Sunday, 28 April 2013

English, Maths, Science, Porn. Will this be on the testes?


'Will this be on the test?'

There isn’t enough porn in schools. 

This apparently odd conclusion isn’t the title of my career suicide note (at least I hope not), but the view of the Sex Education Forum, a group of sex education advisers. They want pornography taught in terms of "media literacy and representation, gender, sexual behaviour and body image". 

Their intentions are entirely honourable, but misguided. The first, minor complaint I have is that it provides yet another mis-use of the word literacy to include...well, just about any understanding whatsoever. It's this kind of dilution of denotation that dissolves meaning until a word can point to just about anything, and therefore nothing. It's explains why understanding an IKEA manual can now somehow be called literacy when it used to mean spelling, grammar and Shaw. 

It isn’t the content of the SEF's cause that I reject- in fact a lot of what they say is perfectly sensible: porn creates unrealistic expectations of body shape, sexual experience, reinforces the idea of the male gaze, and escalates the arms race of who does what and to whom. They even want the positive side to porn on the curriculum- many people use it as part of a loving relationship etc, although I feel that far more use it as part of a loving relationship with a locked door, drawn curtains and a remote control. 

At University I found myself, as the only man on a Feminism course in politics, writing an essay on porn (‘the depiction of vile whores’ in Greek). Commentators like Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer were pretty clear: porn was corrosive, addictive and oppressive. Most women in the industry were victims collaborating in their own oppression; addicts or the products of fractured histories based on abuse and desperation.

Running clubs in Soho, I saw the industry up close: creepy all-night book shops that stocked Taschen and Penguin classics upstairs, while beneath the decks, buggery and bondage  stacked the shelves (a legal loophole allowed them to stock the lucrative bongo as long as 75% of their wares were PG or below). There was even a porn cinema, The Astral, on Brewer Street, the demise of which it is impossible to be sentimental. One of my club promoters had a sideline in making stroke movies for the Fantasy Channel, and he even filmed a few links and promo trailers in the bar when I wasn’t looking. At one point he asked if I wanted to guest star in one, but I demurred. I assure you, you will Google in vain.

I’m often asked at what age I think it appropriate to allow a child to have a smart phone. I answer, ‘That depends- when are you happy with them seeing porn?’ Human nature is curious; anything forbidden immediately becomes precious, and the market price escalates. Few things are as forbidden, or as interesting, as sex, especially for the emergent adult. When I travelled as a 17 year-old through Europe, my eyes were out on stalks as I saw the permissiveness of continental adverts and TV- we even had programs like Eurotrash that offered us Brits a What-the-butler-saw keyhole of their damnable foreign lasciviousness. Now, yesterday’s porn is today’s scenery. 

Children now exist in a society that sexually, permits everything except prohibition. When I’ve taught sex-ed, the breadth of novelty of the pupils’ apprehension exceeded the vocabulary of a 19th century trapeze artist. Yet this surface knowledge of eccentricity (‘Sir, what’s a Plushie?’ Me: ‘You never need to know.’) is accompanied by the same incomprehension that children have always had for events and experiences that are beyond their capacity. This is the danger, particularly of porn for children. Girls have enough problems with unrealistic expectations of their bodies, without porn multiplying them with its pneumatic cartoon characters acting as role models. I’ve heard young boys talking about anal sex as if it were something you brought up on a first date, something that proves she’s into you. 

In the absence of parents talking to their children about such matters, porn fills the vacuum. It’s a tragedy that something so mechanical should be used as the template for the intangible sorcery of human relationships.
And yet I don’t want it in the school curriculum. Because this is another example of schools being expected to fix every problem in society with a badly delivered lesson. For a start, the timetable is already stuffed with English, Science, etc which makes it hard to know when this is going to fit, especially when it competes with a million other, equally worthy causes like lessons on vandalism, social responsibility, healthy eating, voting and on and on and on. It’s as if we were walking down a street full of chuggers and being asked to justify why we weren’t dropping our change into the cans of every one.

Society has many issues. People need to stop looking to schools to fix them, because we can’t. What we can do, if you let us, is teach them about the great legacy of human thought and knowledge. We can try- try- to act as good role models, and to instil them with manners and codes of community conduct. 

We are not the pilots of their lives. We don;t have time to teach them every thing society would like them to know. We can do our best, and their parents can too. Beyond that, they’re on their own.

1 comment:

  1. Of course schools shouldn't be seen as being the solution to social problems, but I do think they have a part to play, even if it's only to improve academic attainment.

    This (US) meta-analysis makes clear the links between risky behaviours and educational outcomes and makes the point that while the causal relationship may not be there it is clear that there's a mutually reinforcing one when things start going off the rails.

    You'll know that the National Curriculum tells schools that a lot of these issues (SRE, drugs and alcohol, healthy eating) should be addressed in Science lessons so they'll no doubt get some classroom time, the question for me is how to ensure that any time in what is a busy school day is more likely to make a difference to the behaviours and attainment of the pupils.

    For that to happen perhaps we need to follow the evidence focusing on the causes of risky behaviours, and the skills and values needed to negotiate the decisions that young people face.

    To be clear I'm not arguing that parents don't need to step up, we do; we can't shy away from these tricky conversations, nor assume that a single conversation will be sufficient (for example, a recent Department of Health survey found that 75% of parents say they've had a conversation about drugs, but only 36% of teenagers recall that talk).

    But schools, can and do make a difference with the programmes they run, helping the personal, social and health development of their pupils.

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