I’d wager most parents have had a near scrape with porn. My first one was when my boys (nine and twelve at the time) googled “funny old ladies” and got grannyf***.dot.whatever. Another friend of mine’s child was doing a science project and looked up frog spawn but mis-spelled it frogs porn. I’ll leave you to imagine what came up.
Both incidents took just a minute when a grown up’s back was turned. All it took was just one, two clicks.
Porn is everywhere, it’s a serious problem, and the effects are rippling through society with frightening, lightning-quick speed. Apparently a quarter of young people are twelve or younger when they first come across porn, and what was previously considered hardcore material is becoming increasingly mainstream.
The repercussions are there for all to see. This September a report from the House of Commons women and equalities committee painted a shocking picture of widespread sexual harassment in schools across England. It showed how more than a fifth of girls aged seven to twelve have experienced sexual jokes from boys and almost a third of sixteen to eighteen year-old girls have suffered unwanted sexual touching. And it revealed a culture that is harmful to not only girls, but also to boys, who often face pressure to “prove their masculinity”.
Something has to change, and fast. According to a recent NSPCC survey, children as young as twelve say they fear they are "addicted" to pornography. The digital economy bill currently being considered has pledged measures that include forcing hardcore pornography websites to put in place age-restriction controls or face being shut down.
But regulations can only go so far, there is a bigger picture that needs that needs to be discussed – and it starts with the government guidance on sex and relationship education (SRE).
Drawn up sixteen years ago, government guidelines on SRE do not mention internet pornography, mainly because it didn’t exist then. SRE is also only compulsory in UK state schools from age eleven, with the caveat that parents are allowed to withdraw their children from parts of it.
There are now calls for an urgent SRE shakeup, but should it be a shake up as radical as the one broadcaster and Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray has just suggested? Speaking To The Pool’s Marisa Bate yesterday at Cheltenham Literary Festival, Murray called for sexual education to be abolished – and in its place teachers should give lessons where children are made to watch porn videos. “Why not show them pornography and teach them how to analyse it?” she asked. “So then at least those girls know and all those boys know that normal women do not shave, normal women do not make all that b----- noise those women make, they are making all that noise because they need a soundtrack on the film. Then, we are actually getting them to think their way through what they are watching.”
Children need to be taught the distinction between real sex and porn; that porn is not real-life – it is manufactured, and very often degrading and dehumanising
I’m really not so sure. While I agree that SRE needs to be dragged into the 21st century and made mandatory for primary and secondary schools, would I as a parent of secondary age kids (my boys are now fifteen and twelve) sanction lessons where they watch porn? No I wouldn’t. But Murray touches on some valid points– SRE shouldn’t be medical (“I would put the ‘what goes where’ and how and how babies are made and all of that into biology because that is science”) and porn should be brought into the curriculum and tackled head on in all schools.
Children need to be taught – sensitively, factually and in a manner appropriate to each school year –the distinction between real sex and porn;. They need to learn that porn is not real-life, it is manufactured, and very often degrading and dehumanising. My boys should be shown that is not how they should expect real sex to be, that it is not how to treat women, and that in many cases the subjects seen online are very often highly vulnerable women and men, themselves past victims of sexual abuse. Do they want to be participating in that murky world?
And, as a parent, I realise I need to play a big part in these discussions too. And here’s where I’ll put my hands up and admit that I have been guilty of putting my hands over my ears and shouting la-la-la, mainly out of the fact I actually don’t know where to start. I’m know I’m not alone; it’s a conversation I’ve had time and time again with friends who’ve got children. We all tick off the same things – tactics like blocking software, limiting screen time, moving computers out of bedrooms – but time and time again we come round to the same frustrating dead end, which is: how can you control the fact that they have access to the internet at all times of day on their phones?
I am more than aware our boys know about porn, and of course we’ve had a “chat”. But here’s the thing: we’ve really only had a “chat” in the practical “If you click on anything bad the police will find you/you will download an evil computer virus” sense. Every parent has a strong instinct to cushion our children from the full horrors of the world and I know I’m guilty of that. As parents we need to be honest with ourselves and face the truth; which is that they have very, very likely stumbled on some terrible things. It’s an issue which I know I need to urgently address with our boys.
As Murray says, “You cannot get rid of it [pornography], it is there, people make a lot of money out of it and the internet is uncontrollable but what we can do is number one, say to parents: ‘For goodness’ sake come on, get onto this.’”