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How do youth workers talk to young people about pornography?

08. January 2020

Over the past seven years, I have studied the concepts and interpretations of pornography that Finns have had in their youth. My multi-data research material consisted of pornography-related memories from Finns’ childhood and youth starting from the 1940s and ending in the 2000s.

I have also analysed over 4,300 questions submitted by young people to sexual health professionals, as well as the answers of 167 adolescents and young adults to an online survey conducted in the autumn of 2015. Based on my material, the harsh reality is that young people do not get help from adults close to them in questions related to pornography. Could youth work step in to fill this void?

Young people find talk about the risks of pornography more annoying than pornography itself

The biggest surprise in my material was how rarely it contained any mention of pornographic content, the things that Finns had experienced in the different decades. I had expected the individuals in my material to describe the pornography they had seen in their childhood and youth. I also expected to read detailed descriptions of different sexual acts and bodies. Instead, my material was filled with sore memories and personal experiences of adults’ inability to deal with the questions and experiences that children and young people had concerning sex and sexuality.

Young people of the internet age experienced educators’ talk about the underage consumption of pornography and the risks involved to be more problematic than pornographic content itself. Today’s young people wondered about the way in which adults talk about pornography: that watching it is a sign of perversity, that it harms and distorts sexuality and that it causes irreparable long-term damage. They also described how adults flew into fits of rage after discovering that their offspring had watched pornography.

I find it remarkable that young people of the internet age, as well as much earlier generations, emphasise the inability and tactlessness of their educators and the outright improper way of educating children in questions related to sexuality. Both my own research into childhood sex play and that conducted by Osmo Kontula indicate that if educators react negatively or aggressively to their offspring’s sexual experiences, this may leave children and adolescents with a long-lasting memory tinged with shame. What is more, these reactions are usually transferred from generation to generation.

Citing the risks of pornography to scare minors is a poor pedagogical approach. Comments emphasising problems may create the misconception that getting aroused by pornography would be somehow perverse. If talk about online sexual cultures focuses solely on related harm and danger, young adults will not seek help even if they see or experience something they would like to discuss with an adult. As a professional in media education, this finding made me wonder whether adults really should talk about pornography with underage young people.

Fact- or assumption-based talk about pornography?

In many contexts, young people showing an interest in sexuality is considered to be something unwanted or even threatening and dangerous. There are commentators in Finland, too, who claim that pornography leads to more irresponsible sexual behaviour among young people and to their engaging in sexual intercourse at an earlier age, as well as to increased sexual violence, lax sexual attitudes and morals, and increased sexual activity among children and adolescents. However, such notions are not based on research available to us, but rather reflect adults’ worries and fears about the presumed impacts of the media.

According to my research, Finnish young people can critically assess different media representations of gender and sex. Seeing pornography and having a better understanding of sex does not increase young people’s physical sexual experiences. On the contrary, these experiences are declining, as indicated by the comprehensive national school health promotion study. The ideas that underage young people have of “real-life sex” do not reflect sexual acts seen in pornographic material. In fact, they are surprisingly traditional. Young people talk about sex as an intimate experience with a partner who they trust and with whom they want to share something special.

Pornography is about fantasies. Sex is about an equal relationship between people.

– A 16-year-old boy who considers himself bisexual

Pornography is scripted and performed sex, which is often exaggerated. Real sex involves much more, and it is supposed to be an authentic, intimate experience to be shared with a close, important person. Sex is an intimate experience between two people that takes place in a relationship.

– A 17-year-old girl who considers herself bisexual

If decades of research conducted in both Finland and other countries have not found a causal relation between media use and the development of children and adolescents, why do we insist on spreading information based on assumptions? While we know that media content plays a role in cognitive, emotional and identity development and social development, media impact studies have not been able to provide a conclusive answer to how media content actually works. The problem is that media impact studies try to find simple answers to extremely complex phenomena. Since people’s relationship with the media is always very personal, it is impossible to formulate general truths about the consequences of a specific type of media content.

Do we hit the panic button or really listen to young people?

Way too often, risk-centred discussions about the underage consumption of pornography completely ignore children and adolescents. We rarely stop to listen to what young people really want to tell us before we anxiously hit the panic button. Did you know that in this age of online porn, young people actually make sexually more responsible decisions than the previous generations did in their youth?

Young people also wish that we adults would not take as black-and-white an attitude to the potential impacts of pornography.

If you watch a specific style of pornography, it doesn’t mean that you want to be in the same position as the actors.

– A 14-year-old girl who considers herself pansexual

I don’t believe that all pornography is harmful, because a lot depends on the kind of a person you are and what kind of material you watch. Pornography can cheer up solo sex but can also be watched by couples (as long as it doesn’t disrupt sex life in the relationship, as in “I’m more interested in porn than in my partner”). Pornography may give ideas for your own sex life (obviously, many of the positions aren’t easy or even possible in real life) or it can offer a way to carry out your fantasies that you don’t want to talk about with your partner or that are supposed to remain just fantasies (for example, many women may fantasise about being raped even though they definitely do not want that to happen in real life).

– A 17-year-old girl who considers herself heterosexual

The goal of media and sexual education should be to help underage young people critically analyse fictive, stereotypical or gendered representations of sexuality and sex and make responsible choices related to their sexual rights. Strong, diverse media literacy provides various resources for navigating the media society. In addition to media skills helping to control potential media-related risks, they considerably increase people’s opportunities to engage in society, improve their ability to make increasingly conscious choices and promote ways to understand and interpret the surrounding media culture and its forms of portraying sexuality, gender and sex.

Media and sexuality education does not belong exclusively to professionals in the field. I encourage youth workers, who as a professional group possess special pedagogic knowledge about non-formal methods and informal learning environments, to come up with ethically sustainable methods for discussing media experiences related to underage sex in a more balanced way, showing respect for young people’s own ideas, experiences and opinions. Instead of emphatically forbidding young people from sharing intimate selfies with their partner, could we talk about sexual rights and about how to act responsibly when breaking up and how to deal with disappointments constructively? Perhaps we could take a minute to listen to young people’s brilliant interpretations of pornography and the surrounding media society instead of eagerly offering conventional views of the presumed harmful impact that pornography has on underage young people? It may not be easy to answer this challenge. Giving children and adolescents real attention and truly listening to them requires professionals to review their own work methods and preconceptions. However, I am convinced that youth work methods can help bridge the gap with young people that my doctoral research clearly indicated.

Children and young people should be offered a safe atmosphere, where feelings about, say, sexual imagery in the media can be expressed freely, without guilt and shame. This is where youth work could play a big role. Can you, as a youth work professional, contribute to creating spaces for young people where they feel safe and are accepted the way they are, thoughts and all?

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