Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Harder, no: different, yes (version two - updated 20th August)

I often get asked whether it is more difficult for young people growing up now to navigate their way through what with sexting, revenge porn, easy access to internet porn etc etc. Each time I am asked I think of this Ted Talk from Ash Beckham who says 'hard is not relative, hard is hard...there is no harder, there is just hard'. (You can view the talk here http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=kSR4xuU07sc)

Yesterday I was asked again whether it is more difficult for young people now on the same day as IPPR release a poll about the impact of pornography.  The poll showed that young people believe that pornography impacts on the way young people understand sex, their values and attitudes and in particular for young women, resulting in pressure to look and behave in particular ways. If you read the top line it is pretty grim reading, but thankfully young people have always navigated their way through complex situations and with the right policy solutions and public responses - i.e. a resolve to improve education and support, they will, I am confident, continue to do so now.

There is no doubt the internet has opened up all sorts of possibilities - some good, some bad and some downright ugly including the potential for bullying, harrassment and abuse. We know that young people use pornography for all sorts of reasons including to learn about sex in the absence of good sex and relationships education.  Whatever your interpretation of the evidence and your view about the impact of pornography, and whatever young people's reasons for watching it, there is absolutely no doubt there are much much better places to learn about sex and relationships. Full stop. We know from our work at Brook that it influences the way people learn about and understand about sex and sexuality, and can create all sorts of anxieties. 

And we are right to be worried, but we must not panic. Before we throw our hands up in despair it is important to think about what young people have successfully navigated in recent history: think about the 1960s when access to contraception was really difficult  for many, before the Abortion Act was passed in 1967 and if you were gay your love was illegal. More recently in the early 80s when the rights of under 16s to contraceptive treatment were untested and then the late 80s/early 90s at the start of the HIV epidemic, Section 28 was instilling fear about promoting homosexuality and young people often found emergency hormonal contraception was very difficult to get hold of without fear of reproach. Still now a short distance across the water in Northern Ireland it remains exceptionally difficult to get an abortion and only in recent years have young people been able to use Brook services without passing through protesters.

So as a general rule is growing up and starting your relationship and sexual career harder for young people now than ever before? Probably not. Is it different now? Yes, yes, yes.

Young people tell me time and again the most important thing us older people can do is trust young people and remember what it felt like to be young. Reflect and remember for example those feelings of falling in love for the first time, being anxious about who you fancied or about your body, simultaneously excited and confused by your sexual desires or concerned about your sexual performance. Remember what it felt like to worry you were pregnant or had a sexually transmitted infection, or to be pregnant, have a STI or want to tell your parent you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.  Remember mustering up the courage to end a relationship or 'to be dumped' for the first, second or third time, to be unsure whether you wanted or had had sex, or whether a person you fancied had noticed you and whether a friend would break friends with you if they found out your true identity. All of those things and more happened in the 60s, 70s, 90s and continue to happen now. The context and circumstances will change - who knows what is coming next - but the human feelings associated with these experiences remain largely the same. 

If we can remember that and start from a position of trusting young people we will less likely be overwhelmed by new technologies and by internet porn and we will stop looking for solutions which simply will not work. The best solution we will ever have is three fold - 1. like and trust young people and make sure they know we have high expectations for them so they have high expectations for themselves 2. commit to promoting equality, including gender and sexual equality, and ensure good education at home, at school and the wider community to equip young people with excellent knowledge, skills (including discernment) and develop their self belief so they can navigate their way through the opportunities and challenges of their time with confidence and verve. 

@simonablake @brookcharity @besexpositive

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