Calling a spade, a “spade”…

Why language about “pornography” matters…

Keyboard "porn" key...

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/sndr

Public concern about “child pornography” is growing.

In the last 12 months there has been a 40% rise in the number of reports made to the Internet Watch Foundation about potentially illegal content on the internet.

Staff at the IWF attribute this to increased public concern about the issue following recent high profile cases.

Both Tia Sharp and April Jones‘ killers are known to have accessed child abuse images online before the murders of the two young girls.

Why online pornography matters…

There is another worry at large too: that young children will inadvertently see images of a sexually explicit and/or abusive nature.

Others, more usually teenagers, will go looking for it. Pretty normal some might say, being in the throes of pubescence and their emerging sexuality…

But we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of such material on the developing mind. This was captured brilliantly by Chloe Combi, “Porn: The Shocking Truth” in her TES article in August. Read it here.

Among the issues of concern surrounding online pornography are:

  • Access – any child with a smartphone, an internet gaming system, a desktop computer, laptop, or tablet can get online. If they can get online they can see pornography.
  • Range – once online, the ability to boundary the type of content seen is limited.
  • Deviance – 20 years ago accessible pornography was pretty much of a muchness. We wouldn’t all approve of it, by a long way; but the top shelf material accessible to most was relatively low key and sexually benign compared to that available today. Examples include:
    • Sexual violence – from slapping to simulated sexual murder
    • Rape – consent, or lack of it, features in online pornography, as does the persistent myth that sex can start coercively or violently and end in consenting mutual bliss
    • Disrespect – the instrumental portrayal of sex, the disparaging language used towards women (“bitch” etc.) and the pervasive sense of male entitlement are a real concern
    • Abuse – when women or children are used for sex, this is abuse. Not least towards children and young people who see it. Regardless of whether or not those portrayed choose to be involved, if sex is not equal, it’s abusive. Sex involving children is never equal.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are clear areas of overlap, for example between rape, abuse and disrespect. But you get the idea. Now, to the main point…

Language can help young people…

As they battle with their emerging interest in sexual matters, teens are looking for guidance. They won’t ask for it. Usually. But they certainly need it.

This is all the more the case given the ease of access they have to a vast range of online sexual material . So how do we help them to navigate safely through the shoals of online sexual material?

One way is to get the language right. Or at least to make it more accurate. Here are some suggestions:

  • Consent is the key – by talking about consent we can help kids to understand the need for it. Compliance is not consent. Submission is not necessarily consent. “No” needs to have power, if “yes” is to have any meaning. The idea of genuine mutuality needs to be reinforced. The tramlines on which consenting, happy, equal and legal sex takes place, need emphasising. Language can help in this and consent is a central principle..
  • Legal vs illegal – S.63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act (2008) attempted to designate certain types of images-necrophilia, bestiality and mixing sex and violence-as illegal. The effectiveness and ethical rightness of this has been questioned. But using the word “illegal” about this kind of stuff can only help young people to understand that a line can be crossed when viewing material online. Hitting someone is assault. Sex without consent is rape.
  • Child “abuse”, not child “pornography” – pornography has no singular legal definition in the U.K. and there is debate about where freedom of expression meets legally questionable obscenity. But, in my view, we should limit the use of the term “pornography” to what is non-abusive. Top shelf material in a corner shop is generally in this category. A lot of what appears online, isn’t. Anything involving children, violence, rape-simulated or not-isn’t either. It’s abusive. And that’s what we should call it.
  • Relationship – context is important. Relationship, to most people’s mind, is the optimum context for sex. Pornography dilutes this at best and usually largely ignores it. Using the term “relationship” can help young people to retain the idea that sex is more than mutual stimulation. At best (in my view) it’s a culmination of relational security, equal power and mutual respect. “Relationship“, as an idea, sums this up nicely and succinctly.

Part of growing up is finding your own moral compass. Whilst we don’t want to impose this, we have a duty to help young people establish some principles by which to draw their own conclusions. I believe language is one way of doing this.

A spade is, after all, a spade; it’s not a ground re-assignment facilitation mechanism. Not really

Final thought…

This is an opinion piece. So not everyone will agree with my views. That’s fine and as it should be.

But the prevalence and accessibility of abusive, illegal, non-consenting and violent sexual material begs a question of us all: how can we adapt our parenting, caring and professional practice to help young people navigate a way through to a happy, balanced and consenting view of sex?

What do you think?…

  • How else might language help young people in connection with sex?
  • How have you tackled this with your own teenagers or with service users?
  • Or are we really just out-of-date and failing to accept that things have changed across the piste and that sex is just another part of this?

Please let me know what your thoughts are… Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2013

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