Critics of sex education do children more harm than good

However hard it is to stomach, young children are being exposed to pornography. They need to be warned what to expect

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The Independent Online

In an ordinary bedroom, with a TV blaring in the background, a heavily made-up girl, dressed only in her underwear, lies on a bed. She leans into her computer webcam, first to check that the number of “likes” on her profile is steadily rising, proof that her anonymous male audience likes what they see. Then she gives her announcement. “This is for the boys. I am not going to do all the stuff you requested, but I will show ‘it’.’’

By “it”, she means her genitals. Her next step is to carefully adjust the angle of the screen to give her viewers what they are asking for, before asking for comments to be posted quickly so she can delete this modern-day peep show before her mum finds out. Clearly, it was too late. The clip had already been captured and later uploaded to a paedophile website where it was found by the Internet Watch Foundation.

The girl, known as Child A, in the IWF’s report released on Tuesday, was found to be seven years old. In just three months at the end of last year, the IWF found 4,000 similar videos and images, filmed on webcams with children’s co-operation. In 286 cases, the girls were believed to be 10 or younger. Given the seriousness of these findings, you might hope that there would be overwhelming support for the announcement by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan this week that pupils as young as 11 are to get better sex education to deal with the “unimaginable” pressures of being a child today.

Among the lessons in the curriculum will be instruction on the difference between rape and consensual sex, and how to handle sexting and cyber-bullying. Yet still there was opposition from opponents claiming that this information will erode what little remains of our children’s “precious innocence”, in the words of one commentator.

Margaret Morrissey, of the campaign group Parents Outloud, joined in by accusing the Government of risking damage to youngsters who “do not need to be made aware of these things at such a young age”.

Yet the NSPCC reported last month that four out of 10 girls aged between 13 and 17 in England had been coerced into sex acts. There seems little doubt that Child A was imitating porn she had already seen herself. It’s not a question of “if” our children will see this type of material online, but when.

And it’s not as if they have to go looking for it. It finds them via viral emails, pop-up ads, banners or hidden among YouTube videos, or they are shown it on other children’s smartphones. As they grow up, our girls are finding themselves in a landscape where increasingly they feel they have to offer anything and everything sexually in return for very little.

Even in primary schools, girls are feeling the need to give away the most intimate parts of themselves in order to make themselves feel worldly and in control. They may also go along with it because their confidence has already been so undermined by a culture of comparison on social networks in which they never feel pretty enough.

Should we be surprised that pornography is now recognised as a factor in the growing number of cases of sexual violence against women? Sexual assaults have always existed, but they are not only becoming more commonplace, they are also becoming more brutal.

A study by the University of East London of boys aged 12 to 15 found that 97 per cent of those who had seen porn via a simple Google search were accessing scenes of staged rape, gagging and beating. Boys who have been aroused by this sort of material from an early age are more likely to be turned on by fantasies of women as objects. Unless we tell our daughters the opposite, that’s the way they will believe they are expected to behave, even if it makes them uncomfortable, degraded – or if it is physically painful. She’ll think that’s the deal.

My children are not helpless and weak in the face of this – and neither are yours. But pressing towels to the doorframe won’t keep these damaging messages out of our homes. As I discuss in my new book, the only way to deal with this is to help them to recognise and push back.

Our children still need to go through the same developmental milestones as they always have, and in the same order as they always have, to become emotionally healthy adults.

For instance, we need to tell our little girls that they may come across videos of adults with no clothes on – who are not acting kindly or gently to each other. In the same way as the characters in a scary movie are not real, we need to tell them that these are grown-ups play-acting for the camera. As they grow older, they need to know the difference between a bad friend and a good friend and to spot manipulative behaviour in future romantic relationships. We need to tell our young teens that they have the right to say no to anything at any point that makes them feel uncomfortable or humiliated, and that if they are ever forced to do anything sexually that they say no to, that is rape.

With our boys, we need to talk about the unrealistic expectations porn creates and how it can alter the way males view females. To both, we need to explain that porn is an industry whose primary aim is to make money. Burying our heads in the sand doesn’t give our children a magical talisman against these influences. Ignorance is bliss until it affects your child.

No one wanted a world where we had to explain this stuff to children. But that’s what we’ve got. Pretending otherwise is a dangerous denial.

Tanith Carey is author of 'Girls Uninterrupted – Steps for Building Stronger Girls in a Challenging World', published by Icon, price £7.99