Banning porn won’t work. So how can we best support young people’s digital intimacies?

Jessica Ringrose, Amelia Jenkinson and Sophie Whitehead.

In recent weeks, conversation has been reignited around the UK’s porn block for under 18s. The plan to prevent teens from accessing porn has been long delayed, but the government recently reiterated that it is soon to come into effect.

Concerns have focused primarily on privacy: there is a particular danger that data breaches and data mining could occur because users will have to submit identity data so their age can be verified. The dilemmas for children and their parents and carers are vast.

But many experts who advocate for young people’s online rights and digital literacy do not believe that simply banning porn or mobile technologies will solve anything. Rather – in an age of widespread data mining, fake news and disinformation – we must ensure that digital literacy is the fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths. We need to cultivate a well-informed citizenry that can navigate cyberspace. Protection from digital harm must be balanced with providing educational opportunities. And because young people also have rights to sexual health and information about their bodies, digital rights and sexual rights need to be considered in tandem.

Why the ‘Don’t do it’ message won’t work

The failure to prioritise how the digital intersects with sexuality education was made particularly apparent in the recently updated government guidance for schools on Relationships, Sex and Health Education. As Jessica Ringrose explained on the IOE blog, the guidance fails to address important digital topics in enough depth or detail, even though porn is often one of young people’s main sex educators.

The two references to porn in the new guidance are: “that specifically sexually explicit material e.g. pornography presents a distorted picture of sexual behaviours, can damage the way people see themselves in relation to others and negatively affect how they behave towards sexual partners” (page 28); and that secondary school pupils should know the law around pornography (page 30). There are no links provided to in-depth lesson plans, policies or explanations to help teachers cover this topic, or information about why it is important to do so. Similarly sexting is only mentioned once to highlight that it is illegal under the age of 18. This is a worrying omission considering the depth and complexities of youth sexting.

So how are young people to learn about navigating digital intimacy, which is nowadays an everyday extension or antecedent to ‘in person’ sexual activity? How will they learn about sexual safety, respect and consent in the digital domain?

It is difficult to see how banning or limiting children’s access to certain technologies or digital spaces can answer these tough questions. Banning technology will not promote young people’s welfare when it is not paired with high quality education. Rather, the porn block seems more like a tokenistic tick-box exercise to appease groups who take a sex-adverse stance. But it is one that leaves young people at even greater risk than before.

Indeed, it is acknowledged that banning access to mainstream porn sites will not entirely restrict young people’s access to pornographic content, which is readily available on Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Google images.

The don’t do it rhetoric surrounding teen digital intimacies can also be sex-negative. Stigmatising narratives can shut down much-need open and honest dialogue, and prevents people from reaching out when they need support, for fear of being shamed or blamed.

Sex-positive Porn Lessons

Jessica Ringrose has teamed up with the charity Sexplain to tackle these issues. Sexplain works with a range of secondary school students who consume porn for a huge variety of reasons. Porn can sometimes provide much-needed reassurance that they are not alone in feelings, desires or identity – particularly for students who are not heterosexual. There is no denying that there are highly problematic tropes in much mainstream porn but the focus on banning access is overshadowing conversations around tackling this through effective education, through critical engagement and open discussion. Safeguarding young people’s rights and well-being requires in-depth exploration of these topics in age appropriate ways which is informed by up to the minute research.

Sexplain lessons prioritise enabling young people to critically engage with topics like sexting, image based abuse and pornography. In each case the priority is placed on helping children with moral reasoning, ethical decision-making; and to advocate for their own and each other’s rights. Putting this into practise means understanding sexual consent, how it plays out in digital spaces, the signs of a respectful relationship, the role of bystanders and how systems of power operate in our society. This framework must be applied to explicit and relevant examples, rather than vague analogies or metaphors.

Sexplain’s ‘Porn Lesson’ is tailored to help young people understand consent in real relationships in their own specific contexts and supports them to deal directly with questions and concerns in ways that unpack nervousness and anxiety. Discussions examine why porn is so popular and ask students to consider the economy of porn rather than something decontextualized that people simply consume online. In order to directly tackle issues of consent and harm in mainstream porn, titles from Pornhub are explored, enabling a discussion of how commercially driven porn turns sexuality into sensationalism.

We also discuss much of porn’s orientation towards fast masturbation and prioritizing male desire in ways that can neglect consent and the needs and desires of others.

Let’s give young people the educational tools to navigate sexuality rather than relying on banning technology or digital content­– a tactic that won’t work anyway. By carefully tackling taboo topics with young people, Sexplain’s approach has had meaningful impact on many young people’s lives. These research-informed lesson plans can help young people explore and develop their sexuality in a way that is safe, healthy, and shame-free.

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Posted in Education policy, Social sciences and social policy, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment, young people

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