Young people and the accessibility and influence of pornography
Over the years, young people have typically come across or sought out sexually explicit material in the form of photographs, books and magazines. However, contemporary ‘electronic’ society means sexually explicit material is now even more available, easily accessible, cheap and quick. Unfortunately, many young people are exposed to a culture and environment saturated with sexualised images not easily controlled by parents or schools and can readily view pornography without age-related barriers.
Pornography is generally described as being any sexually explicit materials intended to create arousal in the consumer.
Accessing and viewing sexually explicit material is now common among young people, especially boys1. The types of pornography available on the internet ranges from mild to grossly offensive and illegal and comes in the form of sexual pictures, writing, photos, films or chatroom talk.
One study found 28% of Australian 11-16 year olds have seen sexual images online. Of these, 24% say they have seen online sexual images including nudity, 17% have seen someone’s genitals online, 16% (more teenagers than young children) have seen images of someone having sex, and 6% say they have seen violent sexual images2.
Exposure to pornography is not always voluntary; many girls report experiencing the incidence of involuntary exposure. Males appear to be more likely to use pornography, to view it alone and to become sexually aroused by its content3.
Some studies have suggested that viewing pornography can assist same-sex attracted, questioning young people to develop a positive sense of identity and sexual confidence4.
However, pornography is considered to be an extremely poor and generally inappropriate method of sexuality education for young heterosexual people, especially men. Some research has suggested that viewing pornography may be linked with young men having ‘aggressive’ views towards girls4.
The impact of pornography on young people
There is currently little research on the impact of pornography on young people; however some recent studies have suggested the following:
Pornography can influence how children and adolescents view sexuality, and can impact on the language they use to describe certain sexual behaviours or body parts.
Viewing porn can also influence a young person’s thoughts and opinions around what they are expected to give and receive within an intimate relationship.
Pornography may impact on young people’s adoption of certain sexual behaviours. It is possible that viewing non-mainstream sexual practices can give legitimacy to them, and encourage participation in sexually adventurous behaviours (e.g. heterosexual anal sex).
It has been suggested that young people may become upset or troubled by viewing images of non-mainstream sexual behaviours.
Responding to students raising the issue
It is likely that some young people will talk openly about the presence and perceived normality of being interested in pornography. Their natural curiosity about sexual practices may result in pornography being a means to share their knowledge with peers and can serve to allow young people confirming elements of social gender expectations3.
However, the media saturated environment presents young people with highly sexualised imagery and seems to normalise many sexual behaviours and gender roles that are not realistic.
If a student asks a question or wants to discuss the topic of pornography, the key fact to emphasise is that pornography is almost always fictional and not 'real'. It does not convey an accurate representation of adult sexual behaviours and desires.
In general terms most educational settings are less than ideal for discussion of pornography as a topic and it can be quite uncomfortable for teachers. Conversations about pornography that do arise should avoid criticism of a student’s views or thoughts and try to focus on sexual self-representation and sexual practice3.
Another aspect to emphasise is that most porn movies are filmed in the same way as mainstream movies with scripts, actors, directors and filming over the course of hours/days and hours of footage edited down by producers to completely unrelated to real sexual experiences.
In real life, relationships and sex are about two equal people who are mutually consensual. In real life, relationships and sex involves getting to know each other first, communicating and trusting and physical expressions of kissing and cuddling. Fictional pornography doesn’t show these real life experiences.
In viewing pornography young people need to keep the following factors in mind:
- What is shown in porn is not usually safe sex
- How porn actors look is not how most people look
- Remember that Porn is a performance, real life sex and relationships are very different
- Sex can be meaningful and so much better than what is shown in pornographic material.
Note, should a teacher become aware of, or worried about, a particular situation related to a student’s questions or behaviour, the teacher needs to assess the seriousness of the situation before responding. Consider factors such as the student’s age, the context in which the behaviour has occurred, the history of the young person, and whether their behaviour is impacting others. It is worth noting that it is illegal for an adult to show a young person pornography.
If the behaviour or situation does seem serious, follow school policy on protective behaviours and seek advice from school student services about referring the student to a counsellor. Specific concerns may also need to be discussed with the student and his/her parent(s).
It's Time we Talked - Pornography and young people
The Practical Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships, La Trobe University
Includes a Year 7 and 8 activity and video on pornography.
Children and Young People's Exposure to Pornography, Child Family Community Australia
Youth and Pornography in Australia: Evidence on the extent of exposure and likely effects, The Australia Institute
1. Flood, Michael. “The Harms of Pornography Exposure Among Children and Young People.” Child Abuse Review. Vol 18. 2009.
2. Green, L., D. Brady, K. Olaffson, J. Hartley and C. Lumby. "Risks and safety for Australian children on the internet: Full findings from the AU Kids Online survey of 9-16 year olds and their parents." Cultural Science 4 (1): 1-73, 2011.
3. Sabina, C., J. Wolak and D. Finkelhor. “The Nature and Dynamics of Internet Pornography Exposure for Youth.” CyberPsychology and Behavior. 11 (6), 2008.
4. Albury, Kath. "Porn and Sex Education, Porn as Sex Education". Porn Studies. 1(1-2):172-181. 2014.