Should we panic about pornography?
The sexualisation threat could be over-hyped, says Alice Hoyle, but sexual bullying is still on the rise in schools. Education is the answer
For years, concern has been increasing about the sexualisation of society and its negative effect on children and young people, but this perception may not be completely true. Research and evidence on the matter is insufficient and the views of young people have not been taken into account.
The definition of “sexualisation” seemingly incorporates everything from make-up and padded bras for girls aged 8 and under to lads’ mags, sexy music videos and erotic fiction. It even extends to hard-core pornography. Despite calls from children’s charity the NSPCC to develop a tighter definition, consensus has still not been reached. The result is a moral panic about children and young people being sexualised by the media, but without a clear definition of what sexualisation actually is.
The government has ordered two reviews of sexualisation in the past two years, but the latest version excluded sex and relationships education from its recommendations. And the government is yet to update the Department for Education’s Sex and Relationships Education Guidance, which is now 12 years out of date. This education is vital for young people, who are developing as sexual beings. Avoiding the issue, or focusing only on the negatives, is not good enough.
Is it any wonder that teachers are reluctant to tackle such hot topics? They recognise the need to confront the issue but fear getting it wrong. One experienced PSHE teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, says she was given some internet safety resources by a local authority, with a bewildered admission that it “did not know how to address other issues around porn”. Given the technological advances of recent years and the access pupils now have to pornographic materials, we cannot close our eyes to reality.
Schools are increasingly having to deal with cases of “sexting” (transmitting sexy images and messages via mobile phones and other devices). The young people involved have no idea that, even if they are under 18, this could be classed as making, using or distributing child pornography.
I know of one 14-year-old boy in care who searched the internet for “14- year-olds having sex” because he wanted to see what his peers were up to. Unwittingly, this created huge safeguarding issues as he was effectively looking at child pornography.
Without guidance, young people who want to know more about sex may turn to pornography. But what effect is pornography having on them? Anecdotal concerns are that watching it encourages anal sex, the removal of pubic hair and even increased numbers of women seeking labiaplasty. Incidences of sexting, sexual harassment and sexual bullying in schools are increasingly being reported. A new report by ChildLine says the number of calls from teenagers upset by seeing adult images has increased by 34 per cent in the past year.
Justin Hancock, an award-winning sex educator and creator of the pornography education resource Planet Porn, says boys have told him they think women in pornography films are screaming because sex is hurting them. “I have to explain that this is just bad acting and that sex should feel really pleasurable, not painful,” he says.
But we still need to talk about it. “Porn education is not just about porn: it offers opportunities to explore self- esteem, body image, sexual decision-making, boundaries, pleasure, orgasm, communication and safer sex,” Hancock adds. “It covers sexual safety, the law, feminism, equality, lust and love, emotions and relationships. Then there are masculine norms, heteronormative scripts, sexuality and oppression.
“Talking about porn can be a great way to engage with young people around these very important sex and relationships education subject areas.”
Young people of both sexes have reported that pornography creates unreal expectations. “Makes you want to try new things, take it up a notch,” said one boy in a survey of 14 and 15-year-olds in Rochdale.
“They (boys) get really sick ideas from watching it, and if you don’t want to do it then they complain,” was one girl’s perspective.
Yet evidence on the impact of sexualised media on young people is mixed. The EU Kids Online survey of 25,000 young people across Europe found that exposure to pornography - and the level of distress or harm caused by such exposure - was much less than anticipated.
Clare Bale, a registered general nurse and former public health principal for sexual health, who conducted her PhD research with young people, argues that research into the effect of sexualised media is inconclusive. She says we need to explore young people’s engagement with the media rather than their exposure to it, while acknowledging and promoting their sexual agency. A study conducted by children’s charity Unicef in 2009 found that fear of being judged or labelled a “slag” or a “slut” impacts directly on a girl’s use of condoms and sexual health services.
The effect of “pornification” or “sexualisation” on young people’s emerging sexuality may not yet be clear, but concerns about it highlight the need for sex education practitioners to develop sessions exploring sexual ethics.
Schools that cover pornography effectively do so because they are sufficiently experienced, competent and confident in covering the basics of sex and relationships education, as well as in creating a safe learning environment. They establish firm ground rules, such as no personal stories, instead discussing general situations without identifying anyone.
And while they may examine sexy advertising or sexual content in music videos, they would not show material classed as pornographic and aimed at those aged 18 or over. To do that would be illegal.
These schools also have strategies for answering difficult questions and are comfortable dealing with controversial issues that pupils may spontaneously allude to in lessons. Crucially, teachers need the support of their senior management team and school policy.
“Students tend to respond very positively as soon as they realise that you stand as much chance of learning about how to have good sex from porn as you do from learning how to rob a casino from watching Ocean’s Eleven or drive a car from watching The Fast and the Furious,” says Spencer Williams, an experienced teacher who leads sex and relationships education in his Scarborough school.
Teachers need to be mindful of the debates and evidence on the effects of exposure to pornography and sexualised culture, some of which is undoubtedly concerning. But we also need to recognise that young people need our guidance. We must be confident in our abilities to get the basics of sex and relationships education right before we embark on the more controversial aspects of the curriculum.
Even if schools do not feel able to cover pornography as a specific topic, they should ensure that they are providing sex and relationships education that meets the needs of young people and includes exploration of sexual ethics. To do otherwise is to do our adults of tomorrow a great disservice.
Alice Hoyle is a teacher and freelance sex and relationships education adviser. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @SexEdUKation
Bale, C. “Raunch or Romance? Framing and interpreting the relationship between sexualised culture and young people’s sexual health” (2011). Sex Education, 11 (3), 303-313.
Visit the “sex education” section of the TES website for more support and guidance on delivering pornography education. For classroom resources, try the TES Resources Sex and Relationships collection.
And for links to the EU Kids Online, NSPCC and Unicef studies mentioned in the article, go to www.tes.co.uk/resources050
Key stage 1: Early sex education
A Teachers TV video explores how and why primary schools should introduce sex education.
Key stage 2: Young people’s views
Find out what young people think about sex in a series of videos from Youthhealthtalk.
Key stage 3: Sexting
For information about sexting and how to tackle it, try Brentford0’s presentation.
Key stage 4: Distorted screen
Gareth Cheesman’s resources collection helps to tackle distortion by the media and pornography of ideas about beauty, sex and relationships.
Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.uk/resources050.