The results of a survey commissioned by NSPCC Childline about young people’s consumption of internet pornography have just been published. A poll of nearly 700 12 to 13-year-olds in the UK reveals that one in five of those surveyed said they had viewed images that shocked or disturbed them. One in ten children is worried that he or she is addicted to pornography. And 12% admitted to making or performing in a sexually explicit video.
The broadcast media has reported these figures as shocking but perhaps over-inflated. Can it be true that the private lives of pre-teens are as deeply affected by internet pornography as these figures seem to suggest? If so, what can we do as a society about this phenomenon?
Peter Liver, director of Childline, assured audiences that these figures are reliable. Moreover that calls to Childline bear witness of the problem of children’s distress about pornography.
Technology safety filters are clearly not effective in preventing the ubiquity of children’s access to pornography. As a society, what are we to do about this?
Liver encourages parents to take the initiative and discuss pornography with their children, however embarrassing we may find this. Positive conversations with young people would involve explaining that real sex is distinct from pornographic sex, and that pornography is not the norm.
Children also need appropriate education about pornography in schools. Lucy Emmerson, coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, a branch of the children’s charity the National Children’s Bureau, has campaigned about this issue for two years. She says that because of the ease with which children can look at sexually explicit media, we have a moral responsibility to explore the issue in school settings.
Emmerson advises that Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) should be a branch of Personal and Social Health Education (PSHE), a curriculum subject which is currently voluntary and should be made mandatory. SRE should educate children about respecting others, sexual consent and sex within loving human relationships.
However, these measures – although laudable – are not enough to ameliorate the wide ranging effects of pornography on children.
Women get the worst deal
Pornographic images are indeed shocking and disturbing. For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t seen internet pornography, it is extremely misogynistic. In contrast to the oft proposed view of its proponents, namely that internet pornography has many sub-genres to suit all tastes and is not one staple diet, the over-riding message of the top five most commonly accessed websites is not only of degradation and violence towards women, but of women’s consent to and pleasure in male sexual dominance.
Sadly, men’s (and some women’s) appetite for pornography does not seem to be abating any time soon. Moreover research I’m currently carrying out with young adults suggests that pornographic norms are becoming the commonly accepted norms of private behaviour.
How many reports and how much data will we collect before there is a cultural shift in how we think about the solution and dare to shine a spotlight on ourselves as adults?