Brace yourselves, faint-hearted countrymen and women: if you thought the fact that we’re considering making sex education for five-year-olds statutory was bad enough, now a Scandinavian sexologist (for who else could it be?) is recommending that porn should be shown in the classroom. It may be for pedagogical reasons, so that it can be critically analysed as a way of teaching teenagers that it is nothing like real sex; but still, you can see the panicked headlines if it were to be advocated here.
It’s a shame that porn in the classroom would be such a source of controversy in Britain. It is a progressive move that would only catch on if the nation were to undergo a wholesale sexual shame transplant. Nevertheless, we can fantasise. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if the buttoned-up British could transform overnight into a liberated mass of laid-back, well-adjusted Euro-shaggers who have grown up in households that are comfortable with nudity? (I tend to view the whole of Scandinavia as a kind of gigantic sauna full of sweaty, consensual fun and judgment-free openness. With feminism, and meatball snacks.)
Were society to discuss porn openly and critically, our children would be better adjusted, and our sex lives would, in all likelihood, be more fulfilled. There are those who doubt the anecdotal evidence of what young men and women have been telling researchers over the years: that porn is affecting their sexual relationships in myriad disturbing and distressing ways.
Young women have told me how surprised they have been when, during sex, hands have been placed around their necks, their hair has been pulled so hard they’ve wept, their faces and breasts have been ejaculated on without consent. We know that 40% of teenage girls have been pressured into sex, and that there is the very real problem of gang exploitation. Young men have spoken about their inability to become aroused by “real” girls anymore, and about the isolating impact of porn addiction on their lives.
You may doubt their testimonies, but anyone who interacts regularly with young people knows that hardcore porn is increasingly mainstream. To any parent who worries that porn in the classroom would lead to it becoming normalised, I would say this: too late. By the time your child is 15 or 16, the age at which Professor Christian Graugaard suggests the sessions take place, they will have already seen porn. Sorry to break it to you.
As someone who goes into schools to talk to pupils about the sometimes subtle but hugely destructive sexism of women’s magazines, I know the importance of being able to critically analyse the media that you are bombarded with. Equally teenagers realise that a lot of what they are presented with is cynical, or designed to manipulate, and are always keen to discuss why this is.
Granted, being made to watch porn in a classroom alongside 30 other pupils is unlikely to be a comfortable experience, but it could be useful to have an adult point out the plot holes (no pun intended, obviously), in the manner of “OK, guys, so that orgasm is obviously fake, because as you can see he’s barely in and already she’s going buck-wild”. Teenagers might be able to spot that the action that is taking place isn’t happening in a real nurse’s office (even the horniest adolescent knows that medical staff don’t dress head to toe in vinyl). But they could do with some guidance in other areas, especially with regards to consent. Why is she crying? Didn’t she say “no” repeatedly? What’s going on here? Who is in control, and why?
The absence of an alternative narrative, coupled with the pressure to make their own porn using phones, is frightening
Detractors will argue that young people can tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and to an extent they can. But the complete absence of an alternative narrative, coupled with the pressure young people are under to make their own porn using phones, is frightening. Turning teenagers into “conscientious and critical consumers” cannot fail to sound progressive in comparison with the level of guidance educators are currently providing.
I suspect there may be a long way still to go. In the UK, adult memories of school sex education are inextricably entwined with a palpable sense of embarrassment. I have heard many such horror stories, but the tale that best encapsulates the British attitude towards talking about sex in the classroom was that of a young woman whose teacher conducted the entire lesson while sitting behind a screen. And that was just the mechanics.
As for discussing pornography in an unflappable manner, I just don’t think we could do it. (“Fnar fnar, you just said flaps, miss!” See?) This is mainly because teachers are, other than their own parents, the last people that teenagers want to hear about sex from. But what if you had a team of specially trained professionals who came in and talked about it? Groups such as the student-led Sexpression:UK, whose volunteers are not only closer in age to the pupils, but carry the added kudos of not teaching them about oxbow lakes and soil erosion for the rest of the week, have been very successful.
It is time we wake up to the fact that a sex education curriculum that does not include porn is not a sex education curriculum, and furthermore is one that is failing in its safeguarding duty. Because better discussion of porn and consent is vital when set against a backdrop of child sexual exploitation.
Teenagers have passionate views on sex and porn and want to talk about them. Embarrassing though it may be, it’s high time adults started talking back.