Computer monitorFrom an evolutionary, unchanging, standpoint, humans have sexual urges to seek gratification of pleasure for the survival of the species. Aptly put by Hull (2008), “… the truth is that individuals around the world pursue pleasure with a vehemence. Sexuality is fuelled by pleasure”. Throughout history and across culture we can see evidence of this fascination through the sexually explicit imagery depicted in art, literature and architecture.

Today, technological advances have seen sexually explicit material (SEM) move from canvas and print, to film and screen, to computer and smart phone in a cumulative and exponential fashion. Predominantly communal viewing of art and architecture in public spaces has moved to personal and anonymous at home. Few depictions were available, compared with today, (estimated 420 million web pages). A younger population has access also. Professional producers are rivalled by ‘gonzo’ (home-made) porn and sexting,. Add the ‘pornification’ of mainstream media, and the ‘mainstreaming of fetishism’ ( ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’), and the result is a ‘tsunami’ of SEM widely available to our young people who are not necessarily (only) using it as the pleasure aid it was traditionally designed to be. Some stumble upon it accidentally, others are curious and many see it as a ‘how to’ manual for sex.

Juxtaposed against this is the slow moving law, policy and education systems -shrouded in bureaucracy and conservatism, making responsiveness to growing concern impossible. Parental contact with children has also declined in many cases resulting in limited sexual education in the home.

But is pornography harmful? Australia has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy of OECD countries. Chlamydia notifications have trebled over the last decade in WA, with 25% of reported cases in 15 – 19 year olds   Almost 500 young people aged 15 years and below became parents in Australia in 2012. Consumption of pornography is unlikely to be solely responsible for this but with the wider influence of sexualised media is most likely a significant contributor.

Much research specifically on the effects of early pornography exposure has been done. Unlike what is routinely portrayed in the media, positive, negative and negligible effects have all been found.

Negative correlations to pornography consumption have been found with body image, lack of condom use and an unhealthier lifestyle and obesity for example, but on an extremely positive note, reported sex crimes in the USA have declined by 60% since pornography became widely available online.  The situation is inherently too complex to make the blanket statement that pornography has a negative effect on young people, Smith(2015) best describes viewing porn as being a “continuum from healthy, positive and educative to exploitative, detrimental and addictive”.

Bureaucratic attempts at censorship are becoming less effective as technology moves at a pace they can’t keep up with. As a global society, we need to realise that we have about as much control over this exposure as we do the weather. Certain academics suggest that education, not censorship is the best way forward, and going one step further I believe that current resources should be diverted out of classification and censorship and into education.

Comprehensive sexuality education has long been espoused by researchers as the way forward. It is imperative that recommended content now include media literacy and specifically information on pornography. ‘Porn Ed’ will provide context to the bombardment of images our young people are inundated with; the good, (such as eroticism and fantasy, its place in intimacy and relationships, a safe pleasure aid.), the bad (such as the depiction of unprotected sex, child pornography and violence against women) and the ugly (the potential risks involved, such as addiction, the hardwiring of extreme arousal pathways leading to impotence, and even obesity). It will also give them the necessary skills and tools to critically analyse the content and how to process it from their own personal perspective, as well as information on where to turn if the situation gets beyond the young persons’ control. An increased knowledge base will empower them to avoid the potentially harmful effects, and if desired, use it as the positive sexual outlet it can be.

We also need to break down the barriers of delivering such education to young people by swaying decision makers. Just like ‘Driver’s Ed’ perhaps a separate arm of education is the way to go.

Parents also need to have access to ‘Porn Ed’ and be strongly encouraged to take responsibility for their children’s sexuality education at an individual and family level.

We need to get just as clever and creative as marketing companies to engage young people. We need to endorse organisations already producing ‘ethical porn’, such as non hetero-normative varieties and those emphasising female pleasure.

Like it or not, there is a ‘perfect storm’ of exposure to SEM amongst our young people. Time to ‘Fight Fire with Fire’, and provide ‘Porn Ed’ as an integral part of media literacy. Otherwise we may elicit the very outcomes we fear, not due to pornography itself, but due to a lack of education surrounding it.

 

Christina Self has worked in community and corporate health service delivery for more than 15 years as an Exercise Physiologist, Personal Trainer, Corporate Health Consultant, Youth Health Program Manager, Sexuality Educator and CPR Trainer. She is currently studying a Graduate Diploma in Sexology at Curtin University and is a member of the Youth Affairs Council of Western Australia (YACWA), Society of Australian Sexologists (SAS) and the Australian Association for Adolescent Health (AAAH). She can be contacted via email – [email protected]