Let’s rewind a bit. Back in 2008 I wrote a play inspired by the real experiences of local teenage mums and that play, called The Teenage Pregnancy Project, toured for a further 8 years educating young people about the consequences of unsafe sex and unplanned pregnancy. During those eight years things changed rapidly for young people. Teenage pregnancy rates went down but at the same time access to hardcore online pornography increased exponentially. The number of reported rapes in the UK has risen by 29%. Over the past three years, the number of contacts to Childline about online sexual abuse has surged by 250% with 1 in 5 indecent images of children shared online being taken by the child themselves. It was clear that our once risqué and challenging play just wasn’t going to cut it in today’s climate so, despite continued demand, I made the foolhardy decision to retire our award winning production and go back to the drawing board.
To make sure that this new play really speaks to this generation, together with our peer educators, I have been running sex and relationship workshops in secondary schools. The aim is to find out what they know, what they don’t know and what they need to know. It’s a challenging area. The young people taking part in this research are aged between 12 and 15 years old. They are well below the age of consent and, by anyone’s standards, are still children. A handful of their teachers are skeptical – “Surely they’re too young?” I understand their concerns. I really do. Especially as a group of tiny, largely prepubescent people surge into the classroom. Unfortunately, as an experienced educator in this field, I know that this cannot be avoided. In this sea of awkward, giggling silliness I know that statistically many will already have accessed pornography, some will have been coerced to send pictures of their own bodies and a few will have been sexually abused. As uncomfortable as it might feel we have to talk to these children about sex. We have to try to undo their pervasive misconceptions and frankly dangerous misunderstandings.
So what have we found out so far? Their knowledge is patchy at best, wildly inaccurate at worst. Whilst some students have more of a solid grasp (whether from sex education at school or parents) others seem completely in the dark. This is perhaps to be expected but it is the strange combination of wisdom and ignorance, worldliness and innocence within individual students that baffles me the most.
One of the first questions that I ask the students is, ‘Where do you find out about sex?’ The answers vary: school, family, friends, books, but pretty soon the internet comes up and someone is brave enough to talk about porn. When I asked that question to one group of twelve year old lads they quickly began to reel of the names of different porn sites. Five or six sites in I ask them whether they think this is a good place to get accurate information and they’re not sure. Then one of them turns to me and asks, without any hint of irony, ‘What is pornography anyway?’ So, now I’m confused. So I ask them if they are looking at the sites they confirm that they have been and yet they ask me again, ‘what is it?’ This is something I wasn’t expecting. So I start to explain what makes something pornography as opposed to a sexy bit in a mainstream film and I get as far as explaining that the people in those films are actually taking part in sexual acts and their jaws drop. They are genuinely shocked. They thought it was faked. They are even more shocked when I explain that there is no real way to know if the people taking part have consented and that they could be being abused. They have no idea.
And yet at the same time this ever present pornography that is one click away on their smart phones at any given time, drills into their psyches consciously or unconsciously affecting their views on gender, sex and sexuality.
We give the students the chance to ask anonymous questions. In all groups the girls are concerned about sex being painful especially the first time. Modern pornography largely does away with any foreplay, build up or narrative and jumps straight into penetration where the frankly ludicrously endowed men aggressively plough in and out of a woman who looks pained and humiliated. This is the image that young people are seeing and no one is deconstructing it for them. I take time to explain that that the average penis is 6 inches when erect, that the vagina is a muscle and so sex is more likely to hurt if they feel uncomfortable and tense, which is why it is better to wait until they are with someone that they really trust. I explain about the hymen. I even explain about the importance of foreplay and how the vagina needs to be wet for sex to be pleasurable. This is news to all those listening and the room gets very quiet whilst they listen. My frankness makes some of the teachers look uncomfortable and it is uncomfortable but, unless we address this, we are breeding a generation of young men who are so addicted to pornography that they cannot function sexually when the time comes to having real sexual experiences and young women whose own sexual agency has been erased whilst they try in vain to emulate the women they have seen online.
Most students don’t know about the age of consent.
Most students think that it is not possible to get pregnant the first time and, when asked why they think this, several tell me that you would have to have a period first! Attempting to unpick this has blown my mind.
Lots ask what to do if they don’t want to have sex but someone forces them.
Most assume a rapist will be a stranger.
So, as I continue to research and I start to write, I realise the enormity of what I am taking on and I feel angry. Really very, very angry. I feel angry that these conversations are needed. It’s not that I mourn the loss of these children’s innocence. I am angry that porn and rape culture (as encountered by children unable to filter what they see) sells just one form of sexuality and that it is brutal, aggressive and misogynistic. I mourn the loss of their right to discover and explore for themselves and to develop their own unique sexual identity.