RTE’s new Upfront programme a couple of weeks ago dealt with the topic of Relationships and Sexuality Education, and in particular how secondary school pupils should be taught about porn. For those not familiar with these debates, it will have been an eye-opener.
Viewers are likely to have been shocked by the testimony of some of the young women in the audience about how extreme, hard-core and often violent pornography is shaping the expectations of young men today, and indeed of what young women fear is in store for them.
For example, one young woman, Jennifer, said in response to Upfront’s host, Katie Hannon: “It [porn] has a massive impact on relationships in terms of casual relationships. I have heard conversations with my friends about this frequently but one of my friends came up to me recently and was telling me that she was getting with this guy for the first time and the first thing that he does, to get down to it, is choke her, but without her consent, at all, and she is very taken aback by this, and tells him that’s not OK. His response was: ‘Oh, but I thought it was normal, that’s what all girls liked’. That’s not the only story I’ve heard, that happening. Smaller more kind of things you can pass off, that’s happening really frequently.”
Panelist Josepha Madigan, who is the Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion, said she believes that there is a link between extreme porn and violence. She pointed out: The ‘Culture reframed’ website says that 80pc of porn depicts some form of violence: strangulation, chocking, slapping, spanking.”
But when Hannon put the possibility of this link to academic, Kate Dawson, Dawson hedged her bets. She said: “It’s not clear cut. So we cannot say for certain that if you watch porn you are going to become violent. We do know that people who have predisposition to aggression, who already got aggressive tendencies, they are more likely will see violent content. And they continue in a cycle whereby watching this type of content, reinforces their existing beliefs, the acceptance of violence.”
But even this ought to be enough to ring alarm bells with the public. If extreme porn is making people with an existing tendency towards violence more likely to engage in violence, that is very bad on its own, even if Dawson refuses to acknowledge any further harms.
Furthermore, Dawson believe porn can be positive. Asked by Hannon if she believed pornography can be “good, positive, a source for good”, Dawson replied: “Yes, I do”.
Aontu leader, Peadar Toibin, another panellist, responded to Dawson: “I just think it is extremely frustrating listening to this discussion because the evidence we have heard even from the audience here seems like the evidence is flashing in neon lights in front of us in relation to the relationship between pornography and sexual violence.”
He added: “You could wallpaper this studio with the longitudinal studies that have been done by equally eminent academics in relation to the clear causation and link between hardcore violent pornography and violent sexual behaviour.”
Two other sex educationalists chipped in from the audience, namely academic Elaine Byrnes, and school teacher, Eoghan Cleary.
Byrnes seemed to deny that there is a link between sexual violence and the boys she speaks to about sex and relationships.
Asked by Hannon, “Do you get the impression that people consuming porn is turning them into people who are more likely to maybe commit sexual assault or to commit any assault?”, Byrnes responded: “I don’t agree with that”.
She added: “We come from a place non-judgment. It is not our place to judge what they [boys] have seen or to judge their engagement but what we want to instill in them is an ability to critically evaluate what they’re being presented with.”
In other words, these educationalists will not judge porn content that depicts violence.
Cleary took a similar approach. He said: “It’s not about judging them or stigmatising. It’s about giving them the tools to critically reflect on what they want out of the sexual experience, not what they have been told they have to provide.”
Again, the attitude seems to be that watching pornography showing slapping and choking should not be judged. What would young women think about this?
What would parents think? Do they want this determinedly non-judgemental attitude towards violent and extreme porn taught to their children? Is this seriously the best we can offer them?
Currently, a new RSE programme for Junior Certificate pupils is before the Minister for Education. Presumably it will not adopt the same attitude towards porn as Dawson, Brynes and Cleary, but it is important to know what some of the country’s leading sex educationalists believe, and Upfront helped to clarify that. It is extremely unlikely that parents, if properly informed, would agree with them.