Our children and sex – what kind of society do we want?
I was shocked and disturbed to read last week an article on the BBC News website entitled, ‘Pornography addiction worry’ for tenth of 12 to 13-year-olds (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-32115162). This is the latest in a series of reports on the effect pornography is having on our children. The article is based on a survey of 700 children aged 12 and 13 conducted by the charity NSPCCC ChildLine. It found that 20% had “seen pornographic images that had shocked or upset them” and 12% had taken part in a sexually explicit video. The charity describes pornography as “a part of everyday life” for many children who contact its helpline. The BBC article describes the impact this problem is having on some children by quoting one boy aged under 15 who says he has begun to think differently about girls and wonders whether he’ll ever be able to get married and suggesting that many girls feel they need to act like porn stars in order to be attractive to boys.
When I read this my heart breaks. What kind of society have we created? Of course pornography has been around for a long time – I remember some schoolmates put some pornographic magazines in my schoolbag when I was around 14 in one of many attempts to get the Christian into trouble. What is disturbing, however, is the freedom with which images and videos are available and the lack of controls over what kind of content they contain (often violent and degrading in the extreme, especially for women). We pride ourselves, supposedly, on equal rights and yet we tolerate this evil underbelly in which women are objectified. The way in which the internet has developed, as an unregulated experiment in ‘freedom of speech’, has created a black hole that threatens to suck all that is good in our culture into its depths.
As always in sick societies it is the most vulnerable who suffer most – our children are being scarred and the vulnerable are being exploited. Yet discussions about the issue tend to focus on one thing only – the need to educate children better about sex. Certainly this was the line taken by Ether Rantzen in response to the ChildLine survey. I do believe that it is important to teach children about sex in an age appropriate way, but I firmly believe this is the role of parents (supported by the extended family and resourced, where helpful, by the State), not of charities, schools or government agencies. The great danger is that education is done in the supposed ‘value free’ way that a secular State believes in. Of course that is not really free of values at all – it carries with it the value that sex is only a physical act and that the most important aspects of sexual activity are to be ‘safe’ (meaning not getting an infection or an ‘unwanted’ pregnancy) and to enjoy yourself (technique matters more than relationship). This completely neglects the fundamental biblical perspective on sex, that it is a union between two people that forges them together at a spiritual and emotional level. The physical intimacy of sex speaks of a giving of self and a trust in the other that is much deeper than the body. When else are two people so vulnerable to one another?
Pornography is a great evil – it demeans women and men (but especially women), it degrades the beautiful act of sexual union, and it perverts the mind. It creates many illusions about body image and what kind of behaviour is ‘normal’ between consenting adults and it leads to the exploitation of people. It numbs the conscience in harmful ways that can drive the consumer to seek a greater thrill, to push the boundaries into more illicit forms of activity. It perverts sex into a self-fulfilling act separated from trust and intimacy. Yet we live in an increasingly sexualised culture – the recent high profile of ’50 Shades of Grey’ is a prime example. I even saw a restaurant locally that has sold itself as ‘family friendly’ (which basically seems to mean putting DVD players at each table) offering half price cinema tickets to see that film with every meal purchased! I’ve heard of people in the workplace organising outings together to see it. I’ve watched the NI media proudly describing it as the ‘big break’ of local actor Jamie Dornan. Yet this film is, by all accounts, vile ‘soft porn’. Other examples of progressive sexualisation aren’t hard to find – marketing of Playboy merchandise to children, widespread use of sexual swear words, increasing sexual content on TV.
I am not necessarily arguing here for a strict censorship on what adults can watch, but surely we recognise the need to protect our children from content that is harmful to them, especially in their formative years. I have long advised parents to take a very close interest in what their children can access and, sadly, I have personally come across young people who have been harmed by exposure to pornography. My attitude to the internet is that accessing it freely is like allowing your children to walk unaccompanied through the streets of a major city at night time. If you wouldn’t do that, then don’t let them on, at least without strict parental controls in place (which are, thankfully, more readily available now). The ideal, I believe is not to allow children to have internet-capable devices of their own and to ensure that any device they can access the internet on has filters enabled (as well as the controls on your internet itself) and is used in a public part of the house (i.e., a ‘not in your bedroom’ policy). If this seems to restrictive, then we need to ask whether we are really concerned for our children’s well-being.
Taking these measures may well set you against the ‘norm’ and your children may complain that their peers have greater freedom. The only remedy I can suggest is that you invest significant time in doing other things with your children that will substitute for that – the kind of things their peers might not get much of, but which will enrich their lives and deepen your relationship. That will involve some sacrifice of time and effort on your part, including switching off your own electronic devices (ironic that I’m typing this on a laptop while my son plays his DS!!!) We need to find ways to make this the new norm among parents in our churches and, perhaps, in our children’s schools. Perhaps we also need some campaign that can shift thinking on the internet and balance the current mantra of internet freedom with appropriate responsibilities. There are dark commercial forces at work in the prevalence of pornography and these must be challenged. I don’t know exactly how that would happen – at times I wonder if I can do something and I’d love to hear your ideas – but I pray for courageous people who will stand for the good of our children.