RSHE: How to talk to teens about porn

Written by: Jonny Hunt | Published:
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With pornography only a few clicks away for anyone who wants to access it (and even for those who don’t), we must address the issues head-on, which means teaching young people to critically engage with the world around them. Jonny Hunt offers his reflections and advice


For most of us growing up our only brush with pornography would be through the occasional, discarded, slightly damp copy of the Daily Sport caught in a hedge by the park – or perhaps an older sibling discovering a video tape or magazine hidden at the back of dad’s wardrobe.

Before the birth of the internet, pornography could only be sold in licensed adult video stores. These were discreetly placed in the less-nice end of the high street, situated as standard, between a betting shop and a dodgy looking second-hand jewellery store.

Innocent passers-by were protected from reading the titles on offer inside by the blacked-out windows, and a sign – For over-18s only – would police the door, along with the shame-inducing stares from the lady who ran the laundrette over the road.

But those days are long gone. Now, porn is only a few clicks away for anyone to access. It feels as if Pandora’s box has been opened.

One thing is clear, we can no longer keep children in a bubble safe from sexualised media. With the dawn of digital television, even the watershed can no longer shield children from adult viewing.


Everyone’s Invited

Following the revelations from the Everyone’s Invited website campaign, the government instructed Ofsted to carry out a rapid review of sexual harassment and violence in schools (Ofsted, 2021). The website has been inundated with thousands of disclosures explicitly exposing the extent of peer-on-peer harassment and sexual violence across schools.

Accompanying these stories has been the on-going debate about the role of pornography and social media as a root cause of the problem.

Pornography has been isolated from broader media ecologies as the cause of pervasive dangers including misogyny, violence against women, negative body image, influencing attitudes, and corrupting “normal” sexual practices.

Predominately the fear is that young people are learning more about sex from pornography than from adult gatekeepers, mistaking porn for a manual for sexual intimacy.

Much of the discussion of pornography talks of young people being “exposed” to pornography – lumping pre-adolescent children and teenagers together in one group. It is true that small children may accidentally be exposed to pornography online, but we would be naïve to ignore the fact that some young people actively choose to engage with pornography to satisfy their curiosity and for their own pleasure.

It is perfectly developmentally normal for young people (regardless of gender) to be interested in sex. Unfortunately, social conditions persist where attitudes to teenage sex are seen as problematic and most parents and safe adults who work with them refuse to acknowledge young people’s right to sexual citizenship. This is especially true for young women. Sex is still discussed in terms of something that happens to women – that teenage boys “do” to girls.

Research shows that discussing pornography solely in terms of harm may negatively influence people’s perceptions of their own use, increasing shame and embarrassment (Spišák, 2016; Grubbs, et al, 2019).

While government policy in the UK has focused on attempting to block porn, elsewhere there have been more positive steps forward in addressing the issues of pornography with young people.

For example, Dr Emily Rothman’s porn literacy programme, as explained in her 2018 TEDtalk, How porn changes the way teens think about sex, is designed to help young people critically think and engage with pornography (although none is shown in class) in its broadest context. The idea is to help young people contextualise pornography in a similar way as we explore film or adverts in media studies.


Time to change the conversation

When I am asked by schools to talk to young people about pornography, my starting point is never porn. I know if open the session there, I will be met with resistance. Those in the room who do watch porn will immediately have their backs up and be worried that they are being judged. Why would I talk to you about porn if you are going to talk about me like a sexual predator and make me feel ashamed in front of my peers?

Instead, I find asking a different question enables me to side-step these problems: “Where do we learn about sex from?”

Within a matter of minutes, young people will be talking about the gaps in RSE at school; the issues of talking with their parents; the television shows and films they are watching; the content they read on social media; and porn will always get a mention.

But this time, it is on their terms. They now could frame how we approach the topic, and this makes all the difference in the classroom.

We now have a forum where we can critically evaluate which of these sources are reliable and why people may prefer to choose certain places to seek their answers.

Young people will speak at length of the benefit of the internet. Search engines do not judge or shame you if you ask questions about sex – it isn’t embarrassing, you don’t have to look anyone in the eye or worry about the internet shouting at you.

But equally, young people are quite savvy. They know not all information on the internet is true or reliable – or safe. Young people will talk about the negative influences porn has and, like the adults around them, will blame porn for many of the negative attitudes and experiences they witness.


The chance to ask questions

One thing that becomes clear from conversations with young people is that if we – the safe adults – are not providing opportunities for young people to ask questions about sex, and explore sex and sexuality in a positive way, they will simply find their answers elsewhere.

The one place you can find all the ins and outs (excuse the pun) of sex, is by watching porn. Young people watch porn to see how to have sex, to see what bodies and genitals look like, and to discover how to pleasure their partner.

Unfortunately, most porn was never designed for these ends. If you want to know how to truly pleasure your partner, what it takes is communication and finding out about them personally.

If we can provide young people with the information they need, we can reduce the potential for harm. Adult entertainment is not a euphemism. Pornography is designed for adults to enjoy – not as an instruction manual or to replace sex education for teens.

The analogy I always reach for: if you want to learn to drive, sitting up playing Grand Theft Auto and watching the box set of Fast and Furious might be fun but will not give you the skills you need to past your driving test. Porn is no different and no more a true reflection of sex than Fast and Furious is of driving.


Not in isolation

Another reason I start with the “where do we learn about sex from” question is that porn is an intrinsic part of culture and society – it does not exist in isolation. We can agree that most porn is not realistic, but then neither are the sex scenes in much mainstream television and films.

How many shows can you think of that provide positive representations of consent (although this is getting better with shows such as Sex Education, Normal People, and Big Mouth)?

This also includes issues about body image, the pressure to look or act a certain way – you only have to watch the news to know that misogyny, sexual violence, and male entitlement is every much a part of mainstream culture.

Consider a sex scene in a big Hollywood movie: How realistic is it? What expectations does it raise? And if you were watching it to learn how to have sex, how helpful are its instructions?

A better approach is to help young people to critically engage with the world around them and the messages they receive from the media in general. The real public health crisis is not pornography, but the fact that we are not providing young people with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities they need.

Young people have repeatedly asked for non-judgemental information to help them navigate their relationships, both online and in the real world. Young people deserve the right to learn key life-skills to help them negotiate consent and develop sexual citizenship without shame – enabling them to recognise their own sexual rights and pleasures, developing empathy and the importance of acknowledging other people’s rights too.

If we can do all this and provide young people with the comprehensive RSE they deserve, what is left to teach them about porn?

  • Jonny Hunt is an independent relationships and sex education consultant who has spent his career working face-to-face with children and young people. He is the author of Sex Ed for Grown-Ups: How to talk to children and young people about sex and relationships (Routledge, September 2021). Visit https://bit.ly/3ndStiq


Further information & resources

  • DfE: Statutory guidance: Relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education, June 2019: http://bit.ly/2kQwtgL
  • Grubbs et al: Pornography problems due to moral incongruence: An integrative model with a systematic review and meta-analysis, Archive Sexual Behavior 48, 2019: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-018-1248-x
  • Ofsted: Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, June 2021: https://bit.ly/3gDRW6t
  • Rothman: How porn changes the way teens think about sex, TEDTalk, November 2018: https://bit.ly/31Qa8FI
  • Spišák: “Everywhere they say that it's harmful, but they don't say how, so I'm asking here”: Young people, pornography, and negotiations with the notions of risk and harm, Sex Education (16, 2), 2016.

Further reading & listening


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