by Mary Harrington
Wednesday, 15
December 2021
Debate
17:05

Billie Eilish tells us what we already know about porn

The singer said that it destroyed her brain at a young age
by Mary Harrington
Billie Eilish says that porn “destroyed her brain”

Singer-songwriter Billie Eilish yesterday told interviewer Howard Stern that her exposure to violent porn from the age of 11 onwards “really destroyed my brain”.

Eilish, 19, isn’t unusual: a 2019 BBFC report said children as young as seven years old are ‘accidentally’ exposed to porn, and in the 11-13 group more than half reported they had viewed porn. A recent survey of frontline staff at Barnardo’s, a charity that works with at-risk children, reported a rise across the board in children being exposed to increasingly extreme pornography.

The Barnardo’s report notes viewing pornography effectively normalises abusive sexual behaviour in the minds of children — an effect that workers pointed out in practice aids adult sexual abuse of children.

And even where this doesn’t smooth the path to the abuse of minors, it can harm young people. Eilish spoke frankly about how when she started having sex, she was “not saying no to things that were not good”. And this was “because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be attracted to”. That is, viewing pornography had normalised the expectation that such acts are common and she ought to enjoy them.

Eilish’s words convey a sense of mourning that’s difficult to reconcile with the ‘sex positive’ idea that more knowledge about sexuality is inevitably better. “I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn,” she said.

Between the lines lies an implicit reproach: where were the people who were supposed to protect me from this? The same sentiment lurks between the lines in this TikTok video, where a young woman speaks tearfully to photos of herself as a child. That child, she says, is precious; but in hook-up culture she doesn’t experience the affection and caretaking she’d instinctively feel was due to the child she once was.

We’re two decades into our experiment with mass-participation internet, an experiment we began with little grasp of the impacts it might have on children. At 19, Eilish is one of a generation that’s reached adulthood having never known a world without the ability to access “anything, everything all of the time”, as Bo Burnham put it. She was left to roam relatively unsupervised in that world, and having reached adulthood has realised how this lack of protection left her not free but acutely vulnerable.

She’s just one of the more vocal casualties. Her experience is normal; she just has a platform to speak out about it.

Last week 14 charities called for Ofcom to have the power to shut down pornography sites that don’t demand age verification, after the last attempt to bring in age verification requirements was derailed by lobbyists.

We should ask ourselves how much more evidence we need before we stop pandering to the commercial interests (and squalid desires) of adults and take concrete steps to end this. In the digital age, violent sexual imagery is an active source of profound and irreparable harm to young minds. It can’t be restricted safely enough to warrant a ‘free speech’ protection.

We already accept digital censorship in principle. We should be proactive about extending it to pornography.

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James Joyce
James Joyce
8 months ago

This is a bit tricky. I am completely against children being exposed to porn. There are limits. But I am also against “age verification” because that will necessarily breach the anonymity of the internet, and in fact many who want to “protect” children will use this not only to protect children but to drastically limit the choices of adults–can you imagine if Jacinda Ardern were in charge? She is the sole determiner of “truth,” so she could just use her own judgment and all would be well.
I think it is a huge stretch in the article to say or imply that watching porn aids in the sexual abuse of children by adults. No evidence cited, and I don’t believe there is a cause and effect relationship. An interview with Howard Stern is perhaps not the best place to start this discussion.
Finally, I’m a bit gobsmacked, though perhaps I shouldn’t be–at the comment that BE was allowed to roam unsupervised on the dark side of the internet as a child. Where was her family? (Actually, in the documentary about her–which did not mention this–I thought that her family was, in these circumstances [raising a child star], exceptionally grounded and supportive. Perhaps they had a blind spot?)
I think it is the responsibility of the family to set rules–even when this is difficult–and I think this is a family first matter, and not for Jacinda Ardern and her ilk, who want to control all aspects of my behaviour. JA can Let’s Go Brandon!
If my “squalid desire” as an adult is alcohol or tobacco, I don’t feel the need to renounce these desires because some children–not properly supervised–abuse these things.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
8 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

I didn’t have children but many of my friends and peers did. I watched with alarm the amount of unsupervised access to TV and the internet that most children were afforded. Blame the parents.

AC Harper
AC Harper
8 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

I agree. I’ve often thought that it is tremendously difficult to talk about porn rationally because it triggers too many hot-button emotional responses.
Yes, children should be protected from content beyond their capacity to understand properly. I used Cyber Patrol and Net Nanny when my children were young to restrict their access. But I also suspect there are many people who just want to control other adults viewing of anything they themselves don’t like. That is censorship; I oppose it because there is always mission creep to make more and more unacceptable.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
8 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The irony is that many a ten year old can guide you around Cyber Petrol etc.
I am childless but even I acknowledge that raising children takes precedence over my right to self indulgence disguised as the pursuit of liberty. Whatever happened to restraint, shame, taboo and good old-fashioned prudery?.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
7 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Restraint, shame, taboo and old fashioned prudery slowly disappeared below the surface of the Slough of Despond once man grew up and saw guilt for what it is – the crushing control used by all religions. The natural and inevitable response of the enlightenment was a rush to the other extreme. We slowly approach a balance but surely you would not want shame and prudery to once again stalk the High Street?

James Joyce
James Joyce
8 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

A further thought:
A Swedish friend–Sweden presumably has excellent statistics–says that on average, Swedish girls become sexually active at 15. Maybe this is good, maybe bad, but it is a fact. I imagine many Western countries are about the same.
But porn is also a fact. If, for better or worse (usually worse), adolescents use porn as a way of learning about sex–their own self-directed sex ed course–there is a mismatch between the age when girls become sexually active and the age where they are legally allowed to watch porn. What to do?
Many of the commentators have wisely posted that “parental controls” will not work because only the children know how to use them–and how to evade them. This is an issue that calls for creative solutions–if they exist–because the normal way of thinking about this just doesn’t work. Is a porn rating system needed–PG (Parental Guidance) porn? Porn that shows sex, but not in a violent or degrading fashion? Seems like there are few, possibly no good options.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
8 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

I have read/heard that kids mainly access via their ‘phones. If that’s so, an easy answer is that parents don’t allow them to have smart-phones; there are ‘phones available to call and text in emergencies which all they really need. Of course, there is the lap-top at home, but again parental supervision and controls can be used at home, this is done by a number of my friends who have younger children.

Peggy Porter
Peggy Porter
19 days ago
Reply to  James Joyce

When you say, ‘where was her family?” and ‘it is the responsibility of the family to set rules,’ perhaps you don’t realize that a) many parents (who didn’t grow up with ubiquitous porn, or the devices which enable it) really have no idea how bad and how easily available it is, and b) they can set all the rules they want, but all it takes for a kid to see something they can never ‘un’see, is a classmate to stick a phone in front of their face. Your belief that all of this is within parental control, and that no limits, no matter how benign, should be imposed on your ability to access porn, suggests you probably have no children.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
8 months ago

I shall never understand why the internet was allowed to burgeon so freely whilst various bans and restrictions applied to older forms of publishing. History has always shown that a libertarian free for all is lethal to humankind. The riotous, violent, arbitrary world of the eighteenth century was, by means of social reform, replaced by the more peaceful conditions of the Victorian age. This involved preventing minors from purchasing gin, employers from exploiting minors and the public from recoursing to various drugs, to mention just three among a vast array of regulations and controls. These were brought in less from ideological fad – as today – than from simple experience and goodwill. The result was an increasingly humane and civil experience of life. Now from the Frankfurt left and the Chicago right we have forces of corrosion and nihilism blowing the Victorian house down. Only a few planks of that noble structure, which extended to the garden of childhood, remain to flap in the pitiless gale. Crucial to this process of destruction has been the acidulous effects of mass migration on the home cultures of the west – robbing society of its unity, its accumulated memory and its social capital at once. Unless we know who we are and where we are and what we are supposed to do, civil conduct is impossible. All that now stands between the peaceful and the vicious is a fading memory of old standards, backed up by a perpetual bribery of handouts, stimulants and base distractions. If ever “the machine stops”, which given “green” policies it may well do, the danger will be acute.

Last edited 8 months ago by Simon Denis
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
8 months ago

I bet a good lot of people on this site are glad that they did not have the internet and mobile smart phones when they were children. They are glad because the sense of wonder that they had revelled in, that used to be the world before the internet, has been seriously damaged by the ubiquitous, ridiculously tiny, tyrannical screen world that is the child’s lot today. You can zoom in on a street in Tijuana, but does nobody pause before zooming in on this or that? Does anybody own an atlas these days? It’s the difference between the sense of wonder and a cold curiosity, the difference between the world before the internet and the internet world. How often did receiving a postcard lift the spirits? Quite often. How often they became a talking point round the kitchen table when folk were round for coffee? Quite often. In the old days, people could be happy and were. They had had their children and went out to dances. They knew lots of old songs, songs nobody knows now. They knew how to preserve food and fix things. Nobody knows nuthin’ now. People are wallowing in crap, isolated. All it takes is a bigshot to make some kind of difference: to say that it is wrong. Don’t say, Well, I’m against it. Say it’s wrong. But nobody bigshot can even say that. All in the name of our freedoms presumably. Our freedom-loving forebears, who fought and died for our squalors today, would be scornful of that!

Meanwhile the Taliban can just with a few taps show to their kith and kin how horrible and dissolute and tawdry the West is. The great efforts of our great showbiz entertainers, who had lifted the spirits of the general public, in times of war and peace, are thrown into the dustbin. Never to be shown on Taliban TV. (Has ‘My Fair Lady’ or ‘Mary Poppins’ ever been shown on Afghan TV?). The West truly knows how to destroy itself.
I think it would be a patriotic thing to reduce the level of anxiety in parents (or parent) by making childhood safe. Seat belts in cars reduce overall anxiety levels. Putting controls on the ownership of dangerous dogs reduce the level of anxiety in society.
Is getting rid of porn as seriously difficult as getting rid of the Taliban? What a mess. What a blight on the very young!

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
8 months ago

Sick, degenerate world produces messed up people. Always been like that – the differences is once people understood morality so saw that, now they do not.

PostModernism has destroyed Morality and Ethics, giving instead Situational Ethics and Relative Morality, where the ‘situation’ means any situation – and ‘Relative’ means compared to the lowest imaginable.

All you middle class sheep out there – you think yourself so nice, but you are merely a not violent Caligula. And this is the world you are creating. And it is getting a lot worse by the day.

Jake Prior
Jake Prior
8 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Once people understood morality as taught to them by priests who were regularly involved in the sexual abuse of children. I’m not convinced human nature has ever been either very different or well controlled.

Last edited 8 months ago by Jake Prior
jill dowling
jill dowling
8 months ago

Obviously children should not be able to watch porn, but it’s more than just porn on the internet. It’s how sex is sold to children/teenagers through TV and the media. There is a sense that they should be having sex, that there is something wrong with them if they are not. I’ve recently started watching “Sex Education” on Netflix. For those that don’t know, it’s about teenagers at school and their sex lives. The sex is robotic, technical, loveless and strangely joyless. But everybody is doing it. The pressure on teenagers, especially girls, must be immense.

William Shaw
William Shaw
7 months ago
Reply to  jill dowling

Why would the pressure be greater on girls than boys if two people are involved in performing the same act?

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
8 months ago

The Church has been warning about this from long before it was socially righteous to do so. Glad to see the world finally catching up with us.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
8 months ago

I don’t see how you can shut down or censor pornography sites in one country. Both virtual private networks and the Tor browser can disguise your point of origin and enable you to access sites in other jurisdictions. Even pornographic content that is illegal just about everywhere can be purchased and viewed with bitcoin. I have not done this, but I have seen how easy it is to do.
I am just relived that I was young at a time when s e x was about having fun with a real live girlfriend or boyfriend.
I don’t have a solution, but if there is one it will have to be based on cultural attitudes informing behaviour, rather than legal injunctions.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
8 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

You know Saudi Arabia is a highly puritanical society but has huge numbers of anonymous pornography users. Victorian London was highly prudish but had an enormous world of underworld prostitution – read Dostoyevsky in his visit to London who noted its omnipresence in certain areas. I’m not sure a facade of public morality will really stop many people giving into their biological urges. It is more likely they will take more precautions to make sure they can do it anonymously.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
8 months ago
  1. Work out what is violent.
  2. Work out what is passionate.
  3. Ban 1.
  4. Implement age limitations as appropriate.

I have read the opinions of alot of prostitutes online, and they all agree on the unacceptability of the exposure of underage people to this. It must be stopped.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
8 months ago

How is this stopped? I take it the parents should be involved?

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
8 months ago

Yup!

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
6 months ago

THANK YOU!!! Erotica, which shows two adults exchanging mutual acts of pleasure, can be healthy even for kids to see- but the crap that gets all the clicks these days is violent and dehumanizing.

Red Reynard
Red Reynard
8 months ago

“…before we stop pandering to the commercial interests (and squalid desires) of adults…”
I can’t help wondering if this is an ironic statement given Mary’s stance in another article in which she warns us to be careful of those who moralise, and their underlying motives
“What should concern us instead is the moral commitments and political allegiances of those who are in power — because it is they who define and enforce the terms of on which the inevitable censorship takes place.” (https://unherd.com/thepost/digital-censorship-is-inevitable-now/).
The automatic denigration of pornography viewers/users as “squalid” is unworthy of such an interesting piece. 
Whilst, I have no problem with erotica/porn per se, I do understand the very real damage that violently abusive acts between non-consensual individuals can have. However, this trope of “violent sexual imagery” (constantly trotted out by those who see “desires” as “squalid”) is far from the norm – yes you can find it, if you search for it; as you can bomb-making guides. However, the vast majority of erotica/porn normally accessible is of consensual people engaging in a wide variety of acts.
How do I know this – I hear you ask; because I have three grandsons to whom I provide a ‘safe-space’ for discussion – some of which make my toes curl, to be honest.
Perhaps Billy Eilish regrets experimenting with her sexual mores; most of us have been there. In fact (according to the link Mary gives) Eilish did not talk about “violent sexual images” nor correlate sex with violence. She spoke about the ubiquitous nature of it on the internet. Her point was about having watched too much porn – not too much violent porn.
“We should ask ourselves how much more evidence we need before we stop pandering…”
Well, no there isn’t any real evidence, actually;
“Watching porn has been linked to a multitude of problems for individuals and wider society – but for every study maligning it, another clears its name. Often, evidence is mixed, and the research methods and sample sizes of studies have their limitations.
It’s a tricky area to research – but until the answers are more definitive, the evidence so far suggests that the likelihood that porn has a negative effect very much depends on the individual consuming it.” (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170926-is-porn-harmful-the-evidence-the-myths-and-the-unknowns)
“It can’t be restricted safely enough to warrant ‘free speech’ protection. We already accept digital censorship in principle. We should be proactive about extending it to pornography.”
Hmm, can you, Mary, be restricted safely enough (at the whim of an as yet unknown political actor) to warrant ‘free speech’ protection, or will you find yourself on the receiving end of some future censor because you don’t fit their moral model?
All the best.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago

The question is who is generating and posting this stuff and, more particularly, who is profiting from it?

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
8 months ago

I think the problem of the “education” of children has been discussed for a very long time. The answer for me is straight forward. The parent needs to be responsible and mentor their children. That is the best solution. And of course near best is in orbit around the same sort of constellation.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
8 months ago

No no no. Ofcom needs to be wound up, not given new powers.

Firstly, parental controls on tech work. It’s a myth that children can work around them these days, unless you do something stupid like write your password down somewhere they can find it. This is especially true in devices like tablets, so if you’re really worried about it just make sure your kids only have tablets. Attempting to regulate every single website extra territorially definitely won’t work and that is something kids can work around, because of how computers and the internet work. So if you care about this, learn how to use the devices you’re giving to your children! Creating endless international legal fights is by far the worst and least effective approach.

Secondly, the generation of kids that got internet at home is now approaching 40. Weirdly, we’re all fine and the internet didn’t destroy our brains. In fact many of us owe our jobs and much of our education to it. Maybe making policy based on what attention seeking teenage celebrities say isn’t the best idea?

Jake Prior
Jake Prior
8 months ago

Porn is certainly unhealthy for everyone in many ways. But so is being completely sexually repressed and having no experiences at all, as is being in a sexual relationship with someone that abuses you, physically or as is much more common, psychologically, or even that just can’t perform sexually satisfactorily with you, leaving you feeling insecure and unworthy. Human sexuality is extremely complicated and almost never perfect, and porn sits within this horrible murky minefield. The tendency towards using ever more extreme porn is hard for me to understand, the glipmses I’ve had have been an immediate turn off, so I think it is a window into the nature of the person looking at it at least as much as somehow an inevitable consequence of the porn industry. If so, banning porn of this nature won’t change the nature of the person. Perhaps it’s better if people are faced with that aspect of people’s sexuality early on so they can get out before they’re deeply involved. People are disgusting, I’m not sure removing porn from the world will change that.

Last edited 8 months ago by Jake Prior
William Shaw
William Shaw
7 months ago

Trying to regulate porn is a waste of money, time and energy.
The only solution, for people that believe it to be a problem, is to supervise your children and talk to them.

alden rodwell
alden rodwell
7 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

I went to a talk at my teenagers’ school a couple of years back. They had a bod from the local police to tell us about how young people use the internet/social media, in ways that are almost beyond the understanding of us oldies, even if we can remember just how daft we were back at that age. First off we were told don’t even think about confiscating or restricting access to smartphones. All their mates have cast-off phones, probably higher spec then our own. Your teenager will within 24 hours have a second phone that you don’t know about and therefore have even less control over. Then there’s sexting. This is what really boggled. If a boy wants a girl to sleep with him, her prime concern will be whether he will brag about it, with attendant ‘s**tshaming’. So what does a typical girl do to test the boy’s trustworthiness? She sends him explicit photographs to see if he shares them. That’s what s*xting is about. The thing is, in a twisted, short-sighted, no-regard for consequences (I e. typical teenage) way it has a certain logic to it.

Last edited 7 months ago by alden rodwell
Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
8 months ago

Instead of age verification, how about introducing a law that only allows responsible adults to have children. This would get to the heart of the matter. Why should childless adults be made accountable for the consequences caused by irresponsible parents?