“A lot of it is about the need to be seen, to get affirmation, and to get attention,” Pernilla Nigård, a doctoral candidate at Malmö University, told The Local.
Earlier this week, Nigård presented a study based on interviews with young men about why they watch pornography and with young women about why they publish revealing pictures of themselves online.
Having previously worked as a school counselor, Nigård had seen first hand how young people were spending more time online, often engaging in activities related to sexual expression.
The interviews, conducted with young men and women aged 18 to 25, revealed that watching pornography and exposing themselves sexually online play an increasingly important role in shaping young people’s identities.
The young women with whom Nigård spoke explained that they “feel stronger” when positive comments are posted next to sexualized images of themselves that they post online.
“The sexual exposure that takes place within a social context can also bring benefits for women if the comments are positive and in their favour,” Nigård wrote.
However, pitfalls can arise when women seek affirmation through publishing revealing pictures on the internet.
“There is a big risk that they may end up being labelled as ‘sluts’ or ‘whores’ and that the images can be spread beyond where they are first published,” explained Nigård.
“There is also a conflict between wanting to be seen as sexy and wanting to be seen as a person.”
However, the young women don’t take the criticism lying down, and often engage negative commenters in an effort to “resist objectification and stigma”.
Speaking to young men about their pornography habits, Nigård found that they used pornography “in the pursuit of independence”.
“It’s sort of like uncomplicated sex. There aren’t any demands like in a real relationship because there is a lack of intimacy,” she said.
However, young men’s relationship with pornography is nevertheless complicated due to norms dictating that they “be both sexually aroused by pornography and at the same time be critical of it”.
Nigård explained further that the tendency to seek affirmation “the easy way” through sexual exposure and watching porn may only help young people feel “good for the moment “, but is nevertheless in line with larger trends in society.
“The individual is so important in society, everything is so geared to making the individual feel good about themselves, it’s hard to avoid,” she said.
It is also unclear whether the young people who expose themselves online are really in charge, despite saying that they feel empowered by it.
“In many ways, it’s those who look at the pictures and comment on them who have the power,” said Nigård.
“We live in an image-heavy culture so there’s no avoiding the fact that images help shape young people’s identity. The question is whether you can be both personal and sexy for yourself and for others at the same time.”