Our culture is saturated with porn – which is why we need to talk about it in schools

By the age of 14, almost all children will have viewed pornography. A more effective approach than censorship is an open conversation.

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Teenagers getting their sticky hands on pornography is not a new problem. A decade ago, when I was a teacher at an inner-London comprehensive, a 13-year-old was suspended after we discovered his backpack was filled with printouts of women having sex with horses. Five decades before that, John Lennon was sent home from school for owning a nudist magazine. When asked by his head teacher if he had anything to say, Lennon quipped: “Yes, can I have it back?”

The longevity of a problem does not make it benign. Back in the Nineties, the country was in panic over “video nasties”, gory films children could buy from their friends at school, and which were said to have led to the murder of toddler James Bulger. By the Noughties, there was uproar over children playing violent video games.

On the one hand, the perpetual panic is comforting: grumbles about sex, drugs and violence are the white noise of our lives. But the ramping up of these worries suggests there may be something in them. Video nasties didn’t create a generation of murderers. But they did foreshadow an entertainment culture that uses our brain’s basest reaction to violence and excitement to keep us hooked.

By the age of 14, almost all children will have seen some pornography on their phone or computer, according to a 2016 survey by Middlesex University. This is not a surprise. Access to explicit videos and photographs is as simple as knowing the correct website.

The John Lennon story shows that titillation is evergreen. But pictures of nude women lolling suggestively on sheepskin rugs are not quite the same as a seven-minute video of “two horny teens share big-dick hardcore threesome”, which is standard fodder for a Tuesday afternoon on freely available porn sites.

Even more concerning, the Middlesex study also showed most children said consent was not obvious in the videos they watched; half felt it was a realistic depiction of sex; and a third wanted to try the things they had seen.

At teacher union conferences, delegates use statistics like these as proof that teenagers’ minds are being corrupted, and the only possible solutions are a total ban on pornography or a water-tight lockdown for those aged under 18. Yet as my horse porn-loving teen proved, the illegal nature of materials only makes them more salacious for adolescents, and their ingenuity at getting around digital barricades is impressive. (Just tell a 12-year-old you want to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster and give them five minutes with your computer.)

A more effective approach than censorship is an open conversation with children about pornography. A survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in 2014 found that 71 per cent of teachers believed children ought to be taught about its dangers, and many teachers would feel comfortable doing so if given proper training. From September 2019, the government is introducing a new, compulsory sex education curriculum, with plans to grapple with issues such as sexting as well as pornography.

Sadly, the whole thing is likely to be delayed, not least because it relies on government ministers having to sit in on discussions about wet dreams and mutual masturbation. As one former government official explained, “In these conversations, every time someone says a rude word, the whole room starts blushing and giggling.”

Legend has it that even a German facilitator, brought in to help proceedings, failed. Every time someone said “vagina” people in the room would start laughing; and the po-faced German’s reactions only made the public servants laugh even harder. On the upside, children are less ridiculous than politicians. Speak to your average 16-year-old about consent and they will most likely have watched the wildly popular “Tea and Consent” YouTube video, which points out that you don’t force people to have cups of tea if they are asleep or say “no thanks” to your offer. A common teen reaction to the #MeToo Westminster furore last year was, “Jeez, don’t these guys know the tea rules?”

Teenagers need more guidance on navigating the grey areas of real life situations. Instead, the government will likely focus on the big “dangers” – grooming, revenge porn, the age of consent – and overlook discussion of how to make choices when things are less certain. It’s easy to see that grooming is wrong. But should a teenager never watch pornography?

A sensible conversation would explain that not all porn is created equally. As sex blogger Girl on the Net has pointed out, the largest porn sites have pushed a male-focused, free-consumption, ad-dominated clickbait model that skews what is watched and encourages bad behaviour from the industry. Beyond these sites, there is porn that makes consent an explicit part of its appeal; there is gentle audio porn, and erotica inclusive of diverse groups.

Will teachers be encouraged to mention this? To tell pupils that perhaps some porn is realistic, compared to low-rent unvetted freebie videos that disregard safety and consent? However, when ministers can’t even say “tampon” without gurning, these may be forlorn hopes. In a vacuum of alternatives, teachers will simply give a broad-brush chat about how pornography is bad, just like drugs are bad, and will avoid other conversations unless they get them or their pupils into trouble.

In ten years’ time, when the WHO is lining up medication for a generation addicted to virtual-reality porn, we will have only ourselves to blame. We will have ruined a generation out of social embarrassment and will be grateful if no one mentions it.

Laura McInerney is a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now editor of Schools Week.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone