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It occurred to me, after these headlines in the last year about verification systems, that it seems like the norm to make the age at which you can consume or purchase pornography is eighteen.

Why does that seem to be such a strong trend? It seems to me that different countries would be likely to set different ages, like British Columbia making it nineteen or Switzerland making it sixteen, which are also the ages at which you can purchase alcohol.

Setting the age to be featured in pornography is eighteen, probably as a way to lessen the odds that one country will be a hub for production, harmonized around the world where pornography generally is legal, but I don't know of the same incentives for watching it given that reasonable people disagree about when people progressively gain more rights as they get older.

Edit: It also just occurred to me after posting this that some people might deliberately give pornography for a minor to watch to make it more likely that they would do sexual acts with someone else, especially a much older person, so I am excluding those sorts of cases, the question is about someone finding pornography on their own initiative.

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    Nitpick: In most cases, laws that put age limits on pornography punish the distributors, not the consumers. So in many jurisdictions, it is actually legal for the minors to consume pornography, but it's illegal to distribute pornography in a way that a minor might see it.
    – Philipp
    Jan 5 at 11:33
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    There seems to be a trend to make the general-purpose age of majority 18. This might have something to do with the length of secondary education and/or apprenticeships. Some countries diverge from that for specific purposes, like driving in the US or beer drinking in Germany.
    – o.m.
    Jan 5 at 14:56
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    @o.m. I think this is the general answer. The US were the age of majority is 16 or 18 or 21 depending on purpose is deviating more from this than most other countries do.
    – quarague
    Jan 5 at 16:10
  • Isn't 18 a common age at which someone is considered an adult and a lot of legal restrictions are based on that age?
    – Joe W
    Jan 5 at 17:16
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    Can you clarify, are you asking "why did 18 become the default "age of majority" in many parts of the world?" Or are you asking "Given that 18 is the age of majority, why is it used for the consumption of porn?" These are two rather different questions. The first would need to look at why the age of majority was changed in the UK from 21 to 18 and why 18 is the typical age for ending (free) education. The second would ask what is special about porn.
    – James K
    Jan 5 at 21:23

3 Answers 3

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Traditionally, 13 and 18 have been used to signify the age of majority, largely because puberty typically begins around 12 and ends around 17. In small communities majority may be assigned on a more flexible basis, using the apparent growth stage of a given child, but large social systems generally have to assign a formulaic standard, so 13 and 18 are used to denote the beginning and ending of adolescence.

At the age of majority, people are (with exceptions) considered to be 'adult', with the rights, liberties, and responsibilities adulthood grants. Most states restrict the social and economic interactions that non-adults can engage in, for the non-adult's protection. With pornography in particular, states may be concerned over various possibilities, such as:

  • The effect of pornographic material on developing sexual identities and inclinations
  • The manipulation of uncontrolled adolescent sexual urges for profit
  • The possible 'gateway' effect of pornography into illicit underground activities
  • The idea that pornography runs against social, cultural, or religious values during a period those values are being instilled in youth

Modern research suggests that the human brain isn't fully developed until the age of 25 (reflected in the drop in auto insurance prices for drivers over that age), and in some cases — often those involving addictive substances — majority is set at 21. But in reality the dates are arbitrary cut-offs based on somewhat arbitrary assessments of average physical and emotional development.

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  • I don't believe that pornographers have community health in mind when they implement things on their websites...
    – alamar
    Jan 5 at 20:55
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    @alamar: Lol, likely not (though you never know…). But I was talking about states that restrict pornography, not people who produce it. Jan 5 at 21:22
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Participation as an actor in pornography is much more tightly regulated than who is allowed to watch pornography that is not "child pornography."

Child pornography, i.e. pornography filmed using actors under the age of eighteen, is a very serious crime, unlike obscenity, which is limited to the worst of the worst non-child pornography, and which typically has minor misdemeanor or petty offense penalties if prosecuted at all.

Child pornography, in turn, is of a piece with laws prohibiting child prostitution, and human trafficking for child sexual activity.

Two main factors put that age at eighteen.

One is that the word "child" used in the broadest sense, can apply to anyone under the age of eighteen, even though outrage over child pornography and child prostitution emotionally driven to a great extent by the outrage over pedophiles who have sex with prepubescent children who are seen as exceptionally innocent and fragile. This kind of pedophilia is an extreme deviation from "normal" sexual attraction in adults.

Mandatory minimum sentences for federal child pornography crimes, for example, are driven by the horrors of pedophilia, even though high school aged children under the age of eighteen can legally have sex in most of the U.S., casting doubt on the seriousness of the offense at the margins (but they just can't film and distribute themselves doing it).

Sexual attraction to adolescents is far less deviant, and most jurisdictions do not prohibit consensual sex for all minors under the age of eighteen in their statutory rape laws (at least in the absence of large age differences).

But some sense of innocence and fragility still applies for adolescents and there is an belief that drives legislation that commercial sexual activity is more emotionally harmful to minors than consensual sex by adolescents with a similarly aged partner. Among other things, prostitutes and porn stars have sex far more often, with far more people, with far less interpersonal give and take on an equal basis, than typical adolescent couples having sex on a consensual basis as part of a larger romantic relationship.

The other big factor is that the San Fernando Valley in Southern California (just down the road so to speak from Hollywood where the "legitimate" film industry in the U.S. is centered) was the dominant place where pornography was produced in the United States at the time that the United States adopted anti-child pornography laws.

And, in California, which is something of an outlier state for having such a high age threshold, all sexual activity by adolescents under the age of eighteen (at least at the time the relevant U.S. federal laws were adopted) was criminal statutory rape.

As a result, the inclination of activists seeking to ban child pornography with children (as opposed to drawings or paintings of children, the idea is to ban it to protected the exploited child actors), to ban it for all minors, rather than merely prepubescent ones, in part, driven by the belief that it amounts of statutory rape and child prostitution, and fostered human trafficking, didn't receive a lot of push back in terms of lobbying for a lower age threshold, from the U.S. pornography production industry.

Once you've developed a sense that eighteen years old is a relevant cutoff for child pornography, shallow thinking easily concludes that the same age should apply to children watching pornography, even though the concerns that drive a ban on using adolescents in pornography are very removed from those that apply to watching non-child pornography.

Pornography of all kinds is often called "adult" material, and this metaphor supports limiting access to its to people who are legally adult (i.e. age eighteen or older in the vast majority of places in the developed world), whether or not allowing adolescents to access adult pornography (as opposed to child pornography) really is particularly harmful. It is hard to articulate a compelling policy reason that adolescents should have access to pornography even if they routinely do so, and when push comes to shove, people under eighteen can't vote to get their voices heard politically on this issue.

When you are dealing in an international context, as one does when hawking pornography on the Internet, using the most stringent age cutoff adopted almost anywhere, of age eighteen to watch "adult" material, is safer than experimenting with a lower cutoff that could lead to serious legal troubles in some more conservative jurisdiction to which the material is sold. Also, since age "verification" has very little effect on a persistent would be adolescent pornography customer, pornography companies in the Internet can claim to adhere to a high, eighteen year old viewer standard, without actually reducing their viewership and customer base by very much at all.

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  • No, not like that. I was asking about the people who see or listen to the media not the ones who appear in it. Harmonizing the age at which you can be the actor reduces incentives country by country, but the weird thing to me was why the consumption age seems to be harmonized given the way people disagree about when people should be allowed to do XYZ. Jan 7 at 13:50
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If you show pornography to underage persons that would be sex offence in many countries. This usually has cutoff at 18 - even if selling porno is in legal grey area, at least you will not be a target of a personal criminal prosecution times every underage you have served, and become a sex offender personally in jurisdictions where it is applicable.

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    I think that the question asking why "eighteen" rather than seventeen or nineteen, from the perspective of the law markers who set those cutoffs, not why pornography companies make it their policy to set that cutoff age.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 6 at 0:03
  • @ohwilleke That would be History SE, since eighteen y.o. cutoff dates at least a century. I would assume, based on draft age.
    – alamar
    Jan 6 at 6:57

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