Below are some guiding principles for practitioners to incorporate a focus on pornography into their work with young people.
The aim is to highlight the factors that will assist practitioners to minimise the associated risks and maximise the potential to support young people to successfully navigate this issue.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing pornography with young people. Tailor your approach as appropriate for differences associated with age and “stage” – including abilities and literacy levels.
As young people get a little older and become aware of – or are exposed to – other messages and experiences, you can adapt your conversations about pornography to incorporate more mature themes. Key international guidelines¹detail a number of relevant learning outcomes that are appropriate for young people at different ages and stages. See "When is it appropriate to talk to young people about pornography?" in Common practitioner questions for more detailed guidance.
Young people have the capacity to answer, explore and lead discussion and reflection. They have valuable perspectives, ideas, opinions and experiences to offer both peers and adults. Working with young people on the prevention of violence against women means supporting them to develop the knowledge and skills they need for equal and respectful relationships. It also means supporting young people to critique the messages they receive from peers, family, the media and society about gender, sex and relationships.
Some young people have never seen pornography, while others are very regular consumers, and many will fall somewhere in between. For those who have seen it, exposure may have been intentional, or accidental. Young people who have viewed pornography may have experienced any number of responses – arousal, excitement, curiosity, discomfort, disgust, shock, humiliation or degradation – or even a combination of positive and negative responses, which can be very confusing. Normalise and validate that not all young people have seen porn – take care not to assume knowledge of pornography, nor create an environment in which young people feel rewarded for such knowledge.
Young people also have diverse experiences of violence, including family violence, dating violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault. Some may also have experienced violence relating directly to pornography, such as coercion to engage in sexual practices a partner has seen in pornography.
Remember that diverse experiences of pornography and violence are likely to be highly gendered. Be sensitive to young people’s experiences, particularly in group settings, and when discussing pornography’s harmful messages about gender, power, race and aggression.
International guidelines² recommend that accurate information about pornography should be a core component of relationships and sexuality education for young people and that this education should:
- equip young people with tools to understand the differences between online pornography and offline sexual relationships
- aim to increase critical awareness of the representations of sex, gender, power and sexuality in pornography
- equip young people to recognise and challenge unrealistic, degrading, disrespectful, non-consensual or gender-inequitable portrayals of sex and intimacy in pornography
- include gender analysis that supports young people to explore constructions of masculinities and femininities and the relationship between stereotypical constructions of gender and violence against women
- acknowledge the research on risks related to pornography consumption, but avoid overstating risks or taking a punitive, moralising or abstinence-only approach and
- acknowledge that many young people will have encountered pornography accidentally or incidentally, and that some young people may be uncomfortable, embarrassed, or distressed by talking about pornography.
For information about young people’s levels of pornography exposure and use, the kind of messages young people receive from pornography and how pornography is impacting young people, see Our Watch’s background paper Pornography, young people and preventing violence against women, or the summary resource Understanding the issues: young people, pornography and violence against women.
We often communicate as much with our manner as the words we speak, and care for young people’s wellbeing should underpin our approach. Avoid being alarmist, exaggerating and fear-based approaches. These approaches are likely to be counter-productive and alienate the young people you're trying to engage.
Look for how you can work together with young people to identify and build upon their insights and strengths. Take a strengths-based approach by being curious and interested in what young people think and feel about pornography and its impacts, and their ideas for how it may be addressed.
Young people’s relationships should be equal and respectful. To achieve this, we need to work with young people to address the impact of limiting gender stereotypes on young women, young men, transgender and non-binary young people. In the context of conversations about pornography, this requires an explicit focus on sexual consent and power dynamics within relationships.
Importantly, this also means addressing the ways that different groups of young people experience gender inequality, due to other forms of discrimination they face—including on the basis of race, class and ability.
There are many different aspects of identity – including gender, class, race, ethnicity, disability and sexuality – that shape how we experience the world, and the resources and opportunities available to us. It is critical to account for the power, privilege and/or discrimination that young people experience because of how society is organised.
This means ensuring that work with young people is accessible, inclusive and non-discriminatory. In the context of conversations about pornography and sexuality, this includes welcoming and including young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer (LGBTIQ), and those who are questioning.
- If a young person is concerned about their own pornography use:
- they can talk to a trusted family member, friend or professional. If they are a student, they may be able to access support through a student counsellor, wellbeing coordinator, student support services or any other trusted staff member.
- their doctor will be able to help with referrals to services such as counselling and youth services.
- this online resource may also be able to help: thelightproject.co.nz/need-help/i-need-help
- If a young person has experienced sex that is unwanted, pressured, coerced or forced, they can get support through a sexual assault service. For a list of sexual assault services in different jurisdictions, see: respect.gov.au/services
- If a young man wants to learn about engaging in respectful relationships, they can get support through MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78 or via mensline.org.au
- If a young person has experienced online bullying, they can get support through the eSafety Commissioner: www.esafety.gov.au/about-us/how-we-can-help
- Additionally, Kids Helpline supports young people aged 5-25 with a range of issues and can be contacted on 1800 55 1800 or via kidshelpline.com.au
Develop an approach to incorporating a focus on pornography into your work with young people that is evidence-based, appropriate for your particular setting and agreed within your organisation – including having leadership support. The “Be accurate and evidence-based” principle, above, along with the rest of this resource, provides more guidance about important elements of an agreed approach. An agreed approach can help maximise the potential benefits of your efforts and minimise the risks associated with approaches that have not been well thought-through.
Work together with others – colleagues, parents and young people, themselves – to implement your agreed approach. Collaboration can greatly improve effectiveness, through the pooling of diverse skills and insights, and facilitate a supportive environment – which can be particularly important when working on such a sensitive topic area. Collaboration also allows you to model the kinds of respectful relationships you are seeking to promote.
¹ UNESCO (2018),International technical guidance on sexuality education: An evidence-informed approach.
² UNESCO (2018), see note 1.