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Should we study porn in schools?

Posted on: 18 Oct 2016
Posted by: Dr James Whitehead

Following recent comments that the study of pornographic videos should be compulsory in schools, Dr James Whitehead, Headmaster at Downside School, discusses the implications this would have.

Through her work as host presenter of Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, Dame Jenni Murray has achieved a cultural status in the UK that is akin to that of being a national institution; her reassuring tone and sensible questioning tend to suggest that while there are many challenges in modern life, there are also safe places to look for answers. The general sense is that at the heart of the BBC there is a commitment to fairness in gender relations. This is encouraging.


In the Daily Mail and The Times last week, however, Jenni has started making the headlines herself, with the result that questions are being asked of her. It would appear that at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, she suggested that pornography should be studied in schools, in the same way that pupils might be invited to analyse a text by Jane Austen: “You put boys and girls together in a class and you show them a pornographic film and you analyse it in exactly the same way as you teach them to read all the other cultures around them”. The logic behind this was that it might prevent young people from developing an obsession with internet pornography and also discourage young women from feeling that they had to act like porn star performers in their personal lives, in order to please their partners.


Obviously, the suggestion here is not that pornography should replace texts from the literary canon in English Literature classes, but that a new approach should be taken towards sex education, a position that is being advocated by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee. There is a general feeling that young people have lost their way in terms of having an unhealthy approach to sex based on distorted cyber-experience, one which reinforces gender inequality. However, young people watching porn in the presence of a teacher is highly problematic in many ways – not least for Safeguarding reasons – and it is a world away from analysing a conversation between Emma and Mr Knightley. Jane Austen, with her quiet endorsement of a Christian understanding of human relationships, would be appalled.


What is the answer? Well, perhaps Jenni Murray is half-right, in the sense that the problem lies not so much in the pornography itself - which will always exist distastefully on the internet and satellite television due to economic demand - but in the formation of young people in such a manner that they are imaginatively impoverished enough to wish for impersonal imagery of human mating, as a substitute for fulfilling, emotionally-balanced, human relationships. The real problem is when Sex Education happens without a proper emphasis on human relationships (i.e. SRE - Sex and Relationships Education), on what makes them successful and enduring, as opposed to temporary and potentially damaging. Sex without any form of mutually nurturing human relationship aspect to it, is essentially demeaning to the individual and potentially exploitative. You don’t have to be a puritan, or a relative of Keith Vaz to appreciate that.


Many schools in the United Kingdom were founded by Christian organisations; in fact, several thousand remain explicitly Anglican, Catholic or Methodist, and other denominations also run a number of schools. There are also other faith schools run by Jewish, Buddhist or Islamic foundations; many of these would find difficulty in justifying the study of pornography in school. Why? In short, because for the spiritually inclined, it is important that young people focus on the morality that should underpin human relationships, rather than begin to study a form of interaction that is essentially a negation of this. Catholic social teaching, for example, places great emphasis on the recognition of gender equality through respect for the individual dignity of every individual person. If we value human dignity as a means of achieving gender equality, this cannot be served through the study of pornography. As the Second Vatican Council put it, “A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the transcendent dignity of the human person”. Equality is lost when we forget the dignity of the other; the sacrament of marriage provides for sexual equality within a context of commitment before God. While religions may differ in how they express this, an emphasis on commitment and justice in human relationships is common to most.


It is also important that we do not patronise young people. The vast majority want to live meaningful, positive lives and they do not need to analyse pornography to know that it is essentially demeaning both to watch it and to act it out. The emphasis should be upon empowering young women and men to demand more of each other in positive relationship terms, so that they value each other for their essential individuality and uniqueness. The world of perfect bodies and complication-free sex can be shown up as a chimera without the need for visual aids. Young people should be educated to value spiritual friendship as a foundation for their human relationships. Through well-balanced SRE, they can be encouraged to recognize the divine spark in each other.

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About Dr James Whitehead

Dr James Whitehead is Head Master at Downside School, one of England's oldest Catholic schools, located in Somerset.