Age verification: Young people, porn and sex education

Posted at 14:51 on 27 Apr 2016 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: age verification, AV consultation, censorship, child safety, DCMS, gender politics, media, Ofcom, politics, porn, R18 material, sex critical, sex education, sex positive, young people

Response to the Government consultation on Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography

1: Evidence of Harm

2: Sex education

The consultation opens with the bold claim that:

"The UK is a world leader in child online safety" (p4)

In the context of recent revelations showing how unsafe children in the UK are at the hands of exploitative individuals abusing their power within church, political and media institutions, this opening sentence is in poor taste. The Government's obsession with conjuring a demon to fight in the form of online pornography, while ignoring the real problems of child sexual exploitation, poor sex education, unsafe sex, and sexual violence faced by young people in our society, is reminiscent of the politician's syllogism: "We must do something! This is something - therefore we must do it!" Policy-makers would be far better served by devoting their energies to reducing real incidents of child sexual exploitation, that have caused provable and lasting harm, rather than going to great lengths to defeat the nebulous and unprovable harms of online pornography.

The expert panel for DCMS (evidence commissioned for this consultation) came out strongly in favour of sex education as a better harm reduction measure than restricting access to sexual images. Their report advised that,

There would be great value in designing a curriculum that has a core focus on relationships and how they affect sex, including discussion of different sexual and gender identities and clear advice about consent. There should also be discussion of access and exposure to pornography to equip young people to understand that pornography does not represent 'real world' relationships.

Despite this clear expert advice, a 2015 study found that although "more young people than ever are getting most of their information about sexual matters from school, the majority feel they are not getting all the information they need, and men in particular are missing out." 

There are no simple technological solutions to social problems. Rather than restricting internet freedom, efforts would be better spent on improving and funding sex education in schools; making it a mandatory part of the curriculum, and making it more relevant to the internet age. The need for better sex education in the UK is overwhelmingly supported by findings from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3), the largest scientific study of sexual health and lifestyles in Britain. This study found that in reality, online pornography is one of the least common routes by which young people learn about sex and relationships; education at school is far more significant, but in the UK, PSHE is inadequate and underfunded. 

Sex education based around pleasure and consent reduces violence, helps keep young people safe, and improves public health. Countries with better sex education are more likely to have lower rates of teen pregnancy, abortion and STI transmission, particularly by contrast with countries such as the US. The state of Utah has recently declared pornography a "public health crisis", and has rejected evidence-based school sex education. As Dr Marty Klein writes,

This shows that they’re more interested in condemning porn than in supporting the healthy sexuality of their young people. It also helps explain why Utah has the highest per capita use of porn in the country, and one of the highest rates of unwanted pregnancy.

The claim made in the proposal that "government has taken action to support [sex] education through schools" is demonstrably untrue; in fact the government has repeatedly disinvested in Relationships and Sex Education programmes.

  • Parliament's Education Select Committee last year recommended that inclusive sex and relationship education (SRE) should become a statutory requirement in all schools as part of PSHE - but the government refused to make Personal Social Health and Economic education compulsory.
  • New government plans to academise UK schools would only increase the variability in the quality and provision of sex education according to the whims of individual headteachers - an issue which was already flagged by Ofsted as 'not good enough' in their 2012 report.
  • The Education Select Committee highlighted the need for more trained sex education specialists in schools, and yet the National PSHE CPD training scheme - that enables teachers to confidently and appropriately deliver sex education - had funding withdrawn in 2010.
  • Cash cuts to sexual health clinics, after the 2013 handover of commissioning sexual health services to local authorities, have reduced educational outreach and access to young people's services.
  • Guidance for schools on Sex and Relationships education has not been updated since 2000 - as Paul Waugh writes on the Huffington Post - "before the 'smartphone generation' were even born - the guidance is so outdated it contains the word 'internet' only twice, in the same sentence."

Despite this appalling record on sex education, the consultation claims that, "We also want to make the most of our outstanding charity sector and other initiatives that are being delivered through partnerships, building on these to launch a campaign to raise awareness of online safety issues." (p5) It is deeply ironic that the Government alludes to the usefulness of the charity sector, when they have cut funding to so many of the sex education initiatives that were available in schools. To quote sex educator Justin Hancock,

"There are committed, experienced and well-trained teachers, youth workers and outreach workers out there who deliver excellent sex and relationships education - but there aren't enough of them.

Due to cuts many of them have left the area. Voluntary sector organisations are struggling to retain contracts and expertise due to fragmented commissioning."

Academics and experts agree that better sex education is a more effective harm reduction measure than restricting access to pornography. If the health and safety of under 18s is genuinely a concern, the simplest and most cost-efficient solution would be for the government to fund and support the experienced, trained youth workers and sex education practitioners who are already specialists in the field. The Report of the Expert Panel for DCMS argues extensively for media literacy training as part of the curriculum, building the resilience of children to encountering online pornography by "ensuring that all children develop the critical faculties to see beyond the surface of the various sexualised media they consume". Likewise, Dr Cicely Marston - whose research on anal sex among young people was cited in the DCMS report - has criticised the way in which her conclusions were misrepresented by the consultation proposal. She argues,

Good education on sex and sexuality can help challenge some of the harmful gender dynamics that promote the problematic sexual activities we identified in our study. Better education and more frank and open discussion would also help young people take a more critical view of pornographic imagery.

Young people have a human right to age-appropriate sex education and information about the topics that are relevant to their questions and experiences, including visual material. When young people are not receiving adequate sex education in school, online pornography offers interested teenagers a key opportunity to learn about bodies, consent and pleasure. Under 18s know what they want to look at, and what is too old for them. The EU Kids Online study led by Professor Sonia Livingstone concluded that young people should be helped to 'self-regulate', saying, "It is important...to encourage children to be responsible for their own safety as much as possible rather than rely on restrictive or adult forms of mediation".

The policy document condemns porn as "harmful" without any basis in evidence:

However children are accessing content, our objective is the same: to protect children from distressing or unrealistic images of sex. Clearly, these images risk harming their ability to develop healthy personal relationships based on respect and consent. (p4)

In fact this is far from clear. The Porn Research project found that:

Answering the 'what comes close to describing your feelings about sex' question, the vast majority of porn users who responded to the Porn Research survey chose 'BB (sex keeps you healthy, physically and emotionally) and EE (good sex requires communication with your partner(s)) are way out in front of all the others.' This suggests that regular porn use is not correlated with unhealthy attitudes to or feelings about sex, intimacy and relationships.

If young people are distressed by images of sex, this may be because they have been taught by parents or teachers to have an unhealthy, shameful or fearful view of sex, rather than because the images themselves are inherently distressing. The proposal refers to under 18s "accessing content that they are not yet equipped to understand, or find it hard to pull away from." However the idea of compulsive porn use among young people is not evidence based and has been widely contested - there is no evidence for "porn addiction" among young people, and no studies showing that porn use causes any neurological changes. It is however likely that adult fear-mongering about porn addiction has made some young people feel needlessly concerned.

If parents are worried, there are already plenty of ‘net nanny’ type controls available for them to use to help them filter what their children view online. These resources are well used and well tested, but are no substitute for open dialogues about sex and sexuality between parents and their children. Ofcom's own research into whether viewing porn is harmful to under 18s concluded that "Most researchers stress that good sex education and an open relationship with parents in issues of sexuality are more important for the child to develop normally than a ban on R18 material (Linz et al., 1992; Strasburger & Donnerstein, 1999; VanEvra, 2004; Zillmann, 2000)."

If some children are looking at pornographic materials online which is making them ask questions about sex, bodies and sexuality, this is a great opportunity for parents to answer their questions and talk to them about sex. (If very young children are repeatedly looking at distressing images online, then this is a parenting problem - porn is not to blame.) Having non-judgmental conversations with young people about sex is a crucial responsibility for parents, and the Government should be supporting parents by making relevant resources available to them on how to have these questions, and providing adequate sex education in schools - not legislating to isolate young people from sexual materials and prevent them from asking questions in the first place.

Porn is as diverse as any other entertainment medium. Just as some films and TV model provide poor models for healthy romantic and sexual relationships, so does some porn; but some films and TV, and some porn, provides healthy relationship models - and in fact can model better respect and consent than is currently taught in schools. While porn is often staged, choreographed and unrealistic, this is no less true of mainstream films and TV. We do not expect young people to learn to drive by watching car chase films - we provide individual tuition in road safety and responsibility. Likewise, it is unrealistic to expect young people to learn how to have safe, responsible, pleasurable sex from watching the athletic, unattainable performances in porn; but if they can only learn about sex by watching movies, how can we expect them to develop a more realistic view of it? If sex education were as thorough as driving lessons, then young people would be much better equipped - both to have sex, and to view porn. Trying to prevent young people from viewing porn is no more realistic a solution than trying to stop them watching car chase films; education is the only viable harm reduction measure.

The DCMS expert panel concluded that "Ultimately, we must ensure that children have the right to express themselves sexually, to explore and communicate without ever-present oversight". If young people are deliberately seeking out pornographic content to help them understand sex and relationships, they arguably have a right to do so. Under 18s are particularly entitled to seek sexual materials out for themselves if they are LGBTQ; if they do not have access to sympathetic, sex-positive and well-informed adults to answer their questions about sex; or if they are otherwise isolated from resources to help them understand their developing sexuality.

Many children who have grown up with access to the internet are already media literate and capable of questioning the material they encounter. Ofcom's report on child internet safety found that "Eighty-three per cent of 8-11s and 91% of 12-15s say that they are confident about how to stay safe online and 67% of 12-15s say they are confident that they can judge whether websites are truthful." The Porn Research project found that young people are critical media consumers and engage with pornography for a variety of reasons. Better sex education in schools will improve these critical skills to give young people the resilience and knowledge they need to understand the images they might view online.

Pornography performs many roles other than sexual stimulation, and people look at porn for many reasons; including escape from stresses, trying out fantasies, and exploring one’s sexual self/identity. It does no harm for teenagers to use visual materials to learn about sexual possibilities, witness pleasure and safer sex practices in action, and explore their own sexuality and sexual identity.

Setting the age of access to porn at 18 - two years higher than the age of consent to sexual activity in the UK - implies that looking at porn is more risky than having sex. But having sex carries clear physical risk of pregnancy and STIs, as well as the psychological risks of exploitation, rejection and emotional vulnerability. 23% of 13-17 year olds in a recent US survey cited "Because it’s less risky than actually having sex" as a reason for viewing porn. Young people who choose to view porn are making informed decisions about the relative risks of porn viewing versus engaging in real life sex and relationships. To quote Dr Clarissa Smith,

Contrary to the arguments that porn encourages indiscriminate and risky behaviours, the young people who responded to our questionnaire are apparently using pornography as a part of their reflections upon their readiness for sex, what might they like to engage in, with whom, how, and what might be the ethical considerations for themselves and prospective partners.

If sixteen year olds are legally considered capable of managing the risk of sexual intercourse, they can manage the risk of looking at porn - the ultimate “safe sex”. If age verification controls are brought in contrary to the evidence, they should at the very least be consistent with the age of consent for sexual activity. However, improving sex education in schools to cover pleasure, consent, body image and media literacy would be a far more effective harm reduction measure than preventing interested teenagers from looking at porn. The full decriminalisation of pornography in the UK would reduce stigma and allow porn performers to engage in dialogue with young people, demystifying the production process and helping teenagers develop the critical skills to deconstruct porn at whatever age they encounter it.

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