It is clear that pornography has the potential to have a huge impact on young people, especially if they view it before they have an understanding of what healthy relationships and sex look like. Girlguiding's 2015 Girls' Attitudes Survey showed that 73% of girls and young women aged 13-21 feel that pornography damages young people's views of what sexual relationships are like. The depiction of women in much of the freely accessible pornography seen by young people is hugely problematic as they are frequently objectified. Women are rarely given names or a personality; all that matters is their body. 80% of girls aged 17 to 21 feel that pornography encourages society to view women as sex objects and 71% feel it normalises violent behaviour towards women. This is hugely damaging, as without proper education to teach otherwise, young people may think that this is the norm.
The depiction of women in some pornography plays into the hands of wider societal issues faced by girls. Although less blatantly, women are sexually objectified across the media, be it in over-sexualised adverts, in magazines, or on TV. The widespread nature of this problem makes it even worse, as there seems to be no escape from damaging content. Everywhere girls look the message that their body is an object to be enjoyed by men is drilled into them, so no wonder girls are growing up feeling pressured and unsafe.
As well as directly damaging young people's perceptions about sex and relationships, the extreme content of some online pornography could lead to a fear of sex, particularly among girls and young women. When we see the sex shown in some pornography, it often looks violent and painful for the woman, which is incredibly scary, especially if seen at a young age.
Added to this, the sheer amount of sexualised content and freely available pornography is now part of a culture where girls feel they should be having sex and that this is what's expected of them, rather than being confident in their own feelings of it being okay to wait until they are ready. Findings from Girlguiding's 2015 Girls' Attitudes Survey backs this up, with 66% saying that pornography puts pressure on girls to have sex before they are ready.
This sexual bargaining is symptomatic of the unhealthy, even abusive relationships many young people are going into. The idea that men are owed sex by women is seriously twisted, and needs to stop. I once heard the quote, "Sex should be fun or it should be lovely; if it is neither there's something wrong," and I really think that those are words to live by. There will always be a porn industry, but it should show caring, consensual and realistic sex, not violence, abuse and rape. Much of pornography, as it is today, makes me and many of my friends feel degraded and afraid, and this shouldn't be the case.
Fortunately, government recently passed a law stating that there must be age-verification for online pornography. Girlguiding's Advocate Panel had a big role to play in this, with my friends Elena and Alice sitting down with Baroness Jones of Whitchurch to talk about why they believe age-verification for online pornography is really important for protecting young people from the damage pornography can cause. I think the passing of this law is a huge step in the right direction, and I really hope that it has a big impact on young people. By ensuring that people are 18 before they can view pornography, we have the chance to prepare young people and educate them about healthy sex and relationships.
Education has an incredible role to play in the lives of young people. High quality, comprehensive Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) has massive potential in general, but especially for curbing the impacts of pornography as we should teach young people what to expect from a healthy relationship. RSE must be LGBTQ+ inclusive and tackle a wide variety of issues from consent to online safety to violence against women and girls. If we take these simple steps, I think young people will be better prepared for adulthood, and will be capable of viewing any pornography they do stumble across critically and pointing out the issues perpetuated by it, thus not taking on these unhealthy perceptions. Perhaps a more aware future generation will force the porn industry to become more ethical, bringing about real change.