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Singer Billie Eilish arrives at the Oscars in Los Angeles, Feb. 9, 2020. She recently revealed to Howard Stern that watching pornography at age 11 “destroyed my brain.”
John Locher, Associated Press

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Perspective: Billie Eilish’s exposure to porn is unfortunately common — and destructive

It’s not enough to repeat the mantra that things online are not real. What are parents to do?

Billie Eilish is wise beyond her years. At the age of only 19, the singer recently told Howard Stern that pornography “destroyed my brain.” She was only 11 when she started watching explicit videos and then, she said, “It got to a point where I couldn’t watch anything else unless it was violent. I didn’t think it was attractive.”

Eleven is actually the average age, according to some surveys, at which children encounter porn for this first time. And as Eilish explained, it has a real impact on the way young people understand and behave in relationships. She told Stern: “I was a virgin. I had never done anything. And so, it led to problems. … The first few times I had sex, I was not saying no to things that were not good. It was because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be attracted to.”

It is not uncommon to hear the problems of pornography use and addiction minimized by people who say they too watched it as kids and it had little discernible effect. Just like kids were bullied before social media, so men objectified women before OnlyFans. But the variety and accessibility of pornography have increased so much that we have entered new territory. In their 2011 book “Premarital Sex is America,” Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker wrote that pornography altered the dating marketplace by significantly changing the kinds of sexual activities women would engage in and the kind of activities men expected, such as violent and degrading acts.

Not surprisingly, porn use was higher among a younger demographic, but the authors also noted that “for women, being in a dating relationship contributes to a greater acceptance and use of porn. For men, no such dating association exists.” In other words, it seems as if men are interested in pornography for its own sake whereas women’s interest or willingness to watch or accept a partner watching has much more to do with their behavior in a relationship.

Their surveys suggest a growing willingness on the part of women to engage in a variety of sexual activities, and many of the women are not happy about them. “In contrast to tired Hollywood claims about film reflecting life rather than the other way around, the direction of the influence here seems clear. … Many log on to ‘learn’ sex, or so they think.” The authors note that although many will say they know porn is not real, “Many nevertheless wonder if it could be or should be.”

The younger the age at which they start, the more likely it will influence their own choices. In her book “Boys & Sex,” Peggy Orenstein interviews Paul Wright, a professor of media at Indiana University. He explained, “If I’m female and I see porn at a very young age, I see ‘This is what sex is.’ So later on, I’m going to initiate that behavior because I think that’s what the guy wants. ... If I start viewing when I’m older, I’m more like, ‘Um, this is what people do in porn, not what we do in real life.”

It’s not uncommon for introspective young men and women to recognize the effect that viewing porn has on their relationships. But it is hard to unsee pornography. Orenstein spoke to a sophomore at Boston College who told her that porn had changed the way he sees real women’s bodies. “I’ve got things narrowed down to a very, very specific body type that turns me on,” he explained. He says he figured out what he liked from watching a lot of explicit videos. “It doesn’t ruin my relationships, but it’s not nice when I’m trying to talk my girlfriend into liking a part of her body, but I’m secretly thinking, ‘Well, actually, I would prefer …’” And this doesn’t even get into all of the insecurities that young men described about their own bodies and performance after viewing porn.

The question for parents is what we can do to help. It is not enough to repeat the mantra that things online are not real. Orenstein’s interviews and others make it clear that kids objectively know this. Just like we can tell teens that Instagram images are doctored, that Facebook photos are airbrushed and that no one’s life is as good as they make it seem on social media, these messages will only go so far because they speak to the brain, not the heart. The images in porn speak to us in a visceral way that it’s hard to argue ourselves out of. It’s another reason why parents cannot shirk their roles in constantly monitoring the content their children are seeing and limiting their use of devices as long as possible. The price of internet access is eternal vigilance.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”

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