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Is access to online porn harming our children?

A version was published in The Scotsman Wednesday 31 October 2012. This sentence did not appear in the Scotsman article

"Relate this week said that large numbers of young people are ascribing problems with intimacy and relationships to their early introduction to the porn industry. Covering  this, Radio One newsbeat featured a young woman discussing how her university boyfriend insisted on having rough anal sex with her while watching porn on a handheld device. She said she thought she was “weird” for not enjoying it."

I was saddened but not surprised by a Plymouth University survey published earlier on this week showing that it has become “common practice” for children to view pornography from age 11. The academics involved called for sex education in schools to include pornography.
Some teachers’ leaders agreed. Radio Four played part of a lesson for 14-year-olds on porn. It is certainly the first time I have heard the term “hung like a donkey” on Woman’s Hour.
But it did make me question where we are headed as a society. Have we really decided we have no option other than to accept the right of pornographers to invade our childrens’ imaginations in this way? Is that all there is?
I felt sorry too for the teachers at my childrens’ schools. It seems to me that they are gamely trying to take on all the ills of society as it is. I don’t think they should have to watch pornography so they can ‘analyse” it with the class.
During the half-term break, I took my 11-year-old away for a couple of days and we stayed in a ‘Holiday Inn’. On arriving in our family room after a long journey, he saw an ad for mainstream Hollywood movies on the room TV. I turned on the TV and could see that there was adult content available. The remote wasn’t easy to operate so we called down to reception and asked for someone to come and help. A staff member appeared. She clicked a couple of buttons and we all found ourselves watching a group of people noisily encountering each other for perhaps 30 seconds until the hotel employee managed to turn it off.
When I complained to the manager about what had happened, I was told what I did in my room was my responsibility (asking someone else to put my room number into the TV system made it my fault this stuff came on).
Is that right, I wondered. It was a family room. Even if I wanted to, should I have the right to inflict that kind of imagery on my young son? The incident was terribly upsetting. As a parent, I felt I had failed to protect my child.
But I have to say it was not an isolated incident. My older son at a similar age or even younger turned on a computer in a café on holiday and saw shocking images.
Around puberty some of his friends developed a strong interest in pornography and began to view it regularly, even on the bus on the way home from school. I have also heard of young girls and boys being persuaded to upload pornographic photographs of themselves, sometimes for money.
A friend who was concerned to find out what was available for her children to view went online this week and found that while the topless photos of Kate Middleton appear to have been more or less erased from cyberspace, in contrast only two clicks of the mouse were needed to watch all kinds of pornography. There was one strand, she said, called “neat teens’ which particularly upset her, featuring the tragic exploitation of very young women from parts of the world where they may have few choices.
“I went to bed feeling really sad for them. As a woman I felt threatened and sickened by what I saw” she said. “I am really lucky, I am happily married to a nice man and I have my kids. But I couldn’t help contrasting my life with the lives of these girls and also worrying about the effect of all this on our kids.”
It seems many of our young people are regularly viewing hard and softcore pornography from an early age. What effect will this have on their growing minds? The answer is we don’t really know. We are effectively in the midst of a massive, not very well-organised social experiment.
Many, perhaps, will take a bit of an interest because others do and then move on.
But some are building neural pathways that will almost certainly be with them for life. Spending the kind of amount of time a previous generation would have spent on declining irregular French verbs on viewing extreme sexual activity may have a lasting influence.
They will probably be turned into heavy consumers of the porn industry, a habit that could stay with them for life, linking them at least to the content produced by people who inhabit this shady underworld.
They may end up going further, getting involved in the kind of sexual behaviours they watch so often, or even graduating to working in the sex industry. Relate this week said that large numbers of young people are ascribing problems with intimacy and relationships to their early introduction to the porn industry. Covering  this, Radio One newsbeat featured a young woman discussing how her university boyfriend insisted on having rough anal sex with her while watching porn on a handheld device. She said she thought she was “weird” for not enjoying it.
Watching ‘Fresh Meat’, a student comedy which my kids love the other day, I was struck by an exchange between two young female characters, one saying something along the lines of ‘well if you want to become a sex worker to pay your way through your studies then there is nothing wrong with that, if it is your choice’.
This and the huge coverage which greeted the death of porn actress Sylvia Kristel last week, demonstrate how mainstream pornography and sex work have become in our society.
I think this process has gone too far. Pornography should be an ‘opt in’ not an ‘opt—out’ on the internet. 110,000 people in the UK have now signed a petition demanding this. If US states can switch off online gambling and the Chinese can block the Beeb, surely we can do something about this?
As a society, we tend to pride ourselves on having improved how we treat children. We no longer send them up chimneys or down mines.
But this generation – generation triple x - may look back in anger, appalled at how we failed to protect them from this cruel, exploitative industry.