Pornography and young people: A reality check

Written by: Lisa Hallgarten | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A pragmatic approach to pornography can help to prepare children and young people for better relationships, says the Sex Education Forum’s Lisa Hallgarten. She reassures PSHE teachers and signposts us to some useful resources

We need to “prepare our children for the world as it is, not as we would like it to be”, said Maria Miller MP, explaining her support for giving sex and relationships education (SRE) statutory status.

It neatly sums up the anxiety that many parents and teachers feel about the prevalence and accessibility of online pornography: that its messages are being uncritically absorbed by young people, distorting their view of relationships and bodies; and that young people may be entering relationships with unrealistic and harmful expectations of what sex is and should be.

Responding to these anxieties, Jenni Murray, veteran BBC Woman’s Hour presenter, recently suggested screening pornography in the classroom and teaching students to dissect and critically evaluate it as you would a literary text.

Journalists immediately contacted us to discover the Sex Education Forum’s (SEF) view on whether this was the best idea since sliced bread or further proof that our society is sliding inexorably into the moral mire.

Our updated guidance Sex and Relationships Education for the 21st Century, produced with Brook and the PSHE Association, recommends that “pornographic images must never be shown to pupils, and there is no need for teachers to look at pornography to plan their teaching”.

SEF members have developed excellent resources for facilitating constructive discussion of pornography in ways which keep classrooms safe – for all of the young people who have viewed porn either by choice or accident, as well as the thousands of young people who have never viewed it and don’t want to (and many don’t).

Screening porn in the classroom (legal issues aside) definitely would not tick that box!

Our teaching about porn must be informed by an understanding of the reasons young people access and share porn, as well as the impact it is having on them.

Sometimes young people share porn to bully and harass; to shock and embarrass their friends and have a laugh; or to gauge their peers’ responses to different scenarios and images.

Sometimes young people seek it out because they are naturally curious about sex and sexuality and may be hungry for information, and sometimes they stumble across it by mistake.

Porn may be accessed by those seeking an alternative to the hetero-normative representations of sex in the media, to find out “all the things they ever wanted to know about (other kinds of) sex, but were afraid to ask”.

In this context it seems clear that “just say no” messages are destined to fail. Asking young people how they feel about pornography and what they want to know is a good starting point.

Teaching resources like Planet Porn (from Bish Training) address questions that young people routinely ask and can provide an easy way in. The Fantasy v Reality resource developed by Brighton and Hove City Council provides a range of lesson ideas for key stages 3 and 4.

Specific guidance on introducing the topic of pornography from the PSHE Association sets out discussion points and teaching ideas.
Young people interviewed for our special supplement on teaching about porn said that they need frank and open discussion of the issue. They helped create a list of what students should be taught, which included issues such as safety, privacy and reality.

However, it makes no sense to tackle porn as an isolated issue. To make sense of porn young people need the kind of skills and knowledge that are developed through a comprehensive programme of SRE: an idea of what positive relationships might look like; an understanding of “safer sex” (that supports emotional wellbeing as well as preventing STIs, HIV and pregnancy and acknowledges that sex is supposed to feel good); communication skills around relationships, consent and staying safe; an accurate knowledge of human anatomy, and an understanding of body diversity.

We do need to prepare children and young people for the world “as it is”, but I think if we get this right we can be much more ambitious – preparing and empowering our children to make their relationships the way we would like them to be: affectionate, trusting, pleasurable, safe and equal.

  • Lisa Hallgarten is coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, which is based at the National Children’s Bureau.

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