How porn took over our playgrounds

·7-min read
Teens are exposed to unlimited brutal online porn
Teens are exposed to unlimited brutal online porn

School used to be about the three Rs – but now it’s gone XXX.

“Girls feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up,” said Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, as she issued a new report into sexual bullying in our classrooms this week.

After visiting 32 state and private schools and colleges and speaking to 900 pupils she declared herself “shocked” that sexist name-calling, unsolicited explicit pictures, being touched up in the corridors and dealing with repeated messages asking for ‘nudes’ – with boys collecting them like Top Trumps – had become as standard a part of many girls’ school day as a maths test.

And a year of lockdown – in which teens were ‘home-schooling’ alone in their bedrooms, hormones raging, living their lives purely through the confines of social media – has not helped the coarsening of sexual culture that has accelerated with the smorgasbord of easily accessible explicit free sexual content.

As numerous testimonies on the website Everyone’s Invited attest, the consequences of learning about sex from porn are not pretty. If you haven’t looked at the site – you should; it is the tip of the iceberg. A new survey of 2,000 teens this week revealed 40 per cent of school girls who have had sex say they had a sex act performed on them while asleep or drunk, a third had had anal sex and 31 per cent hadn’t even been kissed on the lips before penetration.

As the mother of two teenage girls (16 and 18), such tales of sexual bullying amongst adolescents are particularly resonant. I am not naive. I went to Westminster in the sixth form in 1987. Back then there were 60 girls and 600 boys. It was a bear pit. Girls were publicly rated for attractiveness. Walking into College Hall for meals your score would be yelled out. It was humiliating. I had large breasts. No-one ever looked me in the face, they’d look at my chest. It was constant – and it wasn’t just the boys.

I am staggered that in 2021, things are even worse for my daughters, and the Ofsted report shows schools are still too often turning a blind eye. Only last month I heard how one public school head had told his boys at assembly: “Innocent till proven guilty, lads!”

The real culprit, however, is teens’ exposure to unlimited brutal online porn, and I’m not surprised. Back in 2010 I wrote a magazine cover story called Generation XXX about what was then a new phenomenon. Sex shops in Soho – where I grew up – served up material for every conceivable fetish. But pre-internet, most adolescent boys could not get hold of hardcore or violent material now being bandied about the playground.

The early signs of its effects weren’t good. One young man, who started watching porn at 11, confessed that by the time he got into bed with his real life first girlfriend, he’d damn near raped her. He was full of remorse but also confused. Porn, he said, had set his sexual dial to ‘extreme’ before they had so much as kissed.

I wrote then of my fears for the future; it resonated; Claire Perry MP took up the charge. Stopping children accessing porn became a front page issue. David Cameron’s government and then Theresa May’s promised action. Specifically forcing the porn hubs to insist – as gambling sites do – that their users were over 18.

Well, it’s now 2021 and that ‘porn block’ is still stuck in technical and political nowheresville. Yesterday, Vicky Ford, minister for children and families, issued a plea to parents to protect their children from “digital danger” by switching on safety features on their phones and devices. We all know how well they work, in the face of today’s tech-savvy teens.

In working on a book about this for Aurum, I conducted my own poll of teenage girls. Every girl I asked said that when they “linked” with a boy at a party (link is to today’s teens what ‘snog’ was for us) it was “normal” for them to be choked or throttled – and that they didn’t know that wasn’t, in fact, normal until they talked to me.

“The biggest change in the last decade is the level of aggression girls today are encountering from boys,” explains Alison Havey, co-founder of the RAP Project, which goes into schools across the country to talk about consent. “It is normal now for girls to be forced, for boys to intentionally get them drunk to assault them. This generation has been bred on internet porn, which is all about violently pounding different orifices – no consent, no condoms, no foreplay and terrifyingly, no sexual pleasure for women. The levels of violence are shocking and have got worse as viewers get desensitised to the material.”

What can be done? She believes the answer is improved sexual education. “We have to teach the kids about empathy; these boys need to put themselves in other people’s shoes. We need to talk to our sons about intimacy, connection, seduction, the imagination, erotica.” She praises the TV show Sex Education for showing teens asking: “‘Do you like this?’ And ‘may I?’ and sex is shown to be something mutually agreeable.”

The kind of toxic masculinity exhibited by men in porn, is of course harmful to boys, too – many go along with such behaviour out of fear of being bullied themselves, and are confused about what women actually want. They need an honest, direct conversation from an older man they trust, who explains that men don’t hurt women during sex, and extols the male virtues – protection, strength, steadfastness, comfort, playfulness, nurture, support. We need to empower our boys and girls to call out peers who behave badly to women and other men and teach them this is abusive behaviour

Most of all we need to tell our young people that learning about sex from porn is like learning to drive by watching Fast & Furious.

“Some more vulnerable teenage girls are saying they like being choked, or want rough sex because they think that is what the boys want and they want to be liked,” reports Havey. “Four Year 10 boys told me last month that the girls were ‘gagging for it’ and that two of them had given them all oral sex during lunch. The boys had filmed the sex acts and sent them round the school. The girls told me they were more upset that their phones had been confiscated than by the video being circulated.”

Conversely, another trend is for girls to take their sex lives online; sending nude photos or performing titillating acts over the internet to avoid real life pain. Others opt out altogether: “I see more highly educated girls at 18 or so who are still virgins, and there is also a trend for them having relationships with each other; they just don’t want to go there with the boys,” says Havey.

Schools have a part to play, and sex education needs to be beefed up – sure. But we cannot leave this to teachers. Nor is it all up to parents. We cannot say any more that we don’t know about the effect of internet porn. We live in a society with a 9pm watershed on TV and 18 certificates on movies that allows violent sex to be accessible to any child with a laptop. The evidence of the behaviour this causes is now clear; a generation of traumatised young women and emotionally deadened young men.

The story we tell ourselves about our society is that it is getting better, that each generation builds on the progress of the one before, is no longer true when it comes to sex.

We Brits are often squeamish about talking about sex. We can’t be any more. We owe it to our young people to have awkward conversations about what loving sex looks like. We must all step up and do our bit. The consequences if we don’t are too awful to contemplate.

Eleanor Mills is the founder and editor in chief of noon.org.uk, a new platform for women in midlife

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting