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A report published last week by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (pithily entitled ‘Basically… porn is everywhere’) found that a significant number of children access pornography.

TutorhubThe study reveals that the level of pornography children are exposed to is influencing their attitudes towards relationships and sex, is linked to risky behaviour (such as having sex at a younger age) and shows a correlation between holding violent attitudes and accessing more violent media. The report concludes that urgent action is needed to develop children’s resilience to pornography.

It’s been a hotly debated issue for years and there are huge differences in the way it is taught, but there’s little doubt that sex education in schools is struggling to keep up with the availability and accessibility of pornography. Sex education is an emotive and divisive issue; there are often conflicts of interest between the wishes of parents and the professional duties of teachers. Kids grow and mature at different rates and some parents are more comfortable talking about sex than others. There are issues of religion, sexuality and class. In short, it’s a minefield.

Gone are the days when pornography was confined to the top shelves of off-licences, brown paper bags and that skip down the road – anyone can access adult content via an internet enabled device. We should all be aware that our tech-savvy kids are just a few clicks away from accessing adult content – be it through accident, coercion or endeavour – it’s happening and in my opinion sex education needs to move with the times to ensure they’re not absorbing warped ideas about sex and relationships through the content they’re consuming.

Currently, sex education is only compulsory in state maintained secondary schools, it is not compulsory in primary schools and not a great deal of data exists on the policies of free schools, academies etc.

So the questions are – should sex ed be compulsory in all schools (including primary), should pornography be discussed, how should it be taught and what do parents need to know about the issue?

What’s clear from the growing body of research is that attitudes to sex and pornography differ for boys and girls – boys increasingly see girls as objects while girls are more aware of body image and appealing to the male gaze. There are definitely wider social issues too: sex is everywhere. Music videos; lad’s mags; adult T.V channels – all intrinsic parts of youth culture.

The report’s key findings were:

* That children and young people’s exposure and access to pornography occurs both on and offline but in recent years the most common method of access is via internet enabled technology.

* Exposure and access to pornography increases with age.

* Accidental exposure to pornography is more prevalent than deliberate access.

* There are gender differences in exposure and access to pornography with boys more likely to be exposed to and deliberately access, seek or use pornography than girls.

* It concludes that there are still many unanswered questions about the affect exposure to pornography has on children: a situation the Office of the Children’s Commissioner considers requires urgent action in an age where extreme violent and sadistic imagery is two clicks away.

In primary schools perhaps an agenda that covers self-esteem building, gender equality and respect issues would be best placed, sex doesn’t even have to be mentioned in a child’s first understanding of relationships. And what about old fashioned notions of love and emotion? If we need to move away from the mechanical way sex ed is taught in secondary schools perhaps primary school is the first port of call for more emotive sex ed teaching. I don’t know, I’m shooting from the hip here.

All too often sex education has been left to a part-timer; perhaps a science teacher who’s attended a couple of courses at the start of the year. Maybe it’s time to get serious and bring in specialist, pastoral teachers to tackle the important social issues of sex and drugs.

However we should remember that if legislation is passed making sex ed compulsory right across the board, parents will be disempowered from making their own decisions about how best to broach the subject with their own children. After all, they know them best. Not only that, but making it compulsory actually criminalises any parent who feels they don’t want their children to attend the lessons, for whatever reason. Is this really fair?

The fact is that there is little guidance coming from central government, hard policies on sex ed and pornography are non-existent and headteachers get little guidance form the DfE. What is clear is that there are growing calls to change the default setting on internet ready devices – in essence making adult content opt-in rather than opt-out. Of course, this would be difficult to impose both from a technological and a moral standpoint – is it censorship?

A lot of the pornography our kids have access to is misogynist, associated with power and violence. We need to be contextualising it for our kids, framing it around issues of exploitation, sex trafficking and poverty. They need to know that some of what they are watching is far closer to rape than the mutual sexual acts experienced in a healthy relationship. It’s all about education, and while pornography is part of mainstream culture our children need to be educated about it.

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