This guest blog is written by Reni Eddo-Lodge who is writes about all sorts of social justice issues at renieddolodge.co.uk
Young people have always been, and will continue to be interested in sex. The critical question shouldn’t necessarily be about whether they can access sex videos online, but rather about where they get their information from. If it’s not available at school or if parents are too squeamish, it’s unsurprising that young people might turn to porn to find out what goes where. David Cameron’s solution to this is an opt-in porn filter enforced by all internet service providers. He says this will protect childhood innocence, but it strikes me that this take is much like trimming at the leaves of a tree in order to stop it growing rather than ripping it out at the root.
Very recently, Cameron delivered a speech about the dangers of porn. He described it as a cultural problem, saying: ‘Many children are viewing online pornography and other damaging material at a very early age and…the nature of that pornography is so extreme it is distorting their view of sex and relationships.’ In his speech, the concept of education was mentioned a handful of times, all in the context of online safety rather than consent.
Though I am nowhere near being Prime Minister any time soon, I’d like to suggest a more holistic approach. In an ideal world, age appropriate sex and relationships education and hardcore pornography could peacefully coexist .We’d have a curriculum that equips young people with the critical tools to interpret, challenge, and (if they so wish) avoid porn. The impending porn block might crack down on the perceived problem of the ‘sexualisation’ of children, but David Cameron doesn’t even attempt to broach the real problem.
Frankly, it is blatant hypocrisy that Cameron would move to crack down on access to pornography whilst abandoning compulsory sex education. It’s a move that placates the concerns of parents, whilst leaving young people high and dry. When it comes to porn, education and sex, the concerns of the different generations are not the same. In 2011 we saw the Bailey report - a review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of children. The Bailey report gave voice to a lot of worried parents. In its qualitative research, it quoted parents who said things like: “The music videos that children can watch are extremely explicit – from the clothes they wear to the words and actions. Some songs my 13 year old sings back are shocking”.
Yet just a few years earlier, UK Youth Parliament released a report called 'Are you Getting it?' After surveying over 20,000 young people, they found that 40% said the sex education they received in school was poor or very poor, with 33% saying it was average. They also found that 57% of girls aged 15 to 17 had not been taught how to use a condom. Condoms rarely appear in porn, so it’s clear there is a problem here. Schools aren’t teaching it and porn isn’t representing reality. So how are young people supposed to know?
The current substandard, non-compulsory state of sex and relationships education in the UK is tantamount to state negligence. This is against a national backdrop in which consent is not on the curriculum and too many people learn about it through trial and error. I wish I could say that this is an exaggeration, but the reality is that one in five women in England and Wales have reported a sexual offence since the age of 16 - and that’s nothing on the hundreds and thousands of incidents that go unreported to victim blaming and shame.
It doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon. Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE), the traditional home of sex ed, was left languishing at non-statutory status on the national curriculum in the latest government review.
We still live in a world where young people are none the wiser until they actively seek out information. A strong, preventative, educational line on consent could alleviate some of the fears around hardcore porn that already exists and could draw clear lines around fantasy and reality. If Cameron is serious about protecting young people both on and offline then he has to realise that consent is the key. We’re not just at risk from paedophiles - we also pose risks to each other.