Porn is no substitute for good sex education

Girls are learning their sexuality is something they perform for others, instead of something they own

A study by the NSPCC has found that porn is negatively impacting young people – especially girls.

The study found that nearly a third of pupils (aged 11-18) surveyed said porn “dictates how people should behave in a relationship,” and 32 per cent said it “affects how they act” with their partner.  But the most troublesome finding is summarised by the NSPCC’s Claire Lilley, who warns porn is teaching “boys that girls are for sexual gratification, whilst girls feel they have to look and perform like ‘porn stars’ to be liked and valued by boys.”  

As people react to the study, the focus, as usual, ends up being on porn itself (“Can porn be feminist?” “Why are we so squeamish about porn?” “I like porn and I’m a good person!”), but the porn debate isn’t the point. The point, according to this study, is that because of whatever porn they are watching, too many girls are learning sex is about impressing boys – as opposed to, say, having a good orgasm. Girls are learning their sexuality is something they perform for others, instead of something they own. They are learning that sex is about being an object, not an agent.

Feminists get asked about objectification a lot. Or to put it more accurately, we get a lot of sneering assertions that objectification doesn’t exist, usually in the same breath as unashamed ignorance about what the word actually means.

Porn isn’t new but young people having this level of access to it is, and the line between porn and other media has become so blurred it isn’t always clear to adults, let alone kids, which is which. Porn and the pornified entertainment industry are taking the place of informed sex and relationship education.

The NSPCC survey found young people are three times more likely to seek out their sexual education online than to ask questions of their teachers, parents, or carers. How curious that the people who call us prudes or sex-haters for questioning whether a sex education that consists of face-spunking and songs about bubble butts really gives the healthiest understanding of sexual consent are so often the same people to reach for the smelling salts when we suggest the radical idea that parents make sure they discuss sex properly with their own kids. 

Of course, not all parents will, which is why all this needs to be part of the school curriculum, too. And by “all this” I mean SRE that includes not just saying yes and saying no, but also hearing and accepting both yes and no, without judgment. SRE that includes enthusiastic consent, pleasure, and the importance of the clitoris. Again, there may or may not be porn like that. But that’s not what young people are watching, and it’s not the message they’re taking from what they do watch.

This survey by NSPCC – a children’s charity, by the way, with no particular axe to grind against porn in general - shows that young people are learning objectification. Objectification isn’t about sex or nudity. The difference between being an object and an agent is the difference between Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video and the Ask First (Consent is Sexy) riposte.  Objectification isn’t actually a tough concept. You know what an object is. Perhaps you are one of these people who thinks it’s about wanting women to be chaste or cover up? That inability to distinguish between a culture that nearly always shows women posing for you to look at, and a culture that embraces women expressing our own sexualities perfectly exemplifies the mess we’re in.

Before you leap into the “porn debate” to talk about how the only alternative to mainstream, repeated conflation of sex with objectification is covering women from head to toe and calling us sluts, remember that the NSPCC didn’t find girls are becoming more sexually liberated, or enjoying more sexual pleasure. They didn’t find that girls are no longer shamed as “sluts” because porn broadens everyone’s minds.

They found that girls “feel they have to look and act like porn stars”, for the pleasure of boys. In fact, if anything, the consumers of porn, lads’ mags and strip clubs are often the worst offenders for calling women “sluts” and “whores”. If that surprises you, it shouldn’t –after all, “slut” is just the other side of the same sexist coin that calls women “frigid” or “prude”. And if young people pick up the message that there’s an automatic correlation between consuming porn and taking a progressive attitude to sex, if young people get the impression that sexism and objectification are an essential, normal part of sex, that’s not surprising either. They’re getting those ideas directly from us.

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