I recently had a 14 year old girl confide in me after a lesson - she explained she had hair growing around her genitals and wanted to know what was wrong with her. She'd never seen a vulva that wasn't completely bald, and genuinely believed her body hair was unnatural and abnormal. As a sex educator for Brook, I often get asked questions about sex that shock and amuse me, but this one broke my heart. We are increasingly living our lives online, with porn having an impact on young people's sexual expectations and experiences; but with the right educational approach we can avoid misconceptions like this.
It's worth pointing out that in England and Wales, there is no standard legal definition of the term 'pornography', and pornography is legal as long as those who appear in it are aged 18 or over and as long as it does not contain anything defined as extreme pornographic imagery, such as:
• People who are under 18
• Sexual assault or rape
• Scenes of life threatening violence or acts that are likely to cause serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals
• Animals (often called bestiality)
• Dead people (necrophilia)
It is also illegal for pornography to be shown to anyone under 18, which is why websites require age verification. This means that if a young person shows a pornographic image or video to a peer under 18, it is breaking the law. While it's important to remind young people of the law, it's unrealistic to expect them to abide by such an impractical one.
Porn is everywhere, however I don't believe porn itself is particularly damaging. As Brook Ambassador Hannah Witton says in her new video, porn can even have its benefits. It's the lack of education surrounding porn and the way our technology has made porn constantly accessible that has altered young people's porn habits and can create problems. Also, the way porn is consumed is isolating, and it's this isolation that cements sex myths and can have negative influences on young people.
There's no doubt that the increased accessibility of hard core porn has normalised certain sexual behaviours. Here are some examples I've become particularly aware of through working with young people:
- Sex acts that were once seen as a novelty (face-fucking, anal sex, cumshots) are now run-of-the-mill, while the sight of kissing or gentle touch is a rarity in porn.
- The bodies in porn are often exaggerated, which can warp young people's body image. Brook's condom demonstrators are 5.16 inches, reflecting the UK average penis size, but more often than not a class will howl with laughter because they think the demonstrator is tiny. This size is so far from the images of giant penises in porn that young people are used to, which can have significant effects on body confidence.
- The majority of porn performers are white, and the fetishisation of ethnic minorities in porn is standard. Using identifying factors such as ethnicity, age, disability, and gender to objectify performers creates stereotypes around different identities and consent that young people can carry with them into their real lives. Other examples of this are the expectation that all women are bisexual, or that all lesbians secretly want to have sex with men.
- Sexual pleasure is very prescriptive in porn, when in reality different people experience pleasure in a variety of ways. The majority of women find it difficult to orgasm from penetration alone, yet porn performers seem to be able to cum on command, and through clever editing male performers appear to last forever in bed, creating unrealistic expectations for young men.
- Young people are taught about the importance of condoms in preventing pregnancy and the transmittance of STIs, but there is little to no condom use in porn, counteracting educational messages.
So how do we tackle this? By dragging porn out of the shadows and having honest, upfront conversations with young people.
We need more transparency to inform young people that porn is an industry and a fantasy. Last year in a peer education project in London, a male porn performer came to speak to a group of young men about the realities of the industry. Because they'd had their questions answered directly, by the end of the session the young men had a more realistic view of the porn they consume. Another great way to tackle this is by including discussions around intimacy and sensuality in PHSE. Talking about our senses and encouraging young people to learn about their own bodies and desires can lead to more pleasure focused sexual experiences. At Brook, we know that these can be difficult conversations to have, and that is why we have created free online courses to support teachers. We believe that rather than telling young people not to watch porn (which is unrealistic), creating a space to discuss the differences between porn sex and IRL (in real life) sex prevents porn playing such a central role in teaching young people how to navigate sexual experiences.
What I find really encouraging is that more people are talking about porn and people seem to agree with Brook that education is the key. This week for Sexual Health Week, sexual health charity FPA revealed that more than four in five parents (81%) said it's a good idea to start talking to young people about subjects related to pornography - in a way that's suitable for their age - before they're 16 years old.
While it's difficult to predict the long term effects of consuming so much hardcore porn (because this is a new and ongoing process), it's important that if a young person chooses to watch porn, we give them the tools to become mindful about what it is they're watching. Porn isn't going anywhere, but we have an opportunity to change the way we talk about it that will benefit young people's emotional and physical wellbeing.