Last night’s first installment of Channel 4’s The Sex Education Show Vs Pornography focused on the way in which pornography affects young people’s attitudes towards and expectations of the female body. It also highlighted the ease with which children and teenagers can access porn and the hardcore nature of some of the stuff they are watching. It was not made explicit, but from the young people’s comments, it seems that it is generally the boys who are actively watching fisting, gang bangs, bestiality and ‘nine men on three women’, while the girls are more likely to be ‘exposed’ to porn through their male friends. The average age at which boys first watch porn is 11. Yes, 11.
The programme’s findings were unsurprising: boys find big, fake, firm, round breasts most attractive; girls want big, fake, firm round breasts because ‘that’s what the boys want’. Boys preferred hairless genitals; girls felt pressurised to shave because they ‘want to make the boys happy’. In contrast to when I was at school, when shaving all your hair off was considered weird and the main motivation behind doing your bikini line was so the cool girls didn’t take the piss out of you in swimming or PE, it seems that getting rid of it all is becoming the norm. As if this pressure isn’t enough, many boys seemed to expect that women would have little or no outer labia, and expressed surprise and disgust at photos of women who did. Imagine being 15 and worrying what a guy is going to think of your labia. I went to bed feeling immeasurably grateful that I’m not a teenager in 2009.
So how did the presenter challenge these attitudes? Well, aside from showing them photos and real naked women and telling them that porn bodies are not natural (making the mistake of claiming that being slim with big boobs is unnatural – way to further alienate girls who get picked on for being just this shape), not much. She didn’t challenge the boys’ sense of entitlement to porn style bodies, simply laughing when a boy said that if he came across a girl with pubic hair he’d tell her to get rid of it. She didn’t actively tell the girls that it was perfectly OK not to shave all your pubes off, that they shouldn’t feel pressurised to conform to what boys want, and instead gave them advice on reducing shaveburn and ingrowing hairs and suggested that they shave ‘for themselves’ rather than for the boys. Considering the series is supposed to be challenging the ‘pornification’ of our culture, it seems rather ironic that the presenter is using the typical anti-feminist backlash tactic of convincing women to do things men want by persuading us we’re doing it for ourselves. Yes, some women do like to shave it all off, but this is hardly the most empowering or helpful advice for teenage girls.
In general, the programme stank of repressed British, seaside postcard style boob-enduced hilarity. We saw the presenter flicking through a lingerie catelogue gasping and giggling at ‘hairy minge’ and y-front encased cocks. She told the boys to ‘calm down’ when the nude models came out (and no, there are no lesbians in schools, nuh uh). The cheesy porn style soundtrack didn’t help matters either. How exactly are teenagers supposed to take sex education seriously and respect each others bodies and sexualities when the sex educators are displayed giggling at pubic hair?
The show did seem to do some good, however: both the girls and the boys appreciated being shown that there is such a range of different female bodies, that porn bodies are not the norm. The girls seemed pretty relieved, and so would I if I’d just seen all the boys I fancy enthusiastically stick their hands up when asked if they think big breasts and shaved fannies are best. And it did of course recognise that porn is a problem, and that better sex education can help combat the harmful messages that young people are taking from it. But it completely failed when it came to actively recognising the clear sexism and gender divide here and challenging it: the main solution being put forward is simply to prevent kids having access to porn by persuading PC companies to install child block software on their products. I hope to see boys in particular actually being asked about how they feel men and women are presented in the porn they watch, but it looks like subsequent episodes are focusing mainly on the body, orgasms and performance.
I’ll be catching up next week as I’m on holiday ’til Sunday, but please do discuss the other episodes in comments; they’re on tonight until Thursday. And you might want to check out the website, where you can answer young people’s questions about sex. I’m starting with ‘Is it normal for a guy to cum or want to cum on a girl’s face during sex’…