Sex education, porn and the minefield of online morality

by Elisabeth Easther / 03 September, 2017

Elisabeth Easther navigates the minefield of 21st-century sex education and online morality – using tools she was given in the 70s and 80s.

I’ve been trying to get my head around porn for a while now – specifically how it impacts on the lives of our young people, how its effects are bleeding into areas of consent and choice, and how it presumably alters people’s perceptions of what is “acceptable” behaviour.

I’ve also been worrying about how easy it is these days to access hardcore pornography – then I started wondering if the explosion of X-rated online content could have contributed to the likes of Roast Busters? Or to the boys of Wellington College crowing about rape on Facebook? Or to the Chiefs players making such poor decisions at their aptly named “Mad Monday” fiasco?

As for the St Pat’s Silverstream case where students were involved in the “inappropriate filming” of female staff, how could anyone, regardless of age or IQ, ever think that was acceptable? Even harder to comprehend is that those students were permitted to stay on at the school, while the female teachers felt their only option was to resign.

Without a doubt, human beings have been saying crass, offensive and illegal things since the advent of language but, thanks to the internet, such gross displays are now permanently aired in the public domain. And while some people try to brush off repugnant or misogynist comments – to say the behaviour is just “boys being boys” or “It’s just talk, they don’t mean it” – for those of us who don’t think it’s tolerable to touch a person without their consent and then brag about it, or to create or publish intimate pictures of people without their permission, we need to figure out: how do we teach our children the difference between right and wrong?

Being born in the 1970s, my first experience of “porn” was in my final year of primary school when a bunch of us would snatch furtive, giggling glances at my parents’ book, The Joy of Sex. The pen and ink illustrations were pretty unthreatening, comical even. I remember we laughed quite a lot, possibly out of embarrassment, but the experience certainly didn’t warp me for life.

As a teenager in the 1980s, printed material was the primary source of my generation’s sex education and, coincidentally, it was often titillating. It started with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, written in 1970. I waited till I was 12 before I read it, and looking back it felt totally age-appropriate. A single copy was handed around the girls at my school and, after reading it, we had a working knowledge of periods, crushes and, most interesting of all, the existence and location of the clitoris. I’m not sure my mother would have wanted me to read Lace at the age 14, but I did, on the sly. Today, it seems a relatively innocent thing to have felt I needed to hide Shirley Conran’s racy, blockbuster novel.

After all, we’re all alive on account of a sexual act: it’s supposed to be fun and of course it’s a popular pastime. Still, I’m staggered that the internet is used more for downloading pornography than any other thing. One study I found claimed one in four internet search queries is about porn, eight per cent of all emails sent are pornographic and a third of all downloads are porn – outstripping cute cats and music videos by a country mile. I’ve also discovered that these days, the average age when a child first views pornography is 11.

My son is 11 and I’m confident he’s not yet seen the sorts of things I know are out there. But when stories appear in the news about various aspects of sexual abuse or misconduct involving younger people, where appropriate we’ll talk about the issues. I do hope this is helping to form his moral code. Sometimes, though, I think I might be going too far in my desire to educate. Recently, while having a tickle battle, he was winning and I was gasping for air, saying “No, stop it, stop...” Admittedly, I was laughing, but my laughter was becoming more frantic and I did want it to stop. Our game quickly took a serious turn. I felt I needed to explain that if someone is saying no, they mean no. Even in a tickle battle. With your mother. Game spoiled. But I really felt like it had to be said.

Because at the other end of the consent spectrum, too often we read about young men (more often it is males, but not exclusively) who have refused to take no for an answer, or who’ve publicly shared abhorrent opinions about what is acceptable to do to young women – notably young women so intoxicated they’re no longer capable of granting or withholding consent. How did society get to this point, where it’s run-of-the-mill to think so little of another’s emotional and physical wellbeing?

 

When I was a teenager, it was commonplace for males passing by in cars to yell out, “Show us your tits!” Or your pussy. Usually, as a response, we’d give them the finger and tell them where to go.

 Looking back, I’m surprised we accepted such harassment, but it was just what happened when you walked down the street back then. I’d rather hoped that would change, but it turns out I’m just not the demographic being yelled at any more. Listening to John Campbell interview a young woman on the radio recently, I learned this kind of verbal assault is still commonplace, although the comments passing strangers make today have become more explicit and specific. And they feel more threatening.

Perhaps humans haven’t changed much over my lifetime, and rather it’s our means of communication, how we send and receive information, that’s changed.

Thinking about all this, I’m reminded of the time my son came home from school following his first Keeping Ourselves Safe session. This initiative is run by the police to help children navigate potentially dangerous situations – what used to be called “stranger danger”. In Year 4, aged eight and following his first foray into that sort of lesson, he returned home and told me he’d like to see a “phonographic” magazine with naked people doing crazy things. I think he meant pornographic, but I didn’t correct him. I shelved my shock and kept my voice even enough to ask him why he wanted to see something like that.

“I think it’d be funny,” he said, with a glint in his eye, clearly aware that something illicit was tantalising. Not ready to discuss phonographic magazines with a primary schooler, I changed the subject. “What would you like for dinner?” I asked. I was out of my depth back then, but now I’m learning to swim in these murky waters because I know I have to.

It’s not just little kids angling to shock their parents, either. I had dinner with a mate not long ago; we were going to see a play with her teenage daughter and I was aware there was a simulated act of fellatio in it. I wasn’t sure this was age-appropriate, so warned them both there was some adult content. “Not to worry,” said the 15-year-old. “I’ve Googled blow jobs. I’ve seen a how-to video on YouTube.”

We’re pretty liberal individuals, this other mother and me – and the teen was probably trying to be provocative. But when she saw our faces fall, she quickly reassured us she’d only watched the video, never actually performed the act herself. I can’t say that was entirely reassuring; I mean, she’s seen a porn star give a blow-job tutorial on YouTube? What’s the world coming to? I realise I’m feeling outraged and middle-aged because that’s what I’ve become.

And don’t get me started on the things my friends with teenage daughters are confronted with. For many, their social media use borders on addiction, while their posts are becoming increasingly provocative as they seek to emulate the poses and fashions of their online idols in a world where titillation and narcissism go hand in hand.

Despite the plethora of porn available on the internet today, people of all ages are increasingly inclined to make their own intimate movies at home. They send nude selfies to their current squeeze then have them either hacked from the cloud or, more likely, posted by their erstwhile lover when the union turns sour – an act that inevitably results in an unhappy ending when their pubic property is made public. Revenge porn: who didn’t see that coming? Yet it’s a term that’s only been in use since about 2010.

New Zealand’s Harmful Digital Communications Act was passed in 2015. In one notable case this year, a man with a protection order had published explicit pictures of his ex-wife on Facebook, but Colin Doherty, the presiding district court judge, decided there wasn’t enough evidence to prove “serious emotional distress” had been caused. Thankfully the police saw sense and took an appeal to the High Court – but is the act tough enough?

Clearly, for most people in the throes of new lust, long-term ramifications often don’t come into focus until it’s too late. And a warning for parents trying to keep an eye on their children’s textual intercourse: a whole new set of acronyms has been invented to keep mums and dads in the dark.

GNOC = Get naked on cam

GYPO = Get your pants off

NIFOC = Naked in front of computer

J/O = Jerking off

P911 = Parent alert

All in the name of KPC, or keeping parents clueless.

Every kid worth their salt knows how to take a screenshot, which means nothing’s ephemeral any more. All it takes is for one unfortunate image to find itself in the hands of the wrong person, and the next thing you know it’s not just all over school, it’s all over the world.

Netsafe provides a very helpful article called “So You Got Naked Online”, a resource for children, young people, their families and whanau. It’s built on sensible, calming and supportive advice but, while I read it, I imagined all the other people reading it because they had bared themselves online and were dealing with the fallout. And then I imagined the parents reading it, desperate to protect their child from a terrible mistake, and my blood ran cold. When I was a teen, I regularly did things I’m embarrassed about now, but happily those mistakes were made last century. And offline.

 

Hopeful of finding answers, I took my concerns to Mary Hodson, a therapist with Sex Therapy New Zealand, and asked what she thought about the pornification of society and what it might be doing to young people.

“My concerns for society in general are around the conflict between healthy sex and porn sex, and the tendency to become preoccupied with it, which is leading to unrealistic expectations,” she says. “And, while satisfying sexual experiences are very good for us, young people are often exposed to material [when] they have little or no cognitive framework upon which to hang the information they’re receiving… they have no way of coming to a useful understanding of it.”

Hodson is adamant “porn usually emphasises all the wrong aspects of sex. It features unrealistically sexualised bodies, unrealistic ‘turn-on times’ and unrealistic outcomes. There’s little attention paid to safe-sex practices, while teaching youngsters who watch it all the wrong things about sex at a time when they’re just starting to learn about love, sex and relationships.”

Dr Marty Klein, a well-known American sex therapist and author of self-help books, visited New Zealand in 2014 to run classes with a group of local sex therapists. He argues there’s nothing wrong with a little porn; it’s what the viewer does with it and what underlies why they are doing it that’s important. But as Hodson says, “That’s the very reason I think it is dangerous for young people. They don’t have adequate cognitive frameworks for understanding what they’re seeing and neither do they have the insight to know that it isn’t necessarily good for them at this time in their life.”

 

It’s impossible, too, to police all of a child’s online time. But we can put parental controls on all our devices; we can monitor what a child is watching while they’re still not savvy enough to delete their history, and we can talk to them openly and honestly while hoping such discussions won’t make them more curious.

It’s a minefield, to be sure, and maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that an eight-year-old might think it would be funny to see a phonographic magazine – because today’s society is so sexualised. And while I hope my boy is still a fair way off actually viewing porn in the flesh – on a computer, that is – I also hope he’ll always know it’s never okay to sexually objectify others in Facebook posts, or indeed anywhere.

But when the day comes that he’s old enough to access pornographic material for himself (which inevitably will be well before the legal age of 18, regardless of how vigilant his parents try to be), I despair at what he might be confronted with and what the new normal will be.

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.

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