Answering young people’s questions about sex is as, if not more, important than filtering access to online pornography, says Madeleine French. This is an extract from the Guardian…
A cheer spread around the internet in March when the EU voted against proposals that could have led to internet service providers (ISPs) having to ‘police porn’ online. If this felt familiar, it may be because MPs here rejected similar proposals in December that would have forced ISPs to block porn unless computer owners requested otherwise. Although temporarily shot down, campaigns to filter porn from young people’s lives that drove these proposals haven’t disappeared.
A similar Online Safety Bill remains in discussion in the House of Lords, and with online porn block advocate MP Claire Perry now the PM’s adviser on childhood sexualisation, the government has reasserted its support for preventing young people from viewing porn. With much discussion about the ‘damage’ online porn does to young people, it’s important to reflect on what we actually know.
These campaigns are often based on assumptions that excessive exposure to online pornography is harmful to young people. In truth, partly due to ethical challenges of discussing sexual topics with young teenagers, we know little about the impact pornography has on their sexual behaviour. A 2010 Ofcom peer-reviewed report of available studies found they showed no conclusive evidence that sexually explicit material ‘impairs on the development of minors’.
Dr Clare Bale is a management consultant and sexual health expert whose research looked into how young people engage with sexual media. She believes they have more control than they’re given credit for.
“Often you hear that young people are ‘exposed’ to pornography but what I found is that they engage with porn in a number of ways,” says Bale. “They share porn for the ‘yuck’ factor, the humour factor and for pleasure. Some look for pornography but if a pop up appears online and they don’t want to engage then they shut it down.”
Although many professionals share Bale’s view, this nuanced understanding of how teenagers engage with pornography doesn’t tend to make headlines. The shock tactics that do, highlighting isolated incidences of sexual violence as proof of the corruption of young people by porn, can cause problems…