In recent weeks, conversation has been reignited around the UK’s porn block for under 18s. The plan to prevent under 18s from accessing porn by asking them to verify their age has been long delayed, but the government recently reiterated that it is soon to come into effect.
Concerns raised throughout the debate have focussed primarily on privacy, owing to the unavoidable fact that users will have to submit certain identity data in order for their age to be verified. However, we believe the move is also indicative of other issues that are not being addressed in the mainstream.
Banning over educating
As an organisation that aims to bring secondary school sex ed into the 21st Century, our team and advisory board have been concerned to see a trend of banning and messages to abstain - whether it’s porn, mobile phones in school, or sending nudes - instead of educating, and actively creating a safe space for young people to productively explore these matters.
Indeed, the lack of drive to educate young people around digital issues was made particularly apparent in the recently updated government guidance for schools on Relationships, Sex and Health Education. As Professor Jessica Ringrose explains in 10 Years on: why we still need better sex education for the digital world the guidance “fails to address important digital topics in enough depth or detail”, including pornography, “often one of young people’s main sex educators”.
The two references to porn in the new guidance are: “that specifically sexually explicit material e.g. pornography presents a distorted picture of sexual behaviours, can damage the way people see themselves in relation to others and negatively affect how they behave towards sexual partners” (page 28); and that secondary school pupils should know the law around pornography (page 30). There are no links provided to in-depth lesson plans, policies or explanations to support teachers to deliver sessions on this topic, or information about why it is important to do so.
Similarly, nudes and sexting are only mentioned within the context of understanding the law; meanwhile ‘links are provided to recommended sexting resources and films ‘Tagged’ and ‘Exposed’ which have been critiqued internationally as sexist, victim-blaming and slut shaming’ (Ringrose, IoE London blog, 2019).
All of this considered, it is difficult to see decisions to ban or limit children’s access to certain technologies or digital spaces as having young people’s welfare at the centre; rather, we would be inclined to see this as a tokenist ‘quick fix’ that is far from a solution. It also seems to echo the old-fashioned, abstinence-based approach to SRE, widely accepted to be ineffectual in promoting young people’s sexual health and emotional well-being.
As far as porn is concerned, banning access to mainstream porn sites will not, as has been acknowledged, entirely restrict young people’s access to pornographic content, which is readily available on Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Google images. Though, even if did, it would still not be in young people’s best interests to have no education around pornography, only to suddenly have access on turning 18.
What’s more, the Mean Girls approach to sex ed - simply telling young people just to not send nudes, or that watching porn is dangerous - is extremely unlikely to actually prevent them from doing it. More likely, they will do so anyway, but without a critical understanding of their rights, safety and well-being in relation to these matters.
In addition, the rhetoric surrounding these digital phenomena and teen digital intimacies is often very sex-negative. Stigmatising narratives can have the result of shutting down much-need open and honest dialogue, and prevents people from reaching out when they need support, for fear of being shamed or blamed.
As the FPA’s piece, Porn: beyond the ‘exposure and effects’ model explains, looking at the effect of pornography in terms of ‘good or bad’ is simplistic, and offers ‘very little in the way of understanding the significance of pornography in people’s lives’ (1).
The article cites numerous and complex reasons as to why young people access porn, including ‘as a means of exploring one’s sexual self/identity’, and ‘porn consumption as a response to boredom, in which one’s body asserts itself and demands attention’ (2).
In line with the research cited above, as an organisation we hear from secondary school students who consume porn for a huge variety of reasons, including that porn can sometimes provide much-needed reassurance - that they are not alone in feelings, desires, identity - particularly, to students who are not heterosexual.
There is no denying the fact that there are highly problematic tropes in much mainstream porn - a reflection of wider social issues. However, we believe that the focus on banning access is overshadowing conversations around tackling this through effective education; through critical engagement and open discussion.
So what do we propose?
At the heart of our work is providing young people with a comprehensive, inclusive, sex-positive sex ed, that is fit for the 21st century: we believe this must be the central focus in order to properly safeguard rights and well-being.
Young people must have the knowledge and understanding that allows them to critically engage with mainstream pornography; to make ethical decisions; and to advocate for their own and each other’s rights.
In practise, this means understanding sexual consent, how it plays out in digital spaces, the signs of a respectful relationship, the role of bystanders and how systems of power operate in our society. This framework must be applied to explicit and relevant examples, rather than vague analogies or metaphors.
By tackling the realities of young people’s everyday lives head on, we can ultimately support them to explore and develop their sexuality in a way that is safe, healthy, and shame-free.