Last month, we were all captivated by Channel 4’s Porn on the brain documentary. The show followed Martin Daubney, former editor of Loaded, as he explored the impact of online pornography on teenage brains. Through the course of the investigation, it was proved for the first time that regular use of pornography can have an addictive effect, similar to that of alcohol or substance abuse. The programme also highlighted one teenager, Callum, whose addiction was shockingly severe. Martin spoke to Youthwork’s Jamie Cutteridge.
What was the inspiration for you to get involved in this project, bearing in mind your background in this industry?
I left Loaded three years ago. I struggled with being a father and being the editor of Loaded. It was difficult to be a dad and a lad. So, I went from managing multi-million pound budgets to managing a toddler. It really was an awakening.
I had a moment of clarity where I just sat down and realised that all the time I’d been at Loaded I had been just playing a role. And fatherhood was absolutely pivotal to that because I got to a stage where I thought, ‘Do I want my son to know that I’m doing this? Do I want my son to see that I’m working for a magazine with half-naked women in it?’ So, I wrote an article for the Daily Mail and it exploded really. Suddenly the Daily Mail article found its way towards Channel 4, and Channel 4 had been looking for a way of doing a porn documentary.
How did the project start?
We had to literally go around the world to find an academic with gravitas who was prepared to be attached to the project. I think people were extremely nervous that the opposite would be found. If we’d found that porn was completely harmless I think that would have been a lot more damaging, because then we’d have serious academics being placed in the realms of case studies for ‘pro-pornographers.’ Nobody ever wanted that and we had several academics withdraw from the project. So we were delighted that Dr Valerie Voon had the fortitude and courage to see it through, because without that, I think it would have just been another chin rubbing romp through what porn does. What I really hope is that this is now going to be taken more seriously within the realms of academia.
What was that the biggest shock to come out of making the documentary?
I was surprised and shocked at several times along the way. Even at the outset Valerie had been sceptical. But then she told me that she’d done a brain study and said: ‘It’s quite startling. We’ve got something here.’ All of the crew had goosebumps. We asked her what it was. She said: ‘I need to process it more but it looks the same as studies I’ve done into cocaine and alcohol.’
The other moment that was genuinely shocking was when Callum had to stop the car to masturbate. I met Paula Hall, the sexual psychotherapist, before I met Callum, and even then I was kind of joking about it. I was thinking: ‘What’s the difference between somebody who professes to be a sex addict and someone who just masturbates a lot?’ So, in an intellectual sense, that surprised me because I’d always thought of sex addiction as some kind of Hollywood fabrication.
But then I met Callum. I spent a lot of time with him and got close to him. I was profoundly shocked by Callum’s conversation; it was almost like he was completely desensitised to normal emotions. His thinking and speaking was driven by porn, and his view of women was entirely through the filter of pornography.
I’d kind of worked out by this stage that he wasn’t using masturbation for pleasure - he was using masturbation to rid himself of negative emotions. I could see him getting more and more anxious. Then he saw the girl in the hotpants, pulled over and went into the pub to masturbate in the toilets. In my time at Loaded I had worked with people who were addicted to drugs or alcohol and what I saw in him was very similar to that. At some points people doubted Callum’s authenticity, and wondered whether he was just out to make himself a celebrity, or get his moment of fame. What I saw was genuine, and it was gob smacking.
Is behaviour like Callum’s common?
One of the questions I ask myself is: ‘How many Callums are there out there?’ I think there are a lot more than we even want to begin to comprehend. Callum may be unusual in the number of times he masturbated in a day (28 times was the record), but he routinely masturbated between 15-16 times a day, to the point where it was causing him extreme physical discomfort.
I’m keen to stress that not every child who looks at porn is going to become like Callum. But even if it’s just one per cent, one per cent of billions is a significant issue. Billions of people are using porn and the porn consumption demographic is getting younger and younger every day.
If you give every young person in the UK free and unrestricted access to alcohol you’re going to get more alcoholics. It’s just obvious. At the moment it’s slightly ephemeral and intangible because firstly, there’s nowhere for them to go and secondly, it’s illegal. They’re not stupid - they know they shouldn’t be looking at porn. They can’t talk to their parents and nobody in schools is telling them that what they’re doing may have consequences. It’s very much a mushrooming problem but it’s happening in the dark.
In the documentary you use the phrase the ‘Innocence of pornography’, to describe how different things were when you were growing up. Your wife is the picture editor for Page THREE – do you see a clear disparity between internet porn and men’s magazines?
Let’s not ask the radical feminists, because they almost don’t matter in as far as they’re not the mass consumers of porn. Let’s ask the young boys whose lives are becoming really affected by this, and ‘page three’, and Loaded and Nuts and Zoo - they don’t even flicker on the radar. They’re just not part of the same Venn diagram.
I think they are fundamentally separate debates. Everything we saw during the making of Porn on the brain showed that what’s happening with ‘Lose the Lads’ Mags’ and ‘No More Page Three’, is almost a 19th Century battle. It feels almost pathetic. The real battle is something far more insidious. What we’re talking about with Porn on the brain is a 21st Century, fast moving, cataclysmic problem and no one is really doing anything about it. If Nuts and Zoo are taken off the shelves at Tesco tomorrow morning, is any of this going to change anything? The answer is no.
We’ve got this brain study on the go which hopefully means that something will change. Because there’s this vicious circle and every academic we met during the making of this show was exasperated beyond belief that they couldn’t get funding to look into the effects of pornography, because it’s not classified as an official addiction. And, it’s not classified as an addiction because they can’t get funding to do studies on it.
What do you think about the proposed block to internet porn?
I think the people who believe that some sort of Internet bar is going to magic the problem away are living in fantasy land. The kids we spoke to in schools who were 13 or 14 years old, just saw this as a great fun challenge to get around. They all went to older kids for that kind of information, so all that’s going to happen is that we’ll set up a system where parents think that their homes are completely safe because they’ve installed filters, but children know it’s ridiculous because an older boy has sent them an email about how to get around them. I think the biggest danger is that parents believe it’s a magic wand that’s going to make all of this go away. They’re deluded. The kids will be getting around the blocks in five minutes.
Having said that, there are signs of change. Even two years ago it would have been sure-fire electoral suicide to suggest that we change the sex education curriculum, but now Claire Perry MP (the government’s assistant whip) is discussing that very thing on the front of the Telegraph. The people who wanted to ban porn two years ago are now coming around to the fact that it’s an impossible battle. So maybe a better answer is to tackle it head-on rather than obliterate it. In Holland they’re talking about sex from the age of four, they’re talking about porn in schools and having mature conversations. They’re seeing real results - people are losing their virginity later in life and there is far less teenage pregnancy because there’s no taboo around sex.
We need to get this message into schools because until the sex education curriculum in schools is overhauled and even acknowledges the existence of the Internet, we’re in choppy waters. The current curriculum was written 13 years ago. But who even had the Internet at home 13 years ago, let alone broadband? Everything has moved on and yet the educational tools that teachers have are completely outdated. I think there’s a sense that children are just educating themselves via pornography, which is of course the worst place to go; although you do see some normal sex in porn, you also see a lot of abnormal and scary sex in porn.
What can parents do about it?
One of the things I spoke about with Paula Hall was the kind of households where she typically sees the most problems from. She said something profoundly interesting: it’s often from one of two types of households. One is where there is no control and the kids have totally unrestricted access to computers, where they’re allowed to stay up until whatever time they want and they’re given technology to pacify them. The other household is one with total control. We’re talking here about making sex a taboo and making Internet access prohibited, creating a profound curiosity which then children go and fulfil in secret with no moral guidance. There’s no conversations in those households about sex or responsibility.
Without going into the details of the actual porn, if parents just say to their children: ‘You may come across sexual content on the Internet and some of it may disturb you. If it does, just come and talk to me about it.’ In all the stories I’ve heard about ten or eleven year-old children who are traumatised by porn, they’re not talking to their parents until they’re going through real issues of withdrawal or eating disorders. These kids are totally unable to go to their parents because they’re ashamed. If the parents make sure there is a pathway then it doesn’t necessarily have to involve a conversation of a graphic nature, but the kids know they can go to them if they need to.
At the moment kids are going to their peers for information. When you’re 10, 11, 12 or 13, there’s a lot of misinformation and there’s also a lot of bravado. They’re not getting answers in the playground - they’re getting reinforcements as people want to fit in. In my day you fitted in by being into a particular football club or type of music but these days kids are fitting in by watching pornography. Every parent needs to wake up to the fact that this is a very real problem that is only going to get bigger.
If you’re anything like us, you’ll have read Martin’s thoughts and be challenged, shocked and have no idea what to do next. So we asked Beth Stout from the Golddigger Trust for some advice on how to respond:
Be aware. Culture changes quickly, so it is vital to be aware of how your young people may be engaging with pornography, as it’s probably very different to how you or your peers did.
Define your theology. Porn is bad, right? But why? Porn isn’t explicitly mentioned in scripture, there’s no 13th commandment of ‘Thou shall not watch others getting jiggy on the Internet, so what does God have to say about it? How does our theology of sex, marriage, position of women etc. affect our views?
Get parents talking. We all know that we need parents and carers on board in helping to protect and equip our young people, but many parents (and youth workers) don’t know where to start. Why not organise an evening to talk about the big issues? Organisations like Golddigger Trust and Romance Academy offer roadshows and events to provide relevant and professional teaching and discussion that you can host at your church.
Get accountable. If you struggle with, or have struggled with pornography (or even could, that’s all of us), then find some caring adults who can hold you accountable as you discuss the topic with your young people. Remember that your story and experiences are to be shared, but your youth group are not there to support you!
Golddigger Trust works with young people around issues of self-esteem, sex and relationships, and equips youth workers with innovative resources to do the same. For more info visit www.golddiggertrust.co.uk