Young people need support to critique pornography’s messages and to develop the attitudes and skills that underpin respectful relationships.
But working with young people on this sensitive topic raises a variety of questions for practitioners.
Answers to some common practitioner questions are provided, below.
If your role involves – or should reasonably involve – supporting or educating young people in areas related to relationships and sexuality, media, or online safety and citizenship, the answer is probably ‘yes’.
If these issues come up in your work with young people, but are not really core to your role, or if you are in some way responsible for young people’s day-to-day care – for example, if you work in the out-of-home-care sector – there is a good chance it is appropriate for you to be talking with them about pornography.
If your role with young people is less intensive or is more peripheral to these related issues – for example, if you are a sports coach – then it may be appropriate to talk with them about pornography, depending on your relationships with the young people and their parents, and some of the other questions discussed below.
It is important to tread carefully, and there are some roles or contexts in which it will not be appropriate. At the same time, we should be careful not to allow our personal discomfort to determine whether young people get support on this issue. If you are uncertain about whether it is appropriate for you to talk about pornography with young people, seek guidance from a manager, or someone more senior, and consider the questions below.
Do I have the support of my organisation?
If you don’t already have formal support from leaders in your organisation to talk about pornography with young people, ensure you seek it before broaching the subject with young people. Pornography is obviously a sensitive topic. Leaders’ support is important for minimising the risks associated with ad hoc or ill-considered approaches, and also for maximising the potential benefits of your efforts. Ideally, you will work together with others using an evidence-based approach that is informed by an understanding of the impacts of pornography on young people.
Do I feel equipped?
You will need access to relevant information, some frameworks for thinking about the issues and skills and experience having conversations about sensitive issues with young people. You will need to understand the concepts of gender and gender inequality, for example, in order to help young people to develop critical literacies about pornography’s role in reinforcing the attitudes and beliefs that are known to drive violence against women. If you don’t feel equipped now, the resources provided on can help.
Do I have a suitable setting?
Conversations about pornography can range from a casual chat, to a discussion linked to technology access, to a more structured group activity using a resource such as . Some formats require scheduling and set up. Others can be more spontaneous.
What is appropriate for you will depend on your role and skills. Talk with others at your organisation about the approaches you think would work best.
No. There is clear evidence that an ‘abstinence only’ approach to sexuality education is not effective, and an ‘abstinence only’ approach to pornography is likely to be equally ineffective. Just saying ‘no’ does not adequately equip young people for the realities they face. They need to hear more than ‘don’t watch it’—young people need to be supported to think critically about pornography.
Young people are likely to be exposed to pornography – accidentally, if not intentionally. Our Watch’s survey of nearly 2,000 young people found that 56% of young women and 46% of young men who had seen pornography first came across it by accident.¹ Even if young people don’t see pornography themselves, they may still be impacted by its messages, for example, through the influence of a sexual partner or peers.
Practitioners’ efforts should incorporate strategies to minimise pornography’s harms when young people do see it or when it impacts on them indirectly -– for example, through building young people’s ability to critique pornography’s messages, respond to pressure to watch it, and make positive choices about the kind of pornography they are exposed to.
No, it does not. It is essential not to show young people pornography for a number of reasons, including that it is illegal to do so, and it could be distressing.
We don’t need to show young people pornography in order to support them to critique it, just as we don’t give young people alcohol or drugs when we do drug education. An example activity you can use to engage young people in a critique of pornography without showing it to them is available in .
There is no simple answer to the question about when to talk with young people about pornography. Differences in young people’s personalities and experiences and also in our roles and settings will all impact. However, the answer is probably sooner than you think. Many young people are not getting the information they need about pornography. They are more likely to see pornography than to have a caring adult talk with them about it.
As young people get a little older and become aware of – or are exposed to – other messages and experiences, adapt your conversations to incorporate more mature themes. The information below, which is adapted from ², can be used to help you explore key ideas that are appropriate to explore with young people of different ages.
The key idea to explore with younger teens is that sexually explicit media and images can create a range of feelings and be potentially harmful.
You can explore this idea by supporting them to:
- Analyse why sexually explicit media (pornography) is so common. For example, younger teens need to be able to critically analyse how pornography, like other forms of media, may be produced for profit – and how young people might come across pornography unintentionally, such as when they’re looking for something else, because of the ways that it is marketed online.
- Understand when sexually explicit images can be illegal for minors to send, receive, purchase, or have in their possession, and why these laws exist. For example, younger teens need to understand that laws seek to prevent the production and distribution of sexual images of children and young people to protect them from harm, particularly when they may be too young to give informed consent or to understand the potential consequences of a sexual image of themselves being shared.
- Express feelings about sexually explicit media use. For example, younger teens need to be able to talk with others, particularly a supportive adult, about feeling curious, embarrassed, aroused, uncomfortable, disgusted, concerned, frightened or any other response they may have to seeing pornography or hearing others talk about it.
Older teens and young adults
The key idea to explore with older teens and young adults is that sexually explicit media can result in unrealistic expectations about sexual behaviour, sexual response and body appearance.
You can explore this idea by supporting them to:
- Evaluate ways that sexually explicit media can contribute to unrealistic expectations about men, women, sexual behaviour, sexual response, and body appearance. For example, older teens and young adults need to understand that pornography focuses on particular types and ways of doing sex that are not reflective of what most people – particularly women – like or want in real life.
- Acknowledge that sexually explicit media can reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and can normalise violent or non-consensual behaviour. For example, older teens and young adults need to understand that pornography’s portrayals of men being dominant and aggressive towards women can impact on expectations and may make violence towards women seem normal and acceptable.
- Reflect on how sexually explicit media can impact their self-image, self-confidence, self-esteem and perception of others as a result of unrealistic portrayals of men, women and sexual behaviour. For example, older teens and young adults need to understand that pornography may create feelings of insecurity by creating unrealistic expectations about what people should look like, or how they should behave during sex.
Young people may ask, but in most settings, it is not appropriate for practitioners to talk about their own experiences with pornography.
You might consider answering something more general such as ‘pornography was nowhere near as accessible when I was young’, but it is best to avoid discussion about your own exposure or use, particularly discussion of specific content.
Risks associated with disclosing your own use of pornography include that you may be seen to be promoting or normalising pornography use (by young people, their parents, or your colleagues). These risks are heightened if you do not have the clear support of your organisation, including a shared understanding of the approach you will take and why. When considering your approach, consider whether it is likely to create an undue focus on you and/or distract from discussion about the key issues.