We must recognise how pornography affects young women

For the majority, men’s violence against women does not disturb their capacity to ‘realise their own potential’. But for women, we bear it and we become mentally unwell under its burden, writes Clíona Saidléar

The second ‘My World Survey’ into child and youth mental health shows us that there is not just one world — there are many worlds for our young people.

But we are largely only talking about one of them, the gender-neutral one.

This report of youth mental health organisation Jigsaw, by Prof Barbara Dooley and her research team in UCD’s Psychology department, was launched last week.

This report provides a rich seam of evidence that is painstakingly sex- disaggregated and indeed other intersectional traits that might give you a different experience of the world, because the world treats you differently.

Some of these differences are so stark it is questionable whether it is correct to subsume these differences under the generic heading ‘young people’ — it is certainly not helpful.

From our standpoint, the starkest statistic in this report is about the people aged 18-25, who consume pornography weekly. Some 17% of females in the survey did so weekly and 73% of the males.

But under that disparity is the even more stark evidence of impact.

The study found young women who consume pornography in this manner “were more likely to be in the very severe category of depression”, whereas no such pattern was visible for their male counterparts.

For RCNI, this finding should not surprise us. After all, pornography is, in fact, predominantly sexualised images of men being sexually violent and degrading towards women for pleasure. Can we be surprised that women frequently exposed to this are depressed?

It is possible that the young women did not become severely depressed through their frequent viewing of relentless misogyny, as cause and effect are not distinguished in this statistic. A possibility is that the young women were already severely depressed before starting a habit that their mentally-well counterparts resisted.

This is an even more damning explanation for this statistic.

Unfortunately, it also means that young men choose to consume this weekly dose of misogyny without any measurable significant mental ill-health to begin with and without the significant negative impact on their mental wellbeing.

While both females and males who consumed pornography regularly have lowered body-esteem, the sex-based disparities remain stacked in one direction. The logical conclusion is that young men’s world view and prospects are relatively undisturbed by this exposure to pornography. Their world is already one where violent misogyny is normal.

And it is. The same survey found that 1 in 4 women (aged 18-25) reported being raped.

Over half (56%) of young women reported that they had been touched against their will or without their consent, with 25% of the women reporting being forced or pressured to have sex, or in other words rape, as against 23% and 10% of men respectively. The survey does not tell us what sex the person perpetrating the non-consensual touching or sex was.

The women who experienced non-consensual sexual touching were also more likely to be in the very severe range of depression or anxiety. The men were not.

Throughout this report we see both young boys and girls mental health indicators plummeting as they move through puberty into adulthood, but significantly more so for girls on almost every count including suicide attempts, self-harm, body-esteem, and perceived personal competency.

The WHO defines mental wellbeing as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

When your ‘normal stresses of life’ include a one in four chance of being raped, is anxiety, low self-esteem, and severe depression not a normal response?

For young men, it was only for the 10% of young men who reported rape that there was a correlation with mental ill-health, with 24% being in the severe range of anxiety.

For women who were raped, the corresponding number experiencing severe anxiety was 40%.

For the 75% of women who had not been raped, 30% experience a severe range of anxiety nonetheless (11% for men) — representing the white noise of anxiety that is part of the ordinary and normal, life-limiting experience of being female in this world.

For boys and young men, we might conclude that for the majority, men’s violence against women does not disturb their world view or their capacity to ‘realise their own potential’ and make meaningful “contributions to their community”.

For girls and women, we bear it and we become mentally unwell under its burden.

And if we do not sex-disaggregate the data and discussion, we will not see this and we will be passive when it comes to making a change.

Clíona Saidléar PhD, Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) executive director.