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  • Leah Jewett

Porn Generation conference featuring Outspoken co-founder Yoan Reed and panellist Meg Veit

Updated: Oct 15, 2019


With at its heart the motivation to set up a local equivalent of the ground-breaking Bristol Ideal – a whole school approach for ending sexual and domestic violence – the Women’s Rights Action Group (WRAG) in Cambridge hosts a half-day conference on 19 March 2017.

Porn Generation: Why Sex and Relationships Education is More Important Than Ever, held at Anglia Ruskin University and attended by 65 people, is spearheaded by Shally Shefer. Egalitarian in construct, the conference is run, Shefer says, “the feminist way”, with six WRAG members equally facilitating. In charge of the registration desk are Shefer’s politically active daughter Lihi, age 16, and three of Lihi’s friends.

In a kind of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” recap of WRAG’s own evolution, Shefer explains that they “built the conference to replicate in a few hours the process we went through over a year. First we became aware about the effects of porn on young people – that’s the topic of the first presentation. Then we started thinking about parental involvement. Finally we discovered a programme we could get behind: the Bristol Ideal. Because some audience members might be stuck in one phase, after the presentations they can attend a discussion group to concentrate on those issues.”

The topics up for debate today are spelled out on the conference flyer with the stark questions: Did you know that most kids have access to online porn years before their first sexual relationship and that porn is often their main source of sex education? Did you know that most porn easily and freely accessible online is extremely violent towards women and girls and that teenagers in many cases assume that it is the way sex should be?

The conference revolves around a screening of the half-hour documentary Pornland: How The Porn Industry Has Hijacked Our Sexuality featuring anti-pornography activist and women’s studies professor Gail Dines. A documentary based on her book, Pornland is a hard-hitting examination of how, as the Media Education Foundation puts it, “the dominant images and stories disseminated by the multibillion-dollar pornography industry produce and reproduce a gender system that undermines equality and encourages violence against women. In direct opposition to claims that porn has delivered a more liberated, edgy sexuality, Dines reveals a mass-produced vision of sex that is profoundly sexist and destructive.”

“The film is our keynote speaker,” explains Shefer.

The conference line-up kicks off with three informative talks, starting with:

1) PARENTS AND RSE – a presentation about parents’ engagement with their children’s RSE at home and in school by Outspoken Sex Ed co-founder Yoan Reed, who is an RSE teacher/researcher/consultant and the founder of Teaching Lifeskills.

“RSE functions as a counter to the misinformation found in porn, putting sex back into the context of relationships and normal bodies,” says Reed.

“Porn is causing a skewed, unhealthy perception of sex. Parents believe that their children are not aware of pornography – but when I go into schools children tell me they are frequently exposed to indecent images and inappropriate pornographic material whether they seek it out or are presented with information.”


Her speech, an overview of how RSE (relationships and sex education) has evolved, focuses on educating, equipping and empowering young people and parents. Key messages include:

• The global shift in sex education from a risk-focused (pregnancy, STIs etc) approach to a rights-based perspective

• New legislation has moved ahead but clarity about content and regulation are necessary

• Globally and in the UK children and young people overwhelmingly prefer parents and schools as their primary source of RSE, but in reality:

  • school doesn’t cover what they really want to know

  • only 5% of young people get information from their mother (1% from their father)

• Cyclical learning should start early – it revisits themes and builds on children’s knowledge of themselves, their community, the world

• Discussing sexuality (eg body parts, gender, divergent families/cultural values) does not mean discussing sex and explicit sexual acts

• If we don’t engage with young people they will form their own language and negotiate sexuality online and within their peer groups

• Sex and pleasure belong to boys, periods and ignorance about sex belong to girls

• Barriers for parents becoming good RSE educators for their children include:

  • not having the skills, knowledge and language

  • not knowing what is being taught at school

  • the limitations and default settings of their own sex education

  • discomfort

  • the fear of eroding children’s innocence by talking about sexuality, anatomy and sexual relationships

  • the need with teenagers to frame sex as dangerous, predatory and to be avoided

• What parents can do: find out about their children’s needs (with early communication; by being proactive, not reactive; by using opportune moments to talk and correct terminology), educate themselves (via resources, websites, workshops), talk to other parents (compare common concerns and what’s happening in the peer group), learn about RSE policy at school (how old is it; were children or parents consulted etc), get across their family’s values

2) YOUNG PEOPLE IN PORN CULTURE – a presentation about the effects of porn on teenagers by Taking Up Space founder Laurie Oliva, author of the insightful Feminist Current blog post “The Impact of Porn Culture on Girls is Too Big to Ignore”.

“There is not enough research about the long-term impact of porn culture on young people and on society,” says Oliva. “But existing research places a responsibility on adults to support young people in accessing the information and developing the personal capacities that will enable them to navigate a porn-saturated society.”


Impressively she makes the following points:

• Young people say they’re under pressure from porn and that it is shaping their ideas about sex, gender, body image and consent

• Young people whose families and schools had not engaged with them about porn were more likely to feel positive about it

• Young people want:

  • to know how to remove sexual images of themselves from the internet

  • better sex education that covers pornography

  • to co-create their learning about pornography

  • to be able to ask questions without feeling judged or embarrassed

• Mimicking porn is having an impact on young people physically (with rises in genital cosmetic surgeries, breast augmentation, dieting etc) and on a mental wellbeing level (eg body dysmorphia and an emphasis on male pleasure and achievement vs women/girls’ fear of pain and damaged reputation)

• Young people need to be empowered by:

  • being informed – having a framework to understand the porn they experience

  • feeling they have a right – having the agency, confidence and opportunities to act on it

  • seeking support – having an open dialogue with peers and trusted adults plus hearing facts

3) THE BRISTOL IDEAL – a talk about the multi-agency approach to creating standards for schools so as to make a real impact on promoting healthy relationships and tackling domestic and sexual violence by academic and campaigner Dr Helen Mott, a founder member of Bristol Fawcett.

“In an ideal world teachers, backed by school policy, would be well trained to signpost students to support services,” Mott says. “In an ideal world children wouldn’t become victims or perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence and abuse. They would be taught about healthy, respectful relationships throughout their educational journey and equipped with skills and confidence.”

She compellingly outlines the Bristol Ideal’s strategy, structure and remit:

• It was set up because of:

  • the lack of requirement or incentive to deliver adequate PSHE/RSE (which the Bristol Ideal combats with a statutory PSHE campaign, awards and monitoring)

  • the lack of expertise in schools on issues affecting girls’ safety, evident in the lack of gender perspective in lessons (which the Bristol Ideal combats with training, accreditation, advice and a whole school approach)

  • the lack of gatekeeping in terms of messaging from external speakers (which the Bristol Ideal combats with accredited external providers)

  • epidemic levels of sexual harassment, sexual violence and domestic abuse – an issue for the whole community, from criminal justice to housing (which the Bristol Ideal combats with prevention)

• Young people deserve:

  • to learn about healthy/unhealthy relationships at school

  • to have access to services supporting victims and perpetrators

  • to have teachers they can go to who are well informed about all forms of gendered violence and abuse

  • to experience a whole school approach around all forms of gendered violence and abuse

• This involves a universal buy-in from head teachers, the SLT (senior leadership team), governors, students and parents and encourages a “connectedness” so that young people believe that adults and the school care about them, which in turn promotes academic success and protects against health-compromising behaviours

• The Bristol Ideal has been accredited to 11 schools, with 30 expected by summer 2017. These are the standards schools must meet:

  • RSE delivered by trained professionals (at least one teacher specialist accreditation to teach PSHE)

  • timetabled regular RSE lessons for every year group (which include coercive/controlling relationships and how gendered violence is a cause and consequence of inequality)

  • a whole school approach to tackling domestic and sexual violence and abuse

  • a named staff member with responsibility for addressing gendered violence and domestic/sexual violence (eg domestic abuse, teen abuse, sexual harassment, forced marriage, FGM)

  • staff training to ensure they understand and respond to domestic/sexual violence

  • information about support services available for pupils and staff, with access to specialist support service for children and young people

  • participation in research to provide an evidence base and monitoring for the Bristol Ideal

• The Bristol Ideal is linked to priorities set by local police, health and wellbeing, and safeguarding bodies. It provides support for schools, briefings for councillors and MPs, advice for parents, a voice for young people through input to curriculum and peer-led advocacy, and the chance for professionals to join a steering group

Next up is author Karl Lam, author of the article “A Framework for Understanding Exploitative Societies”. A social analyst who writes and talks about humanity, economics, growing up male and healing from emotional hurt, and the wider context that leads to boys and men ending up in oppressive positions in society, he movingly states: “Just as white girls and boys are not born racist, boys are not born sexist, nor with any other oppressive attitudes. What happens to boys that we become sexist and also vulnerable to being attracted to the inhuman relationships depicted in pornography?”

In describing the psychological and social pressures behind sexting and children’s exposure to porn, deputy police and crime commissioner for Cambridgeshire Andy Coles, who is on board with starting a Cambridge Ideal, declares simply: “It’s terrifying.”

These are striking words, especially given that they bring to bear not only his perspective as the father of three grown daughters but also the weight of his experience as a police official. He later adds that it’s critical to engage men, particularly those who won’t pay attention to women but who will listen to other men.

Outspoken panellist Meg Veit, Young People’s Service Lead at Dhiverse – a Cambridge-based charity that aims to reduce the spread of HIV and promote good sexual health – flags up an upcoming parent workshop she’s holding about young people’s digital lives, with an emphasis on making parents feel confident in talking with teenagers about online safety. She’s an engaging near-peer worker whose current work centres around the idea of parent sessions in which the young people teach the adults.

Finally audience members elect to join one of four discussion groups:

• Parents’ reflections on their role – talking to children and getting involved in RSE (run by Yoan Reed)

• Men, boys and RSE – resisting porn culture and sharing personal stories of growing up male

• How porn and gender inequality affect young people

• Getting into action – the next steps towards setting up a Cambridge Ideal

They’re a great, interactive way to round off a far-reaching conference that both touched on global RSE issues and, in presenting the Bristol Ideal, took forward a significant local success story.

This piece was originally published on the FiLiA (formerly Feminism in London) website in July 2017

#relationship #children #youngpeople #education #sexeducation #parents

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