How to talk about pornography
The rapid advance of the internet into all aspects of our lives has brought with it near ubiquitous access to pornography, and ever younger viewers of it. While there are good reasons to be concerned about the impact this may be having on the development of young people’s sexual attitudes and self-image, Catherine Manning argues that attentive, sex-positive discussion remains the best remedy.
Sex on Screen
Whether you liked it or not, you’ve no doubt been exposed to some form of online pornographic material. Inadvertently or otherwise, so have a substantial proportion of thirteen-year-olds.1 In the early days of the internet, the ‘expert advice’ was for parents to install a filter, and keep children’s devices in the lounge room where parents could peer over their shoulder. Unsurprisingly, and particularly since the proliferation of smart devices, that advice has proven useless, with it becoming increasingly evident that education is the only viable approach to tackling negative effects of (near-inevitable) exposure to pornography.
Research confirms that a whole-community approach is necessary to help young people navigate relationships.2 The Relationships and Sexuality focus area in the Australian Curriculum3 provides an overview of topics to be covered from Foundation to Year 10; although it does not specifically mention pornography, frank and honest discussions about it are crucial if we’re to successfully address problematic attitudes and misconceptions around gender, sex and relationships. Whether it occurs as part of a specific lesson on respectful relationships, sex education or media or as a spontaneously presented opportunity, discussing pornography openly and honestly can be one of the most important things we do as educators to help young people navigate their way into adulthood. Of course, it’s no mean feat to contend with the range of personal, religious and cultural perspectives students hold, but it’s crucial to ensure that we work within a framework that’s both legal and ethical and also free from judgement and shame. Before we can begin to facilitate meaningful and helpful conversations, we must first be prepared to consider and challenge our own attitudes and biases. Whether you enjoy pornography or not, a sex-positive attitude is necessary in order to create a safe space for students and foster healthy attitudes towards sex.
Pornography v. Reality: A Teacher’s Guide
One of my earliest memories of attempting to discuss anything sexual with an adult is the time in Year 8 that I accepted a dare from friends to ask my teacher ‘What is an orgasm?’ Despite the question partially being an attempt to embarrass him, and although we already kind of knew the answer (thanks in part to our dictionaries, with pages dog-eared where the ‘naughty’ words were), behind the laughs a number of us were all ears waiting for his informed response. Instead, my question was met with awkward silence; his face flushed, and I was ordered to stand in the corridor as punishment for ‘being rude’. Using the opportunity to reflect as instructed, I recalled having also been scolded a few years earlier when my choice of loan book, Where Did I Come From?, was quickly confiscated by my mother and sent straight back to the local library bus before I got the chance to open the front cover. In the solitude of the corridor, I wondered why adults always seemed so unwilling to engage in conversations about the things we really wanted to talk about. If sex was as natural as the birds and the bees, it seemed odd to me that it was such a taboo subject.
There are many reasons we can find it difficult to talk about sex, but sex and relationships therapist Cyndi Darnell says it’s a direct result of a lack of comprehensive sex education in childhood, and that it’s not surprising many adults feel ill-equipped. ‘As they’ve also grown up around ridiculous taboos and embarrassment, they are reluctant to discuss sex and pornography – they feel they don’t have the knowledge themselves,’ she tells me. In response, Darnell created an online video resource, The Atlas of Erotic Anatomy and Arousal,4 to help build confidence and knowledge about anatomy and sexuality in general, which is particularly useful for adults preparing for conversations with young people about pornography. While Darnell feels that understanding the mechanics of sex and anatomy is a crucial part of sex education, she agrees there’s more to be done: ‘Young people need to understand sex and pornography from a sociological perspective as well as personal, and need help to contextualise what they’re seeing online.’
Learning to distinguish fantasy from reality is a crucial part of sex and media literacy, as it allows for healthy and safe engagement with explicit narratives across a variety of mediums. People commonly feel aroused or excited by viewing scenarios they wouldn’t necessarily partake in themselves, or that in real life may even seem abhorrent to them. Nonetheless, while as a film medium pornography is not usually revered for its in-depth storylines or dialogue, what little there is can sometimes be highly problematic. I recently viewed three random clips on a popular free porn site that, I’ve learned from conversation, is well known to minors; all contained sexist narratives suggesting women like to be subjected to stalking, abuse and rough handling. Of these, one presented a balaclava-clad male home invader climbing through a window to find two women engaged in sexual activity in the bedroom; after being discovered hiding beside the bed and spying on them, he was invited to join them. Another showed a woman being held roughly by the back of her head by a man and gagging as she was apparently forced to perform oral sex. It could have been difficult to discern whether this was actually a performance by two consenting adults or a rape scene.
Not all sexual practices that look rough or involve physical discomfort are necessarily harmful or abusive. In BDSM, for instance, boundaries between pleasure and pain are often explored and pushed. It is common for a range of role plays to be used, including bondage and discipline (with parties adopting dominant and submissive positions), but enthusiastic and informed consent in such acts is paramount and the pleasure is mutual.5 In contrast, porn scenes depicting sexual assault that are intended to incite arousal without any framework of consent have the potential to not only normalise men’s violence against women but also fetishise it. If narratives like these are informing young people’s goals and expectations around relationships, we have every reason to be concerned about how these ideas, unchallenged, may play out in their lives and the lives of those around them.
While porn consumption in general has been identified as the villain in many sexual assault cases6 – often by conservative groups with an anti–sex industry agenda – these allegations must nevertheless be put into context. Although it’s important to recognise that there are some people working in the sex industry who are harmed by it and that some young people consuming porn are developing unrealistic ideas about sex and sexuality, the deciding factor as to whether or not someone is likely to commit abuse is their sense of entitlement and negative attitudes towards others. Those abusers who consume copious amounts of porn are likely to be raised in environments where women are viewed and treated as objects. A person encouraged to value equality, practise empathy, comprehend consent and be a discerning consumer of media is more likely to reject behaviour that appears disrespectful and/or non-consensual, in pornography and real life alike.
Preparing for the Discussion
Before getting started, keep in mind that, while not all students will have seen online porn, those who haven’t will also benefit from the conversation. Nevertheless, talking about pornography can raise feelings of fear, guilt and shame and potentially also trigger trauma for those who have experienced sexual assault, so it’s important to create a safe space. Assure students that they will not be expected to disclose any personal information or be made to feel shame or embarrassment. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s completely normal and natural to be curious about sex and sexuality and that many people find sex scenes fun and enjoyable to watch, but that such visuals can also sometimes be distressing for some young people, especially those who weren’t looking for them. Provide details of school welfare counsellors and support organisations like Kids Helpline7 should students feel they need to speak with someone. Set boundaries around language and reassure students that the conversation will be in general terms and that explicit descriptions of sex scenes are unnecessary and discouraged. The goal is to converse about how much pornography reflects real-life relationships and to build critical-thinking skills.
Keep in mind, sexuality and relationships education policies vary state by state and often school by school. In Victoria, for example, with guidelines provided by the Department of Education and Training,8 school councils are left to develop policies that correlate with what’s being delivered in the classroom. Therefore, the decision to cater for particular content, such as discussion of pornography, is arbitrary and dependent upon the progressiveness of each school community and those sitting on council. In most cases, it doesn’t exist.
Maria Delaney, director of The Social Change Agency, tells me: ‘In Queensland, where sex education is non-compulsory, generally the informal or unspoken policy is ‘don’t go there’ – mostly out of anxieties about parental backlash, and extreme discomfort and inadequate training/resourcing.’ Despite much research outlining the need for comprehensive sex education and teachers equipped to deliver it, we’re yet to see a national approach emerge.9
Further, although there are enforceable laws in place to protect young people from exploitation and from appearing in pornographic material, laws that prohibit or prevent them viewing porn are obsolete and mostly ineffective. However, anyone over the age of eighteen who shows pornographic material to minors can be charged with grooming offences. Recognising the need for ‘safe for school’ visual material, The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society provides some teacher resources, including a short animated cartoon video aimed at Year 7 and 8 students.10 Also, keep in mind some laws around pornography vary across Australia. You can access state- and territory-specific legal information from the website of Youth Law Australia (previously named the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre),11 so be sure to check yours so you’re delivering the correct information to your students and not putting them or yourself at risk.
In my experience and from the feedback of thousands of middle years to senior secondary students I’ve worked with, when it comes to relationships and pornography, young people value and appreciate a comprehensive and nuanced discussion. Here are some conversation starters that will prove helpful once a safe space has been established.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, pornography is ‘printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement’.12
The Australian Classification Board13 sets comprehensive guidelines and ratings information for all films, including pornography. Bearing in mind that it’s illegal to show students any material that constitutes pornography, discuss the differences between each rating in the classification system and how these guidelines inform scenes in films rated MA 15+, R 18+ and X 18+ across all genres. Ask students to think about the different media they’re culturally surrounded with, particularly sexualised advertising.
- What is the difference between pornographic imagery and a sexualised image on a billboard that may incite arousal?
- Considering sex is supposed to be natural, exciting and fun, what is it about kids being exposed to pornography that has adults so concerned?
- Why do you think there is far more concern and campaigning around children’s exposure to sexual material compared to their exposure to, for example, extreme horror and violence viewed online, in film, in television news reports and so on?
- Why would exposure to pornography be considered harmful?
- Does simply watching pornography cause someone to be disrespectful to women?
- Why do people view pornography?
Ethical Pornography Consumption
Teenagers exposed to online porn have likely viewed the free, hardcore variety. Free porn sites are the ones that most often appear at the top of a search engine page or as pop-ups on various platforms. Most free porn is a teaser to encourage paid subscription and a way for data-mining agencies to monitor and on-sell search and usage information for targeted marketing. While there’s a smorgasbord of porn types and styles, there’s a likelihood that some scenes and acts viewed don’t appear to be consensual, that the focus is purely on male pleasure and that the performers and production teams aren’t properly paid. ‘Ethical porn’, on the other hand, offers consumers material that has been produced to legal standards, respects the rights of performers – including safe workplace conditions and fair pay – and celebrates diversity in sexuality and body types. As opposed to free porn, ethical porn usually requires payment or subscription to view. Supporting ethical porn is one way consumers can cast a vote for a more ethical business model, and reduce the demand for illegal and questionable practices; however, young people are unlikely to want or be able to pay for it. Students should consider the following questions:
- Why pay for something you can get for free?
- Why can you access porn for free to begin with?
- Would it make a difference to your decision not to pay if you knew how the actors were treated behind the scenes
Misogyny in Porngraphy: A Teacher’s Guide
Consent and Coercion
In contrast to ethical porn, a lot of mainstream pornography perpetuates sexist stereotypes and normalises harassment and violence against women. With an overt focus on male pleasure and climax – often referred to as the ‘money shot’ – genuine female pleasure and comfort comes second, if at all. Survey figures released by Our Watch show that one in four people aged from 12 to 24 believe it’s normal to coerce a girl into having sex.14 This is not surprising given the prevalence of narratives – not just in porn but in the romance genre – in which men stalk women or threaten self-harm should the latter dare reject the former’s advances. Some prime examples include Noah (Ryan Gosling) in The Notebook,15 who threatens to jump to his death from a storeys-high amusement park ride unless Allie (Rachel McAdams) agrees to date him, and Edward (Robert Pattinson) in Twilight,16 who stalks Bella’s (Kristen Stewart) every move and steals into her room at night to watch her sleep.
Understanding enthusiastic consent and partner autonomy should be front and centre of any respectful relationships discussion. Those raised from early childhood with strong body safety and media literacy skills are far more likely to be able to identify and reject problematic narratives. A wonderful video that uses tea as an analogy for consent17 is a great tool to share with students to help highlight the key messages around consent and can be applied to many situations.
Questions for further discussion with students can include:
- When does consent apply?
- How do you know when someone is enthusiastically consenting? How do you know when they’re not?
- Do you think there is such a thing as ‘blurred lines’ when it comes to sexual consent?
- What are some of the verbal and non-verbal cues of consent and non-consent? Does the absence of a ‘no’ mean ‘yes’?
- Whose responsibility is it to ensure that there’s enthusiastic consent?
- Is it okay for someone to withdraw their consent at any time?
- Can an intoxicated person give consent?
- How do you feel when you see something that appears non-consensual in film?
- Is there a difference between non-consensual sex (rape) scenes in porn and in other types of film?
- Where do these narratives come from, and why are they so common?
Given that young people are no strangers to highly sexualised images of women in advertising and the media, it’s little surprise that the Mission Australia Youth Survey regularly shows anxieties around body image to be among their top three concerns.18 However, there’s no concrete evidence to suggest online pornography contributes more or less to their already negative body image. In an era when anyone with access to a smartphone and the internet can become porn producers and performers, the dramatic increase in homemade, amateur online porn has provided a more diverse representation of women (with a variety of body shapes, colours and sizes) enjoying sex. It’s not unusual to see women with cellulite, stretch marks and non-surgically enlarged breasts seemingly comfortable in their skin.
Social media, rather than porn films, is where girls are far more likely to engage in compare-and-despair games with glamour images of porn stars. As pornography has become more mainstream, so have its ‘top models’. When I was in conversation with a group of teen girls recently, one sixteen-year-old pulled out her mobile phone to show me the array of digitally altered, sexualised images on one porn performer’s Instagram account, I noted the page had hundreds of thousands of followers. Saying of herself and her friends, ‘We don’t see ourselves as porn stars, but we want to look like them,’ she went on to lament her belief that she’d never achieve that goal. While the typically curvy, voluptuous body types of porn stars are often a contrast to those of lean, angular fashion models, their heavily Photoshopped and surgically altered bodies present an equally unobtainable beauty standard for most girls. Any potential advantage of seeing the more natural, regular bodies of ‘home girls’ in amateur porn is overshadowed by the girls’ comparisons with the porn stars on Instagram.
Body image anxiety among boys has risen dramatically over the past two decades too. From superhero toys to bare-chested, impossibly chiselled men with six-packs displayed in film, magazines and advertising, boys feel immense pressure to measure up. On top of that, as pornography often presents a very one-dimensional view of male sexuality, penis size can be cause for comparison angst. With mainstream porn focused on heterosexual male pleasure and created for their gaze, men are often presented as headless, walking penises with much of their upper bodies out of frame. It may be of comfort to boys to know that an expert study conducted by researchers in the UK showed that the average penis size is far from what it appears to be in porn.19 The research also confirms that, contrary to what many men believe, it is men, not women, who are obsessed with penis size.
As with any attempt to combat negative body image, it’s important to point out the ‘tricks of the trade’ – some of which include make-up, cosmetic surgery, special effects, lighting, camera angles, filters and, more recently, ‘digital beauty’ work.20
By the end of your discussion with students about porn, they should be able to put pornography into perspective and see it as the adult performance it is, not as sex education. They should feel empowered to make conscious choices about what they expose themselves to – not just when it comes to porn of the problematic kind, but any media content that could potentially disturb or upset them. There is never a better time to start talking with them than now. What are you waiting for?
Catherine Manning is the CEO & program director of SEED Workshops (www.seedworkshops.com.au), delivering in-school respectful relationships and well-being programs. This resource was first published in Screen Education (www.metromagazine.com.au).
External links were functional at the time of publication, but teachers should check them for inappropriate content and to ensure that they are still functional before use with students.
1 Lim, M, Agius, PA, Carrotte, ER, Vella, AM & Hellard, ME 2017, ‘Young Australians’ use of pornography and associations with sexual risk behaviours’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 438–443. doi: 1111/1753-6405.12678
2 Kearney, S, Gleeson, C & Leung, L 2016, Respectful Relationships Education in Schools: The Beginnings of Change – Final Evaluation Report, Our Watch, accessed 21 July 2020, https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/programs/health/pdf
3 Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) 2020, F-10 Curriculum: Health and Physical Education: Structure, accessed 21 July 2020, https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/health-and-physical-education/structure/
4 Darnell, C 2015, The Atlas of Erotic Anatomy and Arousal, Cyndi Darnell, accessed 21 July 2020, https://cyndidarnell.com/atlas-of-erotic-anatomy-arousal/
5 Kingkade, T 2016, ‘Trying To Understand Consent? Ask The LGBTQ And Kink Communities’, Huffington Post, 15 August, accessed 21 July 2020, https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/kink-lgbtq-consent_n_57a36453e4b04414d1f3cf22
6 Rymel, T 2016, ‘Does Pornography Lead to Sexual Assault?’, Huffington Post, 26 August, accessed 21 July 2020, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/does-pornography-lead-to-sexual-assault_b_57c0876ae4b0b01630de8c93
7 Kids Helpline 2020, Kids Helpline, viewed 21 July 2020, https://kidshelpline.com.au
8 State of Victoria (Department of Education and Training) 2019, For schools: Teaching materials and methods: Health and physical education, accessed 21 July 2020, https://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/teachingresources/discipline/physed/Pages/default.aspx
9 Johnson, B, Harrison, L, Ollis, D, Flentje, J, Arnold, P & Bartholomaeus, C 2016, ‘It is not all about sex’: Young people’s views about sexuality and relationships education, Engaging Young People in Sexuality Education Research Report, accessed 6 December 2017, http://www.youthsexuality.com.au/files/9814/5801/5069/It_is_not_all_about_sex_3.16.pdf
10 The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University 2015, ‘Porn- what you should know’, in The Practical Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships, accessed 21 July 2020, https://www.lovesexrelationships.edu.au/years-7-8
11 Youth Law Australia 2018, Porn and the law, accessed 21 July 2020, https://yla.org.au/vic/topics/health-love-and-sex/porn/
12 Oxford University Press 2020, ‘Pornography’, com, accessed 21 July 2020, https://www.lexico.com/definition/pornography
13 Commonwealth of Australia 2020, Australian Classification, accessed 21 July 2020, https://www.classification.gov.au/
14 Our Watch media team 2015, ‘New research shows need to challenge violence supportive attitudes among youth’, Our Watch, 8 May, accessed 21 July 2020, https://www.ourwatch.org.au/resource/new-research-shows-need-to-challenge-violence-supportive-attitudes-among-youth/
15 Cassavetes, N (dir) 2004, The Notebook, motion picture, Gran
16 Hardwicke, C (dir) 2008, Twilight, motion picture, Temple Hill Entertainment, Maverick Films, Imprint Entertainment, DMG
17 Blue Seat Studios 2015, Tea Consent (Clean), video recording, YouTube, accessed 21 July 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGoWLWS4-kU
18 Bailey, V, Baker, A-M, Cave, L, Fildes, J, Perrens, B, Plummer, J & Wearring, A 2016, Mission Australia’s 2016 Youth Survey Report, Mission Australia, accessed 21 July 2020, https://www.missionaustralia.com.au/documents/research/young-people- research/677-mission-australia-youth-survey-report-2016
19 Veale, D, Miles, S, Bramley, S, Muir, G & Hodsoll, J 2015, ‘Am I normal? A systematic review and construction of nomograms for flaccid and erect penis length and circumference in up to 15 521 men’, BJU Interntional, vol. 115, 978-986. doi: 10.1111/ bju.13010
20 Dickey, J 2014, ‘Everyone is Altered: The Secret Hollywood Procedure that Fooled Us for Years’, Mashable, 1 December, accessed 21 July 2020, https://mashable.com/2014/12/01/hollywood-secret-beauty-procedure/