Studies show that teenagers feel pressured to have sex, but experts suggest that porn isn't the only problem

The release of the pill in 1960 is widely viewed as a revolutionary moment for sex. It seemed that it had finally become equal, as women were able to enjoy the act without the fear of becoming pregnant. 

But decades later, that isn’t so certain. New studies by UK researchers investigating how young heterosexual people are having sex have revealed a climate where traditional gender roles of submission and masculinity see 16 to 18-year-old girls coerced into having anal and oral sex.

The Government has also expressed concerns over how young people are having sex: warning about increasing numbers trying anal sex; and highlighting that sexual harassment and violence is a norm in schools.

A consultation document on whether online pornography should be restricted has argued that young people are influenced by adult films to try anal sex, and cited research which claims it is not pleasurable for women. 

While state intervention into sexual proclivities aren’t always positive – anti-gay laws being an example - health experts agree that young peoples’ attitudes towards sex are worrying, and have called for sex education to be transformed to combat this.

Brook, the sexual health charity for people under 25, is among organisations pushing for change.

“Brook has been saying for many years that sex and relationships education (SRE) is too little, too late and too biological,” says Ask Brook Service Coordinator Alex White.

“They [young people] are given no tools for how to have conversations about their desires, or how to dispel myths and stereotypes about gender and sex so that they can have these conversations without fear.”

Dr Cath Mercer of the UCL Centre for Sexual Health & HIV Research mirrors White’s concerns, and says that the fact that young people are having anal sex is not the central issue, rather that mainly young women are being coerced into it.

“Having anal sex is not a problem per se. Anal sex can of course be consensual, desired and enjoyed.” 

However, a study by her team published in the 'Lancet' medical journal in 2013 showed that median age of coercive sex is 18 for women and 16-years-old for men, suggesting that young people are more likely to feel pressured.

A separate study on anal sex by her colleague Dr Ruth Lewis showed that anal sex is a “marker of heterosexual achievement or experience, particularly for men” while women are praised for carrying out “sexually ‘adventurous’ acts” but also have to juggle their "reputation". 

While studies into sex are limited, and those undertaken generally focus on heterosexual relationships, White adds that homosexual couples face the same pressures.

“It's important to acknowledge that anal sex is sometimes seen as the default form of sex for young gay and bisexual men. Any type of sex being held up as the ideal or default is unhealthy, because it leaves no room for individual desires.”

And Debra Salmon, professor of community health at City University London warns that by singling out anal sex, the Government risks reverting to language that is “moralistic and judgemental”.

“This leads to an over focus on a single activity rather than broader discussion about appropriately tailored ‘gender specific’ interventions that promote respect, autonomy and agency in all personal relationships and sexual encounters.”

Instead, compulsory Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) delivered by trained and supported teachers can help young people to consider how social influences – including porn – shape their sexual expectations.

“In particular how this can result in young women being pressurised for anal sex that they do not enjoy,” says Professor Salmon.

The experts also agree that while pornography can be problematic, it isn’t necessarily to blame: rather that young people are ill-equipped to interpret it.

While some evidence indicates that access and exposure to pornography can make young people more likely to engage in “risky behaviours”, says Professor Salmon, it is important to focus on ensuring young people have high self-esteem, and understand that positive relationships are based on mutuality, respect and intimacy.

“Porn is a form of entertainment and it is widely available but whatever your view of porn, it’s not the best way to learn about relationships. SRE is needed to support all young people in understanding how to build happy, healthy relationships in real life,” says White.

“Rather than, potentially futile, attempts to limit access to porn, we should be investing efforts in developing high quality and inclusive sex education that encourages young people to engage critically with sexual content in the contemporary media landscape," suggests Dr Mercer. 

“Evidence about the influence of pornography on sexual behavior remains relatively mixed. Gender-based violence and coercion existed long before mass availability of porn.”

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