Porn 2.0: The Sexting Crisis

One of the themes that emerged from Barna's research on pornography are the enormous generational differences. There are wide gaps between how younger and older generations not only behave toward porn—but also what they believe about porn. In short: not only do younger generations use porn more regularly, they are also less likely to think there’s anything wrong with it.

While half of adults think viewing porn is wrong. Only one-third of teens and young adults believe it is wrong to view porn.

When asked to rank a series of “bad things” a person could do—things such as stealing, lying, having an affair, even overeating—teens and young adults placed all porn-related actions at the very bottom of the list. In fact, teens and young adults said “Not Recycling” is more immoral than viewing pornographic images. They also placed “thinking negatively about someone with a different point of view” as a much worse activity than viewing pornography.

To some degree, these rankings reflect a new moral code, something we call the "morality of self-fulfillment." While it may seem crazy to you that younger generations see not recycling as the greater evil—it’s also true that not recycling—as well as most of the other activities ranked above pornography—has a societal impact. Watching pornography, on the other hand, is perceived by many as simply an individual choice. Affecting no one but me.

Of course, many of us recognize that both the making and viewing of pornography has long-reaching societal effects. But for most Americans—especially younger ones—watching porn is a personal matter.

Teens and young adults are living in an environment where porn is more acceptable—and more ubiquitous than ever before. When they talk to their friends about pornography, the conversations are cavalier. Only 11 percent of teens and just 5 percent of young adults say their friends think viewing porn is bad. The vast majority say their conversations with friends around porn are either neutral, accepting or even encouraging. A plurality say it’s just assumed we all look at porn sometimes. When it comes to watching pornography, teens and young adults aren’t getting accountability from their friends—they are getting peer pressure.

And it is into this context—a context in which viewing porn is, simply put, an acceptable reality—that a new and particularly insidious form of pornography has emerged. A pornography that is no longer distant and delivered. But, instead, is personal and created.

We are calling this "porn 2.0".

Porn 2.0 is user-created—often shared with a known person; a friend or significant other or a potential romantic interest. You know what I'm talking about: sexting, snapchatting nude pictures, posting provocative Instagram photos.

Perhaps this was inevitable. We probably should have seen it coming. From YouTube to Tumblr to Instagram, the Internet has offered users a chance to create and distribute their own content. To share the details of their lives with friends and with strangers. Of course the demand for more and more intimate details would increase, even as the barriers to exposing oneself lessened.

In many ways, porn 2.0 has snuck under the radar. Perhaps because many don’t consider it porn at all. Teenagers, who are more likely to think everything is porn than other generations, make an exception when it comes to sexting.

When you look at teen sexting and the motivation behind it, it’s important to see it as a sort of replication of broader social behavior. They’ve seen this behavior—this sort of “self-pornification—rewarded when their celebrity icons have done it. Look at Kim Kardashian who basically broke Instagram with her recent nude photos. Young people have come of age in an increasingly pornified American culture that encourages and rewards the pornographic impulse. Just visit the home page for Instagram—these are not fun, life shots. These are seductive images meant to market oneself.

There is also the truth that teens and young adults are simply on their phones more. They have become used to viewing pornography via their phone or an app—well more so than any other generation. So it is not a surprise that the blurring of lines between pornography and personal happens—it’s all the same device, right? How easy it is to begin to view a nude image of a stranger with the same eyes as a nude image of a girlfriend.

But is porn 2.0 actually porn? Can we really consider sexting with a romantic interest on the same plane as watching unknown actors have sex? Or looking at nude pictures of strangers?

Why not? If our general definition of pornography is a sexual image used for personal arousal. Then is our goal in getting a nude picture of a boyfriend or girlfriend any different?

Porn 2.0 offers much of the same promise as traditional pornography: a disembodied, visual experience without the attachments or intimacy of sex. And, there is variety here as well, because the truth is – sexting often happens well before a relationship begins. In those early “get to know you stages” and it’s not at all unlikely that a person is sexting with multiple potential partners at any one time. If he’s asking you for pictures, he’s probably asking someone else for pictures too.

Fully 62 percent of teens and young adults say they have received a nude image—generally from a boyfriend or girlfriend. Forty percent have sent a nude image—again, usually to a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Here’s the thing, though: Even if we all agree together to call sexting and snapchatting nude pictures a form of pornography, we must also acknowledge together that porn 2.0 is not just porn reimagined in a new format.

Porn 2.0 is a new step in pornography because it is personal. And it is a particularly dangerous step because it invites us to not only sexualize our relationships—which we’ve already been doing for a plenty long time—it also invites us to disembody and therefore detach from our relationships. To, in short, objectify them.

You have a crush on a girl? With a little bit of persuasion, you can convince her to send you a topless photo. You get to experience her body—and probably personal pleasure—without intimacy, without physical proximity, without any of the embodied risks of physical sex. You give nothing of yourself.

Of course, you have asked something of her. And this is another danger of porn 2.0. Those who are sending photos begin to feel their own sense of validation and self-worth coming from the objectification and the distribution of their bodies. “If I want him to like me, I have to do this. All the other girls would do this.”

Now, I know I’m beginning to gender this: to make assumptions that the requestor is a boy and the sender is a girl. But, the stats bear this out: we found that girls are both more likely to send and to receive nude images. At first, this seemed odd. Like someone wasn’t telling the truth: if girls are saying they send more images than guys and they receive more images than guys, then who are they sending and receiving from?

The more I thought about this though—and the more I reckoned it with my own experiences and those of my friends—the more I realized what’s happening. Men are the initiators. They are the ones asking for the pictures. They are also the ones often sending the pictures. However, not all guys are engaging in this. There are plenty of men who aren’t asking for or sending nude photos. They are choosing not to do this and so they are, primarily, immune to the phenomenon. Girls, on the other hand, are indiscriminately targeted. They may not initiate, but they will inevitably be forced to respond to a request for a photo or to a photo showing up in their text. Whether they want to engage or not, women will experience this reality.

Porn 2.0 may feel like a sideways conversation from the broader concerns of pornography. But porn 2.0 is destructive. It’s destructive to our ideas of healthy sexuality, our body images and self-confidence, our fledgling relationships and our call to live in intimate, embodied presence with one another.

Porn 2.0 is a reality we can’t ignore as ministers and spiritual leaders. It is the reality our young people are living in—and a significant new contour to the life of the single, dating teen and young adult.


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