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An entire generation has been programmed by porn – and that’s dangerous

ITV's Love Island glorifies a culture of sex without feelings. But there is a very dark side to all this and it's time we addressed it

‘The show is a window into the sexual and relationship mores of Gen Z’: the cast of the current series of Love Island Credit: ITV/Shutterstock

So it’s Love Island time again. I used to pooh pooh it – but with my kids addicted, I’ve learnt to love the family togetherness it engenders. We all end up on the sofa dissecting it together, particularly now the elder one is back from uni.

Granted, Love Island is not classic family viewing: I don’t remember eye-poppingly tiny swimwear in The Jewel in the Crown, or discussions of sexual positions when watching Brideshead Revisited with my mum. But as they are so fond of saying in the villa: it is what it is.

The show is a window into the sexual and relationship mores of Gen Z. The lads get points for being “cheeky chappies” who break hearts (code for sleeping with anyone on Tinder). And they all live in permanent terror of “catching feelings” – the current heartthrob Luca, who is kind of dating Gemma (Michael Owen’s 19-year-old daughter), is in a pickle because he actually cares about her. 

The show may be called Love Island, but it is really “Sex Island”. This generation’s relationship code is so programmed by all the porn they have been clicking on since they were kids that feelings are not in their sexual script. The ideal for them is to engage in as much vigorous gym-honed rumpy-pumpy as possible while keeping their hearts intact. It may work in porn, but it’s not a recipe for a happy love life.

Now it seems that sending nude pictures on social media has become the new flirting, with a third of teenage girls saying they have been pressured into doing so, according to a recent study. 

Sixty per cent of girls under the age of 18 told researchers they had been asked to provide a nude picture of themselves by a boy; 46 per cent said they had been pressured into doing so, even though they felt “disgusted” by sharing images.

'The show may be called Love Island, but it is really “Sex Island”,' says Mills; the girls from this year's show Credit: ITV/Shutterstock

The extent to which the next generation’s sexual expectations have been set by porn is frankly terrifying. I go into schools to talk to teens about sex because I have been writing and campaigning about the dangers of unfettered access to largely violent and misogynist porn on young minds for over a decade. The speed at which sexual norms have shifted is alarming.

In a survey I conducted of young women, all but one said they were regularly choked during sexual contact (the exception was 6ft tall). The others reckon erotic asphyxiation (strangulation), common in porn, is as standard as a boy putting his hand on their bottom or breast. Or take pubic hair: Gen Z don’t have it – nor do porn stars. There isn’t much connection or foreplay in porn either – it’s mostly pounding with men lasting for hours and women coming effortlessly through intercourse. None of that leads to replicable pleasure in real bedrooms, either.

Learning about sex from porn is like learning to drive by watching The Fast and the Furious – dangerous. “The biggest change in the past decade is the level of aggression girls today are encountering from boys,” explains Alison Havey, Co-Founder of the RAP Project which campaigns in schools around consent. 

“It is normal now for girls to be forced, for boys to get them drunk intentionally and to assault them. This generation has been bred on internet porn which is all about violently pounding different orifices – there is no consent, no condoms, no foreplay and no sexual pleasure for women. The levels of violence are shocking and have got worse as viewers get desensitised to the material.”

When I point out in schools that it didn’t used to be like this – that in fact even a decade ago the sexual landscape was different – I find the kids are relieved. It’s like this generation are lobsters being boiled in a pot – their sexual dials have been set to extreme before they have even touched another human being. This is normal for them. And it matters because when you think porn is sex there are real casualties. And it’s not just the girls.

Last week I went to see an old pal who has a son (not) called Jimmy. Jimmy got three As at A-level at private school and went to a top university to study his dream course. He’s slight, but handsome and tall. He’d never been a party boy but started smoking pot before uni. Once there he smoked skunk all day (his digs are supposed to be no-smoking, but a sock over the smoke alarm fixed that). 

At night they would go clubbing, fuelled by cocaine and ketamine and booze. Drinks containing five shots are common; a pub crawl involving 14 pubs and a pint in each was a Fresher initiation. The boys in his uni flat have a sex chart in the kitchen – who has slept with who and what they got the girl to do. It’s like a RedTube porn menu. The more degrading, the more the points.

Into this atmosphere bad things come. As the mother of girls I’ve always been more concerned about the expectations on them, not fancying my little darlings being throttled or spat at (spitting in mouths and other parts of the anatomy). But Jimmy’s story made me realise it is bad for boys, too. “Jimmy was just so confused, way out of his depth, surrounded by these posh laddy animals. I think he was the butt of their joke too. He was trying to keep up – and that is when it went wrong,” said my friend.

Jimmy went out clubbing one night and was hanging out with a girl. They were both drunk and had taken drugs and ended up back at his flat. She got into his bed, took off all her clothes, fooled around for a bit and then decided she’d had enough (as is a woman’s prerogative) and left. Jimmy can’t remember exactly what happened. He blacked out.

The next thing he knew the girl’s male flatmate from upstairs was at the door of his room – and beat him up. The girl said he had assaulted her when she had said no. Jimmy can’t remember what happened. He feels terrible about all of it. 

Jimmy found that nights out were fuelled by cocaine and ketamine and booze Credit: Getty Images

His friends say the girl was all over him all night – but that she has a boyfriend and maybe that was why she departed in a hurry. Jimmy is tortured; maybe he did something terrible. But it’s tricky to work out the lines when both parties are intoxicated, get into bed naked in a consensual way... and when the sexual landscape is so weird, that much of what they do looks like assault to us anyway. Only the two of them know what happened and one of them can’t remember.

The upshot? Jimmy was cancelled by his entire cohort at university. The girl accused him of assault on social media (though not to the university authorities, or the police). And he was ostracised. He is now back home depressed. His mum is worried he might kill himself (suicide is currently the biggest killer of young men). 

Jimmy’s isn’t the only story I have heard like this. Three other friends have told me about allegations made by girls against their sons. One 16-year old-boy swears that he hadn’t so much as kissed the girl – in fact she’d tried to kiss him and he said no and then she made allegations about him on Snapchat. He got cancelled. One mum I know told her son to get consent in writing from the girl every time before he gets into bed with them – just in case.

I am not making any judgments here; I’ve always been on the girls’ side instinctively as a feminist and a mother of two teen girls. But this whole area of consent and pressure is muddled; we all know what it is like to feel bad in the morning after a bender. But I can also see boys are under pressure too; there are many tales of “bigorexia” and boys being shamed about not being buff enough, for not being hung like porn stars – it is a culture which doesn’t help anyone.

The point of sharing these stories is to make a plea to parents to talk to their youngsters. Now that there are no rules, it is all about individual choice. We need to help kids pick their way through these thorny thickets, understand how quickly all of this has changed and encourage them to think about the consequences. It sounds daunting but it is surprising how relieved they are to discuss it; many are confused and upset.

I suggest using Love Island as a jumping off point. I recommend radical honesty – talk about what it was like for you and your partner. Remind them that you were not a nun; when we were young we had no idea what sex was meant to look like, it was all about how it felt.

Get them to read this article and ask them what they think. The key is to ask open questions, without judgment and to show you are genuinely interested in their take. The car is a good place to chat – you don’t have to look at each other!

Also the upside of all that porn is that Gen Z aren’t shy about talking about sex. Ask them what they think it is like for girls, for boys – the key is empathy, getting them to understand that sex is something you do with someone you like, not to a stranger. Talk about what alcohol and drugs do to inhibitions and warn them of the long term legal and social consequences of a wrong move. Particularly on social media. 

Talk to them about “exclusivity”: for our kids there is no assumption of exclusivity unless that is explicitly said; so you can be dating someone for six months and they can be sleeping with everyone else in sight – and that is fine if it is an “unexclusive agreement” – known as a “situationship”. Although of course it’s not fine because if you are sleeping with someone regularly you inevitably catch feelings and end up hurt. No wonder our kids are confused. No wonder we have a youth mental health epidemic.

I’ve been asked, what about school Sex Ed? It is getting better, but this current crop didn’t get it in the form they needed. It is up to us to open a channel, to talk about loving, consensual sex – even if that feels un-English and embarrassing.

We can’t just shut our eyes and ears and pretend this isn’t happening. Just because you have a nice middle class life, or your kids went to private school and are at a good uni doesn’t mean this isn’t happening to them. It is. The remedy is talking it out. Good Luck.

How to talk about sex with teenagers 

Advice from Alicia Drummond, psychotherapist and founder of ‘Teen Tips’ on the Wellbeing Hub which is in 160 schools, reaching 80,000 pupils:

  • Don’t be judgy. Ask open questions such as: What do you notice happening among your friends?
  • To a girl: Do you enjoy doing this stuff or do you do just do it because he wants you to? There is a lot of pressure now on girls not to be “vanilla” when it comes to sex... what do they think about that?
  • To a boy: Do girls feel under pressure to do these things? Do you think it hurts? Do they enjoy it? Talk about how women have a right to orgasms too – and how unlike in porn that might take a bit of time, oral stimulation etc
  • Ask how do you think porn influences relationships?
  • Think about the lack of inhibitions you have when you are high or drunk – how you do things you might regret. Is that the best time to be making decisions about sex?
  • Never put anything on social media you would be embarrassed to see on a billboard at the end of your street
  • Any text or social media post could be used against you in court
  • Consent must be freely given and can be retracted at any time. Is he or she really enjoying this? Encourage them to cultivate empathy
  • Suggest they get to know potential sexual partners first. Remind them that a girl could pretend to be 20 but actually be 14 – and that if you sleep with her, that’s child rape