• Leah Jewett

Coming out the other side: young people, porn & sexting

Updated: Nov 15, 2019


On the front line: Lildonia Lawrence leading the Brandon Centre Young People & Pornography workshop

Fill in the blank: “Porn is…”


Subjective, massive and dangerous. This is what some of the 12 sexual-health professionals attending a workshop on pornography come up with. Others add to the mix: a choice, temptation, taboo, fun and controversial. But they’ve left out one important word: education.


We’re here attending the excellent Young People & Pornography workshop run on 5 November 2019 by the Brandon Centre, a charity that delivers relationships and sex education (RSE) sessions in schools and communities, hands out condoms and advises young people about psychological, sexual and social problems.


Looking at a wall of sexualised images – lingerie and jeans ads, naked women crouching in stilettos, music-video stills, the Are You Beach Body Ready ad – the informed and imperturbable Lildonia Lawrence, education and outreach manager, and Chioma Onyekwuluje, service manager for contraception and sexual health, take us through nuanced arguments about the pros and cons of porn.


First: what is pornography? It can be mainstream, amateur, paid for, live streamed, ethical, extreme. Where do we draw the line between an image that is suggestive or provocative and one that’s considered pornographic? Is porn open to interpretation – does it have more to do with the intention of the person who created it or with the mindset, perspective and perception of the viewer, which are shaped by the times they live in? Someone mentions that people are seeking more hardcore material to be aroused – whereas a suggestive picture used to be titillating, it now takes a full-on orgy. Naked people in an art gallery wouldn’t be classed as porn, Lawrence points out.


The numbers of young people actively seeking out porn might not be what we’d expect.

In the 2016 NSPCC survey “I wasn’t sure it was normal to watch it”, 53% of 11- to 16-year-olds had seen porn while 47% hadn’t. It had happened by accident to 28% of those surveyed, 19% searched for it alone or with friends and 15% cited other sources.


We debate how much gendered expectations come into play when young people answer the survey: do girls not want to admit to liking porn and do boys feel they’re expected to?While 56% of boys didn’t see porn as exploitative, humiliating or degrading, 40% of girls reported worrying about how boys expect girls to act sexually, and how they see girls, as a result of porn. Porn can particularly affect girls’ self-esteem.


Bearing in mind that respondents don’t always answer honestly, a 2015 ChildLine survey of 2,000 young people aged 11-17, including 700 aged 12-13, reveals that…

  • 20% thought watching porn was normal

  • 20% felt shocked, distressed or upset by what they saw

  • 12% had made or been in sexual videos

  • 10% thought they were addicted

Here’s what some young people had to say:

  • “First time was strange – I didn’t really know what to think. But now it’s kinda normal. Sex isn’t as taboo” (male, age 13-14)

  • “Because young people are now open to seeing this kind of stuff you get used to it, so it’s not as shocking, but I still think it’s disgusting and degrading” (female, age 13-14)

  • “At first it might have shocked me, but due to the increasing use of sex and sexual themes in the media and music videos, I’ve grown a sort of resistance against it. I don’t feel disgusted or turned on” (female, age 13-14)


A youth support coordinator explains that the WhatsApp of a 15-year-old she works with is filled with porn images and content that he says doesn’t interest him, and with comments like: “Rape me” and “Score this!” But, she asks, what about his female friends?


Young people feel they need to copy the sexualised behaviour they see in porn – but this is where some form of porn literacy that explains how the porn industry works is essential. Often young people don’t understand that they are watching performers or that porn shoots are heavily edited. In porn young people see no consent, no lube, no foreplay, no preparation ahead of time and no condoms. Condom usage among teens is down and some STIs are rampant.


Because of porn, says a sexual-health nurse: “Young people know the mechanics but they don’t know their bodies. Girls don’t know what gives them pleasure. They don’t have the confidence say: ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘I want to try that.’”


Lawrence agrees. “Porn shows young people what’s meant to give them pleasure instead of them finding out for themselves what gives them pleasure as part of their development.”


We start listing the possible damaging effects of porn on young people. Porn can: foster unrealistic expectations, lead to addictiveness, escalate to more extreme images, encourage sexting, tempt young people into the industry, increase low self-esteem or body image, create a lack of respect for sex, be misogynistic, be objectifying.


Then we list the possible upsides of porn for young people – notably teenagers who are physically or psychologically isolated or exploring their LGBT identity. For some young people porn can be: exciting, a rite of passage, empowering, release, escape. Porn can be a way to: explore bodies, know what they like, maintain a partner’s interest, spice things up, try new things, alleviate the anxiety of not knowing about sex.


Is sexting a form of porn, someone wonders – or only if it’s broadcast out to someone else or uploaded onto the internet?


Sexting – aka sending nudes – is commonplace among 14- to 26-year-olds, concluded Digital Romance – a 2017 study by Brook, the sexual-health charity for under-25s, and police-organisation CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre). Half of those surveyed had received nude images and 32% had sent them to other young people, with girls (at 36%) more likely to come under pressure to send nudes than boys (11%).


Girls are often pressured to prove their love for a partner by sending naked pictures or videos. “Girls fall for it – it’s just immaturity,” someone says. “They want to be accepted. They act on impulse.” But once they’ve hit “send”, that image is no longer in their control – and relationships can change.


Young people say that sending nudes – via WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram – is a normal part of their relationships and their sexual exploration.


Lawrence agrees. Sexting can be part of the sexual development that is part of the human condition, she says. It can be a way for young people to figure out about pleasure, build body confidence, show off or be validated.


“There’s something wrong if you have to sexualise yourself to feel validated,” a charity worker comments. “It’s a conflict between owning your sexuality and being exploited.”


Lawrence responds: “But confidence, freedom and self-expression come in different forms. You can also be covered up and be an empowered female. As sexual-health professionals, we’re in a privileged role because we have the power to teach young people to be conscious consumers – people conscious of the pressure to conform to a homogenous look of what is meant to be attractive. We can shape the narrative.”


Young people are sharing sexual images at 12 to 13, says Onyekwuluje, “but by 14 and 15 they see how it plays out and they don’t do it. Having navigated it early, they learn from that and they’re more stable – but younger people need social education.”


Generally young people often more savvy than we realise, says Lawrence. “It’s a case of telling them: ‘I know you know – but let’s keep talking.’ We have to work on it, hammer it home, think about why they are taking pictures.”


What young people can feel about the addictiveness of porn is something Onyekwuluje articulates well. She talks about the compulsiveness and lack of control – both physiological as well as psychological – that people can feel about porn because of how it reinforces the reward/pleasure circuit: “It gets encoded in your system as a feedback loop that changes your neurology. The young people who say they are watching a lot of porn – and we have to ask them what ‘a lot’ means – feel an inability to limit their porn consumption. It has an impact when they’re missing out on other parts of their life.” The answer: to talk about the neuroscience with young people and get them to swap porn for positive activities.


Porn is known to create unrealistic expectations around sex and bodies. A sexual-health nurse says women, from age 14 to 40, apologise about their vulvas or the state of their pubic hair. Young men say they have a problem because they can only have sex for 3 minutes.


As Onyekwuluje puts it: “The body stuff lands hard.”



To look at porn vs reality scenarios, we divide into groups. Our first myth-busting activity: to decide which of the following happen in porn, which in real life – and which in both…


  • Everyone orgasms

  • Sex is very loud

  • Sex seems to last for ages

  • There are no condoms

  • Women are often bisexual

  • Everyone has regular check-ups

  • Men ejaculate on their partners

  • People have sex with people they love

  • Sex is mainly about what men want

  • Sex ends when the man climaxes

  • People have pubic hair

  • Most people don’t like anal sex

  • Penis size is 5.5 inches

  • Lesbians don’t actually fancy men

  • Average time for a man to orgasm is 2 to 4 minutes

  • Sex is private and intimate

Next we try our hand at the drawing activity Porn Body vs Real Body, which gets the conversation going for young people. Here’s what we sketch:


Female Real Body: Kelly

Has a natural body weight, average hip-to-waist ratio, pubic hair. Interested in sex sometimes


vs Female Porn Body: Jordan

Has big breasts, a big bum, nipple and belly-button piercings, fake eyelashes, long fingernails, hair extensions, volumised hair with highlights, a butterfly tattoo, lip enhancement, a Botox forehead, a thigh gap, stilettos/platform boots. Always up for it, happy to comply


Male Real Body: Average Jack

Has a Dad bod (a bit of a belly). Perceived to be boring at sex


vs Male Porn Body: Jamal

Has a 6-pack, goes to the gym and is 6ft 2in, oily for no reason, well groomed, well defined, well endowed. Goes at it for ages (he takes Viagra)

Young people aspire to be Jordan and Jamal. In posting photoshopped selfies on Tinder or Snapchat, buying into “Fix Me” plastic surgery apps and using big-lip filters on Instagram, they’re catfishing themselves by creating fictional online versions of who they are. It’s shaping how they are finding their identity.



Who can young people talk to about porn, sexting and sex? The youth coordinator says: “Some say friends; some say parents; some say not parents.”


Sexual-health professionals, Lawrence tells the room, have more impact on young people than they realise. They are vital in being a safety net for young people, referring them to services and encouraging them to talk to other people so they can work out their boundaries, understand their own perspectives and values, consider their choices and discover other ways than porn to have pleasure. Putting aside their personal values to let young people develop their own values, professionals are there to provide safeguarding and signposting, to frame the positive and negative messaging around porn and to allow young people to take away non-judgmental, unbiased, inclusive, factual information.


“Young people always say they want workshops not just to be young-people led but to be co-run by a professional,” affirms Onyekwuluje. “They want honesty, authenticity, someone who’s ‘down’. They get why they need to do something. And they are coming to workshops – that’s encouraging.”


If those workshops are run by this clued-up, down-to-earth team, that’s brilliant. Their approach to critical thinking around porn takes into the account that young people need to make mistakes and to embark on positive risk-taking so that they come out aware and well adjusted on the other side.

BLOG HIGHLIGHTS

OUTSPOKEN SED EDUCATION LOGO

 © 2020 Outspoken Education

Outspoken is a social enterprise – a community interest company (CIC)                                                                                           

  • facebook blue
  • linkedin blue
  • twitter blue