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What the censor’s report says about teens and porn – and what should happen next

A major new investigation by the Classification Office confirms that exposure to porn is widespread among NZ teens, and is affecting the way they think about and experience sex. OK, says high school teacher and writer Bernard Beckett – so what do we do about it?

Using pornography to learn about sex is akin to using Twitter to learn about quantum mechanics, but there you are, we live in distracted times. Happily enough, not knowing anything about quantum mechanics is unlikely to ruin your life; if anything it’s going to make you more socially accessible. Misconceptions about sex however, particularly among the young, are quite a different story. In this age of digital dysentery, there are questions to be asked about both the easy availability of pornography, and its increasingly brutal nature.

Today the Classification Office released a report on the research they’ve undertaken looking at NZ youth’s exposure to, use of, and attitudes towards, pornography. At the same time, a broad-based working party is looking at the same issue, an organisation called The Lightproject has released its own stakeholder survey and launched a website to help parents and others negotiate this minefield, there’s been a local television documentary, a colleague and I have been touring a play around schools trying to get the conversation started that way, politicians are beginning to express opinions out loud… It’s almost as if collectively we’ve all experienced the same thought: ‘Perhaps using pornography as our primary means of socialising sexuality is kind of stupid.’

The research itself, while not particularly surprising, nevertheless gives us a broad brush sense of what’s going on with our young. As always, alarmist fears of reflexive depravity are no more on the money than they were in days of The Mazengarb Report; the respondents were candid, thoughtful and cautious. On the other hand, those hoping to discover that, actually, they’re not really watching this stuff, it’s all rather tame anyway and it’s not having any impact on how they behave, are going to be disappointed too. The numbers themselves need to be carried lightly – these are kids doing a survey their parents knew about (parental consent was required) – but there’s still plenty worth pondering. Headline stats include roughly two thirds of the 14-17 year olds having seen pornography, and most of these having seen examples of coercion and violence. One in five boys had seen pornography before the age of eleven (one in ten girls), and overall use increases with age. These kids report using pornography as an important source of information, and there’s confirmation that some try to recreate things they’ve seen online.

The interesting thing for me is what happens next. Is this a shrug moment, where we momentarily pay attention and move on, or does a genuine will for change emerge? I’m hopeful for the latter: in the age of MeToo and with a prime minister speaking openly of a political ethos of kindness, perhaps the timing is right. The trick at the political level is going to be to avoid the obvious trap. The easy mistake would be to go too negative on this. If the problem is one of failing to successfully socialise our sexuality, to create a culture of intimacy that is instinctively about joy and respect, then the solution has to be about more than depowering pornography algorithms’ unfailing tendency to celebrate abuse. It also has to be about some sort of revolution in the way we talk about, write about and indeed think about sexuality. It’s not just that pornography is a lousy educator, it’s that we, teachers, parents, siblings, friends, have been lousy educators too.

It’s going to be tremendously tempting for politicians to frown solemnly and make promises to wave a large regulatory stick in the general direction of the evil empire. That makes politicians look brave and steadfast, and allows them to play act a potency they do not possess. Perhaps regulation will be part of a broader solution, but only ever a small part. The real thing is going to be about shifting attitudes. Here’s a little thing we can all do as adults. We can ease back on the ‘nudge nudge, wink wink, everybody’s doing it, let’s not pretend’ coping mechanism, because that’s giving the young kids who first stumble across this stuff a seriously confusing set of signals. After all, we’re talking about watching rape as a means of entertainment and arousal so, you know, maybe not so funny. Framing this purely in terms of a ‘youth problem’ misses the point.

Beyond that, schools are much much better at shifting attitudes than people give them credit for. Getting serious resources to the people these kids respect and respond to, and have an ongoing relationship with, is the answer. Unfortunately the fashion to date has been to rely far too heavily on outside providers to come in, deliver a franchised package and then leave. Guerilla, fly by night educational schemes by visiting experts and performers might start a conversation, but it’s keeping that conversation going that is key. There’s an institutional bias towards funding outside experts in all fields, for the very simple reason that the real experts within the institution are too busy getting the work done to make a compelling pitch. Compounding this is the fact that centralised, ministry-led programmes are more open to political criticism. Politicians are going to be very sensitive to the way this plays out in the media. Within an educational context it’s much easier to be seen as anti pornography than pro joyous connection, yet without the positive sexual narrative attitudes are unlikely to shift.

My own experience, having taken this topic into a great number of schools over the last twelve months, is that there is an immense appetite for this conversation among the young. They would love a little openness from the adults around them, and a little guidance too, primarily because they understand that’s the way to a more joyful sexual future. And who doesn’t want that? So, whatever comes of this report, full respect to David Shanks and his team for so quickly modernising their office, and moving beyond regulation and into education, an example we would all do well to follow.


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