The BBC3 documentary 'Porn: What's the Harm?' found that UK children as young as eight watch online pornography and over half will have seen hardcore porn before they start secondary school, despite it being illegal for anyone under 18. Alongside the easy access to free online porn and a trend for naked selfies, the success of celebrities whose meteoric rise to fame started with a sex tape can make viral notoriety seem attractive rather than career ending.
'Conclusion? Children are likely to be exposed to adult material long before they are emotionally or physically ready for real-life sex.'
Shocking? Well, yes, although it's important to remember that not every teenager watches porn. Some might argue that underage viewing of adult content is harmless fun, a sort of risqué rite of passage, and people who raise concerns are just determined to make a fuss. But what about the impact that the making and sharing of explicit images is having on how young people feel about themselves, their bodies and their future relationships? Can exposure to porn from a young age really affect body image? A growing body of research suggests that it can, influencing young peoples' relationship with their body as they measure themselves harshly against it.
'You can always tell if a boy you are having sex with watches lots of porn by the sort of things he expects from you.'
This quote, from a young woman aged 16, echoes similar conversations I had across the UK whilst researching for my book, 'We need to talk about pornography'. These echo UK-based charity Safety Net claims that pornography has a detrimental impact on children and young people, including premature sexualisation, negative body image and unhealthy notions about relationships.
For a generation used to online learning, the boundaries between pornography and real life can easily become blurred, creating anxiety about what a 'normal' naked body looks like. As a result, young men and women can be comparing themselves to heavily filtered images and aspiring to an ideal that isn't even real. It has been suggested that this contributes to the rise of 'homemade porn' where the action may not have high production qualities but the actors look more reflective of the audience.
But what can be done? As educators we sign up to the philosophy that children live what they see, so if porn is a major source of sex education, this should come as no surprise. Today's children grow up bombarded with sexualized images from sexy underwear and furry handcuffs displayed in a high street shop window to music channels on life-sized screens showing simulated sex. Listen to the lyrics that children sing along to and you can hear stereotypes that feminism has been challenging for over 50 years. Girl power? Certainly not. Porn often depicts sex in ways that are threatening, misogynistic, violent and without boundaries, which is not quite the romantic Hollywood version of love pushed by mainstream films.
Positive relationships are built on trust and mutual respect and bodies come in all shapes and sizes, all of which should be celebrated. Whilst adolescence is a time for thinking and talking about sex (a lot in some cases), learning about sex from pornography is no substitute for high quality sex education. If we want young people to feel body confident and aspire to healthy, positive relationships, why are we leaving it to pornography to do so much of the teaching? We need to start talking about porn, and we need to do it now.