Love in the time of phone porn

by Rachel Bell on January 30, 2007

Published in The Guardian on 30 January 2007
View the published article here

With sex education failing to teach young people about relationships, pornography – on mobiles, online and in magazines – is increasingly filling the gap.

While teens are exploring their sexualities in E4’s new drama Skins, the boys are getting hooked on porn in BBC3’s Coming Of Age documentary series. Our sexualized culture is bombarding children with messages about gender roles and sex. The Sex Education Forum recognizes that half of children using the Internet are exposed to porn and that almost a third of children receive unwanted sexual comments via email, chat, instant message or text message, suggesting there is a worrying lack of information about positive relationships to counteract the onslaught.

“I caught one kid, aged 12, looking at porn in one of my lessons,” says Andrea O’Neale, a secondary school teacher in Sheffield. “It wasn’t hardcore or anything — it was a woman lifting her top up and down, with naked boobs, on repetition. His parents were brought in to pick up the phone and he got after-school detention. I mean, kids get all kinds of stuff on their mobiles; a lot of boys are blue-toothing porn. I think they are quite widely exposed to porn; they’re not easily shockable. Do I mean just boys? Yes. Girls don’t go anywhere near it.”

Images of females are overtly-sexualised at every turn. And yet with body image issues, eating disorders, self-harm, depression, teen pregnancy and pressure to have sex a not uncommon reality for many teenage girls, the signs are there that girls — and boys — are struggling to make sense of what it means to be female. In May last year, two 16-year-old schoolboys were arrested for making a porn video of a 14-year-old girl on a mobile phone and circulating it around their school in Perth, Scotland. And in August, it was reported that the headteacher of Helston school in Cornwall had asked bebo.com, a website popular with teenagers, to remove the school’s entry after complaints that children as young as 13 had put soft porn pictures of themselves on it. The pupils had set up the school entry themselves. Children who have grown up with the internet, email and mobiles are exposed to “recognised” porn at a much earlier age. Half of all children have seen porn sites, a poll revealed last year. Another study claimed nine out of 10 children aged between eight and 16 have seen internet pornography. Both girls and boys are under immense pressure to accept porn, to pass it off as harmless fun. And if you don’t like it, you don’t like sex. Or you’re gay.

“Both my daughters were subjected to porn as soon as they went to secondary school aged 11,” says Helen Browne, a mother to two teenage girls. “They had to toughen up to it pretty quickly so as not to seem prudish.” The signs show that children are not learning enough about positive body image, respectful relationships and an understanding of stereotypical gender roles. Among the criticisms levelled at sex education comes a new claim: that young people need a sex and relationships education (SRE) that counters the damaging messages of porn.

Lee Eggleston works at South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre (Sericc), a sexual violence, counselling, support and advocacy service that has worked in schools. She agrees that porn is now part of mainstream youth culture. “We talk to girls and boys who feel very uncomfortable talking about it or how to challenge it as it has become an ‘acceptable’ way of receiving sex information,” he says. “School intranets are not always monitored or checked. Often parents buy their children a mobile unaware that Wap opens the gateway to porn sites. You only have to look at advertising in popular TV guides and magazines to see the vast amount of images of women and girls for mobile screensavers. The Playboy logo is stamped on school folders for children.”

Are teachers aware of pupils’ levels of exposure to porn? “It is a concern for teachers,” admits Christine Tooley, a head of sixth form in Oxfordshire. “Very young students — year 7s — have access to porn, sometimes unwillingly, and we are very concerned that the female body images are debased as being something just sexual. Clearly, this affects both genders.”

Many teachers say that porn is not a problem within school because of firewall systems on school intranets. “Internet access is tightly controlled and any porn would have to be brought in from the outside,” says Colleen McAllister, a curriculum leader for media studies in a comprehensive school in Newcastle.  “However, my students assure me that it is around and it is mainly boys using it. This is linked to the ‘bluetooth’ mobile, which means that it can be easily passed between students.” And Andrea O’Neale recalls an incident in her school: “A teacher friend of mine had the computer projector on and when she went to talk to one of the class, a kid went up and got some filth up so the whole class could see.”
New technology isn’t the only culprit, however. “A lot of them, say 13 and upwards, have Nuts, Loaded and FHM,” says Andrea O’Neale. “Not in lessons. I see them in the dining room, and once in my registration. I am quite an oblivious teacher, though, and I’ve only been teaching for a year, so I don’t think I’ve seen it all yet.”

Kate, a 15-year-old who goes to school in Shropshire, has already seen more. “Practically all lads look at Zoo or Nuts and that lot. The ones who are 14 and 15, I mean. I’m not sure whether boys younger than 14 read them — they probably do. It’s a very normal thing and no-one thinks anything of it.” Kate says she hasn’t come across porn by accident — “apart from on lads’ phones. And too many of them have Jordan as their background.”

Jokes about male violence against women and prostitution are common in lad mags. Hardcore porn is advertised. FHM encourages non-consensual voyeurism with its ‘puppies cam’ to take pictures of unsuspecting women’s breasts. what messages are they sending out about women and sex?

Pressure group Object is campaigning to have lads’ mags regulated in the same way as other recognised porn. It questions why magazines read by teenage boys aren’t subject to the same regulations as those for teenage girls. The Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel (TMAP) was set up by the Home Office in 1996 to regulate these publications, to ensure the subject of sex is approached responsibly. But, says a spokesperson for Object: “There is a double standard applied to teen boys’ and teen girls’ sexual education. In fact, the display of lad mags undermines TMAP’s work in sexually educating and empowering young women by reducing them to sexual objects in the eyes of boys and men. The message in lads’ mags is that it is boys who hold the power in sexual relations.”
 
Of course, much positive work is being done in many schools. “In PSHE and citizenship, the issue of consent is discussed in relation to the law” says Colleen McAllister. “Gender roles are discussed in relation to the expectations of each gender group, linked to relationships and sexual behaviour. There is also a lesson about language and sex where students are asked to write down slang words and colloquialisms for sexual parts of the body and the concepts of male and female. Discussion then focuses on why there is a difference in power and authority between the male and female genitalia, and so on.”
 
But with explicit material so easily available, do teachers feel the good work they do is being undermined? “The main problems arise,” says Christine Tooley, “when porn is imported from the outside in the form of stuff from the internet accessed at home or magazines. Although these issues are dealt with severely by the school, we often see a lack of support from parents who don’t see what the big deal is.”

Paul Latham, a teacher at a secondary in Derby, also finds parental indifference a problem. “The rise of lad mags like Loaded and FHM is something I’ve noticed,” he says. “We confiscate them, but it seems to me that parents don’t see the harm in them. They don’t have the same stigma attached to them as porn.”
 
Last year, an NSPCC survey found that incomplete sex education in schools is leaving children confused about what is illegal or wrong, with 93% reporting that their sex education lessons did not include any information about sexual abuse. The charity has called on the government to ensure 14- to 16-year-olds are taught about sex in the context of relationships, peer pressure and the law. Those working in gender violence prevention would like to see this kind of sex education begin much sooner. Damian Carnell is a development worker at TRI (Training, Resources and Information), at the Nottinghamshire Domestic Violence Forum. “We’re at a very dangerous point with porn in all its guises being more socially accepted, sneaking into all kinds of consumer products and on TV,” he says. “We’d like to see domestic violence awareness and positive relationship promotion, including gender respect and awareness projects, in all school year groups from year 5.”
 
Charity Womankind Worldwide is piloting an education programme, Challenging Violence Changing Lives, in schools across the UK to raise awareness about male violence against women. The programme has a component on pornography and prostitution in year 11. Lis Martin, the creative director, says: “What teachers are saying is that younger girls are vulnerable to approaches from older, sophisticated men from outside school. Porn is used in chatroom grooming. Yet girls are also visiting porn sites to find out what they need to do to please boys. They aren’t questioning abusive relationships.”

“The only way porn is addressed in SRE,” admits Colleen McAllister, “is a general discussion about how unrealistic the images can be and that porn is about fantasy. However, it is still worrying about what expectations boys have about relationships from being exposed to these images. In media studies, we do not discuss porn directly, but we do encourage discussions of the degrading images of women in some magazines and newspapers in the hope of dealing with misconceptions and a reliance on stereotypical images of women. One male student who was producing the front page of a magazine for his coursework thought it perfectly acceptable to expect a female student to ‘pose’ for him, like the women on front of men’s magazines, because this text was ‘part of the media’.”

“As yet, porn is not de facto on the curriculum — there is a real time lag,” says Christine Tooley “I think it should be addressed in school, but alongside parents, [and] some working definitions should be given of porn.

“There is a huge problem in that PHSE [personal, health and social education] in schools is often the last thing to have staff timetabled to it. Often they are reluctant staff who have had their timetables filled up and who are woefully inadequate to teach such things. What is needed are very specialist staff who are committed, experienced, mature and comfortable with these very sensitive issues. Issuing edicts to have such education will not have any benefits until the system of delivery is clearly thought out.”
 
Catherine Harper is the founder of Scottish Women Against Pornography and worked for Brooke Advisory for 11 years. “We need a comprehensive sex education programme,” she says. “Information and knowledge is power in a world that is totally sexualized. The best tool you can give young people is autonomy and knowledge so they can make informed choices and have positive relationships, including the confidence to say no. Access to technology has changed. Mobile porn has replaced internet porn, because you can watch it covertly. Children don’t have to look for porn, they are being targeted by the porn industry. If parents saw what was filling the gap it would destroy them.”

Teachers’ names have been changed

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