This is a slightly edited extract from my book, Teaching Consent: Real Voices from the Consent Classroom
(Content warning: discusses rape, consent, survivors)
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What does pornography tell teenagers about consent?
Pornography is not a single, monolithic thing. Much of it, particularly the stuff thrown out on free websites, shows sex without condoms or consent or pleasure. Free pornography almost never includes foreplay. The actors either start naked, or they whip their kit off and launch into penetration in the first minute. Ethically produced pornography, which often includes consent, affection, foreplay, and shared joy is also distributed ethically, which means it costs money and has age requirements, and is therefore rarely accessible to teenagers. The pornography they can access frequently depicts rough anal sex, enormous penises, unrealistic body shapes, painful penetration, and group sex. Viewing such things exclusively, with no context or understanding, can lead to teens having awful experiences. Watching pornography is also much more common among boys than girls and often teenage girls have never even heard of the acts their partners have been conditioned to believe are everyday activities.
A few years back, Deanne was running a consent and respectful relationship class for a group of Year Ten students (fifteen to sixteen years old). Her program for this age group has a section on the basics of pornography. For example, that it’s not meant to be real sex, any more than the Fast & Furious movies are real driving. As she was talking, she noticed a spike in interest from some of the boys. Such a spike is common, and it almost always means they’ve seen pornography and have questions they think they can only ask each other. She started expanding, running through some of the things she knows are featured in almost all free pornography. Being slapped, choked, spat on, or sworn at are common viewing, but are rarely things inexperienced teens would initiate of their own accord.
Deanne noticed one of the boys was close to tears, so she wrapped up and moved on to the next topic. At the end of the class the boy followed her out (again, this is common, and Deanne was expecting it). She said hello and asked whether he enjoyed the class. “When they need to tell me something they don’t want the others to hear, they’ll usually find a way, but then when they’re standing in front of me, they don’t know how to start,” she told me. “Imagine walking up to someone you don’t know and asking if there’s something wrong with your sexual fantasies or your erection. Or spilling out your deep fear that your body is weird because one boob is bigger than the other. I’ve heard it all before, but they don’t know that, and they’ve never asked these questions before.”
The boy struggled to find words, then it all came bursting out. He had a girlfriend, and they were in love, the way you only fall in love when you’re sixteen. They’d tried to have sex a few times, but his girlfriend always started crying and he was frightened and confused by her tears. More than anything, what he wanted to do was make her happy and he didn’t understand what he was doing wrong until he’d heard Deanne explaining the sex depicted in pornography is not real sex. He’d been in sex education classes. He knew the mechanics of sex but, before he met his girlfriend, his only experience of sex was watching online pornography. He told Deanne he’d tried to do what he saw in those videos “because those women looked like they really enjoyed it”. He knew his girlfriend didn’t like it and stopped immediately but neither of them knew what else to try. They were miserable and confused, both thinking the problem was with them, not the violently misogynistic pornography he was attempting to re-enact. He became tearful again when Deanne told him that neither of them had done anything wrong and that it was good that they didn’t like hurting each other. She told him pornography is not meant to be educational. It’s entertainment for the adults who might like such viewing but it’s not how many people like to have sex. She told him that the best way for he and his girlfriend to learn how to touch each other in ways they both enjoyed was to tell each other how they feel, what feels good and what doesn’t, and to not feel pressured into doing something they didn’t like or want.
Tearful Boy was unusual in that he asked for help from someone he knew was knowledgeable and non-judgmental. But nothing else about this story is unusual. I’ve heard versions of this from so many teenage girls, horrified and bewildered by what they perceive as aggression from boys they thought were sweet, or fumbling experiments with touch that suddenly turned into shaky attempts at violent sex acts. All teenagers who experience this are frightened and confused by it, and almost none of them know where to find help.
BUY YOUR COPY of Teaching Consent from Body Safety Australia and support the organisation that published this book and, more importantly, does the daily work of teaching consent from preschool to Year 12.
Note: In the introduction to the book I wrote about the difficulty of telling children and young people’s stories when they cannot give fully informed consent for their stories to be made public, and how this usually leads to their stories being ignored and forgotten. There are no factual accounts in this book. They are multiple threads from a myriad of stories woven together to tell the true stories of sex, consent, rape, survival, joy, and shame.
If you think you recognise any of the people in this extract (or in the book) it’s because their story is so familiar, not because I wrote any of it about a single encounter.
All of it is true. None of it is you.