Record numbers of Australians are visiting pornographic websites, including sexually explicit dating sites – and one in three of them is a woman.
Surprising new figures show more than one-third of internet users visited an adult website at least once in the first three months of this year.
Almost one in five was under 18, and 5 per cent were 65 or over.
The data, provided to the Sydney Morning Herald by Nielsen Net Ratings/NetView, a world leader in internet analysis, reveals 4.3 million Australians viewed pornography or visited a sex-oriented matchmaker site on the internet at least once in the quarter ending in March. This was 35 per cent of all those who used the internet in that period.
In March alone, 2.7 million Australians went to an online adult website, an increase of half a million in 18 months, or 23 per cent. The richer people were, the more likely they were to have viewed a pornographic site.
Australian psychologists and relationship counsellors say internet pornography is a new and growing cause of relationship strife and breakdown as increasing numbers of men become compulsive users.
Brett McCann, a senior lecturer in the sexual health program at the University of Sydney, said: “It’s a growing problem with big implications for the public health dollar.”
An investigation by the Herald has uncovered the destructive impact obsessive pornography use can have on couple’s sex lives, women’s self-esteem, and sense of trust.
At the same time, others are warning against a moral panic, citing research that shows pornography consumers overwhelmingly report positive benefits. Alan McKee, of the Queensland University of Technology, who with colleagues conducted a survey of more than 1000 self-selected pornography users, said 58.8 per cent said it had a positive effect on their attitudes to sex and only 6.8 per cent said it was negative.
“Australians who use pornography say it not only gives them pleasure but broadens their minds, and provides a valuable sex education,” he said.
And while some women have suffered from their partner’s internet porn obsession, women in general are considered the new consumer growth market, according to Fiona Patten, chief executive of the Eros Association, the adult retail industry’s peak body.
Despite the internet having transformed the way pornography is consumed, the number of sex shops has also burgeoned, Ms Patten said.
There were 500 shops in 2003 and there are 900 today. Besides DVDs, they now carried a much bigger range of sex toys, erotic clothing and other paraphernalia, she said.
Big stores covering 1000 square metres had opened in some states over the past five years. The SexyLand chain in Victoria, for example, had taken advantage of changes in zoning laws to establish huge stores in commercial areas. “They are the Bunnings and Officeworks of the sex industry,” Ms Patten said.
The X-rated video mail-order business had halved in size since its heydays in the 1990s because of the internet and the expansion of retail outlets. But Australia’s lack of a fast broadband network, which made it difficult to download sexually explicit feature films, had helped maintain the popularity of DVDs. “We’re still selling at least 10 million DVDs a year, mainly through retail outlets and by ordering through the internet,” Ms Patten said.
The “pornification” of society, as described by US author Pamela Paul, has sparked a call for an investigation.
The former head of the Office of the Status of Women, Helen L’Orange, wants a royal commission or other form of national inquiry into the effects of the internet on society and relationships, with a focus on pornography.
“We’ve seen momentous changes in the way more people meet over the internet and the huge amount of pornography being viewed, and these changes merit investigation,” she said. “It’s worth taking stock and finding out what impact it is having on relationships.”
She said the Whitlam government had established the Royal Commission into Human Relationships in 1974 at another time of social change to report on many aspects of male/female relationships as far as they were relevant to the federal government. The aim of the proposed inquiry would not be increased censorship but to inform, educate and raise awareness, she said.