How sex education is failing

More than 85% of mainstream pornography contain some sort of physical or verbal aggression and 94% of the aggression is directed towards women.
October 21, 2017

A new report, entitled Don’t send me that pic, has reaffirmed what most women and girls already knew: sexual abuse and harassment are incessant, it starts young and it is on the rise.

Commissioned by Plan Australia and Our Watch, the survey collected responses from 600 girls and young women aged 15–19 across Australia.

Don’t send me that pic has broken new ground by giving voice to the experiences of high school aged girls and young women. In the survey, women describe their encounters with sexual harassment and misogynistic attitudes. Some said where sex education is failing, pornography is stepping in.

Harassment

Boys harassing girls for nude photographs and sending unsolicited “dick pics” has become part of the typical teenage dating routine. Almost 60% of girls said they are often pressured to take “sexy” photos of themselves for boys and the requests were almost always unwanted and uninvited; 57% said they often receive unwanted sexually explicit material.

Girls told of feeling uncomfortable about being pressured to take sexual photographs of themselves, but said the harassment has become so normalised they sometimes feel guilty for refusing.

They also told of sexting gone wrong, when boys send the photographs to their friends, use them to blackmail girls, or post them online to punish them after a breakup.

In August last year, Green Left Weekly investigated a network of boys and young men from more than 70 Australian high schools who traded and ordered the sexual images of more than 2000 female students and other non-consenting women.

Seven out of ten young women surveyed agreed that girls are often bullied and harassed online. Girls described growing rates of sexual assault on the playground, including being groped at school and on the school bus.

Pornography

In lieu of a comprehensive sex and relationship education, which should be part of the mandatory high school curriculum, pornography has become a primary source of sex education for young people. About 70% of boys and more than 50% of girls have been exposed to mainstream pornography by the age of 12.

Research has found that most pornography depicts violence against women: more than 85% of mainstream pornography contain some sort of physical or verbal aggression and 94% of the aggression is directed towards women.  This contributes to the normalisation of violent sexual experiences in childhood and as teenagers.

A 2006 VicHealth meta-study on the effects of violent sexual imagery found: "Exposure to sexually violent material increases male viewers' acceptance of rape myths, desensitises them to sexual violence, erodes their empathy for victims of violence, and informs more callous attitudes towards female victims."

A 2012 review, The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents, found “adolescents who are intentionally exposed to violent sexually explicit material were six times more likely to be sexually aggressive than those who were not exposed.”

Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs, who assisted the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, says that children are increasingly copying the predatory behaviour they see in porn.

Josie, 18, is quoted in the Don’t send me that pic report: “We clearly have a problem with violence and boys are watching a lot of pornography which can be very violent … This is influencing men’s attitude towards women and what they think is acceptable.”

A 15-year-old girl said: “[Schools should] introduce [a discussion of] pornography as part of the education as young boys are accessing it and thinking this is normal in relationships.”

The impact of pornography on young people’s sexual attitudes and behaviors is best expressed by young people themselves. Girls and young women describe boys pressuring them to perform the sex acts they see in porn routinely, and frequently expect girls to do things during sex that they do not enjoy.

One of the girls surveyed, Lucy (age 15) said, “[I want] better education regarding sex for both boys and girls [and] information about pornography, and the way it influences harmful sexual practices.”

More than one-third of young women called for more comprehensive education on sexuality and respectful relationships. Several suggested that this education should extend to a critique of pornography and how violent and degrading depictions of women in pornography impacted on boys’ and young men’s attitudes towards women and sex in general.

Sex education

It is normal for children and young adults to be curious about sex, but the sex education curriculum in high schools is failing to make up for the miseducation young people receive on porn sites online. Rape culture is propped up by children learning dangerous, misogynistic ideas about sex and relationships when they are young.

When asked “How do you know a guy likes you?”, a Year 8 girl replied: “He still wants to talk to you after you [give him oral sex].” A male high school student said to a girl: “If you [give me oral sex] I’ll give you a kiss.” A 15-year-old girl said she didn’t enjoy sex at all, but getting it out of the way quickly was the only way her boyfriend would stop pressuring her and watch a movie.

These unhealthy dynamics among young people manifest in abusive relationships as adults. Countering these ideas requires a broad program about consensual sex and navigating respectful relationships.

Stereotyped depictions of women in pornography and mainstream media also contribute to the negative self-image among teenage girls. This is not countered in the high school physical education curriculum.

A US study showed that 53% of 13-year-old girls and 78% of 17-year-olds have issues with their bodies. Most 10-year-old girls have been on a diet.

In a British study, 90% of women said their body makes them feel depressed and two-thirds of women are so unhappy with their body that they would undergo plastic surgery.

In Don’t send me that pic, girls described being ranked at school on their bodies and having their body parts compared to those of porn stars. Requests for genital surgery have tripled in a little over a decade among young women aged 15–24. The pressure on girls to embody the porn star archetype has contributed to a spike in sex-related injuries for girls aged 14 and over, from acts including torture.

Sex education in Australia has been described as “inconsistent and ad hoc” and education departments are poorly resourced to provide adequate information to young people.

The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) said there are discrepancies in the quality of sex education material being taught, the targeting of materials and inconsistencies in individual curricula and teaching approaches. AFAO said there is great variation in teachers’ knowledge about how to teach sex education and young people are rarely consulted about the development and implementation of sexual health and sexuality education programs.

Current sexual health programs for Australian school students are also failing to address the needs of LGBTI students.

One recent report said: “Young people are the best experts on their own experience, and their voices are key to understanding what works and what gaps must be addressed in sexual health education in Australia today.”

Conclusion

It is important to be clear that pornography is not the source of misogyny in society, but it often perpetuates harmful ideas and stereotypes about women and sex.

The consequences of mainstream pornography can be particularly dangerous when it is a primary source of sex education for children. Where formal sex education is absent, inadequate or inaccessible, pornography fills in the gaps.

Young people have little chance amid the proliferation of violent hypersexualised imagery and pornographic themes to explore sexuality in safe, healthy ways. Instead of approaching sex with a toolkit of information about consent, communication, respect, and intimacy, many young people are first exposed to violence, degradation and misogynistic sex roles.

Never before has sexualised violence informed so much of the mainstream dialogue about sex. We need to resource young people today to make healthy decisions.

Curbing the rapid escalation of sexual assault and harassment among youth and fighting rape culture will need to begin with the rolling out of an expansive, up-to-date compulsory sex education curriculum that deals with the questions young people are asking.

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