I was at a conference recently and walked past someone with tattoos all over who was sitting alone. A really good friend of mine who is also covered from head to toe recently shared that people avoid her in public spaces because she’s too ‘scary’. Given she’s an altogether incredibly amazing woman, I made a promise to myself that I would go out of my way to connect with people who may otherwise be shunned by those quick to judge. So I grabbed my lunch and came back to interrupt this person’s quiet space and was so glad I did.

After a brief chat about the glorious weather and the great view we were enjoying from the grandstand overlooking the MCG, Jenny started to talk about why she was at the Mental Health & Wellbeing Conference. She was representing a state school in a rough area and her role was to work with disengaged youth. This immediately sparked more conversation and led me to share about the presentation I had just delivered and the work I do through Youth Wellbeing Project, particularly related to helping schools deal with the impact of pornography. Jenny rolled her eyes in frustration and said that ‘most people have no idea’ – an echo that reverberates every time I speak with wellbeing staff in schools.
Jenny shared with me the latest craze with the particular group she’s working with. The young guys have a mission of hooking up with as many girls as possible on their weekends – usually by finding them on apps like Tinder (increasingly used by teens) – then rating them on a personal tally board. The guys keep score and get points for what ‘bases’ they reach, and of course the winning points score comes from having anal sex, with less points allocated for the ‘first base’ of oral sex. Jenny and the other staff have been scrambling to put together resources and materials that would somehow break through to these guys and educate on consent, the health components of sex, as well as prompt the guys to put more thought into what impact their exploits would have on young women caught in their scoring game.
It’s not hard to understand why teens would do this when you understand how normalised porn has become. Young men have ready access to porn that reduces women to nothing more than a sex object. Young women are immersed in a culture that convinces them that having sex with a random stranger is just what you do. But at what cost? The resulting relational, social, mental, emotional, sexual and developmental issues that have emerged from free and easy access to pornography are well researched and clearly documented. And this is at a time when sex education in schools is often not meeting the needs of young people, and parents are still wondering what on earth is going on. So many schools – like Jenny’s – find themselves overwhelmed by the issue of young people accessing pornography and don’t know what to do.
My advice to Jenny was to keep doing what she was doing with this young group of guys – education and intervention. But I also suggested that her school needs to go a lot further than that. Jenny’s school and countless others need a culture shift. Not only do they need to change the way that relationships and sexuality education is approached, at every step of the way they need to ask the question: “How is this sex ed lesson counteracting porn culture’s messages?” From Year 1 right through to the end of secondary years, having knowledge and skills to build porn-resilience in young people through education & counselling is the new frontier faced by every school and wellbeing agency. It’s essential to take a step inside the online world of young people and understand the impact porn culture is having on them and their relationships and develop strategies to shift the school culture to the point that porn is seen as uncool. 
What we can learn from Jenny’s challenges is that the negative impacts porn culture is having on young people has reached epidemic proportions that we never thought possible. Jenny’s school is not alone. This is not a ‘this school’ or ‘that school’ issue – it’s happening across the board. Whilst I’m hopeful that not all schools have groups of young men racking up scores on a tally board, I’m certain that the vast majority of schools need a culture shift. There are three challenges we’ve got to move beyond to achieve a culture shift:
  1. Stop sweeping the topic of porn under the carpet because it’s too difficult to get past the basics, and implement a whole-of-school (or whole of life) holistic relationships and sexuality education approach.
  2. Question the conversation around porn that is swayed by liberal thinkers who are set on convincing the masses that porn is a wonderfully empowering medium that strips back all inhibitions and makes people sexually ‘free’; yet at the same time, deny the evidence that mainstream porn has countless negative effects on many people’s lives.
  3. Bring parents up to speed – there’s always a ‘generation gap’ but this one is wider than experienced in generations gone by, particularly given the mass influx of Internet porn and the use of mobile devices.

Thank you Jenny. You are exactly perfect for your work – you connect with young people where they are at, you understand the ramifications of not taking action, and you brave the new frontier faced by every school. I’ll sit beside you any day.

Image used in Facebook link courtesy of debspoons at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Liz Walker

About Liz Walker

Sexuality & pornography educator and advocate. Liz provides consultancy, schools education & presentations, and is sought after internationally.