings of their child's Snapchat account to make sure messages don't get automatically deleted. They can have open conversations with their children about the risks, but in a sensitive way.
“I think we only go sort of surface level with it in schools now, which isn't helpful. I think it needs to be reinvented.”
He added: “My other piece of advice is just understanding how to report it. More for everybody, not just young people.
“It's important that people know how to report it, and then that they do report it.”
Lots of what young people have seen are some forms of altered reality whether that be pornography or a celebrity on Instagram posting nude pictures.
Young people can often subconscious or consciously, feel a sense of inadequacy whether that is based on sexual expectation or in terms of body image.
Vagina surgery for appearance reasons is now ‘sought by girls as young as nine’, a BBC study found.
It can also be very dangerous to use porn as a ‘how to guide’ for sex as for too many young people, it can be their first experiences of sex and nudity. The issue can also be the nature of the content.
Some porn watchers are likely to act out what they’ve seen, and the material often becomes increasingly graphic as time goes on.
Many psychologists and people studying the area of digitally revolutionised sex agree overconsumption of porn and sexual related content can distort sexual attitudes, increase likelihood of social dysfunction, relational disfunction infidelity and more.
Children’s Commissioner did a study on young people and pornography, they found that young people who engage in coercive, degrading or pain-inducing sex acts, 79% had encountered violent pornography before the age of 18.
Young people expressed concern about the implications of violent pornography on their understanding of the difference between sexual pleasure and harm. The report finds that frequent users of pornography are more likely to engage in physically aggressive sex acts.
It may be surprising to many that sex addiction is probably the fourth most prevalent addiction worldwide. It is estimated to affect around 8% of men globally- found by a study by CPD Online College. It is more common that food issues and eating disorders.
Some more shocking data is that 68% of divorce cases involve one party meeting a new partner on the internet while 56% involve one party having an ‘obsessive interest’ in pornographic website. – Webroot’s 2023 Threat report found.
Speaking to a Psychosexual Therapist who specialises in sex addiction and relationship counselling about the issue. They wished to remain unnamed due to confidentiality at the practise.
“We help them understand how their brain is changing, we help them understand that their brain can change back.”—Psychosexual Therapist
He said: “There are five reasons why someone can develop this type of addiction. They could be biologically predisposed, they may have somebody in their family who had addiction problems, they may have impulse control problems such as, autistic spectrum or ADHD, there may be emotional reasons why they developed an addiction because they had trouble managing emotions or family of origin, relational needs as well.
“So, they might have trouble relating to people.
They might find people scary or never want to settle down with one person.
“And then there's societal and cultural things. So, society, western society is free, there's sexual freedoms, and it's never been easier because you can literally carry your addiction around in your back pocket.”
“It might be your work culture.
We get a lot of people from the armed forces or emergency services. - it's to do with stress of that job.
“They might have trouble relating to people. They might find people scary. They never want to settle down with one person.
“Whatever the genesis of their problems being either childhood trauma or, just problems relating to people, relationship problems, emotional problems, as well as the impact of social media, the internet, the accessibility to porn.
“We help them understand how their brain is changing, we help them understand that their brain can change back.”
He highlights why this compulsive sexual behaviour, especially with things like porn, is much easier to develop today than ever before:
“It's a soothing behaviour and it takes away stress or anxiety or boredom or low self-esteem or things like that. Because you can develop a healthier relationship with your internet service provider, and you can with your partner,” he said.
“You're never going to get turned down by your internet service, or you're never going to get turned down by a sex worker.”
The therapist explained that people cannot get the same hits from paper porn as they can from going online and lining up 10 of their favourite videos, which will change daily.
He added: “In terms of where the brain works, it's, it goes straight in via the visual cortex and goes straight to the emotional cortex, so that you don't have to process the emotions.”
‘’It has to escalate either in terms of intensity or time, or risk. The same with most addictions
“So, whatever they started watching, which gives them the dopamine, high, that will soon become boring and bland.”
“We, and there aren't any harmful consequences, then it's probably not an addiction, it just could be a habit.”
The therapist says there are various starting points for those who want or need help.
“They may want to do some group work first,” he said. “I think it's probably the most effective way of getting them into recovery quickly. Because it's not just about what they learn in terms of our model and our way of working, but they do it alongside other, other people who are struggling.
“And that community, that fellowship is, is massively reassuring. It helps reduce the anxiety and overall stress of it.
What about people who are still involved in prostitution or selling sex on the street…
This work still appears very different to the lives of online creators and some ‘pornstars’ who can gain a high income from platforms like Only Fans.
Prostitution became harder over the pandemic, and this was when Only Fans essentially began its takeover.
Speaking to a member of Beyond the Streets charity, who would like to remain anonymous helped me understand some of the issues with prostitution and how it has changed very recently.
They work to support sex workers.
Beyond The Streets highlight that 76% of those involved in prostitution experience some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It comes back down to the men's behaviour, that's what the risk is from - the men's behaviour.—Charity Worker Beyond The Streets
“Not sure that empowering is the right word, but it is a choice, and it is possibly less damaging than going out on the street at two o'clock in the morning when you're on your own, there’s a high risk of violence.
It's difficult to say it's not empowering because then you'll get a whole group of the sex workers who will say yes, it is for whatever their reasons.
But I think that if you have a look around, the people who exited prostitution quite frequently say ‘yeah, I thought it was my choice. But, now on reflection, it was quite traumatising.”
She revealed that prostitutes often experience prejudice and the bigotry and that the judgements about them were horrible.
“You know, what I heard this morning - Grand Theft Auto, they shoot police officers and apparently ‘ladies of the night’, the fact one of the most popular games allows you to shoot prostitutes is absolutely outrageous.”
She added that the pandemic had a great effect on street sex.
“I think COVID affected the on street selling of sex, so people then had to work from home or work from a different from indoors. I've heard lots of different stories, some saying that it's safer if you're indoors.
“But then you need to make sure that there's someone there to help you if they know that someone's coming around. But I've also heard some horror stories about indoors where the risks are still the same.
“It comes back down to the men's behaviour, that's what the risk is from - the men's behaviour.
“There's obviously a factor of violence that comes into working the streets as one of the you know, that goes without saying.”
Sex work has become more of a choice - especially when putting content of themselves online. The online sex industry has evolved for women in terms of freedom, however 9 out of 10 women working in prostitution said they would like to exit if they could – Street Light UK found.
Someone we have called Sophie, as she wishes to remain anonymous, has worked as webcam girl for over 10 years and has also done work as an escort.
“Always report something if it's out of the ordinary and extremely violent, extremely unsafe. I've been harassed by multiple men. I've had to stop working with them.—Sophie
She shares some of her experiences.
“Once they've done their business, what they need to do, they're done, and they don't really want anything to do with you anymore. Sometimes it will make you feel like you are just a piece of meat or an object or nothing.
“I feel like they don't talk to me like a human being, but because I'm acting as well at the time, that doesn't bother me so much.
“It's not like they're actually hurting me as a person they’re just hurting a part of me who I'm acting, who I'm pretending to be. So that's where it's kind of different I suppose to, that's where it doesn't hurt me. I can separate myself from my job”
Sophie advised caution to young girls who are considering sex work.
“I think with Only Fans and stuff being so big at the moment, its making girls think they can earn money really quickly and be a successful millionaire living in a lovely house. It’s not going to happen. You're going to have a bit of extra money to spend at Christmas or get your nails done, get your hair done, you're not going to be earning the money you think you would.”
She added: “Always report something if it's out of the ordinary and extremely violent, extremely unsafe. I've been harassed by multiple men. I've had to stop working with them. I was followed by somebody I've done a job with before. I've reported that to the police.
“I can't say that it's hurt me at all. But a lot of girls, this traumatizes them, and it can impact their mindset forever. Some of the stuff men are saying to you on a day basis, the way people are even speaking to you.”
Social media sometimes shows people earning a lot of money and quickly, that wouldn’t be attainable in other areas of work.
An example of the earnings is Cardi B earning 1 million dollars within her first 24 hours on the platform – according to TMZ.
Only Fans had a total worth of 18 billion dollars in 2022 and is growing at a rate of 70% per month! Sign House found while looking into 2023 Only Fans revenue and statistics. The reality, however, is that the average creator has 22 subscribers.
Speaking to Ella, her name’s been changed her name for anonymity reasons. She was one of the founders of organisation, for Sex workers - S.W.A.R.M and who has also done some phone sex work in the past, shares some thoughts, perspectives on the industry.
“I live in London, there's so much about the way people look that seems connected to porn.”-Ella
“I think it can be very healing in a weird way, but t wouldn’t say so universally. I think it just depends on the personality and your privilege. If you've got a bit more privilege, then it makes it easier.”
Ella says that she really hates porn and is quite ignorant about it.
“I don't just everything about it, it freaks me out and always has. I remember when I worked on the phone, it is really bewildering to me how porn shaped people's brains. I can't imagine now what it's like growing up with phones, being at school with boys who've got phones.
“I live in London, there's so much about the way people look that seems connected to porn.”
She admitted that she thinks porn is the most powerful industry.
“There's literally a parallel universe on the internet and in the world, that's connected to sex and the adult industry, and it is connected to crime, it’s connected to the arms industry, you know, it's in the food industry, it is everything.
“There are other things we can be doing, just we need to have better talking and communication or in schools and things like that.
“And not even just sex education, just emotional education. That's how do we talk to each other? How do we tell each other when we feel fragile and vulnerable? That would change everything.”
The evidence is overwhelming in the fact that the way we receive sex can have a damaging effect especially with the uncontrollable amount, speed and nature of sexual content we are seeing
The type of material we have access to can also negatively and sometimes dangerously can impact sexual behaviour.
Going forward - young people should have access to proper education and appropriate guidance from people who fully understand what the issues are.
One of the most reoccurring mentions exploring the sex industry today, was about Only Fans and how much it has revolutionized the world of sex, how we see and receive it.
However, this has encouraged people to think and challenge the safety and laws on these platforms.
Additionally, people who are trying to find other alternatives to sex work, will have more resources and support to do so the sooner we acknowledge the consequences.
It would also see more people promote healthy safe relationships, understand more about the consequences of pornography and online sexual content, hopefully see a more regulated and safer web with less people sexually exploited online in the future.
Sex cannot merely be considered as a hobby or a pastime it is an integral part of the human condition and psyche.