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Louise Kirk: What’s the next lesson? Oh, it’s pornography

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It’s a curious feature of contemporary politics – and our general election is no exception – that when politicians compete to support “you and your family” their policies usually do the opposite. Nowhere is this more dangerous than in teaching children about sex.

It is therefore with some relief that I see the Conservatives omitting PSHE (for which read sex education) in their manifesto. Labour will follow its “long-standing policy” of introducing “compulsory age-appropriate sex and relationships education”, and we know that means: from primary up with minimal, if any, right of withdrawal. The Liberal Democrats also propose including PSHE in their new core curriculum, slimmed down though it will be in other subjects. Ukip, to be fair, sees sense, letting primary schools alone and involving parents in everything else, but they are unlikely to call the tune. It is the Tories’ current silence which gains my interest. A Tory victory would give some minimal hope that small freedoms on PSHE may remain.

And they are small. New guidance produced by the PSHE Association was accepted in March by Home Secretary, Theresa May, and Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan. So far this is non-statutory (our window for hope), but we know many schools will bow to pressure to adopt it. The guidance is 65 pages long, and mentions marriage not once, even though it is still currently the law that marriage should be taught in sex education. The focus instead is upon sexual consent. Giving consent appears to be the one and only criterion for sexual morality, other than it is wrong to be “judgmental” (funny that – I thought that having good judgement was a sign of maturity and I certainly expect it of my children’s teachers). It also “highly recommends resources from Stonewall”.

You would think that the PSHE Association, and the Government, would have learnt that consent can be groomed. Even robust children find it difficult to know their feelings in sexual matters, let alone recognise them in others, especially if they or their partners happen to have had a drug or drink. Another curiosity is that lesson plans assume pornography as a teaching resource.

Teaching pornography to children is unfortunately not new. It was already there ten years ago in the bizarre last module of Channel 4’s well-known Living and Growing primary school programme. In it, a teacher leads a group of excited 11-year-olds on a study-day out. They might have been on their way to the Natural History Museum, scissors and paste at the ready. The difference is the subject matter: “how sex is imaged in the media”. The images they discuss are clever, just within the bounds of being sexy rather than saucy. Presumably the point is to open their eyes, but why? Are they ever again to be blind in WH Smith?

The human body can indeed be very beautiful and it has always been the subject of high art. But the PSHE Association and the Sex Education Forum of which it is part do not propose that children should study Michelangelo’s David. What they want is for children to appreciate the difference between good porn and badporn.  “Sex is great. And porn can be great. It’s the idea that porn sex is like real sex which is the problem,” says the TheSite.org, their recommended forum for young people. “But if you can separate the fantasy from the reality you’re much more likely to enjoy both.”

The Sex Education Forum has tried to cover itself from being accused of teaching porn. In the pornography issue of its e-magazine for teachers it says:

“Teachers have told us they are nervous about mentioning pornography in SRE, yet given the ease with which children are able to access explicit sexual content on the internet, it is vital that teachers can respond to this reality appropriately.  Whilst in some cases children find this material by accident, there are instances when they come across pornography whilst looking for answers to sex education questions.”

So that’s it. Let children loose on the internet answering questions for sex education, and then teach them “filters in their head” so that they are “more in control of the media available to them”.

How do you teach them such filters? In March this year the Danish sexology professor Christian Graugaard caused something of a stir when he recommended that pupils aged 13 and above should actually view and discuss pornographic images in class. His point was that, given that just about every boy and the large majority of teenage girls were viewing porn anyway, they should develop a critical approach to it and be taught the difference between porn and real love.

What about those children who are not viewing porn? Even given that they don’t matter (and it is a sobering thought that much child porn imagery is willingly uploaded by young people themselves), how do you teach children to discriminate between good porn, bad porn and real love making, in class?

Pornography is unlike viewing other images. In contrast with animals, we human beings have been designed to shield our sexual bodies from the world and to reveal them only to the beloved, so that the vision of bodily intimacy burns into our brains and binds us as a couple. This is especially true of men. When instead they view porn, chemicals of attraction are still released in the brain, and become easily addictive. Children whose young brains are developing are all the more susceptible, so much so that even one viewing can draw them into a habit. This quickly grows because porn has in abundance the three qualities which make for addiction: it is accessible, affordable and anonymous. Even girls are succumbing, and worryingly a recent study shows that early exposure to porn is a stronger predictor for hypersexual behaviour in women than abuse.

To become addicted to the chemical stimulants in one’s own body is worrying. As with other chemical addictions, satisfaction demands increasing levels of stimulation, so that what one starts out with (“great porn” in Sex Ed speak) is not what you finish with. When you hear of an apparently decent person being caught with appalling images, it probably means that he has been at it for a long time, perhaps since he was a boy.

The porn industry is becoming correspondingly extreme, expecting bizarre behaviour from its actors. “There’s no condoms allowed,” says former star Shelley Luben, and STDs, drug use and violence are rife. So the vivid images which make real sex a tame comparison, intruding upon a man’s ability to perform, are themselves nothing like the real world from which they were created. How sad is it when pastor and marriage counsellor Mark Gungor tells us that he sometimes treats men who cannot make love to their own wives without a sex magazine open in front of them.

So will we find after this election MPs who are prepared to stand up for decency and common sense in the education of our young? To expect that we will have to change a culture, and that means admitting, yes, and loudly, that it is not just the young who are damaged by porn, but all of us.

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Louise Kirk
Louise Kirk
Louise is UK Co-ordinator for the Alive to the World values education programme, mother of four and author of Sexuality Explained: a Guide for Parents and Children.

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