How online porn and incel culture seek to manipulate young people
30 May, 2024
5 minute read

How online porn and incel culture seek to manipulate young people

This year’s Digital Families conference didn’t shy away from covering some of the harder-hitting topics at the forefront of many parents’ minds.

Clinical Psychologist Dr Elly Hanson and Callum Hood from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) joined us to discuss two particularly insidious issues that are increasingly impacting upon young people: online pornography and incel (short for ‘involuntary celibate’) culture.

Both employ a range of pervasive methods to manipulate young people – and being more aware of these techniques and educating young people about them is perhaps the strongest line of defence.

How pervasive are these problems?

51% of 11 to 15-year-olds have viewed porn, and 18% of those had done so in the last fortnight. While many will view it accidentally, this is certainly not always the case. Similarly to the 2021 report from Ofsted which found sexual harassment and online abuse in schools had become ‘commonplace’, porn’s prevalence means parents simply cannot afford to shy away from what is often an awkward subject to discuss. 

Similarly, incel culture, while a predominantly American phenomenon, is gaining a foothold in the UK. The UK was the second-highest source of traffic to the biggest incel forum online. Incel culture was credited in the tragic shooting in Plymouth in 2021. 

Another concerning similarity between the two is how freely available they both are. It is incredibly easy to access porn for free online – and the aforementioned forum is also “open” for anyone to view. It also features highly in search results for terms related to the culture, of which there are many, and incel channels on YouTube have gained tens of millions of views. These are clear, mainstream routes in – but they soon become slippery slopes.

Mainstream pathways create slippery slopes

Estimates suggest the porn industry to be worth as much as $90 billion per year. But if so much porn is available for free, how does the industry make so much money?

Dr Hanson says that a key theme of the industry is to undermine an individual's autonomy “in a capital-productive way”. In other words, gradually nudging and shaping someone from viewing content that is freely available, to paying for it. 

While incel culture is arguably less money-driven, it has its own ‘slippery slope’: offering often vulnerable young men a sense of community, support and understanding, moving them on to darker and more extreme viewpoints. For example, Callum described a network of forums dedicated to discussing body image, unemployment, but also suicide. Each contained much of the same ideology, leading the CCDH to coin the term “incelosphere”.

Sign up to our newsletter and get the best of Parent Zone to your inbox. Find out more

Rewriting the scripts

As well as manipulating users in order to make money, Dr Hanson explained, it manipulates them away from themselves. Our autonomy is central to our humanity, and any violation of one is a violation of the other.

Porn seeks to rewrite sexual ‘scripts’ – the implicit messages we take on board and use to inform the way we think and act. The porn industry presents sex as performative, impersonal and very often violent; any suggestion of connection, equality or respect are actively belittled and mocked. The more someone takes on these powerful messages, the more their understanding of what a good, ethical and satisfying sexual relationship is becomes warped.

Incel culture takes this even further, manipulating users’ humanity to pit them against perceived outsiders – and particularly against women. The culture makes powerful use of coded language, creating an insider culture and a strong sense of belonging where men feel able to express dark ideas in a somehow safer way. Statements are often presented ironically so as not to be flagged as statements of intent towards violence – but actions of the community have had devastating consequences. 

Manipulating regulation

It’s hard to talk about incel culture without mentioning Andrew Tate, a prolific influencer who used an algorithm-bending pyramid scheme to spread his deeply misogynistic posts – even after being banned by Instagram and YouTube. Callum explained that algorithms ‘reward negative emotions’ – with the most shocking or offensive content often perceived as the most engaging, and served to more users as a result. When CCDH set up a TikTok account as part of their research, the algorithm recommended an Andrew Tate video in less than 30 seconds. 

Callum emphasised the responsibility the government and platforms themselves have in cutting off pathways to these communities – for example by taking greater responsibility for the content recommended to younger users, and enforcing age verification on porn sites.

Opening young people’s eyes

Dr Hanson explained that “there will always be an Andrew Tate” and that the internet is amplifying issues that exist in the offline world too. 

With this in mind, opening young people’s eyes to these manipulative techniques has never been more important – particularly as crucial legislation like the Online Safety Bill remains in limbo on its journey into law. 

Dr Hanson acknowledged that sex and relationships are subjects parents find really difficult to talk about. But creating a ‘vaccuum’ around other, healthier, more fulfilling versions of sex means that “porn’s version of the narrative is the only one [young people] hear”. Dr Hanson explained that “the business model isn’t too complicated to talk to children about” – and could be a good way into a conversation.

Divider

Read more:

Elly Hanson's Q&A with Parent Zone

Callum Hood on our Tech Shock podcast