Porn and sex ed: the wilderness years

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Boom, there it is. A throbbing clitoris, a glistening pair of boobs, one ginormous wang. Right in your puppy-fatted face. You’re 11, and, along with your best friend, you’ve just followed another pal’s knowing advice to ‘look up porn on Google’. You’re both a bit overwhelmed, but there’s no kind of reference point to help you process it, and no adult figure who’s comfortable or aware enough about it all for you to approach. So, giggling nervously, onwards you click.

At 11, this preteen, porn-perusing everychild represents your average, typical young person in the UK. By their midteens, nigh-on all of them have seen it. The whole lot of them. No, really, pretty much every Tom, Dick and Harry. (And increasingly, for that matter, every Annie, Kate and Jen too.)

Many parents, teachers and authority figures reading this (hopefully we’ll get one or two) won’t really be able to process that info, despite all the evidence telling this same tale. From conversations I’ve had with a fair few (including a boarding school housemistress, and a governor of state secondary school), they’ll at best acknowledge that yes, it’s probably a bit worse than the glamour mags of their day, but even then, definitely not something their little Jonny could be up to (he definitely is). It’ll be met with a scale of unhelpful responses – from incomprehension, through to distaste, all the way along to denial – and none of these is a great spawner of positive action. But if we keep saying it, maybe soon they’ll wake up.

Because (not wanting to ham up the melodrama here too much but) wake up they really must. A recent ChildLine report (so you know, not religious, or feminist, or any other potentially unacceptable lens depending on your own leaning – in fact quite a neutral organisation, except that it has this one bias of caring about children’s basic wellbeing) found that one in 10 of 12-13 year olds are now worried they’re addicted to porn. One in 10, of all kids that age. Let that sink in while you contemplate its fellow fact, that 18% of children that age have seen ‘shocking or upsetting’ images online. Porn access is pretty ubiquitously widespread, and a lot of kids are struggling; a very public and social concern then.

Yet porn doesn’t feature on any compulsory sex education syllabus helping young uns deal with these worries. And that’s in no small part thanks to the fact that a coherent and compulsory sex ed syllabus in the UK doesn’t even exist. There is no one out there, no department, no body, no programme, no school, which is compelled to provide children and young people with thorough (let alone adequate) preparation, context or support for the increasingly intense sexual landscape into which they’re growing up.

It’s a story our porn survey respondents were some of the first to live out, and one they’re now keen to criticise.

“At 13, a friend told me about this website where you could see boobies. A few days later, in the privacy of my room I decided to take a sneaky peek. I was shocked and could not have been less equipped to make sense of what I’d seen.”

“I was not prepared for it, and I should not have had access to it or should have at least have been warned about it.”

“As a teenager, my first experience of porn was by accident. It was in a pop-up, and I must have been 12 or 13, because I remember being more attracted to the man than the woman, and that all being a bit terrifying. I think more education would have helped me not to feel guilty about seeing it, because I did not speak to anybody about it.”

“It was totally ignored as a subject, both in terms of availability, the moral and ethical arguments of porn, and how to cope should you find yourself in a position where porn affected your relationship, etc.”

But far from being completely divorced, sex ed and porn are actually quite closely connected – just not in the way they should be. Our very dereliction of sex ed provision is having the worrisome result that porn itself is fast becoming (or indeed, has by now long been) the key platform by which kids are educating themselves on all things sexy – as our respondents widely and robustly attested.

“I wasn´t educated properly about sex as a child, and so I turned to porn to find out more. Not because I thought it would be accurate, but because it was so accessible. I used porn to discover more about what I like and what I dislike as an individual.”

“From a young age I had virtually no sexual education and therefore porn was my first real experience of sexual activities and genitalia.”

“The only sex education I’ve had was “how to put on a condom – featuring Mr. Banana”.”

“Sex education came when I was 14 (except for pregnancy and biological things at an earlier age in Science), and by that time most boys had been watching it for years anyway.”

Out on limb in the hyper-horny wilderness our, on-average, 11-year-olds face a long and lonely adolescence grappling with sex solely via the uncontextualised medium of porn. Bewildering years spent alone with nothing but all that the internet has to offer – the good, the bad, and the ugly – informing what they know of human intimacy.

“I think parents, or schools, or something should educate children, teenagers, and adults about the complications of allowing your view of sex and sexual relations to be shaped by porn.”

And aside from the questionable picture of human intimacy (both physical and emotional) with which it kickstarts our kids’ sexual awakening, facts like condoms only being used in 10.9% of top rated scenes mean that this self-education with porn is also just plain dangerous. There are some glimmers of movement though. Sexpression:UK, a student organisation, is providing workshops for young people across the country, and in terms of other neglected aspects of sex ed, the lawyer-led Schools Consent Project is gaining momentum too. And ChildLine has just mobilised with a wealth of accessible and relevant content to help young people (and guileless caregivers) address porn.

The Conservative party put on a big porny show pre-election, promising to safeguard our little darlings with increased web regulation. But as this cyber tide’s pretty unstoppable, it’s a fool’s hope to think we can just put a plug in it – and anyway, to teach children porn is wrong is to teach them shame and silence. Or as I like to call it, the opposite of what needs doing. As Rhiannon Lucy Coslett wrote in an excellent Guardian piece recently; “Teenagers have passionate views on sex and porn and want to talk about them. Embarrassing though it may be, it’s high time adults started talking back.”

Sex ed which features porn should in no way condemn it; it needs to interrogate and contextualise it, and offer support to those children who are struggling. Today’s young ones need media literacy lessons within a robust relationships and sex education programme which also covers consent, identity, sexuality, and safety – they don’t need blushing, coy, unacceptably inert adults, uselessly brandishing bananas in condoms. What society’s kids need, and now, is context.

Explore the whole series here.

@lucehouse



Image credit: r.nial.bradshaw via Flickr

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