Elis­a­beth Eas­ther nav­i­gates the mine­field of 21st-cen­tury sex ed­u­ca­tion and on­line moral­ity – us­ing tools she was given in the 70s and 80s.

North & South - - In This Issue -

Elis­a­beth Eas­ther nav­i­gates the mine­field of 21st-cen­tury sex ed­u­ca­tion and on­line porn in an age of shift­ing moral­ity.

I’ve been try­ing to get my head around porn for a while now – specif­i­cally how it im­pacts on the lives of our young peo­ple, how its ef­fects are bleed­ing into ar­eas of con­sent and choice, and how it pre­sum­ably al­ters peo­ple’s per­cep­tions of what is “ac­cept­able” be­hav­iour.

I’ve also been wor­ry­ing about how easy it is these days to ac­cess hard­core pornog­ra­phy – then I started won­der­ing if the ex­plo­sion of X- rated on­line con­tent could have con­trib­uted to the likes of Roast Busters? Or to the boys of Welling­ton Col­lege crow­ing about rape on Face­book? Or to the Chiefs play­ers mak­ing such poor de­ci­sions at their aptly named “Mad Mon­day” fiasco?

As for the St Pat’s Sil­ver­stream case where stu­dents were in­volved in the “in­ap­pro­pri­ate film­ing” of fe­male staff, how could any­one, re­gard­less of age or IQ, ever think that was ac­cept­able? Even harder to com­pre­hend is that those stu­dents were per­mit­ted to stay on at the school, while the fe­male teach­ers felt their only op­tion was to re­sign.

With­out a doubt, hu­man be­ings have been say­ing crass, of­fen­sive and il­le­gal things since the ad­vent of lan­guage but, thanks to the in­ter­net, such gross dis­plays are now per­ma­nently aired in the public do­main. And while some peo­ple try to brush off re­pug­nant or misog­y­nist com­ments – to say the be­hav­iour is just “boys be­ing boys” or “It’s just talk, they don’t mean it” – for those of us who don’t think it’s tol­er­a­ble to touch a per­son with­out their con­sent and then brag about it, or to cre­ate or pub­lish in­ti­mate pic­tures of peo­ple with­out their per­mis­sion, we need to fig­ure out: how do we

teach our chil­dren the dif­fer­ence be­tween right and wrong?

Be­ing born in the 1970s, my first ex­pe­ri­ence of “porn” was in my fi­nal year of pri­mary school when a bunch of us would snatch furtive, gig­gling glances at my par­ents’ book, The Joy of Sex. The pen and ink il­lus­tra­tions were pretty un­threat­en­ing, com­i­cal even. I re­mem­ber we laughed quite a lot, pos­si­bly out of em­bar­rass­ment, but the ex­pe­ri­ence cer­tainly didn’t warp me for life.

As a teenager in the 1980s, printed ma­te­rial was the pri­mary source of my gen­er­a­tion’s sex ed­u­ca­tion and, co­in­ci­den­tally, it was of­ten tit­il­lat­ing. It started with Are You There God? It’s Me, Mar­garet by Judy Blume, writ­ten in 1970. I waited till I was 12 be­fore I read it, and look­ing back it felt to­tally ageap­pro­pri­ate. A single copy was handed around the girls at my school and, af­ter read­ing it, we had a work­ing knowl­edge of pe­ri­ods, crushes and, most in­ter­est­ing of all, the ex­is­tence and lo­ca­tion of the cli­toris. I’m not sure my mother would have wanted me to read Lace at the age 14, but I did, on the sly. To­day, it seems a rel­a­tively in­no­cent thing to have felt I needed to hide Shirley Con­ran’s racy, block­buster novel.

Af­ter all, we’re all alive on ac­count of a sex­ual act: it’s sup­posed to be fun and of course it’s a pop­u­lar pas­time. Still, I’m stag­gered that the in­ter­net is used more for down­load­ing pornog­ra­phy than any other thing. One study I found claimed one in four in­ter­net search queries is about porn, eight per cent of all emails sent are porno­graphic and a third of all down­loads are porn – out­strip­ping cute cats and mu­sic videos by a coun­try mile. I’ve also dis­cov­ered that these days, the av­er­age age when a child first views pornog­ra­phy is 11.

My son is 11 and I’m con­fi­dent he’s not yet seen the sorts of things I know are out there. But when sto­ries ap­pear in the news about var­i­ous as­pects of sex­ual abuse or mis­con­duct in­volv­ing younger peo­ple, where ap­pro­pri­ate we’ll talk about the is­sues. I do hope this is help­ing to form his moral code. Some­times, though, I think I might be go­ing too far in my de­sire to ed­u­cate. Re­cently, while hav­ing a tickle bat­tle, he was win­ning and I was gasp­ing for air, say­ing “No, stop it, stop...” Ad­mit­tedly, I was laugh­ing, but my laugh­ter was becoming more fran­tic and I did want it to stop. Our game quickly took a se­ri­ous turn. I felt I needed to ex­plain that if some­one is say­ing no, they mean no. Even in a tickle bat­tle. With your mother. Game spoiled. But I re­ally felt like it had to be said.

Be­cause at the other end of the con­sent spec­trum, too of­ten we read about young men (more of­ten it is males, but not ex­clu­sively) who have re­fused to take no for an an­swer, or who’ve pub­licly shared ab­hor­rent opin­ions about what is ac­cept­able to do to young women – no­tably young women so in­tox­i­cated they’re no longer ca­pa­ble of grant­ing or with­hold­ing con­sent. How did so­ci­ety get to this point, where it’s runof-the-mill to think so lit­tle of an­other’s emo­tional and phys­i­cal well­be­ing?

When I was a teenager, it was com­mon­place for males pass­ing by in cars to yell out, “Show us your tits!” Or your pussy. Usu­ally, as a re­sponse, we’d give them the fin­ger and tell them where to go.

Look­ing back, I’m sur­prised we ac­cepted such ha­rass­ment, but it was just what hap­pened when you walked down the street back then. I’d rather hoped that would change, but it turns out I’m just not the de­mo­graphic be­ing yelled at any more. Lis­ten­ing to John Camp­bell in­ter­view a young woman on the ra­dio re­cently, I learned this kind of ver­bal as­sault is still com­mon­place, although the com­ments pass­ing strangers make to­day have be­come more ex­plicit and spe­cific. And they feel more threat­en­ing.

Per­haps hu­mans haven’t changed much over my life­time, and rather it’s our means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, how we send and re­ceive in­for­ma­tion, that’s changed.

Think­ing about all this, I’m re­minded of the time my son came home from school fol­low­ing his first Keep­ing Our­selves Safe ses­sion. This ini­tia­tive is run by the po­lice to help chil­dren nav­i­gate po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions – what used to be called “stranger dan­ger”. In Year 4, aged eight and fol­low­ing his first foray into that sort of les­son, he re­turned home and told me he’d like to see a “phono­graphic” mag­a­zine with naked peo­ple do­ing crazy things. I think he meant porno­graphic, but I didn’t cor­rect him. I shelved my shock and kept my voice even enough to ask him why he wanted to see some­thing like that.

“I think it’d be funny,” he said, with a glint in his eye, clearly aware that some­thing il­licit was tan­ta­lis­ing. Not ready to discuss phono­graphic mag­a­zines with a pri­mary schooler, I changed the sub­ject. “What would you like for din­ner?” I asked. I was out of my depth back then, but now I’m learn­ing to swim in these murky wa­ters be­cause I know I have to.

It’s not just lit­tle kids an­gling to shock their par­ents, ei­ther. I had din­ner with a mate not long ago; we were go­ing to see a play with her teenage daugh­ter

and I was aware there was a sim­u­lated act of fel­la­tio in it. I wasn’t sure this was age-ap­pro­pri­ate, so warned them both there was some adult con­tent. “Not to worry,” said the 15- year- old. “I’ve Googled blow jobs. I’ve seen a how-to video on Youtube.”

We’re pretty lib­eral in­di­vid­u­als, this other mother and me – and the teen was prob­a­bly try­ing to be provoca­tive. But when she saw our faces fall, she quickly re­as­sured us she’d only watched the video, never ac­tu­ally per­formed the act her­self. I can’t say that was en­tirely re­as­sur­ing; I mean, she’s seen a porn star give a blow-job tu­to­rial on Youtube? What’s the world com­ing to? I re­alise I’m feel­ing out­raged and mid­dle-aged be­cause that’s what I’ve be­come.

And don’t get me started on the things my friends with teenage daugh­ters are con­fronted with. For many, their so­cial me­dia use borders on ad­dic­tion, while their posts are becoming in­creas­ingly provoca­tive as they seek to emu­late the poses and fash­ions of their on­line idols in a world where tit­il­la­tion and nar­cis­sism go hand in hand.

De­spite the plethora of porn avail­able on the in­ter­net to­day, peo­ple of all ages are in­creas­ingly in­clined to make their own in­ti­mate movies at home. They send nude self­ies to their cur­rent squeeze then have them ei­ther hacked from the cloud or, more likely, posted by their erst­while lover when the union turns sour – an act that in­evitably re­sults in an un­happy end­ing when their pu­bic prop­erty is made public. Re­venge porn: who didn’t see that com­ing? Yet it’s a term that’s only been in use since about 2010.

New Zealand’s Harm­ful Dig­i­tal Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Act was passed in 2015. In one no­table case this year, a man with a pro­tec­tion or­der had pub­lished ex­plicit pic­tures of his ex- wife on Face­book, but Colin Do­herty, the pre­sid­ing district court judge, de­cided there wasn’t enough ev­i­dence to prove “se­ri­ous emo­tional dis­tress” had been caused. Thank­fully the po­lice saw sense and took an ap­peal to the High Court – but is the act tough enough?

Clearly, for most peo­ple in the throes of new lust, long-term ram­i­fi­ca­tions of­ten don’t come into fo­cus un­til it’s too late. And a warn­ing for par­ents try­ing to keep an eye on their chil­dren’s tex­tual in­ter­course: a whole new set of acronyms has been in­vented to keep mums and dads in the dark.

GNOC = Get naked on cam GYPO = Get your pants off NIFOC = Naked in front of com­puter J/O = Jerk­ing off P911 = Par­ent alert

All in the name of KPC, or keep­ing par­ents clue­less.

Ev­ery kid worth their salt knows how to take a screen­shot, which means noth­ing’s ephemeral any more. All it takes is for one un­for­tu­nate im­age to find it­self in the hands of the wrong per­son, and the next thing you know it’s not just all over school, it’s all over the world.

Net­safe pro­vides a very help­ful ar­ti­cle called “So You Got Naked On­line”, a re­source for chil­dren, young peo­ple, their fam­i­lies and whanau. It’s built on sen­si­ble, calm­ing and sup­port­ive ad­vice but, while I read it, I imag­ined all the other peo­ple read­ing it be­cause they had bared them­selves on­line and were deal­ing with the fall­out. And then I imag­ined the par­ents read­ing it, des­per­ate to pro­tect their child from a ter­ri­ble mis­take, and my blood ran cold. When I was a teen, I reg­u­larly did things I’m em­bar­rassed about now, but hap­pily those mis­takes were made last cen­tury. And off­line.

Hope­ful of find­ing an­swers, I took my con­cerns to Mary Hod­son, a ther­a­pist with Sex Ther­apy New Zealand, and asked what she thought about the porni­fi­ca­tion of so­ci­ety and what it might be do­ing to young peo­ple.

“My con­cerns for so­ci­ety in gen­eral are around the con­flict be­tween healthy sex and porn sex, and the ten­dency to be­come pre­oc­cu­pied with it, which is lead­ing to un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions,” she says. “And, while sat­is­fy­ing sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences are very good for us, young peo­ple are of­ten ex­posed to ma­te­rial [when] they have lit­tle or no cog­ni­tive frame­work upon which to hang the in­for­ma­tion they’re re­ceiv­ing… they have no way of com­ing to a use­ful un­der­stand­ing of it.”

Hod­son is adamant “porn usu­ally em­pha­sises all the wrong as­pects of sex. It fea­tures un­re­al­is­ti­cally sex­u­alised bod­ies, un­re­al­is­tic ‘turn- on times’ and un­re­al­is­tic out­comes. There’s lit­tle at­ten­tion paid to safe- sex prac­tices, while teach­ing young­sters who watch it all the wrong things about sex at a time when they’re just start­ing to learn about love, sex and re­la­tion­ships.”

Dr Marty Klein, a well-known American sex ther­a­pist and au­thor of self-help books, vis­ited New Zealand in 2014 to run classes with a group of lo­cal sex ther­a­pists. He ar­gues there’s noth­ing wrong with a lit­tle porn; it’s what the viewer does with it and what un­der­lies why they are do­ing it that’s im­por­tant. But as Hod­son says, “That’s the very rea­son I think it is dan­ger­ous for young peo­ple. They don’t have ad­e­quate cog­ni­tive frame­works for un­der­stand­ing what they’re see­ing and nei­ther do they have the in­sight to know that it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily good for them at this time in their life.”

It’s im­pos­si­ble, too, to po­lice all of a child’s on­line time. But we can put parental con­trols on all our de­vices; we can mon­i­tor what a child is watch­ing while they’re still not savvy enough to delete their his­tory, and we can talk to them openly and hon­estly while hop­ing such dis­cus­sions won’t make them more cu­ri­ous.

It’s a mine­field, to be sure, and maybe I shouldn’t have been sur­prised that an eight-year-old might think it would be funny to see a phono­graphic mag­a­zine – be­cause to­day’s so­ci­ety is so sex­u­alised. And while I hope my boy is still a fair way off ac­tu­ally view­ing porn in the flesh – on a com­puter, that is – I also hope he’ll al­ways know it’s never okay to sex­u­ally ob­jec­tify oth­ers in Face­book posts, or in­deed any­where.

But when the day comes that he’s old enough to ac­cess porno­graphic ma­te­rial for him­self (which in­evitably will be well be­fore the le­gal age of 18, re­gard­less of how vig­i­lant his par­ents try to be), I de­spair at what he might be con­fronted with and what the new nor­mal will be. +


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