Porn and Consent: The paradox facing young people

If there is one thing in life that I am absolutely clear on it is that no victim of sexual violence is ever responsible in any way for what they have suffered. Our slut-shaming, patriarchal society all too often makes survivors feel responsible, guilty and ashamed, thus ensuring that the silent agony of thousands continues.

In my anger and disgust at this state of affairs, I have always said that the blame for sexual violencelies solely with the perpetrator. However, whilst this is undoubtedly true in cases where the perpetrator is an adult, things are not always so clear cut with instances of sexual coercion where both parties are very young.  

In my early to mid teens I witnessed and experienced incidents of sexual harassment and violence amongst my peer group. At the time I didn't think much of it; it was not unusual to be groped in the school corridor or for a girl to be 'taken advantage of' at a party. I thought that such violations were a fact of life, something that was bound to happen to young women. Now that I am almost 20 and far better informed I see how wrong I was; incidents like this shouldn't be normalised and girls are never to blame for them. But equally I won't apportion all the blame to the boys involved.

It is disingenuous to blame very young men for their lack of understanding and knowledge about consent and respect without first looking at what society teaches them – and what it doesn't. Many children and young people get most of their information about sex from porn. There are lots of differing opinions on its morality but one thing I think most of us can agree on is that mainstream porn is not an ideal teacher when you are first learning about sex, boundaries and consent. The unrealistic bodies, the lack of condoms, the money shots, the fact that all the actresses seem to be able to orgasm from penetrative sex alone, the derogatory language, the default position of male dominance, and so the list goes on. Mainstream pornography creates an image of women as constantly available and constantly 'gagging for it' – an image which can have dangerous consequences for under age consumers.

And porn is not the only place that young people see hyper sexualised images of women and girls. The female form is used by our capitalist society to flog everything from cars to deodorant. The objectification of the female body has become so ubiquitous that a scantily clad women on a billboard has become the visual equivalent of background noise. Much of the mainstream media also bombards us with sexualised imagery and sends the message that women should be valued for their looks above all else, with page 3 being one very obvious example.

So on the one hand porn use amongst teenage and pre-teen boys is prevalent to the point of being ubiquitous – the average age of a child's first exposure to porn is 11 – and on the other we have a sexist society which still struggles to depict women as anything other than objects which exist to satisfy the male gaze. To top it off, sex and relationship education rarely teaches about media sexism, consent or the unrealistic nature of porn.

It is no wonder that some young men do not learn to view women as autonomous sexual beings, and respect their bodies and choices accordingly. And it is equally unsurprising that many young women accept sexual harassment, violence and scrutiny of their bodies as par for the course.

In this environment it is unreasonable to think young people should automatically have a nuanced understanding of consent. As a society we need to do much more to ensure that teenagers of all genders get to explore their sexuality without the threat of coercion. This starts with improving the quality and increasing the availability of sex education. As young people, we deserve and need non-judgemental education about sex and easily accessible, reliable sources of information. Without these improvements, many young people will continue to get a one-sided view of sex from porn and the media, and experiences like mine remain will commonplace. As a society we have to make sure that there is no excuse for being ignorant about consent.