Youth: A rounded view of sexuality
Do children need to be protected from pornography? Christina Black looks at the latest official report
Begin with a study into pornography, add a deputy children’s commissioner and stir with the bourgeois media to achieve the perfect recipe for moral panic and uninformed hysteria. That is exactly what we can see in the reaction to the report led by the University of Middlesex, commissioned by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, launched on May 24.
The report has four essential findings:1
- “Children and young people’s exposure and access to pornography occurs both on and offline, but in recent years the most common method of access is via internet-enabled technology” - hardly surprising, given the ease of access to free sites and internet-ready mobile devices.
- “Exposure and access to pornography increases with age” - one would assume that is natural and has always been the case.
- “Accidental exposure to pornography is more prevalent than deliberate access” - to an extent that will also always have been true, but now that is more so, thanks to ease of access through the internet.
- “There are gender differences in exposure and access to pornography, with boys more likely to be exposed to pornography than girls” - a societal factor that I shall deal with later on, though it ought to be noted that adult women are increasingly searching for porn online.
As the BBC notes, “In an age when ‘extremely violent and sadistic imagery is two clicks away’ school sex education is struggling to keep pace, a study suggests.”2 Leaving aside, for now, the idea that extreme sadism is merely two mouse clicks away (it is, if you type in “extreme hardcore S&M” and your idea of extreme sadism is anal fisting or mild Japanese bondage vignettes - yes, I did just check). It is also probably fair to say that sex education in schools has been struggling to keep pace with the reality of young people’s sexual experiences for - well - ever.
“Pornography can distort children’s attitudes to sex, said deputy children’s commissioner Sue Berelowitz”.3 This is, of course, the mantra of the anti-porn left and right. It is probably true that it can distort the attitudes of children, as well as young people and adults, but, one wonders, to what extent does it? Most people, including children, have enough savvy to differentiate between reality and fantasy. While individuals may enjoy action movies or play Call of Duty, we know that these are fictional scenarios that we engage with, in the former passively and in the latter more actively.
In other words, despite my recent Google search noted above, I do not expect my next sexual encounter to be with two blokes, a very attractive Japanese woman, a bondage device and a rather unusual looking vibrator. In the same way, neither would you expect a teenager who has been playing an online ‘first person shoot ’em up’ game the previous night turn up to school the next day and start gunning people down (by and large). That is not to say that there are not some extreme cases where individuals cannot fully distinguish between fantasy and reality, which can lead to acts of violence, but that is less the fault of Hollywood, computer games and pornography than it is the deeply alienating society we live in.
Aside from the ‘Pornography is the theory, rape the practice’ view, briefly dealt with above, there are various other charges levelled at the porn industry, when discussed in relation to young people’s sexuality. A common complaint is that pornography skews the expectations that young boys hold from their girlfriends in the bedroom (we have all heard the apocryphal tale of the teenage girl being pressured into having anal sex because her boyfriend watches porn online). This view presupposes heterosexual encounters, boys doing all the pressuring and all the watching of porn and, for that matter, a bedroom (whatever happened to romance in the local park?). This is not necessarily representative of what actually goes on when young people experiment sexually.
The idea that porn is responsible for heightened expectations of sex is also questionable - is the implication that we should strive to make sex as mediocre an experience as possible? And, again, we have to go back to the idea that people (including teenagers) can, by and large, differentiate between fantasy and reality. As female porn director (and former Liberal Democrat candidate for Gravesham) Anna Arrowsmith (pseudonym Anna Span) pointed out in an April 23 Intelligence Squared debate entitled ‘Is pornography good for us?’,4 it is the equivalent of blaming comedy directors for the fact that that our real lives are not as funny as a TV comedy show.
Another ill-informed gripe is that pornography portrays an unrealistic view of the female body (incidentally, one can rest assured it also portrays an unrealistic view of the male anatomy in certain respects, though this rarely gets a mention). This view tends to be held by people who have never watched porn or at least have never watched porn since the early 1990s. The days of the blonde, leggy, busty bimbo are no more (unless you type that into a search engine - in which case, go ahead and enjoy your vanilla flavoured porn).
The truth is that since the rise of the internet there is a phenomenal amount of porn out there representing all body shapes, ethnicities and practices (isn’t it funny how the anti-porn lobby tends to view pornography as both the hotel room generic pay-per-view variety and at the same time ‘extremely violent and sadistic’?). The truth is, it is all out there: skinny, fat, tall, short amputee, scarred, hairy ... Again as Anna Arrowsmith points out, think of what aspect of your body you like least, type it into a search engine, followed by the word ‘porn’ and see how many people are into exactly that. Young people are more likely to get the impression that the world is full of skinny, white, blonde people with sparkly teeth and pert breasts from American sit-coms than they are from internet porn.
The report warns that parents may not be fully aware of the nature of what their children are seeing: “Some types of online porn are ‘very different’ to what today’s parents may have seen as children, said Ms Berelowitz.”5 As previously discussed, the porn freely available online differs greatly to the porn of the early 90s and before (though I do have a certain romantic nostalgia for the copies of The Razzle left in the bushes by the porn fairies). The idea that nowadays it is all male-dominated, extreme violence is a far cry from reality. Just as there are any number of porn genres out there, there are also diverse ways these are consumed: eg, fantasies or fetishes to spice up a relationship. In other words, it is not the preserve of the dodgy old man in a long trench coat, as some politicians and journalists would have us believe.
The report reckons that “There is a correlation between children and young people who use pornography and ‘risky behaviours’, such as anal sex, sex with multiple partners and using alcohol and other drugs during sex.”6 This represents a very conservative view of what is deemed ‘risky behaviour’, as opposed to what others would consider just good fun or, in some cases, perfectly normal. For example, the above definition would suggest that a gay, male couple having a glass of wine and retiring to the bedroom should be classed ‘risky behaviour’ on two counts.
The report finds that more men and boys are more likely to access porn than women and girls. “Boys and young men generally view pornography more positively and state that they view it primarily out of curiosity, while girls and young women generally report that it is unwelcome and socially distasteful.”7 This suggests to me that young women and girls are expected by society to be more sexually repressed, and therefore purport to find such things “distasteful” rather than admitting to being “curious” like their male counterparts - surely curiosity is a more natural reaction, especially for those beginning to develop sexually? These responses help to back up the anti-porn agenda (one might argue, an agenda supported by the people who had the report commissioned in the first place) that young girls are the victims of porn culture.
One potentially positive feature to come from this report is that it urges the department for education to ensure that “all schools”, including private schools, faith schools, colleges and academies, “deliver effective relationship and sex education”. Sexual Health and Relationships Education (SHRE) is incredibly inconsistent from school to school, in terms of content and quality - in faith schools it will tend to promote the teachings of the particular religion on homosexuality, abortion, etc. Currently in England and Wales only maintained secondary schools are obliged to deliver sex education. Primary, independent, free and faith schools are not. In Scotland all schools must deliver sex education (though the Catholic schools are given a pope-friendly version) and the student’s wishes come before those of the parent, should the parent want their child withdrawn.
The report provoked the usual stupid screeching noises from the Daily Mail, which in its own moral-crusading way, aimed at ‘protecting young people’ from the ‘evils’ of sex education, ran with the headline, “Teachers should give lessons in pornography and tell pupils ‘it’s not all bad’, experts say”8 - misleading, to say the least. And then there are the ‘family values’ types, who would have us believe that mandatory sex education across all schools covering pornography as a curricular issue translates as showing five-year-olds hard-core gonzo on a Monday morning. There will also be complaints from the religious right, when parents, whose reactionary views on women, abortion, homosexuality, etc are all too often pandered to by schools, no longer have the right to opt their children out of sex education. Not to mention rightwing campaign groups such as Mothers at Home Matter, who wish to ‘protect’ children from sex education ...9
Even within the National Curriculum in England and Wales, the quality of SHRE is often dreadful. The focus tends to be on the negative aspects of sex, such as sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy and abortion. It mostly deals with heterosexuality, promotes monogamous relationships as the only ‘correct’ forum for sex, makes moral judgments and advises young people to put off having sex until they are older. The idea that sex is pleasurable and fun does not really come into it - let alone the idea that it does not have to be a deep and meaningful act between two people (sufficiently over the age of consent) who ‘love each other very much’. No wonder young people consider the sex education they are subjected to in school irrelevant.
Making the curriculum more relevant to young people’s lives and including pornography, as the report urges, might mean something different to Ms Berelowitz than it would to young people in schools. For her, it is all about building “healthy relationships” and “teaching children about the dangers of pornography”.10 Of course, there is the obligatory mention of teaching children and young people how to stay safe online. Incidentally, this is already taught as part of the Personal, Social and Health Education curriculum and has much more relevance to using social media, where people actively engage in chatting with and posting images/videos to other users than it does to porn sites, where the user is a consumer rather than an active participant.
Young people should have interesting and relevant sex education. They are entitled to a rounded view of human sexuality. Of course, they must be made aware of issues surrounding sexual abuse and rape. They need to know about safe sex practices and be empowered to give consent or not. But not everything to do with sex should be presented as a negative (especially when it pertains to teenagers). After all, if it was so terrible we would not do it (let alone think about it every seven seconds, as popular mythology would have it). Young people should be confident when discussing sex, not feel obliged to conform to the moral values imposed by the national curriculum, the faith school - or the deputy children’s commissioner.
8. Daily Mail April 26.
9. The Daily Telegraph May 23.