Rape and Porn

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The Nine recently invited Mary Sharpe onto the programme to look more deeply into the links between rape and porn culture. After an interview with Zara McDermott, Mary joined Rebecca Curran to explore this challenging topic.

“No 12-year-old should have to be in a position where they are being pressured for sex and nudes from a boy 12-year-old.  I can’t emphasise that enough.”

Zara McDermott

The BBC III documentary “Uncovering Rape Culture“ hosted by model and former Love Island participant Zara McDermott was one of the best recent illustrations of how far porn culture is affecting young people today. It included examples ranging from coercive sexting to sexual strangulation to rape itself. It showed how young people feel confused about how to communicate with each other in a flirty but safe way. Zara also showed how far pornography has gone in shaping the behaviour and expectations of young people today.

The documentary illustrated that the sexting culture culture is totally widespread in secondary schools. It suggested nearly all boys are watching porn and discussing it. Many of them then aggressively seek nude photos, saying things like “these are the positions you’re going to do”. The young women also said the men had unrealistic standards of beauty. They expect young women “to be hairless, tiny and then wanting big boobs and big bums.” Put simply, rape and porn are linked.

Sexual aggression

Pupils in the documentary suggested that that it’s often the nice guys who turn out to be quite sexually aggressive. Other pupils do not believe that those popular boys could perpetrate the violence they are alleged to have committed and blame the girl. “He’s so lovely,”  that “it’s all lies, she wanted it!” We know this is very much the case from stories we’ve heard  from teachers dealing with such problems in schools in Scotland.

It is particularly difficult for school leaders to know how to handle allegations of sexual assault in the school. Do they send both pupils involved home while an investigation takes place, even if it takes months? Do they send the alleged perpetrator home? School leaders are under not only a duty of care to safeguard pupils but also under a duty to educate and if that means providing private tuition for a pupil or more than one at home that could become extremely expensive over time for the local authorities. Investigations by the police and prosecution service can take many months to complete.  

Pressure to withdraw allegations

We’ve heard stories of, for example, a young woman who had reported being raped being put under pressure from other pupils to withdraw the allegations given that the significant criminal consequences for the perpetrator. In one case more allegations of rape perpetrated upon other pupils by the same young man emerged. However, because he was a popular sports star in the school, the other pupils wanted him back. They condemned the complainer.

How do school leaders and teachers care for the mental health consequences of a person who has been sexually attacked? There is large issue when the victim has to be in the same classroom or school environment as the person who has just sexually assaulted them. Schools have a difficult job trying to balance the rights of all concerned. They need as much support from the government as possible.

Age verification is needed

The UK government missed a key opportunity to help reduce access to porn by children when they shelved the age verification legislation for porn.  It was an opportunity to break the rape and porn cycle. This was in Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. They did it in the run up to the general election in 2019. Commentators close to No 10 said it was a decision from No 10 itself to not implement this important legislation. The decision was related to fears about adult men being inconvenienced for a few moments to prove they are over 18 years old when accessing their porn and that this would result in their not voting for the Conservatives at the general election.

Porn culture is deeply rooted and hardcore porn freely available on every phone. It needs a government level response to tackle the harms this documentary has highlighted. The harms mentioned are only the tip of the iceberg. The documented physical and mental health harms are extensive. So too as are the impacts on relationships, on educational attainment and on criminality.

Navigating adolescence

Adolescence is the most difficult stage of development for most people. We attempt to navigate moving from the safety of a family into the adult world as an independent being. If young people are being shaped by porn culture to behave in exaggerated sexual ways some of which are both harmful and illegal, means that we all have to be even more vigilant in educating and protecting other young people through this time in their life.

We know from the schools that we have visited as part of our work at The Reward Foundation that coercive sexting is rife. We also know that the new emphasis on consent in PSHE lessons in schools while important, is insufficient to deal with the impact of the porn culture as a whole. Half of young people with a porn problem are virgins. For these young people consent in the person-to-person context is less relevant.

Teaching pupils about the impact of porn on their sensitive developing brain is critically important.  Our free lessons on sexting and internet pornography give teachers and pupils important tools. They help pupils investigate how porn may be affecting them. They then use tried and tested ways of working to counter porn harms. That way our children may be in a better position to enjoy developing healthy, safe, loving relationships when they are mature enough to do so.  

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