Originally published in the American Mind.
In 1949, the British research group Mass-Observation conducted a survey into English sex habits, which, among other questions, asked respondents how they had first become aware of sex. About 20 percent said their parents had explained it to them. Eight percent said they had learned it from a book, usually a medical textbook or a pamphlet on hygiene. Fully a quarter said they had just “picked up” their sex knowledge. “Nobody taught me, they didn’t have to,” said a 52-year-old farmer from Tadcaster. “I had eyes in my head. Mind you, I’ve always lived on a farm.”
For anyone born since 1995, it is not necessary to ask how they became aware of sex. It was by watching PornHub on a friend’s smartphone at the age of 13.
It is hard to get a grip on the scale of the pornography problem because the social-scientific data is so unreliable. The report of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, published in 1970, found that 60 percent of Americans believed “adults should be allowed to read or see any explicit sexual materials that they want to” but also that 73 percent thought gratuitous sex scenes in movies should “definitely not be allowed.”
If polls are that self-contradictory on what Americans think about pornography, it is hard to have trust in self-reported data on what they’re doing, whether a generation ago or today. The current recognized figure that 43 percent of men have watched pornography in the last week seems low.
People who want to minimize the porn problem insist that human beings aren’t any more dirty-minded today than they were fifty years ago, or a hundred, or two thousand. (Think of those Pompeii frescoes!)
It is true that people haven’t changed—but technology has.