Good RSE must listen to young people

For FPA's national Sexual Health Week, we're supporting parents, teachers and health professionals to have more open conversations about sex and porn. 

Sex educator Justin Hancock told us why he thinks comprehensive relationship and sex education is key.

Despite what you may have heard or may think, most young people do not watch porn. In fact, most young people report not having seen a sexual image.

The EU Kids Online project, a very well respected and robust piece of research from London School of Economics, found that in 2010, in the UK, 24% of 9 – 16 year olds reported seeing a sexual image with 11% of those seeing an image online. By 2014, in a comparison report called Net Children Go Mobile, this figure, for the same age group was 17% seeing a sexual image anywhere with 12% reporting seeing a sexual image online.  

‘Sexual image’ in the EU Kids Online reports was defined as “pictures, photos, videos [that might be] obviously sexual – for example, showing people naked or people having sex.” The most frequent source of these images in the 2010 and 2014 reports was television – which does not usually depict the same sexual imagery or representations as are shown in hardcore pornography (e.g. close ups of genitals, actual rather than simulated sex).

This (really interesting and important) article points out that many young people (for the 2014 report) will have seen sexual imagery on Game of Thrones (as well as very violent imagery). 

As you might expect, the older a young person is the more likely it is that they have seen a sexual image. However even for the 14 - 16 year olds, it was still less than half of the participants in the study that had seen a sexual image. So most young people haven’t seen a sexual image and even of those who had only a small fraction of those would have seen porn. 

This surprises a lot of people but the facts are there. Even when young people do see sexual images they haven’t been shown to cause an effect in the ways that many people think. In the same way that the children of the 80s and 90s weren’t all doomed because of video nasties and computer games - these millennials they have now aren’t doomed because of porn. You can read more about why this is in my longer blog post at bishtraining.com

I’ve been a sex educator since 1999, the days before YouTube let alone YouPorn. I’ve worked with thousands of young people in person and millions online - porn is not the thing they are asking me about or clicking on my website about (despite me having written an entire A-Z of porn). They are more interested in learning about their bodies and in how to enjoy sex more.

To them porn is just another media with information about sex. As with all sex education (both informal and formal), some of it is useful and valuable and some of it is misleading, unhelpful, scary and discriminatory. 

So, is porn an issue?  

Porn is more of an issue for relationships and sex education than it is for young people. For years sex education has been too little, too late and too biological. The availability of porn (even if it’s not actually availed upon) demonstrates how far short the current offerings of most RSE comes. Being talked at about methods of contraception, being shown pictures of genitals with STIs and watching a three minute video from the Police about tea and consent doesn’t compare well with the idea of being able to watch people actually having sex.

For those young people that do encounter sexual media the issue is not the sex scenes themselves but the broader issues they bring up and their own interaction with it.

Many young people find their interactions with sexual material difficult to deal with: from receiving an unwanted sexual message; or being shown something on someone’s phone; or an image of themselves being shared without consent; a pop up of a different kind of sexual image to ones they may have expected; to being worried about how long they spend engaging with porn. 

Any time spent working with older young people should focus on these kinds of issues. Also young people often have quite a sophisticated view of porn and are able to critique it from an ethical, or feminist, or rights perspective - good RSE would help them to do that. Many practitioners have found my Planet Porn resource pack useful here. 

Relationship and sex education

However most RSE in school doesn't equip young people to do this. What we need is a curriculum that encourages students to talk to each other about power, consent, gender, relationships, and all the risks of sex. These are the really big, fundamental issues in RSE.

It’s fine for us and young people to talk about porn as part of this holistic curriculum. But rather than teaching about porn as a separate topic we need to start with the fundamentals so that RSE can include every young person in the classroom (even if they have no intention of watching porn or of having sex). 

Thankfully, there is such a thing that myself and FPA have been involved in along with a number of other key names and organisations in sexual health and RSE. DO… is a free resource for schools with everything they need to get started delivering really cracking and truly inclusive RSE. It’s about taking RSE away from just giving information from the front of the class and making it easier for the teacher to deliver. 

We’ve designed it so it’s all about the young people. Through the use of unique participatory learning styles students can really get to grips with the really big topics that actually affect them. How they feel about themselves. How to deal with expectations placed on them. How to have the kinds of relationships and/or sex they may actually want (or not want). And how to make sure that their relationships and/or sex are safer, nurturing and enjoyable. This will be useful for young people who watch porn now and will also prepare them for if they watch porn later.