Should Christians teach young people about porn?

sex ed comic 2Like most adults in the UK my school sex education was rudimentary. By law, the science curriculum must cover puberty and reproduction and then in secondary school give information about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. I was one of the lucky ones who had a dedicated sex and relationship education class with the brave Mrs Stickland who taught us 13 and 14 year-olds about sex, contraception and consent. Outside of the national curriculum, schools can offer as much or as little as they want but most choose not to and, scarily, 26% of secondary school pupils report getting no sex and relationship education (SRE) at all. Which leaves young people desperate to know more but unable to access reliable sources. A staggering 80% of young people get their sex education from elsewhere…their friends, TV and increasingly pornography.

So what is anyone doing about it? Well an old friend of mine, Sarah, and her husband Matt run a programme in schools in Bury St Edmunds called The Love Life Project. They have been running these workshops for years and I have been promising to come for just as long, so this summer I went back to school…

In terms of my faith, I fall somewhere near agnostic, though has never stopped Sarah and I being friends. I respect people with faith but as a feminist I have found some aspects of religion problematic for women’s rights. The role of the Catholic church in the HIV/AIDs epidemic in Africa, the picketing of abortion clinics by Christian groups and the emphasis by the religious on abstinence though its efficacy is widely questioned has left me wondering what role, if any, religion should have in sex education. So it’s fair to say I approached these two days with a little trepidation.

But my fears were totally unfounded. Sarah and Matt have designed the programme to have minimal faith content. They actively don’t proselytise and apart from discussing the non-religious benefits of abstinence there was no even vaguely Christian content. What their course does have is some great activities that got the young people talking and thinking about sex and relationships. What’s more, as a husband and wife team they come prepared to be totally honest about their love lives, giving examples to the young people of where they made mistakes and what they would do differently.

They warmed up with a discussion of the non-religious reasons for abstinence which got the young people thinking about all sorts of issues. They covered STI transmissions, consent (using this really cool description) and a frank discussion about porn. The truth is, no one is talking to young people about porn. Schools, for fear of seeming to endorse it, tend to ignore the subject totally. But when The LoveLife Project surveyed 13-14 years olds across the Bury St Edmunds they found that 90% of boys cited porn as the most influential factor in their sex education.

Personally I think there is nothing inherently bad about images of people being sexual and pornography can even be empowering and feminist. But mainstream porn only shows one type sex where female submission is the norm and where violence and aggression towards women preponderate. The younger someone is, the more susceptible they are to what they see on the internet which can lead young men to a warped view of sexual relations.

Faheem Aks CC

Faheem Aks CC

We know that porn is changing the attitudes of children including the development of antagonistic and unhealthy views towards women. Pornography has also been linked to sexually coercive behaviour among young people, and, for young women, viewing pornography is linked with higher rates of sexual harassment and forced sex.

The proliferation of smart phones and tablets mean that porn is just a few clicks away and even if young people don’t search for it directly, ‘exposure’ to porn by peers is a lot more common than ‘accessing’ it directly. So Matt and Sarah decided to tackle this head on their class discussing the difference between real sex and porn sex and making it clear that violence and coercion should not be the basis of sex.

The second activity asked the pupils to consider how relationships to progress from ‘holding hands’ to ‘having babies’ what order should these things come in? Sarah and Matt already know that most of the groups will fail to put ‘getting and using contraception and STI protection’ before oral sex and sexual touching (because, you know, sexual touching isn’t really sex…right?) which gave Sarah and Matt another opportunity to bang the ‘safer sex’ drum.

It was amazing how jaded some of the 13 year olds were already, believing the sex was inevitable and would come early in the relationship. Some girls even argued that sexual activity was a way to find out if you can trust someone or not. So why did the girls think that these boys were so sex obsessed? “It’s because we look at porn” said one and another said “probably because of the way we look at them and talk at them”. And how he right he was, now if only there was another week of The LoveLife Project to get into challenging this behaviour.

Another activity asked the pupils to consider what they wanted from a girlfriend. Depressingly, almost every group of boys had some version of ‘make me a sandwich’ but within both sexes  monogamy, having friends of the opposite sex were also common and not not flirting were popular.

So far, so interesting. Over the course of two days I saw four groups, each with their own dynamic including the one or two pupils considered to be the most sexually active or knowledgeable. But most groups were characterised by the terrible trouble of being 13, A third of the class is still firmly in childhood, another blossoming into young adults and a final third somewhere in the midst of bad skin, growth spurts and pubic hair.

The young people were given a mobile phone number to anonymously ask any questions about sex. There were common questions such as, ‘does it hurt when you have sex for the first time?’ and some silly ones like ‘spit or swallow’ and at the end of the session Sarah and Matt try to address them honestly.

Sadly one group took the jokey texts too far and sent in just the most outrageous stream of filth concerning Sarah and what Matt ‘did’ to her. They had yet to blanch over anything said in the sessions but this left them a little shaken. But rather than gloss over it, they addressed it head on.

Matt expressed his outrage that they should talk about Sarah like this. She was a human being, he said, and these texts were degrading, offensive and sick. Is it porn that makes you think it’s ok to make such hateful comments about women? he asked. And Sarah added that their view of sex must be very warped if they thought it is just about the man ‘doing’ stuff to the woman. She and Matt are a team, she said, and have sex together. Apparently their outcry worked as they received a text saying ‘I’m sorry’ from the number who had done most of the texting.

It was a slightly dark end to the two days at the school, but it only served to confirm how important it is to talk to young people about these issues. Misogyny is rampant in young people and when 41% of young women aged 18-25 feel they have been pressurised into doing something they did not want it is clear that something needs to be done.

The three sessions I watched gave me a deep admiration for Sarah and Matt who are so determined to have the conversations with young people that no one is willing to have. I loved that the programme was not faith-based even though they are and that their years of work with young people have made them excellent educators.

The LoveLife Project only lasts two and half hours but If they had all the time in the world then there are plenty of things they could add in. More discussion around consent would be great as well as how to resist the peer pressure to have sex. Given that one group of girls reported having their bums pinched daily a discussion about sexual harassment would probably be important but there is only so much they can fit into their allotted time.

The great news is Sarah and Matt are launching a programme to work with parents too. They started working with parents from church because, they told me ”Christians are terrible at talking about two things: parenting and sex.” A fact which has lead to many Christian parents adopting a ‘head in the sand’ approach to these discussions. Their pilot class was a success and they hope to roll it out to all Bury parents between 2013-14.

If you would like Sarah and Matt to come to your school then email srushby@bcy.org.uk or find out more about the LoveLife Project here.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Should Christians teach young people about porn?

  • October 15, 2013 at 00:06
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    Thanks Polly for this very indepth analysis of your findings when you listened in to Matt and Sarah’s honest discussion on matters relating to sex with teenagers in the Bury St. Edmunds area. It is rare to find people brave enough to talk so openly to teenagers about something that is so crucial to their lives. As an African, I can honestly say that we still have our heads deeply buried in the sand and still at the stage where sex is a taboo area in the family and children would normally never even dream of raising the subject with their parents because they know what the reaction will be; something to the effect that ‘no sex please we are African’. I can however say that we have moved a step ahead in that we can now talk fairly openly about sex with our friends and agemates; but this is reminiscient to preaching to the converted and the same goes for discussions about HIV which is still a big problem among our people. My fear is that if many of us continue along the same lines, our children are going to get their sex education from their peers and at worst from the electronic media.We have no way of stopping it unless we overcome communication barriers between us and our children; feel the fear and the trepidation, but do it anyway because we really do not have much choice.
    Your friends are to be congratulated for making such a brave and neccesary move.

    Reply
    • October 15, 2013 at 00:55
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      Trizah! So good to hear from you after all these years. Thank you for your insightful comments, are you still working in HIV prevention?

      Reply
  • October 12, 2014 at 01:10
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    It’s out there and will always be out there. To not teach our children about this is doing them a disservice in my own opinion — they will find out about it eventually and might as well learn from a trusted and reliable source instead of some young heathen.

    Reply

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