I'm heading off to the airport in about four hours (and afterwards will be mostly offline for the next two weeks while away) and didn't intend to write a blog entry today. Then, thanks to writer Neesha Meminger, I read the following article in The Telegraph:
Malorie Blackman, young adult writer and newly-appointed children's laureate for the United Kingdom told the British newspaper, "I was reading an article three weeks ago where this teenage girl was saying everything her boyfriend knew about sex he knew from porn. He was brutalising her, because that's what he thought sex was about from watching online. It made me angry and it made me sad. I thought well, this is exactly why we need not just sex education in schools but also books that tackle the subject of relationships and your first time. Otherwise teens and young adults will get their information from somewhere and in this case it was getting it from porn. I would rather my daughter read about a loving sexual relationship in a bookwhether it works or whether it doesn'tbut in that context, than getting her information from innuendo and from porn and the rest of it."
I'm mentioning Malorie Blackman's stance because as a young adult writer this subject is something I've given a lot of thought to over the years. Shortly after I began writing for teens I also began haunting comprehensive sex ed website Scarleteen to delve into how teen sexual relationships and issues had changed since I was a young person. I also read and continue to read as much other information on young people's sexuality as I canstudies, articles, books like Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, and Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.
There have been some great strides made in Canadian society since I went to high school in the eighties. I never saw a pregnant girl at my Catholic High school the entire time I was there. No one felt free to be gay and out either. Unwed pregnancy and homosexuality were generally things to be shoved into the closet. Since then gay marriage has been legalized in Canada and several other countries, and we've been moving away from vilifying pregnant teenagers. There's still progress to be made in these areas, but at least we're heading in the right direction.
However, there are other areas of society where this is not the case. One negative thing my generation didn't have to deal with as teenagers was the ubiquitous presence of hardcore pornography based on cruelty and the humiliation of women and girls. Those hardcore materials existed, yes, but not within easy reach and unlimited access twenty-four hours a day. The much more common pornography of the day was pictures of naked women in Playboy or Penthouse magazines, exponentially tamer stuff than the majority of pornography accessed over the internet today.
There is evidence that suggests the developing teenage brain is especially susceptible to some of the long term effects of pornography. A recent Toronto Star article called Is pornography changing how teens view sex? cites experts who believe the use of porn among teenagers is impacting their notions of normal sexual behaviour and their views on women.
But first of all, what is pornography like today?
"In a 2010 analysis of 50 randomly selected adult films, researchers found high levels of verbal and physical aggression. Of the 304 scenes analyzed, 88 per cent contained physical aggression, including spanking, gagging and slapping, while nearly 50 per cent contained verbal abuse, particularly name-calling. In most cases, the men were dominant and the women almost always responded neutrally or with pleasure. Only 10 per cent of scenes contained positive sexual behaviour."Adolescent sexuality expert Maree Crabbe's documentary Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography interviewed 70 young Australians as well as LA-based porn performers. In the documentary, veteran porn performer, Nina Hartley, says extreme, sexual "circus acts" have become mainstream and Imre Pager, "who performs as Anthony Hardwood since 1997, says there's been a shift from 'lovey, dovey sex' to 'one girl with four guys' who 'just take over and... destroy her'."
"Physical aggression depicted in pornography includes gagging, choking and spanking," Crabbe says, yet "a viewer doesn't see the target reacting to the aggression, they see a woman who likes being choked, gagged and hit...Porn not only routinely portrays gender stereotypes and unequal gender relations, it says that they're sexy."Meanwhile a study of male undergraduates found that "nearly a quarter of them admitted they had acted sexually aggressively on a date, causing their date to cry, scream or plead." While official rape statistics are down in the U.S. there is some evidence to suggest that this may be due to shifting perceptions about what constitutes rape. "Almost 75% of women whose experience meets the legal definition of rape don't recognize themselves as victims. In the same survey, one in 12 men admitted to acting in ways that met the legal definition of rape or attempted rape, but 84% of them said what they did was "definitely not rape."
Robert Jensen, author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity asks the question "If contemporary porn shows scenes that are cruel, degrading and violent to women, how does that affect the perception of those who are raping and being raped? Do they become more accepting of acts that would be deemed rape years ago? It could be that porn is shifting the way we even understand the term rape."
A three year long 2011 U.S. based study of 10-15 year-olds showed that those who watched violent X-rated material were six times more likely to self-report sexually aggressive behaviour. In the United Kingdom The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports that the Number of sex offences by people under the age of 18 has risen 38% since 2009/10. Claire Lilley, policy adviser at the NSPCC said: 'We hope our findings will ring alarm bells with the authorities that this is a problem which needs urgent attention While more research needs to be done on this problem, we know that technology and easy access to sexual material is warping young people's views of what is normal or acceptable behaviour."
Here are some quotes from fifteen and sixteen year-old British teenage girls I pulled from a 2010 article about teenage boys and internet pornography:
* "Boys just want us to do all the stuff they see the porn stars do. It's as if we have to pretend we are in a movie. They want us to dress like porn stars in sexy underwear, have bodies that look like porn stars, and sound and behave like them too when we are alone. That's why we like to have our friends around us now."
* "It makes me feel so unhappy to be even asked about this stuff by a boy. So I try not to be alone with a boyfriend any more, to have a third wheel whenever I can."
* "I wish my parents would say I'm not allowed to be home alone with a boy. I wish they'd say boys aren't allowed in my bedroom. They make this big deal about 'trusting us', but that's not helping me. They have no idea what goes on, and I'm too embarrassed to tell them."
* [My boyfriend] even starts talking as if he's in a movie. Suddenly, when we are being intimate, he'll say something that he must have heard in a porn film. For example, he'll call me a 'bitch' and use dirty language that he'd never use normally. It's awful. It's so obvious he's copying his actions from watching porn."
There are, of course, other articles and studies that refute hardcore pornography's influence on teenagers. One that is often referred to is a recent study which looked at 4,600 people 15 - 25 living in the Netherlands and concluded that only between 0.3 percent and 4 percent of the sexual behaviors in question could be attributed to pornography use. If the United States, Britain and Canada were on a par with the Netherlands regarding sex education and positive attitudes about sexuality, I might agree that internet pornography's influence on young people in these countries would be similarly limited. But in my own province of Ontario, where sexual harassment at school is rampant, the sex ed curriculum is fifteen years old (shameful!).
So as things stand I'm in agreement with the article Talking to Teens about Pornography over at Everyday Health. It points out that the Netherlands, is "leaps and bounds ahead of the United States when it comes to sex education. They have a dramatically lower teen birth rate, as well as a lower abortion rate and a lower incidence of STDs. Much of this can be attributed to their behavior regarding sexuality. While our country still struggles to keep comprehensive sex education in schools, students in the Netherlands feel safe discussing sex openly with their teachers and parents. Rather than viewing sex as dirty or shameful, they tend to take a more open and positive view of their bodies and sexuality. It's a distinct cultural difference and one that should be taken into account when discussing this study and pornography, because for many American teens, pornography is all they ever learn about sex."
As hardcore pornography isn't likely to disappear or shift away from negative images anytime soon, it's crucial that parents and schools provide young men and women with good progressive sex education, allowing them to cope with the hardcore messages and images they're inevitably exposed to (average age of first internet porn exposure = 11), and countering those with information on what a genuinely positive sexual relationship should look and feel like. We can't inoculate teenagers against the negative impact of pornography with an injection but the Netherlands study shows that we can accomplish that result with sex education and healthy societal views on sex. Like Malorie Blackman, I feel young adult literature has a responsibility here. It can and should play a role, reflecting realistic sexual experiences, both good and bad and thereby allowing teenagers to process aspects of the experiences before they are ready to engage in sex themselves. If you are writing young adult books that don't fade to black when it comes to sex scenes and if you're handling those scenes with honesty, without being exploitative, and neither glorifying sex nor demonizing it, you are already personally my favourite kind of YA writer. But more importantly, you're helping empower young people who are living in a highly sexually charged culture.