192.There is extensive evidence that children’s perceptions of sex, consent, gender roles and relationships are changing as a result of the pornography they are seeing. Research with over 1,000 16–21 year-olds in 2014 found that:
193.The Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit referred to its research with 110 young people as evidence of the ubiquity of pornography in their lives. It explained how:
One 16 year old young man said to us: ‘most of the people I know, they use it. 99% of boys’. While young people described pornography as a form of entertainment, they explicitly talked about its function as ‘seeing how to have sex’.
194.Big Talk Education has also noticed in their work in schools that pornography is informing children’s views about sex:
When pupils are given the chance to ask questions anonymously, it becomes clear pornography is a main source of information about sex and sexual behaviour. “Questions like “Is it ok for me to cum over my girlfriend’s face?” are not unusual as is the apparent normalisation of anal sex. Another concerning increase is referrals to us for children and young teenagers with pornography addictions. This is a new and increasing area of work for us. They include girls as well as boys with one girl aged only eight.
195.The ATL found more than 40% of teachers it surveyed said they had seen an increase in pupils sharing sexually explicit material, One secondary school teacher reported that:
Pornography is easily available on mobiles and I have caught pupils watching it during break times.
196.The nature of the pornography being consumed by young people is too often misunderstood, as Marai Larasi of Imkaan explained:
Very often, if people are not engaged with this work, they think of pornography and they think about Playboy or an online version of Playboy. Actually what has happened over the last few years is pornography that would have been considered hard-core pornography, which would have operated on the peripheries, is now the mainstream pornography.
197.Chief Constable Simon Bailey explained the NPCC’s concerns about the impact of pornography on sexual harassment and sexual violence. He cited previous research commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner for England which found a correlation between children viewing pornography and subsequent engagement in risky behaviours. He also noted:
Anecdotally we regularly hear concerns from police officers/staff relating to pornography and how this is influencing expectations relating to sex, relationships and consent by children and young people.
198.The relationship between pornography and behaviour is examined in research by Dr Christine Barter. It found that:
Holding negative gender attitudes and regularly watching online pornography were significantly associated with higher rates of self-reported sexual violence perpetration.
It should be noted that this research finds a correlation between watching pornography online and rates of reported perpetration. It did not set out to examine causation which is notoriously difficult to ascertain.
199.Data on the impact of pornography is backed up by a plethora of qualitative evidence. For example, Laura Bates from the Everyday Sexism Project described an incident at one school she visited:
I was in a school where a teacher told me they had recently had a rape case involving a 14-year old male perpetrator. One of the teachers had asked him ‘why didn’t you stop when she was crying?’ and he had replied: ‘because it’s normal for girls to cry during sex’.
200.A secondary school teacher from Birmingham with 15 years’ experience told us about the impact of pornography on pupils at her school:
I have heard boys talk about certain porn stars and talk of their expectations for both girls and boys to have body shapes and proportions similar to what they view both from pornography and within the mass media…I see the transformation of fresh faced innocent year 7 girls who will try to be heavily sexualised by the time they reach year 10. I see these beautiful girls not understanding the option to say no.
201.It is important to recognise that pornography can have specific impacts on particular groups of children and young people. As Marai Larasi told us:
The other thing about pornography is that it is incredibly racist. It constructs groups of young men as thugs and monsters, and constructs all women as sluts, as filth, basically. It also constructs particular groups of women as exotic, as asking for it, as beasts, as animals, et cetera. What does that mean to a young black woman in Hackney who is seeing herself represented in that way? What does it do to the young black man who sees himself represented as a thug?
202.A focus group run by the Anti-Bullying Alliance with young people with social, emotional and mental health needs (SEND) found they felt strongly that increased consumption of pornography was a driver for sexual bullying. These young people thought pornography:
203.The negative impact of pornography on children and young people was acknowledged by Government ministers. The then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, Karen Bradley MP told us:
It is very clear that the use of pornography by young people distorts their impression and image of what a normal, healthy sexual relationship should be.
204.Widespread access to pornography appears to be having a negative impact on children and young people’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent. There is evidence of a correlation between children’s regular viewing of pornography and harmful behaviours. The type of pornography many children are exposed to is often more extreme than adults realise.
205.Recommendations to address the impact of pornography predominantly focus on educating children and young people about sex, relationships and pornography. As Laura Bates said:
It is completely unrealistic to expect that we can prevent young people seeing online porn. But what we can do is help them to make sense of it and to differentiate between what they see online and what a healthy relationship might look like with clear, comprehensive, age-appropriate conversations.
206.Other strategies, including improving restrictions on access to pornography, are also needed, as Dr Vera-Gray told us:
We do absolutely everything that we can around age verification, education more broadly, some public awareness campaigns—that is all great. We need to do everything we can, because [pornography] is coming at them from everywhere.
207.There is widespread consensus that better education about sex and relationships is needed to mitigate the influence of pornography on children and young people. As the school students we heard from said:
The internet is sort of like a free plane; you can’t really control it that much, so the best way to tackle that issue is to educate. That’s it.
I think that [pornography] should be blocked, but I also think that it should still be taught, because even if it is blocked, there are still going to be certain ways to get access to it. I think it still needs to be taught, because it is seen as embarrassing at school to talk about, but if you are not taught about it, you are not prepared for the future and other situations.
208.Researchers from the Connect Centre, University of Lancashire also conclude that education is the approach most likely to work in combatting the impact of pornography:
Attempts to regulate and restrict young people’s exposure to online pornography are likely to be ineffectual due to ease of access and normalisation. Thus, SRE should be attempting to foster critical approaches which acknowledge its lack of congruence with lived experiences and challenge the misogynist attitudes displayed within pornographic scripts.
209.As discussed in Chapter 4, most schools are not currently offering good quality SRE. Evidence we received suggests that SRE is particularly poor when it comes to addressing, pornography. A survey of ATL members found that only 22% of staff said their school or college currently discussed pornography in SRE or PSHE classes. Nonetheless, there is support amongst teachers to address the issue:
Provided it is taught at an age-appropriate level at school, over three-quarters (76%) of respondents…said pupils should be taught about the dangers of pornography, as part of SRE or PSHE.
210.Poor quality SRE can make children more likely to seek out pornography, as Jo Sharpen from AVA explained:
Young people, because they are not getting the quality of SRE that they need in schools, are looking to things like pornography to get that advice and education.
She cited her own work moderating the forum for the Home Office’s campaigns on teenage peer-on-peer abuse as evidence of this phenomenon:
I spoke to about 3,000 young people in six weeks and nearly all of them were completely confused about consent, what it meant; they were referencing pornography as their benchmark, had no understanding of what consent actually means, of what their rights are, even what sex is.
211.The importance of ensuring schools address the issue of pornography was recognised by the Minister for Children and Families:
There is a clear role for schools to play particularly in the early stages…We know that those first few years of secondary school is when children are particularly vulnerable to the darker side of the internet and the interaction that they have with other pupils and people who they do not know can lead them down the wrong path. Yes, schools have a very clear role to play in making sure we tackle that.
212.As we noted in Chapter 4: current Government guidance on teaching SRE was last updated 16 years ago and has no reference to pornography. There is a clear need for better guidance to schools on how to approach this sensitive topic in an age-appropriate manner.
213.The Government should immediately update its guidance on SRE to include teaching about pornography. The new guidance should offer advice to schools about how to approach this topic in an age-appropriate way. It should also include suggestions of how schools can work in partnership with parents to address the impact of pornography on children’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent.
214.In the Queen’s Speech in May 2016 it was announced that the Digital Economy Bill would include measures to require pornographic sites to verify users are over 18. Chief Constable Simon Bailey was amongst those who welcomed this development. He warned that this was only part of the solution, however, and that:
Schools have a vital role to play in combatting the potential effects of pornography and sexualised culture through the delivery of high quality relationship and sex education as part of a coordinated PSHE agenda.
215.Beyond current plans for age verification, other restrictions on access to pornography include these recommendations from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC):
The BBFC have already trialled a system of voluntary age ratings for music videos and in August 2015 the Government announced that “the UK music industry, Vevo and YouTube would make this scheme permanent for videos produced by artists signed to major UK labels and that independent labels would also pilot this voluntary initiative.”
216.Whilst it is clear that children and young people may well be able to circumvent age restrictions on pornography and other websites, there is still an argument for bringing about these changes. As Dr Vera-Gray explained:
It is about sending a very strong message. The law has impact in terms of what it does substantively but also symbolically. Changing the law around what is classified as extreme pornography, what is legal and not legal sends a very strong message that this is not how we want our society to see women; this is not how we expect our men and boys to behave; these are not the representations of race that we support as a culture.
217.We welcome the Government’s forthcoming legislation for age verification of pornographic websites. However, age verification legislation will only contribute to reducing sexual harassment and sexual violence in conjunction with the other recommendations made throughout this report.
171 BBC April 2014
172 (SVS0039) para 15
174 (SVS0071)para 37
176 (SVS0092) para 31
179 Birmingham school teacher (SVS0030)
181 (SVS0018) para 4.3
185 Q32 Student F
186 Q32 Student B
188 (SVS0071) para 32
189 Jo Sharpen Q117
192 (SVS0092)para 33
8 September 2016