Why We Shouldn’t Show Porn in SRE

I can’t actually believe I’m writing this, but some folk seem to think that showing 15/16 year olds porn in sex and relationships education is a good idea. So I’m gonna say why I think it’s a problematic idea: legally, ethically, practically and also why I think there are better and more valuable things we should be doing in SRE.

It May Be Illegal

Section 12 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 makes it a criminal offence to cause a child to watch a sexual act. http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/p_to_r/rape_and_sexual_offences/soa_2003_and_soa_1956/#a25 In order for an offence to be committed, the purpose of the act would have to be to gain sexual gratification. If it was clear that the images (which count under the Act) were shown for educational purposes then it may not be seen as illegal, but I for one would not risk it. Additionally, if someone were to get this close to the line of what is legal or not then I think we may be prettttty much on the line of ‘right/not right’.

Consent

Although many young people want more and better sex and relationships education, a significant number of people don’t want any. Whenever I teach SRE in schools (and I do teach about porn in schools, more about this later) I reckon up to a third of students don’t want to be there. Although parents can choose to remove their child from SRE classes, students often can’t remove themselves. I think they should be able to to be honest and I would like to see schools make accommodations for this. However, schools being what they are means it’s hard to allow students to leave a lesson and go and do their thing in the library.

Sensitive sex educators (-ahem-) find ways to make all students feel comfortable by doing small group work, distanced learning, scenarios, self-facilitation, card sorts, group agreements and incorporate consent within lessons by allowing students to opt out of activities but still remain in the lesson.

If teaching students about porn meant showing them porn, we would be showing them sexual images without their consent. It would be very difficult for students to remain in the room and not look at or hear the porn. If they were allowed to leave because they didn’t want to look at porn then they wouldn’t be getting any porn education at all.

Think also about the power dynamics going on here (as we should always do when we are talking about consent). If you are a young person and a teacher said “okay, I’m going to show you porn but you don’t have to look or you can leave if you really want to” would you feel confident enough to leave? What if, as a guy, you received the message growing up that if you want to be a man you need to be interested in sex (and that you have to want to be a man at all costs) would you be able to leave at that point? Think about the messages young women receive about sex? Think of the bullying they might receive if they left or stayed?

So it would be very very difficult to ensure that everyone watching the porn would be actively consenting to be there. Doing a non-consensual thing in order to teach young people about consent (among other things) doesn’t sound too ethical to me. However, it’s also not really ethical to the producers and the performers. They have consented to adults watching (and purchasing) their material – but not students in a school.

It would be making people have sex

Although people watch porn for lots of different reasons, watching porn can be and often is a sexual act. Even if someone starts watching porn for non-sexual reasons it can soon become a sexual thing. One could argue that people can be turned on by many different things and porn is no different to say Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Toni Morrison. By definition porn’s intention is to sexually arouse people, this is what makes it different to other media. Even if we were to say “okay, we’re going to watch porn now but it’s not for a sexual reason and we really shouldn’t get turned on” can we honestly not reasonably expect that some won’t be experiencing this as a sexual activity?

Which means that if we were to show young people porn, we are potentially making them have sex – against their will. Furthermore, other people in the room being potentially sexually aroused would also be a sexual act for other people – again, against their will. This is wrong on so many different levels, even for the students who may be enthusiastic about the idea.

Do I really have to spell this out? Just as not everyone is interested in sex education, not everyone is interested in porn (depending on the age group, this might actually be most young people), not everyone is interested in sex – either as a young person or ever. We’d be making people take part in a sexual act, which as I’ve already established, would be extremely difficult to make consensual.

So all in all I think it’s pretty unethical, immoral, unjustifiable, and (may even be) unlawful to show young people porn in sex and relationships classes in school.

Would this be a good thing to do with adults?

Let’s take this a bit further. Say I was running a series of sex and relationships education classes for adults (actually wanna do this). Like upstairs in a pub, once a week, for a couple of hours, over a course of six weeks. I would charge and would clearly advertise that we were going to chat about sex, gender, sexuality, porn, relationships, consent and stuff. Everyone coming would be consenting adults who were paying to come and talk about porn. Would I show them porn? No, I don’t think I would because of ethics but also because I don’t think it would be useful.

Consent

For a start the same consent issues arise above. If I’m going to be running a course then I have power. Even if I flagged it up and said “okay, in week three I’m going to be showing you some carefully curated pornography – feel free not to come to that one,” how much pressure might people feel in coming to week three? Aside from the fact that they might not get their full value for money they may also: have massive FOMO; they might want to please me; they might worry about what other group members might feel about them; they may feel like they have to prove something about how cool or ‘sex positive’ they are.

Similarly I would also be asking the group to potentially take part in a sexual activity with each other even as I was framing it as an educational experience. Similar ethical concerns (as well as concerns around efficacy, more on this in a minute) surround porn research where participants are put in front of screens, shown porn and either wired up and/or asked questions to ascertain what ‘effect’ it may have had on them (wrong question, more on this in a bit). For example leading academics in this field Professor Feona Attwood http://www.mdx.ac.uk/about-us/our-people/staff-directory/profile/attwood-feona and Professor Clarissa Smith http://www.crmcs.sunderland.ac.uk/research-staff/clarissa-smith/ opt for the more ethical (and more interesting) approach of asking people what they do with the sexual media and cultures they are experiencing. More on this in a bit too.

Why – to show people how to do ‘it’?

What are the reasons why we might want to show porn to adults as part of sex and relationships education? To show people how to have sex? There are some things which porn teaches well and some things which porn teaches not so well. Professor Alan McKee assesses contribution that porn makes in educating young people about healthy sexual development (link). He argues that porn is deficient at teaching about relationship skills, negotiation and consent. The nature of porn is that it doesn’t show the complex and difficult conversations necessary to have enjoyable sex (this isn’t what porn does) and so “[i]n short, pornography makes sex look easy.”

Most people know that how people have sex in porn isn’t a good guide to how people have sex IRL. Even all the year 10s I work with on porn know that – just as Grand Theft Auto is not a very useful source for learning about driving, pedestrians safety, ethics of treating sex workers, career advice and how to conceal deadly weapons – porn is not a great sex education tool. The lights are on. The positions taken up are to show bodies. Consent is often not very obvious. Safer sex precautions are not demonstrated (as safer sex in porn is about regular testing, which is obviously not shown in porn #noprop60).

If we were to show people porn to show them ‘how to do it’ what porn would we even use? Hell, what do we even mean by porn here? Images, videos, audio, written? Would we show straight porn, gay porn, feminist porn, porn for couples, porn with disabled people in, BBM, MF, MMF, FFM, FF, FMFMFMFM, MMMMMMMF, queer porn, porn with trans folk in? What acts would they depict? Would it be PIV, PIA, oral, masturbation, frotting, kink, DS, SM, custard (actual custard), massage, squirting …. I feel like there’s an idea that there is some perfect porn out there that would show loving and kind sex: fact is, all of the above can show that. It’s possible to engage in all of these kinds of sex with someone in a loving and respectful way. And who says that all sex has to be loving and kind – so long as it’s consensual? It’s also possible to engage in all of these activities in ways which aren’t consensual too.

The showing people how to ‘do it’ aspect of this troubles me a lot, because what do we mean by ‘it’. There’s a very clear script for what society says ‘counts’ as sex. Kissing->clothes off->’foreplay’->penetrative sex. One thing leads to another. Always in the same order. We see this in a lot of porn but also in TV, film, books, sex advice but also sex and relationships education (think about what you were taught about ‘virginity’, ‘safer sex’ and when you should do ‘it’).

When we try to teach a particular way of doing sex we often just end up reinforcing this idea of ‘normal,’ which excludes so many people and many of everyone else finds so restricting that they don’t actually enjoy sex. It also contributes to the non-consensual culture we have around sex: sex is something one person does to another, not with another, and if you aren’t doing a particular kind of sex you aren’t really doing it at all.

Why – to critique porn?

So if it’s not about showing how to do it, do we want to show people porn so that they can critique it? Many people argue that we ask people to critique other forms of media by showing it to them, or asking them to read it in class. Perhaps. When I read the Wife of Bath for A-Level I had to do most of the reading at home – we don’t have time to sit and go through it all line by line. Also, even if we did have time to read it all together that would be the same context in how people experience this media. The Wife of Bath (like a lot of texts in English Lit) was written at a time when most people couldn’t read – stories were read to people. It was a social group activity. Reading together in a class would pretty much resemble how such media was meant to be read. Similarly if we were watching a film in class or a TV show, it would be pretty much how we might do this outside of the classroom.

Watching porn has a very different and unique context which is part and parcel of what porn is. Take it out of that context and it is a very different source. Looking at/reading/listening to porn, for most people, is a private activity. It’s an activity which involves a very specific and complicated relationship between the viewer and the source. It’s an active relationship: switching from clip to clip; fast forwarding, rewinding, pausing; imagining being in the scene or not; experiencing arousal, or not; an opportunity to reflect on our own desires, identities and behaviours, or not; and, crucially, having the opportunity to wank. Taking porn out of that context and watching it with other people changes the source, because the active context, the how we actually might watch porn, is an integral part of it.

If I were to have a porn module in my sex and relationships education course for adults above a pub (6.30 – 8.00 Tuesdays, Soho somewhere) I would ask participants to do some homework. To watch whichever porn (or any images they might enjoy of a sexual or sensual nature) they like and then ask them to think about some questions which may help them to critically evaluate what was going on. They could start with what was happening in the scenes. Was there anything problematic going on? How did they depict gender or sexuality? Was there any kink? I would also ask them to think about what was going on for them. Were they watching the scene or imagining they were in the scene? If so who were they? What attracted them to that character? To reflect on their own desires but also their own identities …. That would be interesting right? And much more interesting than just showing one or two clips through my projector whilst everyone felt just soooo awkward. This is what the leading porn researchers do – they ask what people do with porn. Because porn (as with any media) is a much more complicated thing than ‘stimulus causes the effect’.


What we see is not the effect

Often when people talk about porn and young people they conflate what is contained in the images and the messages that they might send out with the effect that this has on people. In short – if we see something, we might want to do that ourselves. If we see someone with shaved pubes we might shave our pubes. If we see someone behaving non-consensually we might behave non-consensually.

This is not how young people, or anyone, consumes/interacts with porn or any media. As Clare Bale wrote “Young people draw upon their own experiences and emerging identities to interpret the media and employ broader values such as trust and mutual respect to formulate their attitudes, beliefs and values in their readings of media texts.” Raunch or Romance It’s an active process. Young people aren’t passive sponges. We already know this in research but we already know this when it comes to other media.

If we want to teach anyone about this we could ask them to reflect on any other media they may encounter – just as I do with young people in my Grand Theft Auto example from above. It’s pretty straightforward and we can demonstrate this and learn this without having to watch porn in the classroom.

Do we even really need to teach about porn?

So I feel like I’ve made a pretty good fist of explaining why I don’t think we should be showing people porn in an educational setting. It’s fraught with problems around consent and ethics but also wouldn’t be very useful or valuable even if we were able to do it consensually and ethically. But, do we even really need to teach about porn at all? Many young people don’t look at porn or even see sexual images – many more people play games, watch youtube clips, watch TV or read YA fiction, why not address the effect these kinds of media may have?

The reason that porn is a problem isn’t that porn is necessarily a problem in and of itself (though it can be used in problematic way), it’s that it shows most of the SRE available to young people and adults in this country as being waaaaaaay out of touch, not real enough and not relevant enough. If you want to, it is possible to teach about porn without showing people porn: many many people do this. Using discussion games, real life scenarios, distanced learning approaches and creative methods. My teaching pack, ‘Planet Porn’ has been around for years and is my biggest selling resource. Go buy it! It’s now a bargain for Americans #Brexit

However, just teaching porn in one isolated lesson (which I often get asked to do) isn’t going to teach young people a great deal about what it is they need to learn in order to be able to have healthy, nurturing and consensual sex and relationships (if they want them). So what should we do? Teach people (young people and adult people) about that stuff. About their relationship with themselves; self-care; what is expected of them and how to deal with inequality; how to do different kinds of relationships (friends, family, romance, self, pets, religion, humankind); how to treat people consensually and how to communicate; how to manage risks of sex and relationships. If you want to see what that kind of sex and relationships education looks like head to www.dosreforschools.com – it’s free and co-written by me.

If we can give people awesome SRE we don’t even really have to teach about porn – because they will already be equipped to work it out for themselves and not in the classroom neither.

For a summary of the evidence around porn go check this post out from moi.