Vanessa* was 16 when she first sought out pornography on the web. Apart from a brief brush with adult material before the age of 10 (she searched for ‘American Girl dolls’ and stumbled upon porn), she had never before been exposed to the 'net’s vast cache of XXX content.

Now, she was a sexually curious teenager with an Internet connection. Within moments, she was surfing the gamut of explicit sex acts. She found some of it unattractive, rough, unrealistic; she found other parts of online porn provocative and seductive.

“A lot of it was very repetitive; women who all looked the same, really skinny, usually blond, big boobs, with guys who aren’t that attractive who … just go banging away,” said Vanessa, now a 21-year-old student at University of Toronto. “I kept digging away … trying to find things I found hot.”

As a member of Generation Y, a population of five million Canadians aged 18 to 30, Vanessa and her generational cohort have grown up with unprecedented access to graphic images of human sexuality. Just a generation ago, sexual images were limited to magazines on the top shelf at the corner variety store, videos from a shop’s back room or speciality cinemas and peep shows. Government censorship and obscenity laws limited access to the more graphic stuff.

But as digital natives, Generation Y, also known as the Millennial Generation, has found porn available at any time, early on in life, privately accessible, free and truly unlimited. That access sets Gen Y apart from any other generation before it, although experts are divided on what, if any, impact it has on sexual attitudes and behaviour.

Googling ‘sex’ surfaces more than 2.8 billion results, from “sex videos” to “Kama Sutra tips” to Sex Addicts Anonymous, while ‘porn’ spits out almost 1.1 billion results (“free young porn,” “MILF porn,” “amateur porn” and many more).

Of the one million most popular websites, 42,337 – four per cent – are sex-related, stated Ogi Ogas, co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, in a recent Forbes article.

The volume of traffic to porn sites is more difficult to discern, especially in Canada, and data are piecemeal. Internet analytics firms approached by HuffPost would not disclose their numbers. Ogas’ study found about 13 per cent of all web searches were for erotic content, while ExtremeTech reports that the biggest porn site on the web, Xvideos, registers 4.4-billion page views per month, three times the size of CNN or ESPN.

In Canada, the Ipsos Mobil-ology study, which tracks mobile device use in this country, found 15 per cent of smartphone users between 18-34 indicate they access adult content on their device, though these numbers are undoubtedly understated. About twice as many Canadian males reported accessing adult sites on their smartphone as females.

Another study, SRG's Digital Life Canada Quarterly, says 40 per cent of Canadians aged 18-34 visit "adult entertainment" websites or stream adult oriented video on a monthly basis, and two-in-three do so at least occasionally. SRG estimates 10 million Canadians of any age access adult content online.

What can be said with certainty is that there is a lot of pornography online and a big audience for it.

“You can see every sexual act that one could imagine,” said Cory Silverberg, a Toronto-based sex educator with a focus on online pornography. “All of those early sexual experiences that can be so powerful, I think that those experiences are influenced when we see a lot of sex online beforehand. I think it informs us.”

The question of how online porn informs and influences viewers leads to a, ahem, stimulating debate.

* * *

“I think some guys get the idea that women don’t have gag reflexes,” Vanessa said, half-laughing, half-serious, while reflecting on the influence of porn on her sex life.

She has also noticed partners, male and female, “who get disappointed if they can’t get you off really quickly on the first try, preferably at the same time they get off,” as in porn, and a friend’s troubling experience with anal sex (“People think you can just dive in there, which is actually not how it works.”).

Gail Dines, PhD, an author and professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College in Boston, said the average child will first see online porn at the impressionable age of 11. At that age, common heterosexual porn conventions – women choking during oral sex and facial ejaculation, for instance – can desensitize young people and give them “unrealistic expectations” about sex, she said.

Dines recounts anecdotes about male students so influenced by porn that they pressed partners into having “porn sex” and shaving their pubic hair.

“Of course, we’ve always had misogyny. But we haven’t had it shaping male sexuality this visually ever before,” she said. “It’s shaping women’s sexuality, because the men they’re partnering with want them to do gonzo (hardcore, degrading) porn,” Dines said.

But others say porn can expand sexual horizons between consenting adults.

When Andrew*, a 28-year-old from Texas, got dial-up Internet access in his mid-teens, he was amazed by how easily he could find photos of acts that appealed to specific turn-ons he already knew he had, such as bondage and discipline. When he started to have sex with his first and only sexual partner – now his fiancée – in his late teens, Andrew put what he learned from years of watching online porn to use, from trying “porn positions” to more exotic acts.

“I’m into sexual humiliation, so I tried to do some things, like I put like a collar and leash on her and tried to walk around the room, and she didn't like that,” he said. Her rejection felt disappointing, as he had wanted to try it since age 10, although he respects her choice.

“Having sex with her in a ‘vanilla’ or usual, typical way, I’ve never been unhappy about that part,” he said. “But the fact that I have this resource that I can also explore other parts of my sexual life that I enjoy safely and in a way that I enjoy, there’s no problem with that.”

Andrew said his fiancée has grown more comfortable with his preference for kinky sex and has suggested engaging in it herself.

“The last thing I want is to make her feel like she has to do something she doesn't like to please me, because that’s not the case. It still kind of weighs on me,” he said.

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That’s not to say men and women cannot enjoy domination, or any other acts found in mainstream porn. But some can find it difficult to distinguish actual preferences from pressure, Vanessa points out.

“I guess it’s been generalized to: ‘All people like this.’ And I think the other problem is with mainstream, heterosexual porn. It’s not portrayed as something like, ‘Let’s do this because both parties will enjoy it,’” she said.

Besides influencing millennials’ sexual repertoires, some say porn can also influence behaviour. Mary Anne Layden, PhD, a psychotherapist and director of education at the Center for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, said the earlier young men see Internet porn, the more likely they will engage in non-consensual sex, a term that includes deliberate deception or coercion. And when women see the same messages, “I think that these women tolerate early signs of boundary-crossing,” she said.

Vanessa disapproves of pornography that’s deliberately degrading, while Andrew said he tries to consume porn responsibly and avoid its troublesome predilection for misogyny, racism and “fetishization of non-consent.” However, he notes it’s not always easy to differentiate between ethical and exploitative porn.

The tendency to violence and degradation in porn interests researchers as well. Some maintain that adult videos – which portray physical aggression in 88 per cent of the scenes, according to one study – contribute to sexist attitudes in viewers, though a link between porn and sexual aggression is hotly contested.

* * *

Although millennials have access to an ever-widening library of often questionable sexual practices, they also have access to a community of sexual diversity and self-awareness never seen before, said Rebecca Sullivan, PhD, a professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in feminist media and cultural studies.

“Ninety-nine per cent of what’s going on is not fantastic. But there are some amazing networks of alternative sexualities, positive sexualities, politically oriented sexual-identity work that’s been going on. And it can be really explicit. And really challenging and wonderful,” she said.

When Kael Howl, a 25-year-old employee at a co-operative sex store in Toronto, seeks out online porn, she gravitates towards queer, feminist sites that show “different bodies, different genders doing different acts,” aside from heterosexual norms that tend to focus solely on male desire, she said.

She cites the work of Tristan Taormino, a feminist porn director, author and sex educator whose work has shown the actors’ conversations that occur before things heat up.

“They’ll say, ‘I chose this person because they’re very respectful to this, and that’s something I’m into as well. I’ve told them I don’t want them to hit my tits, but they can slap my face,’ so it really shows the negotiation process, which isn’t something we’re taught anywhere else,” Howl explained.

Still, critics say alternative porn tends to replicate mainstream porn’s formulas, as can amateur porn, which some consider a voyeuristic window into other people’s bedrooms. Others say a person could use less-explicit videos to acclimate an unwilling partner into uncomfortable sexual acts.

Howl also describes how viewing rough play showed her then-partner how to approach it.

More from Asking Y, HuffPost Canada's special project on the Millennial Generation:

“Watching these people enjoying being thrown around or slapped or choked a little bit, and seeing that they really enjoy that, and that it was very consensual, and that it can be hot and very respectful really helped them to ease off and be like, ‘Yes, I can still respect you and smack your ass,’” she said.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing that we are restructuring our sexual and intimate lives and accepting alternative forms of relationships,” Sullivan said.

Dines said the repetitive portrayal of emotionally detached sex in XXX videos has changed dating behaviour among millennials in a troubling way.

“Hookup sex has replaced dating. Men don’t want to date. They want to have as much porn sex with as many women as they can,” she said.

Layden said that attitude filters down into mainstream media, and that women who buy into it will later regret it.

“It’s so damaging and toxic to tell women it really will give you an intense relationship if you let him pull your hair,” she said. “It’s a lie.”

Others say casual sex empowers them, and they point to a variety of changing factors that have affected millennials’ ideas of relationships. Howl chalks it up to this generation reconsidering gender roles and the dynamic where people “find someone, fall in love, get married, have kids, white picket fence, work forever and die.”

After Andrew got engaged to his college sweetheart, they both decided to open their relationship to other partners.

“We lost our virginity to each other and we sort of thought ‘We’re in our physical prime, maybe it’s time we should see what else is out there while we still have a chance’ while still staying committed to one another because we love each other very much,” he said.

The conversation was inspired not by porn, but by blogs, he said, another form of sexual exposure available online for the millennial generation.

He expects that as life becomes more complicated with careers and children, outside relationships will become less frequent. For now, his fiancée dates a man she loves, and Andrew looks forward to having a second girlfriend – not a slew of liaisons.

“If people enjoy hooking up, I think that’s great. Go ahead and do that if you can do it safely.”

Researchers continue to probe the relationship between between porn viewing habits and casual sex habits. Others have looked at porn’s relationship to infidelity and sex addiction. The findings are decidedly mixed.

“I don’t think we can directly attribute porn to pretty much anything, good or bad. Our social and sexual lives are complicated, and porn is an influence and must be understood as an influence,” Sullivan said.

However, researchers found young men whose porn habits have numbed their response to dopamine can experience erectile dysfunction with a partner.

Some insist that it can lead to infidelity, or they even consider it a form of cheating, while others aren’t so quick to agree. Internet porn has also been identified as a contributor to sex addiction.

One study found unmarried couples who watched porn together had more sexual satisfaction and a more committed relationship than if one person had watched porn in secret, although Layden says women have reported it kills intimacy.

* * *

Not only do millennials have more access to pornography than previous generations, they also have more tools than ever to make their own.

Before cellphones, webcams and digital cameras, sharing amateur porn required now-antiquated tools such as actual film, swingers ads and postage stamps, Silverberg said.

“The thing now is, we all have some smartphone that has a pretty high-quality video camera in it. You can make it and you can upload it in seconds. And of course, once it’s up, it’s gone,” he saidd.

Vanessa learned the hard way. After her 18th birthday, she shot a webcam video of herself masturbating and posted it to a popular adult site.

“I have a bit of an exhibitionist streak. I thought I wasn’t identifiable in it. I think I generally wasn’t, you couldn’t really see my face, and I was like ‘You only live once,’” she said.

She told a few close friends but didn’t forward the link, expecting it to “disappear into the depths of the Internet.” It didn’t. Word got round to a friend of a friend who saw her and said, “I think she was in porn.”

Yet Vanessa still describes the video as a positive experience, having received flattering comments online about her size although she’s more “chubby” than the typical porn star.

Eventually, the site removed the clip, likely over age verification. As she applies to grad school theology programs, she considers removing other explicit photos she has shared online under pseudonyms.

Although Vanessa feels safe in her online anonymity, Sullivan believes her generation has difficulty grasping the permanency of the Internet.

“You don’t know where things go, you can’t control them, you don’t know who has access to it and what you think is private isn’t necessarily private,” she said.

In other words, as users struggle to understand new concepts of privacy around online sex, “Don’t underestimate your ability to get screwed.”

* * *

Porn and its complexities for the millennial generation aren’t in short supply, but experts agree one thing is sorely lacking: education.

“Because unfortunately, porn is not included much in sex education and it’s not talked about much in the home, kids don’t know that (it’s fake),” Silverberg said.

Vanessa dismissed her high school’s sex ed classes as inaccurate, incomplete, outdated and just plain awful. They covered the basics — the nuts and bolts of heterosexual sex and birth control, but not much else. And she said her “sex-shaming” mother didn’t fill her in on what is essentially Gen Y’s primary source of sexual information: online pornography.

Dines would like to see a shift in education as well, “a public health approach to pornography where you have sex education that’s real, that speaks to the reality of these kids’ lives, that talks to what it means to be male in this culture, what it means to be female.”

Ultimately, Vanessa said, “There needs to be a honest discussion of ‘What do you see here, is it realistic?’”

* Names have been changed in this article.

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