The Centre for Gender Equal Media is concerned by findings from research published today by Middlesex University which finds that young people made the connections between what they see in online pornography and their sexual practices: significant proportions, increasing with age, assimilate ideas from online pornography into sexual acts they want to try out. Further, the research identifies clear gender differences in young peoples’ experiences of, and responses to, pornography. Young men are more likely to have seen online pornography and to have deliberately searched for it. Young women are more likely to feel negatively about pornography.
The survey of 1001 young people shows that half of young people aged 11-16 had seen online pornography and of those, 94% had seen it by age 14. Two thirds of 15-16 year olds have seen online pornography. However, of these only half are actively seeking it, meaning that significant proportions of young people are exposed to online pornography even though they are not looking for it. Young people in this study support age verification mechanisms for restricting access to online pornography. Policymakers need to listen to this evidence.
How realistic is online pornography?
More than 50% of boys, but only 39% of girls, think online pornography is realistic. This is particularly concerning as most young people did not think that pornography showed sexual consent, and fewer young women than young men thought pornography showed discussions of consent. Yet two fifths (39%) of 11-14 year olds and a fifth (21%) of 11-12 year olds report assimilating ideas from pornography into their sexual activities.
Young men were more likely to want to act out ideas about sexual practices infrom pornography than young women. Crucially, the research finds that of the young people surveyed, ‘most of them [feel] that it does not provide a good model for gaining consent, nor of safe sex’ (p59). The findings also suggest that over time, young people’s responses to online pornography change: sexual stimulation increases, while shock and confusion dissipate.
Good sex & relationships education makes a difference
We should also take note that young people in the focus groups said sex and relationships education in school can help them resist the sexism that they see in online pornography. Not only do young people want information in sex and relationships education about pornography, but they also want spaces to discuss and unpick the sexist messages they see in pornography.
The findings clearly demonstrate the need for sex and relationships education, rooted in a gender analysis, to be made compulsory in all schools and for all young people. What young people (and by extension adults) see in the medium of online pornography influences sexual practices in non-consensual, sexist ways.
GEM are available for media comment on pornography.