Billie Eilish is Right About Pornography's Harms | Opinion

Singer and mega-star Billie Eilish, at just 20 years old, has joined the ranks of celebrities and advocates speaking out about the harms of pornography.

"I used to watch a lot of porn. I started watching porn when I was 11," Eilish revealed on Howard Stern's SiriusXM radio show. "I think it really destroyed my brain. I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn." Her story exposes how harmful the online pornography industry truly is for the brains and behaviors of adolescents, especially young women and girls. For Eilish, porn created pressure to perform certain acts during sex and caused other psychological effects such as nightmares and sleep paralysis.

The young singer is not the only one speaking out about the way pornography affects lives. A growing body of research supports her statements. Early exposure to pornography affects children's developing brains and normalizes the sexual violence, exploitation and abuse it so frequently depicts. Today's hyper-online world exposes youth to such content at younger and younger ages through platforms that may seem safe on the surface—including social media. It's virtually impossible to avoid; one study found that 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls are exposed to pornography in adolescence.

A 2014 fMRI study found that greater pornography use was correlated with less reward circuit activation in the brain. These results indicated desensitization and tolerance, meaning users may need more novel and extreme content over time to achieve the same level of sexual arousal. Eilish's own story reflects this phenomenon. She explained that "I would just watch abusive BDSM, and that's what I thought was attractive. It got to a point where I couldn't watch anything else unless it was violent. I didn't think it was attractive."

The problems associated with pornography use are not unique to Eilish. In fact they are inherent to an industry built on the exploitation and abuse of women's bodies. Mainstream pornography presents violence as not only normal, but glamorous and desirable. Popular websites like Pornhub have come under fire for hosting and profiting from videos of non-consensual material, trafficking victims and child sexual abuse material. There are currently a number of active legal cases against those sites on behalf of survivors. A recent study done in the U.K. found that 1 in 8, or 12 percent, of all video titles on the front pages of the most popular pornography sites featured activities that constitute sexual violence.

Billie Eilish
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 04: Billie Eilish attends Variety's Hitmakers Brunch presented by Peacock | Girls5eva on December 04, 2021 in Downtown Los Angeles. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

And it's even worse for young girls who stumble across pornography. Online porn grooms women and girls to not only accept aggression during sex, but to desire it. One content analysis of popular pornography videos found that for teenage or teenage-themed pornography (a very popular category), violence and aggression were depicted far more often than with adult performers—90 percent of teenage females in videos containing visible aggression displayed pleasure, compared to 54 percent when visible aggression was not present.

The warped sexual scripts pornography offers viewers have real-world effects. Another study analyzing the attitudes and sexual behaviors of men and women in the U.S. found that as a result of viewing pornography, women reported worse struggles with their body image, more criticism from their partners regarding their bodies, increased pressure to perform acts seen in pornographic films and less actual sex. Eilish, who has opened up about struggling with her body image before, revealed how violent pornography influenced her relationships with other people: "The first few times I had sex, I was not saying 'No' to things that were not good. It's because I thought that that's what I was supposed to be attracted to."

All this research and personal testimony adds up to a disturbing picture of the online pornography industry that many seem content to ignore. Right now, most legislators and corporations are doing nothing to address the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable children and adolescents. The pornography problem is too big to address on an individual level. Profiteers of exploitation like tech platforms and the billion-dollar pornography industry continue to skate by with impunity while the physical, mental and emotional impacts are waved away.

Why is sexual violence and abuse the norm for women and girls? "I'm so angry that porn is so loved. And I'm so angry at myself for thinking that it was ok," Eilish concluded in her brave recounting.

She's not the only one who's angry.

Dawn Hawkins is the CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, the leading national non-partisan organization exposing the links between all forms of sexual exploitation such as child sexual abuse, prostitution, sex trafficking and the public health harms of pornography. Twitter: @NCOSE

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.