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.

Join the discussion


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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