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 ethical considerations for practitioners.
Information to support practitioners to navigate some key ethical considerations is provided, below.
Many practitioners hold concerns about raising the issue of pornography with young people who may not have encountered it, such as: what if young people haven’t seen or even heard of pornography? Am I introducing the concept to them? Is my work with them going to prompt them to go and look up pornography? Am I better to wait until I know they have seen it?
Have young people seen pornography?
It is true that some young people have not seen pornography. Our Watch’s research suggests that nearly half (48%) of young men have seen pornography by the age of 13, and three quarters (76%) have seen it by the age of 15.¹ A quarter (26%) of young women have seen pornography by the age of 13, and almost a half (48%) by the age of 15.²
It follows that we shouldn’t assume that individual young people – or whole groups of young people – have seen pornography, nor should we assume that they haven’t. And if they have seen pornography, we shouldn’t assume how they felt about it or whether their viewing was intentional.
Weighing the risks and benefits
Any conversation about pornography with young people requires careful consideration of the potential risks and benefits of having this conversation. However, we should be careful that we don’t allow our fears to immobilise us – keep in mind that there are also risks associated with not acting (and benefits associated with acting). By waiting until young people have seen pornography before we discuss it with them, we are leaving them to navigate pornography’s influence without our support, potentially increasing the risk of harms.
By talking with young people about pornography and equipping them with critical literacy skills, we can potentially reduce pornography’s negative effects for those who have already seen it, as well as for those who haven’t. Education about drugs and alcohol uses a similar framework – it is delivered to all young people, regardless of their previous experiences, in an effort to equip them to safely navigate a world in which they are likely to be exposed to drugs and alcohol and minimise the associated risks.
We cannot completely eliminate the risk that we will create an interest in pornography by talking about it with young people – but we can aim to minimise it. For example, we can take care not to normalise pornography use, including through an expectation that young people will all have knowledge of pornography. We can be clear about pornography’s problematic messages, and its potential harms. And we can promote respectful relationships and the characteristics that define them, and contrast these with the messages conveyed through pornography.
Many practitioners hold some concerns about how parents will respond if they talk with their young people about pornography. Practitioners may fear that parents will be angry or offended—or feel that the practitioner has not respected their cultural beliefs, norms or values.
In some contexts, it is both legal and legitimate to talk with young people about pornography without parental knowledge or consent. For example, when older young people seek confidential medical or counselling services. Practitioners should use their professional judgement about keeping matters relating to pornography confidential, in the same way they would with other sensitive issues.
However, parents are key caregivers and educators in young people’s lives, and it is often appropriate and important for them to be informed about – and invited to support – practitioners’ efforts to incorporate a focus on pornography into their work with young people.
Managing challenging parental responses
With careful planning, engaging parents can actually reduce the risk of a negative response from parents. By supporting parents to understand pornography’s prevalence and impacts on young people, practitioners can also encourage and equip parents to have conversations about pornography with their young people. For more, see .
While working together with parents may be the ideal approach, it is possible that even the most carefully planned and executed efforts may still attract a negative response from parents. In such circumstances, an open dialogue with the parent may assist practitioners to find a constructive way forward. For example, if a parent is determined that their young person should receive their sexuality education at home, you could seek to support the parent to incorporate information about pornography into this learning, by providing them with information and resources like .
In the event of a negative parental response, the value of having the backing of your organisation is amplified. In that context, responding to parents is not solely your responsibility as an individual practitioner, but one shared by your organisation.
It is always best to have the support of your organisation. Support at an organisational level assists in minimising the risks associated with addressing such a sensitive issue, and also maximises the potential for your efforts to be effective. When organisational leaders are on board, they can support you and your colleagues, help create a coordinated approach and allocate time and resources for the work.
Some practitioners are aware that the young people they work with need support on this issue but feel that their organisation has its head in the sand. If you relate to this predicament, you may ask yourself: how do I get my organisation on board? Efforts to address emerging issues are often initiated by committed individuals who advocate strategically with their colleagues and leaders until they are able to create sufficient momentum to affect change within their organisation.
- Ensure staff delivering actions have access to quality training and support, and regular opportunities to build their confidence and skills.
- Tailor organisational development initiatives to the specific context of the organisation, as well as the wider context of the community you are working in.
- Align work with other initiatives in the community or setting to provide consistent messages.
While you are working towards broader awareness and action in your organisation, it may be possible to implement a smaller scale strategy, which may be used to inform future efforts. For example, if you want to work towards a broader program of parent education about pornography, you might seek your organisation’s support to conduct a focus group with a small number of parents, to explore what they understand about pornography and its influence, what information and resources they have access to, whether they have conversations with their young people, and what support and resources they would find helpful.
If you use pornography yourself, it is critical that you reflect on whether this is likely to undermine your work on this issue with young people. The following questions may assist: what sorts of messages about gender, power and aggression are conveyed through the pornography you use? Are people treated equally and respectfully? Are you critical of pornography’s common portrayals of male dominance and female submission? Do you feel defensive or annoyed by a critique of pornography’s problematic portrayals? Are you able to support critical thinking about how pornography can impact on sexual norms and expectations?
If you think your own use of pornography will get in the way, or you feel unable to support the values and principles that underpin your organisation’s efforts to incorporate a focus on pornography, it is not appropriate for you to be involved in those efforts.