Up against it: the urgency of confronting children’s exposure to pornography
Updated: Oct 15, 2019
Never having grown up with an endless supply of explicit sexual images at the touch of a mobile phone or on screens in their own homes, today’s adults can be in denial about the extent to which their digital-native children have to confront and negotiate their way around pornography. Unequipped to talk openly about it, many parents stay silent and teachers often feel too awkward to have honest conversations with students.
Pornography underpins a multitude of interrelated concerns: body image, self-esteem, sexting, respect, consent, pleasure, positive sexual identity, harmful gender stereotypes, confidence, unrealistic expectations, victim blaming, girls’ knowledge of their own bodies, detrimental effects on men, sexual violence, the degradation of women etc.
Now that children unintentionally come across porn, are shown it by schoolfriends or actively search for it out of curiosity by the time they’re at secondary school, they are being exposed to often extreme and disturbing images before they’ve had a chance to even kiss or hold hands with someone. Already, before they’re ready to process or relate to what they’re seeing, their inner life and worldview have been hijacked.
A multibillion-pound industry that often involves coercion, exploitation and sometimes trafficking, porn is male driven. When boys and men watch it, they’re implicitly participating in acts that hurt and demean women and girls. When girls and women watch porn, they are looking at it through the male gaze; they are watching their own subjugation and internalising the message that it’s OK for sex to involve pain.
Images that used to be considered hardcore are now mainstream, and the world around us has become pornified – just look at the objectification of the female (and increasingly male) body on TV and on billboards, and in advertising, movies, TV, magazines, music videos, casually violent video games. These images hold us hostage to a bombardment of unattainable ideals – and for women disempowerment.
It’s vital that we empower girls to accept themselves, be assertive, defy our culture and define themselves on their own terms; equally, we must get boys to challenge their behaviour and attitudes, and to express emotion.
Neuroscience shows that with any addiction people get caught up in a cycle of stimulation followed by desensitisation. As physiology teacher Gary Wilson says about the rewiring of the brain: “Constant novelty-at-a-click can cause addiction.” YourBrainOnPorn.com, which features his TED talk on how porn addiction changes the chemistry and architecture of the brain, cites symptoms such as sexual dysfunction, “loss of attraction to real partners, social anxiety, depression, brain fog, lack of motivation” and “morphing sexual tastes”. His work also shows that this is reversible.
At age nine Bethany McDonald, now 24, became addicted to watching porn in secret. “The only way I could get those disturbing images out of my head,” she says, “was to have them on the screen in front of me.” On another note she reflects: “There’s an expectation that [girls] should look and act like a porn star.”
The solution is for all of us, adults and children, to be open – and the conversation has to start early and often. It will serve boys and girls in good stead over time if they can pass critical judgement on images in our hypersexualised media and be comfortable talking frankly about their bodies from a young age. Blazing a trail is the sex education proven effective in places like Denmark (officially the happiest nation on the planet from 1973 to 2016), Holland and Sweden, all of which record high levels of wellbeing.
For real change to happen, it has to be enshrined in law. It is a state of emergency that British children have not had the right to good-quality relationships and sex education (RSE). As of September 2019, RSE will become statutory in secondary schools – and relationships education made mandatory in primary schools. Though government guidance is not yet out, religious schools will be able to teach “according to the tenets of their faith”, parents can still withdraw their children from sessions and quality control will be hard to establish.
Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in Schools, the alarming report published by the Women and Equalities Committee in September 2016, states: “There is evidence of a correlation between children’s regular viewing of pornography and harmful behaviours.”It demands that the government include teaching about pornography “in an age-appropriate way. It should also include suggestions of how schools can work in partnership with parents to address the impact of pornography on children’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent.”
Since the report, nothing has been put in place despite condemnation on government inaction by MPs Jess Phillips and Maria Miller; two BBC programmes shown in October documenting the scale of rape and sexual bullying in schools; a new cultural awareness about sexual harassment, and the continuing increase in child-on-child sexual abuse (a 71% rise in four years). The report was a categorical call to arms.
It’s urgent that we take preventive measures to keep pornography from taking people to dark emotional places where they don’t want to be.
We don’t want girls to be fixated on pleasing boys at the expense of knowing and pleasing themselves; we don’t want to them to witness, over and over, the degradation of other women and expect it of their own sexual experiences.
And we don’t want boys to be conditioned to find the degradation of women arousing or to be trapped in limited versions of masculinity which deprive them of being able to express a whole range of emotions including sensitivity and vulnerability.
Nobody knows what impact porn is having, and will have long term, on young people. They’re canaries down a very dark mine.
A version of this piece was first published in October 2016 on the Women’s Equality Party website