There has been a lot of discussion and press coverage recently about pornography and its impact on young people's values and attitudes and their understanding of healthy relationships, consent and sexual violence and safety. The Office of the Children's Commissioner published 'Porn is basically everywhere....' (hence the title of this blog). As I write this weekend Woman's Hour is discussing pornography, sexual violence and the importance of sex education as fundamental in protecting young people.
As you would expect there is a very wide range of different views about pornography and its impact on attitudes and behaviour. The evidence is in fact pretty unclear (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/30/ban-pornography-and-you-promote-censorship). It is crystal clear however is the back drop against which young people develop an understanding of sex and sexuality is changing dramatically in the digital age and access to pornography is getting easier.
Pornography comes in all shapes and sizes. Some of it portrays illegal, abusive and dangerous activity and that of course requires a particular response. And despite much of the concern focusing on 'hard core porn' the confidence and concerns of a lot of young people are likely to be centred around images of 'perfect' bodies and and overly competent sexual activity that creates anxiety and confusion about pubic hair, ejaculate, breast or penis size etc.
It is also clear that whatever internet controls are available access to and availability of pornography is here to stay. Our job as sensible adults is to trust young people, keep pornography use in perspective and to ensure that pornography is not the primary sex educator for young people by educating them about pornography ourselves.
Despite what many people believe most young people manage their sexual lives and relationships pretty well. Day in day out at Brook we see hundreds of young people who despite our peculiar culture about sex make an active decision to access education, help, advice and treatment.
Most of them tell us they wish they had better education at home and at school, most of them know the difference between fantasy and reality or are savvy enough to ask the difference if we create safe spaces. And it is our job to ensure ALL of them know the difference between fantasy and reality and have safe spaces to ask through good education and support. That is why I was so pleased to see the recommendation from the Office of the Children's Commissioner that we must improve sex and relationships education in schools.
It is our job to help young people - both young men and young women - feel good about themselves and confident about their rights, understand what consent is and how to actively give or refuse it, the importance of only having sex they want and choose and know that everyone has the right to say no, to change their mind or to do some things but not others.
And whatever else goes on in the digital age those are values, beliefs and skills we can and must nurture in our young people. To do otherwise is an abdication of our responsibility to young people.
The Sex Education Forum has published a magazine to help us talk to young people about pornography (www.ncb.org.uk/SEF). http://bishuk.com/ also has useful advice and materials.