Porn: It’s about time we updated the birds and bees talk

Josefina Maria Bentz

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A survey made by the NSPCC ChildLine in the UK showed that one out of ten 12 to 13-year-olds believe they are addicted to pornography.

12% of the 700 young people participating in the survey disclosed that they had taken part in or made sexually explicit videos.

The charity said that many children contacting their helpline understood porn to be a part of everyday life.

Computer

Image Credit: Austin Anderson (Flickr)

To the BBC, NSPCC’s head of the sexual abuse program Jon Brown stated, “Really concerning results. We think of anything they are properly underestimates because it is a very difficult thing for people to talk about and admit to.” He continued, “It is important to remember that never before in history have children and young people had access to such extreme material in such an unfitted way.”

Across society, we need to remove the embarrassment and shame that exists around talking about porn – which is why we are launching this activity and helping young people to make more informed choices.

Dame Esther Rantzen, founder of ChildLine

Both Dame Esther Rantzen, ChildLine’s founder and Peter Liver, director of ChildLine, emphasise the importance of talking openly about the issue of pornography. Liver argues that society can’t shy away from the topic when children nowadays have such easy access to sexually explicit material online.

Dame Ester Rantzen firmly believes that the sexual education needs to improve and that there needs to be a dialogue with young people about sex and love when they are believed to be ready. This would help them differentiate real-life relationships from the fantasy world of porn.

Sex in progress

Image Credit: Jean KOULEV (Flickr)

Then there is the pop-up phenomenon of sexually explicit material that has emerged with the rise of the internet. Young people are not only looking up porn themselves, but they are involuntarily exposed to it online.

An Irish survey showed that 33% of children between the ages of 9-16 visited pornographic websites by accident whereas 20% visited these websites on purpose. When asked about sex education boys say they would like to know more about the mechanics of sex. Additional anecdotal research suggests that boys partly use porn for educational purposes to find out how sex works. This could affect the way boys understand ‘real’ sex, and how they may expect girls to behave similarly to the women in pornography.

UNICEF’s report Changing the future: Experiencing Adolescence in Contemporary Ireland: Sexual Health and Behaviour found that 54% of the respondents had watched pornography. Out of those 54%, a third believed it to be accurate and educational. Also, only 1 in 5 respondents spoke to their parents about sex.

Manhood

 Image Credit: Daniel Mogford (Flickr)

When conducting the research for the report, UNICEF discovered that discussing issues around sex is not something young people do lightly. They also argued that it is important to understand how young people view sex, to then be able to provide the necessary information and support to help young people to grow into responsible and healthy adults.

Research has established a link between sexual explicit internet material (SEIM) and sexual attitudes amongst adolescents and more so about the mediating role of perceived realism. Jochen Peter and Patti M. Valkenburg found in their research on 959 Dutch adolescences that more frequent use of SEIM increased both perceived social realism and the perceived utility of SEIM. Having these two perceptions could lead to more instrumental attitudes towards sex – the notion that sex is primarily physical and more important than affectionate or relational aspects.

Scholars have claimed that adolescents are lacking socioemotional maturity and sexual experience and critical thinking to understand what they see in SEIM. Meaning that adolescents may believe the content to be a reflection of the real world. This misconception can, in turn, alter their sexual attitudes.

Clicking on sexually explicit picture

Image credit: Aroblob (Flickr)

Content analyses of sexually explicit material suggest the portrayal of sex in such material to be homogenous. When media messages of a certain issue are homogenous, they tend to have a stronger influence on the individual. Hence, if the message presented in pornography subsequently viewed by adolescents is homogenous, for example, that sex is a physical activity between casual partners discarding affectionate and relational aspects of sex, their attitudes towards sex will arguably be altered.

Dr Michael Flood claims that there have been a few changes in young people’s sexual lives the last few decades, causing public concern about their exposure to pornography. First, children enter puberty earlier and stay in that stage longer than before. Second, the average age of sexual intercourse has decreased. Third, young people have more sexual partners than previous generations. And fourth, children today are growing up in an increasingly sexualised cultural environment. These four points could arguably be products of the normalisation of sexually explicit material currently accessible to a younger adolescent audience.

Mass media is a powerful source when it comes to the socialisation of people, and children and adolescents in particular. As in other parts of their lives, media can and will influence the shaping of a young person’s sexual attitude. Also, looking at media as an educator and source of information when it comes to sex related topics could be problematic regarding repetitive homogenous, as well as heteronormative, messages in, for example, pop culture.

Many parents dread having ‘the talk’ and find it awkward and difficult to discuss sex with their children. Sex education students receive in school often concentrates on the biological aspects of reproduction, overlooking sexual behaviour, the socialisation of sex and interpersonal relations. Younger people are curious and will search for information concerning sexuality and topics surrounding sex when it is not offered in other circumstances such as at home or in school.

Khajuraho sex statues Image Credit: David Tubau (Flickr)

Pornography is not going to magically disappear nor is it likely that it will be possible to censor sexually explicit material online in the future. However, scholars around the globe studying the relation of young people and their exposure to pornography all argue that we need to improve our sex education and that there needs to be an open dialogue about sex and the ‘realism’ of pornography.

The aim of this article is not to condemn pornography but to start a discussion on how to educate the young population about sex and related topics, such as pornography. In an increasingly sexual cultural environment it is important to give young people the tools to develop critical thinking skills which help them to interpret messages they are exposed to. Hopefully, a comprehensive and contemporary sex education will enable young people to make informed choices about their sex lives.

 

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Josefina Maria Bentz