A British feminist is sounding the alarm about the effects on teenagers of easy access to pornography, saying that a skewed view of sex is becoming the norm in society and the idea of intimacy is dying.

Natasha Walter tackles this subject in a book, Living Dolls, due to be published early February, which looks at the resurgence of sexism in contemporary culture. In an excerpt published in the London Times last weekend she laments the fact that, thanks to the internet, porn has become something that any child can see with the click of a mouse.

It is the prevalence of pornography consumption among children that is most striking. In a study in 2000, 25% of children aged 10-17 had seen unwanted online pornography in the form of pop-ups or spam. By 2005 the figure was 34% — and 42% of children aged 10-17 had seen pornography, whether wanted or unwanted. In another study in Canada, 90% of boys aged 13 and 14 and 70% of girls the same age had viewed pornography. Most of this porn use had been over the internet. More than one-third of the boys reported viewing pornographic DVDs or videos “too many times to count”.

But Walter’s concerns about this are limited to the “voyeuristic” view of sex that children are growing up with:

For an increasing number of young people, pornography is no longer something that goes alongside sex but something that precedes sex. Before they have touched another person sexually or entered into any kind of sexual relationship, many children have seen hundreds of adult strangers having sex.

And this, because it is bad news for women:

The massive colonisation of teenagers’ erotic life by commercial pornographic materials is something that it is hard to feel sanguine about. By expanding so much in a world that is still so unequal, pornography has often reinforced and reflected the inequalities around us.

This means that men are still encouraged, through most pornographic materials, to see women as objects, and women are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on their sexual allure rather than their imagination or pleasure. No wonder we have seen the rise of the idea that erotic experience will necessarily involve, for women, a performance in which they will be judged visually.

The fact that children are being introduced to “erotic relationships” of any sort — apart from timely instruction by their parents — does not enter into Walter’s calculation of harm. And although she looks at the effects on adult relationships, including marriage, she makes no reference to the fundamental problem of cutting sex loose from marriage and how this has fostered uncommitted, self-interested and exploitive sex.

And so, although she distances herself from feminists who regard pornography as normal and argue “that the way forward really rests on creating more opportunities for women in pornography”, Walter only rejects porn that produces or increases “inequalities” between men and women. This is what is “dehumanising” for her, not the pursuit of eroticism for its own sake.

Walter says we must have a public debate on this issue. My contribution is this: If it’s true intimacy and lasting relationships we want, forget feminism and go to the source of the problems in male-female relationships — the divorce of marriage from children, and the consequent divorce of sex from marriage.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet