We all know the song: “Let’s talk about sex, baby. Let’s talk about pornography. Let’s talk about the fact that children aged 12-17 form the single largest group of online pornography consumers and what kind of an impact such early exposure is going to make on young people” (it’s catchy).
Yes, you read that sentence correctly: “tweens” and teenagers are the demographic most frequently accessing pornography. Follow this with the fact that the average age for someone to first view pornography is 11 years old, and your assumptions about the landscape young people are experiencing during adolescence rapidly begin to shift.
Last week, Tender held an open training course for educational and youth/welfare service professionals to unpick and address this exact issue, led by two of our most experienced facilitators, Tamsin and Jake. In light of the above statistic, it was unsurprising that the course was a full house. Yet it was also reassuring to see how many professionals actively wanted to address this with the young people they were working with. In an educational system where even the vital topic of sexual consent can find itself blindsided*, the idea of introducing pornography onto the curriculum manifests itself as a minefield, largely because, for inexperienced young people, pornography itself can be a minefield. And really, how many of us are talking to young people about it in an open, non-judgemental, educational forum? The answer? Not many. The reason? Awkwardness, uncertainty, embarrassment, parental backlash….the list goes on. Concerns that teaching about pornography may over-expose young people are understandable, but it is important to remember that a) to educate is not to advocate and b) the assumption that in today’s internet culture a child of secondary school age still has no awareness of pornography’s existence – even if they have no first-hand experience of it – is sadly now a naive one. Given that 36% (over a third) of the entire internet is devoted to pornography, all it takes is one curious Google search to be faced with more explicit material than you can shake a stick at (if you’ll pardon the pun). Thus, Tender’s course aimed to inform and inspire confidence in professionals, and hopefully inspire some much-needed change.
As acknowledged by delegates early on in the training, the root cause of why so many young people are accessing porn is fairly straightforward: it’s their top source for sexual education. Sex is a challenging subject for young people to discuss with adults, particularly if they’re led to believe – intentionally or accidentally – that talking about it is controversial, embarrassing, or “dirty”. Pornography masquerades as an easy-access educational tool: free from awkward questions, disapproving adults and overloaded with visual stimulus: particularly potent for a generation brought up on visually-dominant media such as Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube. The attraction to porn is obvious, but the effects can be detrimental if you come across it with a lack of awareness or knowledge about what makes a healthy intimate relationship in real life.
The content of Tender’s course therefore chose to focus on addressing the two most prominent aspects of young people’s lives that can be impacted or influenced by pornography: self-image and sexuality (the term “sexuality” encompassing activity, identity, orientation and preferences). Quickly identified by our training delegates as key factors, these were unpicked using a variety of interactive activities which Tender commonly uses with young people, in order to provide participants with exercises they could take back to their settings, and first-hand experience of why they are effective. This drama-and-discussion based format proved, as it consistently does when we work with young people, a fantastic tool for encouraging discussion, strengthening comprehension, and, most importantly, drawing the whole group together in a supportive, enjoyable environment – as evidenced by the frequent bursts of laughter amidst many complex, impassioned discussions.
We often find that running our training courses in this fashion creates a fantastic platform for professionals providing different services for young people to share a diverse range of issues and solutions in equal measure, and this course was no exception. The topic of sexting proved one that many delegates cited as a common issue bridging the two themes of self-image and sexuality, and the pressures it put upon young people to take or demand explicit images of themselves or others, and to distribute these amongst their peers. So accustomed are some young people to viewing sexual content digitally, that they struggle to register naked bodies on a screen as real humans complete with thoughts, feelings and opinions, even if they are emotionally connected to them in real life as lovers, friends or simply classmates. It was vital therefore to include exercises which explored pressure and consent (and which could also be used with young people), given mainstream porn’s tendency to blur the lines of what constitutes consent, or in many cases, normalise or eroticise rape and sexual assault. Another important element of the course was solidifying participants’ knowledge of the laws around pornography and explicit material, laws which many delegates affirmed that the young people they worked with were largely unaware of: most worryingly, many young people are unaware that the creation, possession or sharing/distribution of explicit images of someone under the age of 18 is classed as an indecent image of ac child – even if it is done with your consent and/or you yourself are under the age of 18.
A powerful thread which runs throughout Tender’s projects is how we work to develop young people’s empathy. Teaching young people that certain acts and behaviour holds repercussions because it is against the law is one thing – and is important information for them to know – but developing their moral and human understanding to the point where it becomes a deterrent against abusive behaviour is even more effective. Without spaces where young people can feel safe and confident to discuss pornography – and indeed mainstream media – and its difference from real life intimate relationships and sexual encounters, we are doing young people a great disservice. Mainstream porn and entertainment often set a standard of sexual and gender “ideals” which can intimidate young people before they engage in sexual activity, or before they are even sure who they are yet. In the rare material where diversity is evident – whether it be ethnicity, LGBT+ identities, or disability – it is usually categorised as fetish, rather than representation. And it risks teaching young people that when it comes to sex, any form of care or intimacy – whether it be trust, love, simple mutual enjoyment or connection – is irrelevant to sex and therefore “unsexy”. And that is a cause of concern for all of us. For all these reasons, and more, I would strongly recommend professionals to start exploring a constructive dialogue about pornography with young people – and attend this brilliant training when next available.
(We also provide biscuits).
*Highlighted by BBC3’s recent documentary Is This Rape?
Written by Cordi Morrison
Cordi is Tender’s Education Coordinator, with a background in theatre and working with young people. She is particularly passionate about our work in primary schools, SEND settings and concerning the impact of technology on young people’s lives.