“Sally” — we’ll call her — started watching pornography at the age of 12. Nothing too strange about that. According to one study, modern American children are first exposed to porn at an average age of 11. Sally’s habit rapidly developed into what she described as an addiction. Also none too peculiar — though regular porn use and self-reported “addiction” — is more common among men than women.

Sally got married and found to her consternation that though she was sexually attracted to her husband and he was willing to do a great deal more than just a few “mundane things” in the bedroom, she was incapable of becoming sexually aroused with him. There was no problem with anybody’s machinery. The problem was that he wasn’t willing to call her names, demean her or use bondage. And, of course, she didn’t want any of these things either. But such practices were so inextricably tied to Sally’s previous experience of pornography that without them Sally found it impossible to become sexually aroused.

Now, it’s a good bet that at Penn there’s more time spent masturbating to exactly the kind of porn Sally was addicted to than there is spent watching any other single genre of movie. One poll of a Harvard graduating class estimated a little over half the male student population used porn every week. The result was no surprise — in general, 60 to 75 percent of young adult males (along with 10 percent or more of females) are regular porn users.

Porn is so commonplace that most would assume Sally’s experience idiosyncratic.

To some degree, of course, this is true. No two people have the exact same experience with pornography. But experts who have been studying porn over the past few decades are beginning to conclude that Sally’s experience was not a statistical anomaly. Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at Penn’s Center for Cognitive Therapy, concluded from roughly 10 years of research that the overall harmful effect of porn is about as well-established as the negative influence of cigarettes on health or the link between childhood exposure to violent film and subsequent violent behavior.

Layden has studied nearly 100 papers on the subject correlating pornography to everything from sexual callousness to high rates of erectile dysfunction to self-reported frequency of sexual assault. In all her years of research, Layden stated, she has never come across a single study without a “critical flaw” that linked pornography to any positive outcome.

On some level, this is hardly surprising. Mainstream porn typically closes a scene with a man spraying a woman’s face with his semen. And this ending is a mild and respectful “falling action” of sorts. The real meat of the genre involves spanking or slapping or gagging or a litany of demeaning slurs directed at the woman in question — sometimes all of the above. “If you want anything else,” according to anti-pornography activist Gail Dines, “you have to take about 15 minutes ... to look for it.”

Now, I am not suggesting that adult porn use should be any more illegal than cigarettes. Both habits have been found to be harmful based on an overwhelming preponderance of correlational studies. This does not mean that either should be illegal.

But I do believe that minors should not be exposed to porn until they are old enough to make an informed decision about whether they wish to use it. I was lucky enough to have this opportunity and chose as an adult to avoid pornographic material.

Others might choose otherwise.

But most people never get to make the choice. 97 percent of the porn websites a curious 12-year-old might google to learn about sex will show him a lurid video of a man holding a woman’s nose as he chokes her on his penis (rape culture, anyone?) without requiring any proof of age. And that exposure can and often does lead to what users would describe as an unwanted addiction. One U.K. study of male students between the ages of 16 and 20 found a little over a 20 percent reported trying to quit porn and failing. In fact, so many people have unwanted porn addictions (almost invariably springing from childhood exposure) that many are willing to pay for porn-blocking applications like the Stop Procrastinating App, Covenant Eyes or Net Nanny.

Others, like Sally, still experience the negative effect of porn on intimate relationships even after they have quit.

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