Wales’ RSE Code ignores the risk of pornography

Wales’ proposed RSE plan has many flaws (which have been revealed on this site by Martha Gwion and Merched Cymru). For me, however, the passage that stood the most was one of the most seemingly innocuous:

While understanding risks and harm are an important aspect of RSE, using these as the focus for teaching about RSE issues, or focusing mainly on the negative aspects of RSE is likely to be ineffective or harmful.

This is yet another example of the sloppy writing that undermines the document in its entirety.

Does ‘the negative aspects of RSE’ mean the negative aspects of Relationships and Sex(uality) Education, as the grammar suggests, or does it mean RSE that focuses on risks and harm, as logic would suggest? Let us assume that the authors mean that a strong focus upon risks and harm is ineffective or harmful – while noting that there is no evidence given to support this claim.

A ‘focus on risks or harm’ has another name: it is called safeguarding.

The importance of safeguarding children from exploitative sex should be paramount. From childhood sex abuse to grooming gangs, the safety of children and young people should be a priority, and yet it is here de-emphasised. Apparently it would be ‘ineffective or harmful’ to flag the negative aspects of contemporary sexual culture. Tellingly, the single most impactful aspect of contemporary sexual culture – pornography – is not mentioned once in the document.

If porn is above criticism, then we are being asked pull out our pompoms and cheer-lead for a libertarian pornoculture. Warnings from the sexual frontlines – such as the 61% of school girls harassed for nudes in Welsh schools, or the 10% of 12-13 year-olds addicted to porn – would be too much of a drag. Acknowledging the role of pornography in child grooming would be a buzzkill. Noting that the ‘rough sex defence’ has been used to let men off for sadistic murders of women would be a downer.

But if we care about young people we absolutely must confront the realities of porn. The Children’s Commissioner for England commissioned a review of scholarship around the impact of pornography on children’s understanding of sexuality. It was headed by Miranda Horvarth, as a follow-up to her research into the ways in which pornography was used to groom young people into sexual exploitation by gangs.

The review states that:

Explicit sex and violent still and moving images depicting rape, bestiality, the use of pain and humiliation are potentially just a few clicks away. The proliferation of smartphones and tablets and their use by children and young people to access the internet, often away from adult supervision, make it very difficult for parents to control access to these images.


It concluded:

Pornography has been linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex, beliefs that women are sex objects, more frequent thoughts about sex, and children and young people who view pornography tend to hold less progressive gender role attitudes.


And this is impacting the lives of young people. In a moving testimony from the frontlines of 2020s pornoculture, singer Billie Eilish said ‘I used to watch a lot of porn, to be honest. I started watching porn when I was like 11. I think it really destroyed my brain and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn. The first few times I, you know, had sex, I was not saying no to things that were not good. It was because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be attracted to.’

Eilish’s experiences are not abnormal.They are the commonplace reality that porn’s cheerleaders want us to ignore.   Sexual violence is mainstreamed in pornography.. A metastudy of more than 5000 participants strongly suggests that porn consumption is associated with lower satisfaction in interpersonal relationships. Unless we take the opportunity to challenge our pornoculture before young people are inducted into it, it will be they that pay the price.

As Jo Bartosch says, writing on the porn-friendly ‘CRUSH’ package developed for Welsh children:

Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) must be relevant to the needs of today’s children and young people, but that does not require one to accept pornography as neutral. Just as with drugs and alcohol, pornography should be regarded as a danger to the healthy development and safety of children and young people.

Without due attention to the dangers of porn, WG’s RSE plan is likely to be ‘actively harmful’ to the children of Wales.