PSHE & RSE: The impact of porn on the young

Written by: Stephanie Enson | Published:
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The impact that pornography has on the lives of young people – in particular their knowledge, beliefs and expectations about sex, gender and intimate relationships – is becoming alarmingly clear. Stephanie Enson explores the issue and discusses preventative strategies

With 24/7 availability and direct ease of access via the internet, pornography shapes young people’s sexual expectations and norms like never before.

However, it does so by portraying sex in unrealistic ways and, whether they want to or not, the majority of teens are getting some of their sex education from porn, which offers a warped idea of what sexual intimacy and relationships are really like (Enson, 2017). In addition, over the last decade or so, pornography has become increasingly dominated by themes of aggression, power and control – blurring the lines between consent, pleasure and violence in the process.

“Porn promises immediate satisfaction, endless excitement, and easy intimacy, but in the end, robs you of all three.” (Fight the New Drug, 2017).

While statistics have shown that over the last few years the average age of first exposure to porn is 11 (Randel & Sanchez, 2016), results of recent research by Bitdefender, show that children are now accessing hardcore porn sites earlier than ever, with one in 10 visitors to graphic porn websites being under the age of 10.

Furthermore, under-10s now account for 22 per cent of online video porn consumption among the under-18 age group (Munteanu, 2016).

Such evidence calls for immediate action by parents, care-givers, schools and communities alike in an effort to support young people in their development of both healthy sexuality and positive sexual health choices.

Consent

Today’s pornography – portraying themes of aggression, power and control – continuously blurs the lines between consent, pleasure and violence by portraying women as sexual objects. Such themes offer confusing messages to young people with regard to gender equality and consent within intimate relationships.

In 2014, the Institute for Public Policy Research surveyed 500 18-year-olds about their attitudes to sex and relationships. Nearly 75 per cent of the young women surveyed said that “pornography has led to pressure on girls and young women to act a certain way” (IPPR, 2014). Internet safety experts Childnet International (2015) confirm this: “Girls in particular have said they feel like they have to look and behave like porn stars to be liked by boys.”

Boys on the other hand feel compelled to portray themselves in a more hyper-masculinised way – i.e. sexually dominant and objective of the female body (Papadopoulus, 2010).

A 2016 NSPCC study evaluating the affects of online porn on young people aged 11 to 16, found that 87 per cent of the boys and 77 per cent of the girls felt that pornography failed to help them understand consent. The study also revealed that 53 per cent of the boys and 39 per cent of the girls saw pornography as a “realistic” depiction of sex (Martellozzo et al, 2017).

Pornography and the law

With the proliferation of SmartPhones – 91 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds now have a mobile phone according to Ofcom statistics from 2016 – there has been an increase in the unwanted receival of pornographic pop-up adverts by young people.

We are also witnessing the rapidly increasing trend of sexting – the sending of, often unsolicited, sexually explicit messages or images among young people (SecEd, 2017a).

It is worth recapping the law in relation to the sending and receiving of imagery. Under Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, it is illegal for a person under-18 to send explicit images or films of themselves or of another young person. The law states that it is illegal for any young person under-18 to buy porn magazines and videos. In reality this law has up to now been difficult to enforce.

However, earlier this year the government confirmed that an age verification wall for corporate industry will be made mandatory from April 2018 as part of the Digital Economy Act 2017, thereby restricting access to adult content online prior to age verification.

Finally, in line with Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, there remains certain types of porn which are illegal to be in possession of – even for an adult. These are called “extreme pornographic imagery”, for example, acts which threaten a person’s life, acts which are likely to, or result in serious injury, degrading porn, violent porn (including rape and abuse) or porn involving under-18-year-olds.

Violence in young people’s relationships

Research shows that pornography reinforces a negative bias toward women, as well as decreased empathy for victims of sexual violence, and an increase in dominating and sexually imposing behaviour. A meta-analysis of 22 studies undertaken by Wright et al (2015) found that exposure to violent porn increased the incidence of verbal and physical aggression.

Over the last decade we have witnessed disturbing levels of physical, emotional and sexual violence within young people’s intimate relationships. A survey undertaken by the University of Bristol and the NSPCC (Barter et al, 2009), looked at the issue of partner violence in teenage intimate relationships and found that:

  • One in three teenage girls has experienced some form of physical violence from a partner.
  • Nearly three-quarters of girls and half of boys reported some form of emotional partner violence.
  • One in three girls and 16 per cent of boys reported some form of sexual partner violence.

Sexual harassment & violence in schools

Within schools, increasing physical, emotional and sexual violence between young people has led to recent calls for government action and resulted in the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee launching an inquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools in 2016. Its findings included:

  • Fifty-nine per cent of young women aged 13 to 21 faced some form of sexual harassment while at school and college (Girlguiding UK Girls’ Attitudes Survey, 2014: cited in the inquiry report).
  • Almost a third of 16 to 18-year-old girls said that they had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school (EVAW/YouGovPoll, 2010: also cited).

Key recommendations from the inquiry included that:

  • The government take urgent action to ensure every school takes appropriate action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence.
  • Every child at primary and secondary school have access to high-quality, age-appropriate relationships and sex education (RSE) delivered by well-trained individuals.
  • Safeguarding initiatives in relationship to new technologies (such as mobile phones – often used to coerce and control) as well as peer support and counselling schemes be set up within schools.
  • PSHE classes should focus on physical, sexual and emotional forms of partner violence.

RSE/PSHE fit for the 21st century

While some schools do provide excellent PSHE and RSE, there remain many which fall wilfully short in providing young people with the knowledge, skills and awareness they need for today’s world. In June 2017 the government tabled an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill resulting in a statutory requirement that all secondary schools in England teach RSE and all primary schools teach about healthy relationships from September 2019 (SecEd, 2017b).

There is no room for complacency however, as some critical aspects of RSE are still being neglected or in some cases ignored by some schools, such as inclusivity of teaching on LGBT+ issues despite the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.

It is also vital that all schools offer positive counteractive measures against pornography through the provision of relevant, research-based RSE and PSHE which promotes healthy sexuality and gender equality. This should be delivered via a whole-school/curriculum approach and consolidated by peer mentorship and healthy role-models. Additionally, schools should engage protective online resources against exposure to pornography as well as support any young people in their care already negatively affected by it.

The following is recommended for schools (from Papadopoulus, 2010 and Enson, 2017):

  • All school staff should have training on gender equality (including diversity and fluidity). Those who teach PSHE and citizenship should receive specialist training and on-going support to address these issues through the curriculum.
  • A whole-school approach to “media literacy” should be incorporated, with it being taught at all age levels within English, drama, the arts and history (not merely as a part of PSHE and citizenship).
  • Awareness training and teaching on gender identity and equality, as well as the sexualisation and objectification of young people (especially females) should be delivered.
  • Teachers and pupils alike should receive internet awareness training.
  • Schools should ensure that all incidents of sexual bullying are recorded and reported separately to other forms of bullying.
  • Conflict resolution training and peer support and counselling schemes should be set up within schools and PSHE classes should focus on physical, sexual and emotional forms of partner violence.
  • Use outside experts to teach complex issues such as contraception, genito-urinary medicine (GUM) and psycho-sexual issues, as well as referral pathways and confidentially.
  • Promote online safety sites for all staff and carer-givers.

Young people themselves

Schools should provide young people with the tools to internally build and sustain healthy sexuality and healthy intimate relationships. This is best approached through PSHE work which includes emotional intelligence building, relationship navigation and negotiation skills and internet awareness training.

In addition, young people should be offered positive role-modelling. Young men in particular should be offered strong, positive male leaders, who set examples of positive masculinity and call out sexism. Workshops (in schools, colleges and youth centres) which discuss topics of gender equality, diversity and sexual violence training for both young men and women alike can be of particular value (Katz, 2012).

We must also promote positive online resources, such as ChildLine’s FAPZ (Fight Against Porn Zombies), which raise young people’s awareness by providing information on how pornography can affect an individual’s brain and heart, as well as having an impact on the wider global community.

Conclusion

As shown, pornography can negatively impact a young person’s sexual health, wellbeing and intimate relationships. Research also indicates that pornography’s inherent gender bias may be a precursor toward sexual violence against women and young girls.

Robust, relevant, non-biased, gender inclusive RSE/PSHE provides young people with a foundational counteractive measure against this. We must also protect young people from exposure and support those who have already been affected by the negative influences of pornography.

It should also be remembered that pornography is part of a greater collective paradigm, one which devalues the feminine and by default treats women as sexual objects, a paradigm to which we have all been conditioned. Therefore, as professionals, we should constantly question our own internal beliefs and social constructs and stand up against gender bias and sexism wherever and whenever we encounter it.

  • Stephanie Enson is a young people’s sexual health and relationships practitioner. She is a former school nurse and has more than 20 years’ experience working in the children’s health arena. She can be contacted for further advice and support via stephanie_enson@hotmail.com

Further information

References and reading

  • Barter, McCarry, Berridge & Evans, 2009, Partner Exploitation and Violence in Teenage Intimate Relationships, NSPCC
  • Enson, 2017, Evaluating the impact of pornography on the lives of children and young people, British Journal of School Nursing: http://bit.ly/2CxmKPa
  • Fight the New Drug, 2017, How porn warps ideas about sex: http://fightthenewdrug.org/how-porn-warps-ideas-about-sex/
  • Institute for Public Policy Research, 2014, Young People, Sex And Relationships: http://bit.ly/2BFLkk7
  • Katz, 2012, Violence against women – It’s a men’s issue (presentation at TEDx), November 2012: http://bit.ly/2CaWfDz
  • Martellozzo, Monaghan, Adler, Davidson, Levya & Horvath, 2016 (revised 2017), “I wasn’t sure it was normal to watch it...” NSPCC: http://bit.ly/2EPZzVD
  • Munteanu, 2016, One in 10 visitors of porn sites is under 10-years-old, Bitdefender: http://bit.ly/2ECOT9f
  • Papadopoulus, 2010, Sexualisation of Young People Review (Home Office): http://bit.ly/2HyrszR
  • Randel & Sanchez, 2016, Parenting in the Digital Age of Pornography, Huffington Post: http://bit.ly/2EEKXJg
  • SecEd, 2017a, Police warn of a rising number of sexting cases among young people: http://bit.ly/2ogw31F
  • SecEd, 2017b, What will the relationships and sex education curriculum look like? http://bit.ly/2mHZac0
  • Wright, 2015, A Meta-analysis of Pornography Consumption and Actual Acts of Sexual Aggression in General Population Studies, Journal of Communication 66(1): http://bit.ly/2Gu4Sat


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