Opinion: there are many reasons why young people in Ireland watch porn, so how can we support them in navigating their online sexual lives?

Irish people are among the largest users of online porn in the world (sixth to be precise). Our recent research shows that Irish young people also see porn for the first time at an early age: 58% of young men report seeing porn for the first time under the age of 13. The Irish also watch porn on a regular basis, with 70% of young men and 15% of women watching porn every week. 

People in Ireland watch porn for several reasons. First, and perhaps most unsurprisingly, they do so to get turned on. They mainly do this alone, but 22% also report having watched porn with their partners. Women watch porn out of curiosity more than men and 50% of both men and women say that they have used porn to learn about sex.

Porn is informative in a few ways. It provides detailed information about a range of sexual behaviours, close-up footage of genitalia, examples of sexual functioning and an awareness that sex can be pleasurable. However, these representations can be limited and often fail to represent realistic sexual encounters.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, Kate Dawson discusses her study which tracked young people's engagement with pornography

However, mainstream porn can be a pretty bad educator related to sexual safety. Condom use, sexual negotiation and verbal consent communication are seldom portrayed. Certain behaviours, which may require exercising additional sensitivity or caution, are often represented as being easy.

The primary concern of parents, educators and policy makers in this regard is that young people will think that porn is a realistic portrayal of real-world sex and seek to replicate it. We know from research done by our colleagues at Zagreb University that perceived porn realism is highest during early adolescence. According to findings from the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study, this is also a time where Irish young people are beginning to become sexually active.

It is therefore very clear that there is a real need for youth to be equipped with information about pornography and be supported in developing skills necessary to critique sexual representations in media so that they can make healthy and informed decisions about their sexual lives. Porn literacy, defined as "the ability to deconstruct and critique sexual messages in pornography", has been suggested as a potential resolution in this context. A key component of porn literacy is that it should provide alternative points of view and the opportunity to discuss such beliefs in a safe and non-judgemental environment.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Pantisocracy, Taryn De Vere, Richie Sadlier, Shawna Scott and Dr. Paul Ryan discuss sex and the Irish with Panti

To date, discussions on what porn literacy should entail tend to focus on the negative implications of porn use. This was echoed in reports from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills on how to improve relationships and sexuality education in schools suggesting that we talk about the risks of porn use.

But there are a number of reasons why we should not only talk about the risks. Allowing for discussions on the positive, negative and neutral outcomes can help young people to understand how personal beliefs vary about the appropriateness of sexual practices seen in porn. Having this knowledge can help young people to become critical thinkers. Our research which explored young people’s recommendations for porn literacy highlighted the following core constructs that should be explored in porn literacy educational initiatives:

Reduce shame and increase awareness of porn use

First, porn literacy should aim to reduce shame around porn use. Only by reducing shame can we begin to have conversations about how porn impacts our understanding of sexual consent, body image and self-esteem. By reinforcing stigma and shame (saying porn is bad, don’t watch it), we close off conversations about porn, and prevent those who experience problems with porn from seeking help.

From RTÉ 2fm's Eoghan McDermott Show, Dr Phillipa Kaye discusses the effects of porn on teenage mental health 

Body and genital Image

Some believe that porn provides varied representations of body types, but others argue that it often portrays a standard of beauty, particularly related to genital aesthetic (larger-than-average penises, and symmetrical vulvas with small labia). Porn literacy should facilitate the exploration of both points of view and present detailed illustrations of varied body types to broaden peoples understanding of normal bodies.

Discuss sexual communication and consent

Porn rarely portrays examples of verbal consent, in other words, we rarely see porn actors discussing or negotiating sex. Porn literacy should facilitate discussions on why there is absence of sexual communication in porn, and facilitate the development of skills related to sexual communication, promote resilience in being able to accept sexual rejection, and identify consent or a lack thereof.

Sexual violence

Although representations of rape and sexual assault in internet porn are rare, sexual coercion, token resistance, and rough sex are commonly depicted. Porn literacy should facilitate the exploration of these topics, why some portrayals may be problematic and how such representations should differ from real-life consensual relationships.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Carl O'Brien from The Irish Times and Dr Karl Kitching from UCC discuss the findings of a major government review of sex education

Real sex

Porn literacy should discuss the realities of first sexual relationships. Providing young people with information about realistic expectations related to sex can help them make decisions about their sexual lives that coincide with their own values and desires. Sex can be funny and embarrassing too, and incorporating humour into these conversations will certainly lighten the atmosphere!

Pleasure and orgasm

Some porn prioritises male pleasure over female pleasure. It also portrays sexual pleasure as easily achievable and that every sexual encounter will feel good. Challenging such representations is important for youth regarding their sexual self-esteem and confidence.  

The parental view

Through interview discussions with parents we identified some core messages that parents believed it was their role to share with their child: (1) acknowledge porn’s existence; (2) acknowledge that a child’s curiosity about pornography and sexuality is normal; (3) create awareness of the pornography industry and its scripted nature; (4) the differences between fantasy and reality in how pornography portrays sex and (5) children and teenagers should be supported in asking questions about pornography and to be aware of supports. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, researcher Caroline West from DCU and occupational therapist and sexuality educator Sarah Sproule discuss how to talk to your children about sex

Simply talking about the unrealistic nature of pornography was believed not to be enough and that young people should also be taught about the realities of sex. This is illustrated by one parent's comment: "sex can be disastrous as well. We have all had bad sex; you never have bad sex education. Well, you have bad sex education, but never education about bad sex" (Mother). 

As with any sex education programme that provides comprehensive information about a range of sexual practices and identities, not all of which will be used by every individual. Similarly, with pornography, it may provide information about a range of things, individuals have the right to explore such behaviours at an appropriate age, if they choose to, but should not feel the need to replicate these behaviours in order to have a fulfilled and satisfying sexual relationship. People should be equipped with the skills to make their own decisions about their current or future sexual lives and have the confidence to communicate what with their partner. Educators, parents and policy makers all have a role to play in supporting young people in this regard.

This article is based on research conducted at the School of Psychology, NUI Galway by Kate Dawson, Professor Saoirse Nic Gabhainn and Dr Pádraig MacNeela. Please email kate.dawson@nuigalway.ie for further information on these studies


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ