Relationships, Sex Education and Pornography: What should schools do next?

The Office for the Children’s Commissioner for England yesterday published a report into the adverse effects of pornography on our children and young people. Its title is “Basically …….porn is everywhere” and explains that a “significant minority” of our children and young people are exposed to pornography, and that in some cases this leads to risky behaviour and a distorted view of sex.

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http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/content/publications/content_667

Firstly, we would like to say that we welcome a frank and open discussion about pornography, and it’s something that we’ve been advocating for a long time. Let’s face facts. Pornography has been around for centuries. It’s not new and neither is young (or older) people’s interest in sex.

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Secondly, we’d like to make two points at the beginning of this piece. One could call them facts but they’re probably more akin to opinion.

  1. In the main, we are fearful of talking to young people about sex.
  2. In the main, we are fascinated by and enjoy sex.

In addition to these two statements there are other issues that we need to consider.

  • Our society is a sexualised society. Sex is everywhere: Our advertisers, television production companies and newspapers use sexual imagery to sell products and entice viewers and readers.

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  • The current provision for sex education in this country is at best mixed, at worst non-existent other than the statutory requirement to know about reproduction as part of the science national curriculum.
  • Children and young people are constantly asking for more support, lessons and advice on relationships within the school curriculum.

The report makes some recommendations, which we shall come to in a minute. However, it also very carefully and constructively outlines some of the problems with this research which we would like to refer to.

Please consider these quotes from the report under the heading, “What we are less confident about” – page 8

“There are ….. contradictory findings regarding the possible effects of pornography on children and young people’s sexual expectations, but there is some emerging evidence indicating that young people are dissatisfied with the sex education they are receiving and that they are increasingly drawing on pornography, expecting it to educate and give information regarding sexual practices and norms.”

“There is a reasonable amount of research that links exposure to pornography with aggressive behaviour. However, it is limited in its interpretive value. Fewer studies have investigated whether victimisation via aggressive behaviour is linked vicariously or directly to pornography…… Even fewer studies have examined pornography’s relationship with sexual offending among children and young people, and hardly any have used non-offending control groups.”

Essentially, this section of the report is saying that there are clear gaps in the research and at present there isn’t necessarily an identified causal effect of watching pornography and sexual deviance without other underlying issues being present, i.e. the deviant behaviour may not be an outcome of viewing pornography but could be more to do with social and personal factors within the individual.

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The report continues to say on page 9/10 that there are “Questions still to answer”, and these are really important when considering what we, as educators and parents, should do next.

1. Potential individual differences: We do not know whether a child’s or young person’s characteristics, vulnerabilities and/or strengths are related to exposure and/or access (and, if they are, how and why).

2. Likelihood of exposure or access: How and whether we should limit opportunities for exposure and access are unclear.

3. Cultural or subcultural effects on young people’s attitudes and behaviours towards and stemming from pornography have yet to be fully considered.

4. Young people’s feelings towards and perceptions of pornography have been largely untapped.

5. Potential associations between pornography and pathological behaviour are not clear. For example, we cannot say whether sexual addiction or compulsivity among children and young people stem from access and exposure to pornography.

6. The effect that viewing sexualised or violent images has on children and young people: The remit of this REA meant that we could consider only those literature reviews and meta-analyses which showed that there is an extensive but mixed evidence base requiring further scrutiny.

7. The mechanisms or duration of change to either attitude or behaviour still need to be considered.

8. Parameters and possible intersections between sexualised and violent imagery and pornography are contested and unresolved.

9. Causal relationships between pornography and associated expectations, attitudes and behaviours are still to be elucidated.

CATHERINE

The report continues to make some very clear recommendations that we would concur with and some that we would be a little concerned about.

It calls for the department of education to,

“ensure that all schools understand the importance of, and deliver, effective relationship and sex education which must include safe use of the internet. A strong and unambiguous message to this effect should be sent to all education providers including: all state funded schools including academies; maintained schools; independent schools; faith schools; and further education colleges.

Ensure curriculum content on relationships and sex education covers access and exposure to pornography, and sexual practices that are relevant to young people’s lives and experiences, as a means of building young people’s resilience

Rename ‘sex and relationships education’ (SRE) to ‘relationships and sex education’ (RSE) to place emphasis on the importance of developing healthy, positive, respectful relationships.”

It goes on to recommend that work in this sensitive area should be carried out by specialised teachers, youth workers and sexual health practitioners.

Sex and relationship education is important. It’s more than important. It’s vital that every child has equal access to information about sex and relationships. It’s vital that every child has the opportunity to review, develop and consider their attitudes and values towards sex and the relationships that they have with others – platonic or sexual.

The deputy children’s commissioner said on the radio yesterday that pornography ought to be introduced into the national curriculum as an addition to existing programmes of work. Our problem with this is that existing programmes of work are so limited that contextualising work on pornography isn’t actually possible – because the frameworks within which to include frank and open discussions about pornography aren’t there.

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Before we even consider pornography, we have to overcome this issue of our fear of talking about sex and the fear that this will somehow lead children into premature sexual activity. (Incidentally there’s no evidence that talking about sex does lead children to experimental and premature activity – in fact there is evidence of the exact opposite; that quality SRE delays sex).  We also have to overcome the idea that sex is something that should be hidden away when we all know that sex is an essential part of our lives and that we explicitly use sex (because it is positive) as a means to sell products and entice people to watch certain television programmes and films.

We have to be honest about sex, and part of that honesty is acknowledging the extent and easy accessibility to sexual images and sexual films through a range of pornographic sites that are known by young people and adults alike.

We don’t actually want there to be a set, contrived and decontextualized lesson on pornography, unless SRE in itself is clearly established within a school. Essentially, the large majority of schools aren’t ready to discuss pornography because their relationships work is not embedded and honest. What we want and what we would concur with is compulsory relationship and sex education as an entitlement for all of our children and young people. The importance of this can’t be stressed enough. Our society and individuals within society have suffered enough from the lack of quality SRE over decades.

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Of course we need our children to be safe, and internet safety is a must. Within that conversation, there could and possibly should be a reference to pornography but we can’t talk about this without having a firm foundation of generic sex and relationship work in schools. In line with any good practice and pedagogy, a very clear assessment of pupils needs should be carried out before any lesson on sex and relationships, and the lessons subsequent to that should be relevant to the individuals within that individual class.

With specific regard to pornography, we should be ensuring that our teachers have the appropriate training to facilitate open and honest discussions about sex (and pornography specifically) and we should ensure that children and young people feel safe enough to enable them to have a frank and open discussion about all sexual issues that matter to them. Once they know that they are free to speak rather than hide with embarrassment their intended and unintended experiences of porn, then we can address some of issues that arise from pornography. We can no longer hide from its existence.

Finally, for now, we believe that the people best placed to talk about sex and relationships are people known to children and young people, i.e. their parents/carers and teachers. Whilst the expertise of specialised teachers and sexual health workers is invaluable, the best SRE happens within an established relationship. To this end, we wouldn’t concur wholly with the recommendation about specialised teaching. We would, however, be more than happy to support any school and any group of teachers who want to be more adept and more confident in their own skill set that will enable some honest and vital discussions on this important issue of sex and relationships.

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Please contact us on info@3diassociates.com  if you’d like to consider some level of support.

(Our next post will look more into the subject of teaching SRE – or as suggested by the Commissioner and others, RSE – placing relationships at the forefront of any work on sex.)

Previous posts referring to SRE

https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/national-curriculum-consultation-part-1/

https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/outcome-of-the-pshe-education-review/

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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