DEBATE about the effects of pornography has raged for a very long time.
For all I know, the inhabitants of ancient Pompeii may have agonised over the effects of their famous explicit murals on young minds.
In more recent times, there have been plenty of studies associating exposure to pornography with a range of undesirable outcomes — sexual aggression, unsafe sexual practices, inability to form relationships and so on — but little evidence to indicate whether the link is a causal one.
But, in the age of the internet, is that even the point?
Of course, it would be good to have clear data on porn’s effects, but the bottom line is it’s probably harder for adolescents these days to avoid porn than to find it.
So how should we, as a society, respond to the near-certain knowledge that just about every teenager with access to a computer is going to encounter pornographic material before they reach adulthood — net nannies and internet filters notwithstanding.
The BMJ reported last week on a call by UK public health experts for more and earlier sex education in schools to counter the effects of pornography.
The call came in response to a report prepared for the Children’s Commissioner for England and published under the evocative title Basically… porn is everywhere.
The report said the estimates for the percentage of young people exposed to pornography ranged from 83% to 100% for boys and 45% to 80% for girls, although evidence was inconsistent.
Pornography had been linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex, maladaptive attitudes about relationships, greater acceptance of casual sex and less progressive gender role attitudes (such as male dominance and female submission).
“Children and young people learn from and may change their behaviour due to exposure and access to pornography”, the report said.
It recommended all schools — government and private — be required to deliver effective relationship and sex education, including education about pornography.
There’s bound to be some disquiet about that but, really, what’s the alternative?
The report found the most common reasons young people gave for accessing pornography (apart from masturbation) were curiosity and getting ideas for educational purposes.
Do we really want the pornography industry to be the chief provider of educational material in this area?
Apart from anything else, this is a business sector that spectacularly fails to comply with the most basic occupational health and safety principles by refusing to mandate condom use.
The industry has long claimed its actors have lower rates of sexually transmitted disease than the general community, thanks to frequent health checks.
But a study published in Sexually Transmitted Diseases last year cast doubt on that claim, finding 25% of 168 Los Angeles performers had gonorrhoea.
Why governments don’t enforce condom use in the legally sanctioned parts of the industry is beyond me. However, today’s vast array of black-market and citizen-produced porn is beyond the reach of any regulator.
Sending properly trained sex and relationship educators into schools is the least we can do to ensure that online pornography is not the only voice on sex that young people hear.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.