Welcome back, this is lesson number 8. This one is about the sex we see: so yeah, this is the porn one I guess. The point is though, porn isn’t the only kind of sexual image that people see or look at.
Like everything at this website, this lesson is for over 14s. This is lesson number 8, so it won’t make much sense if you haven’t done the others. Here’s the first one.
If you would rather get my advice and hot takes about porn then I have a whole section in the menu bar up there. My guide to porn is pretty popular and a good start. But this is sex education, which is different to advice.
Throughout this I’m going to rely on the research project called EU Kids Online, which has been doing research with kids (9 – 16) and what they do online since 2010. The last report came out in 2020 and you can see that here.
1. What are sexual images?
So in EU Kids Online, they ask the following question:
“In the PAST YEAR, you have seen lots of different images – pictures, photos, videos. Sometimes, these images might be obviously sexual, e.g., they may show people naked or people having sex. You might never have seen anything like this, or you may have seen something like this on a mobile phone, in a magazine, on the TV, on a DVD or on the internet.”
So think about this for yourself: have you seen images that are obviously sexual in the last year? Just spend a couple of minutes thinking about where you saw them. What did you feel when you saw it: upset? OK? Happy?
2. Statistics quiz
I’ve put together a little quiz for you – no thank you. It’s all about the numbers of people seeing sexual images, what age they are, and what they see. There’s no sexual content in the quiz.
How did you do? Were you surprised by any of these answers? Compare this to what we hear about porn and sexual images and young people.
3. Why do people look at sex?
Before we go on, it’s important to talk about consent here. Some young people see sexual images that they did not consent to see. It’s still very much the minority of young people (you’ve done the quiz now yes?). The younger age group who see sexual images are more likely to have seen them by mistake, in a TV show or film they weren’t meant to watch, or with a pop-up, or a link they didn’t know, or sometimes being shown something they didn’t want to see by someone they know. Being made to look at a sexual image without your consent is wrong and harmful (and is a crime actually).
Choosing to look at sex
But it’s also clear that, as young people get more interested in sex generally, they are more interested in looking for sexual images. These could be pictures, words, or videos. But why do people look at them?
Get your pen and pencil and a blank sheet of paper, please, if you want to. Write down all of the different reasons for why might look at sexual images. Remember we’re not just talking about internet porn: it could be TV or film, or magazines, or catalogues, or books.
If you look at sexual images you could think about why you look at them. You might also want to imagine why people look at them generally. See how many you can come up with and give yourself at least 10 minutes. There are no right or wrong answers, just answers.
Once you’ve done that think about the following and spend at least 10 minutes answering them.
- Look at your list, what do you notice? That there’s a lot or not many? They’re different, or the same?
- How many of these are just about getting sexually excited / turned on?
- Are there reasons on there that you personally wouldn’t think are right or advisable?
As you can see, there are lots of different reasons for why people might look at sexual images. There are also so many different kinds of sexual images: from being partially clothed or naked, to people having solo sex, to people having sex with other people (known as hardcore porn). So you could also think about all the reasons for why people might look at each different kind of image. If you did that you might come up with hundreds of reasons.
Or buy my book Can We Talk About Consent? Thank you. Now on with the article.
4. What does looking at sexual images do?
A lot of people say that if you look at porn it will have an affect on you. They say you’ll want more casual sex; more ‘experimental’ sex like anal or bondage. I’ve also heard people say that it causes non-consensual sex and also sexual problems. None of this is really true and actually it’s all a lot more complicated.
If you want to read some of the research about this head to my article for practitioners Does Porn Harm Young People?
For this bit, go back to the last activity where you thought about why people look at sexual images. Now think about what effect that the image will have on them for the reason they went to look for it. Tell a short story for each one.
I’ll start you off. Say someone looked at a porn clip because they were bored. They might have looked at that clip, stopped after a while because they were bored, and clicked another. Perhaps they then thought, well I may as well masturbate I guess. They have a mild orgasm and then go on to be bored about something else.
Try it for yourself. Think of times when you looked at a sexual image for different reasons, what happened? If you haven’t looked at a sexual image imagine what might happen to different people looking for different reasons.
So what can happen?
What happens when someone looks at a sexual image depends a lot on why they were looking. It also depends on what they think about sex, gender, agency, themselves. There’s also what they have been taught in sex education and how much they know.
People have a relationship with the images they look at, the stories they read, and the videos they watch. Depending on why they are watching, it can form part of a fantasy world where they might imagine they are one or all of the characters in the scene.
A lot of people say that they learn a lot more about their sexuality, their desires, and their interests from looking at sexual images. In fact, if we see looking at sexual images as a sexual activity (it is) then what we are really saying is that we learn about sex and ourselves by having sex.
At this point go back to the first lesson in this series, about your own sex education. Remember that activity about the sources of your sex education? How much of that was from a combination of doing it and seeing it (on or offline).
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5. Critique and analysis
‘So porn is all okay then?’ God no, but remember I said this was complicated. I’ve got a whole section here, which includes an A – Z of porn, which has a lot of criticisms of porn. It can send out messages which have the potential to be harmful to individuals but also society as a whole. But this is also true of telly, film, music, video games, adverts, news channels, books, newspapers, sex education websites (not this one obvs).
Sexist stereotypes are perpetuated. It can be really racist. Consent is rarely shown in sex scenes. Disabled people are barely represented at all. Oh wait, this is all true of telly and film too right? Porn and sexual images are part of our culture. So in this sex ed course I’m hoping that you’ve learnt some tools to be able to be critical and smart about porn, just as with the rest of culture.
So this is a discussion game that I’ve been using in school for years and years. Teachers also buy this and use it in their schools (via bishtraining.com). Basically it’s just to get people talking about porn and the differences and similarities between porn and not porn sex.
So to play it decide whether these statements are true of Planet Porn, Planet Earth, neither or both.
6. Porn as sex education
The reason why porn is such a concern for a lot of people is that it can be a source of sex education. If a reason you look at porn is to learn from it, then you’re not going to learn very helpful things about how to have sex. Particularly how to have consensual and safe sex. Porn studios and directors don’t show the bits where they talk about consent and safe sex with the actors. Just because they aren’t good at showing this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn it.
Going back the word we talked about in lesson 2 – agency. Your decision making power. We all have it and we can use it to act with care towards others, or with harm. It’s on you to learn how to use your agency with care and to learn about consent. Just doing what you see in porn with no care is harmful, and that’s on you.
However, going back to lesson 1 when I asked you to look at your own sex education, and the last lesson where we looked at sex, we can see that there are a lot of similarities between what porn teaches and what sex education teaches. What does porn teach us about what counts as sex? What is the should story for sex? Does porn reinforce that story or tell a different one? What about sex education in schools?
Okay that’s it for this week! Don’t forget to subscribe to the blog if you would like an email every time I post an article.
The next (and last one for now) is Teach Yourself Sex Ed – Bodies
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© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Find out more about Justin here