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No longer a taboo subject

Pensive pupil is sitting and using her computer

Pornography and its impact on children and teenagers is a large and growing issue. Research both here in New Zealand and around the world shows teenagers are watching more porn than ever. It’s affecting the way they think, act and view relationships. Although porn has been around for many years, never has it been so accessible. And on top of that, never has it been more aggressive or degrading.

Australian educator Maree Crabbe is the director of Reality & Risk. She is an international speaker on the topic of porn and young people and has recently been to New Zealand giving talks throughout the country.

Maree first became interested in the subject of teenagers and porn after working in schools teaching about sexuality. “Over the years I asked people where they were learning about sex, and they increasingly spoke about porn. It kept coming up as a source of education.” She realised more and more kids were watching porn and using it as their sole source of sexual education. “So, I started a three-year project. That was 11 years ago. There’s a lot more work to be done.”

Maree is one of only a few people in the world educating people on this topic. Through her subsequent research, she found pornography certainly is now the most prominent sex educator for many young people. Most young people discover porn well before they encounter sex and sometimes before they have even kissed a partner.

The statistics are blatant and can’t be ignored. More than 90 per cent of boys have seen online porn. More than 60% of girls have. Nearly 90% of scenes of the most popular porn include physical aggression.

Maree says there’s some great work being done in New Zealand, citing particular recent research. The New Zealand Office of Film and Literature did significant research last year into young people’s porn exposure in New Zealand. They surveyed more than 2000 teenagers on how and why they view online pornography.

The research found porn is a fact of life for young New Zealanders. They discovered porn influences the way young people think and act. The research also found porn is complicated and often troubling for young people and that teenagers themselves think there should be limits.

Some troubling data came out of the research. One in four said they first saw porn before the age of 12, but 71% of those were not seeking out pornography when they first saw it. Some teens are watching porn regularly and the majority of that group started watching it regularly by age 14.

Young people did think there were negative things about porn. They cited the fact it promotes unhealthy views and false expectations about sex and relationships and that it normalises violence and aggressive behaviour. But the majority of teens also thought it had some positive influences as well. Many thought porn was a good learning tool and it helped them learn about sex. For some it was the primary way they learnt about sex and one in five people who’ve seen porn in the past six months said they’ve tried doing something they’d seen in porn.

The research found some sort of regulation around access to porn could provide some valuable protection for young people, especially children. And that young people want more and better education on sex and sexuality. Many were dissatisfied with the sex education they were offered at school.

Maree says parents and educators now need to face up to the fact this is an issue no-one can ignore. Research now shows it’s not a question of ‘if’ young people will watch porn, it’s ‘when’. Children as young as 6 are either accidentally coming across it or being exposed to it by others. She says later on (but again as young as 8), some are actively seeking it out.

And porn has changed. Modern porn is very different from the softly lit, badly filmed soft core that once was. Porn producers are now constantly looking for new angles to get their porn to be the popular one and what sells is much rougher and harder than ever before. Aggressive acts like gagging, choking and slapping are common. Women’s degradation is also common. In fact, 94% of porn aggression is directed at women.

Maree says the industry is also implying that porn’s signature sex acts are ‘normal’. Young people are left thinking ejaculation on faces, deep throating fellatio and anal sex are things that most people do.

But it’s something that needs to be talked about. It affects both genders and shapes their sexual experiences for years to come. Some young men are genuinely surprised when their partner doesn’t want to or doesn’t enjoy what they have seen people “enjoying” in porn. Young people’s sexual understandings, expectations and practices are being shaped by what they – or their partners or peers – see online.

Maree says her single biggest piece of advice for parents is they need to be involved supporting young people through this new reality, even if it feels uncomfortable.

She also says that although schools are getting better, there is still a long way to go. Because equipping children for sexuality in the 21st century has to involve education around porn. Schools need to equip their staff, have a high quality of professional learning around the topic and good quality resources. They need to engaged the parent community as partners and have a good curriculum around it.

But it also starts in the home and with help from the parent. It’s tough territory but it’s crucial. Maree says it’s understandable that parents and children want to avoid the porn talk. But they shouldn’t and there are different ways she recommends:

Create a private, unpressured time to talk.

Think through what you want to ask and say and do it privately. If it’s too awkward, the car is always a great place to talk where you have a captive audience, but can avoid eye contact if your child is embarrassed.

Use an outside media source as a springboard.

Using something you or your child have seen or read can be a good starting point. A newspaper article about the influence of porn or a website such as is helpful. This shows the child, it’s an issue not just in your home.

Use a story or personal experience.

If you hear a story of another child accessing porn, talk to your child about it. Then it’s not directly related to them. If you discover your child has searched out or been exposed to porn, stay calm and have a porn talk.

Write a letter.

If it all feels too hard or awkward or your child responds badly to a talk, try writing them a letter. Then you can carefully think what and how you’d like to say and they have time to absorb it.

Laws around the world will soon start moving to keep up with this evolving industry and the easy access to it. The UK is about to introduce restrictions on watching pornography of a kind never seen before in the world.

The Government there is planning to stop children being damaged by watching adult porn content by introducing a rigorous age verification process. Websites that aren’t part of the blocks could find themselves blocked entirely within the UK. There’s no indication the New Zealand government is looking at doing the same but no doubt legislative eyes around the world will be watching with interest.

Maree Crabbe says one of the most important things young people need to understand is pornography is not reality. That people in porn are actors and that they are performing for the viewer. And that what is portrayed in porn is not only make believe, it also carries dangerous messages.

Crabbe says the other messages young people need to hear are:

Porn bodies are not normal, actors have surgery to make their genitals and bodies look like that. And that normal people do grow body hair.

Also, porn sex is not safe sex. Multiple partners without condoms often leads to sexually transmitted diseases in the porn industry and some performers suffer long term damage to their bodies.

Porn misrepresents pleasure. These people are paid to look like they’re enjoying it.

Sex is not just for men to enjoy. The majority of porn shows men pursuing and getting what they want. Sex should feel good, both emotionally and physically for both partners.

Consent is crucial to good sex and sex is not a performance.

Sex can be so much better than what you see in porn. The keys to good sex are communication, consent and respect.

Porn can shape sexual tastes. If you watch enough of it, your arousal is led by the things you are seeing and you will start to crave that yourself.

Maree says because a lot of porn is accidentally viewed particularly by younger children, it’s important to have filters on modems and devices. “We know children who want to see porn can get around those filters but 71% of people who viewed porn were not looking for it so filters can help unintentional viewing.” She says keeping devices in a shared space is good and also limiting time on devices. “That’s good for our wellbeing generally.”

These are all messages age-appropriate children need to hear. It can no longer be a taboo subject because the statistics and research are undeniable. The more we talk with each other, in schools and within our families, the message will be clear. Porn is not reality, in neither a physical or emotional sense. It can damage children and their future relationships if we don’t address it with them.

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