WHAT DO WE TEACH OUR CHILDREN ABOUT PORN?

Fr Billy Swan


Introduction:

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is currently redesigning the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) curriculum for secondary school, starting with Junior Certificate level. At the end of July, it was announced that this new curriculum would include the topic of pornography which is increasingly prevalent in our culture with the explosion of digital technology.


How will it be taught?

While news of this updating has been broadly welcomed, there are concerns from many, especially parents of children at junior cert age, that need to be respected and addressed. It’s not that teaching about pornography is wrong per se but the pressing question is how it will be taught – as something morally neutral or even something to be welcomed as ethical and educational. The minister of education has invited feedback from the various stakeholders in our schools including parents. On the department website it states: “We are now seeking feedback and suggestions on the draft updated junior cycle SPHE specification”. Therefore, it is vitally important that Catholic parents make a strong contribution to this debate and retain control as the first educators of their children, especially in the areas of faith and morals. Afterall, what is at stake here is not just pornography but the meaning of human sexuality, its connection to marriage and family and ultimately the dignity of the human person.


Concerns:

This is all the more urgent given the worrying signs that porn will be taught as morally neutral, as a matter of personal choice or even as ethical. According to the department of education’s website, when it comes to sexual issues such as pornography: “The teachers’ aim is not to impose their own personal values or code of behaviour but rather to provide a safe space where both personal and societal values, attitudes and behaviours can be discerned, discussed, examined and questioned”. At first glance this approach seems wise. However, questions remain about how much room will be given in these discussions to external and compelling evidence that porn is harmful. To use an analogy, would debates on smoking be conducted in our schools today without any reference to the evidence of its harmful effects? I doubt it.

Of even greater concern to parents is the push to teach pornography as being ethical so long as there is consent. In an article in ‘The Irish Catholic’ (21st July 2022), journalist David Quinn cites the example of former footballer Richie Sadlier who stated in an interview with the Sunday Independent following the publication of his book ‘Let’s Talk’ – a book for teenage boys, that “I think we have to accept that porn is an empowering, liberating experience for loads of people, but for young people it is probably, in most cases, the primary educator about sex”.

Yes, it is true that online pornography is an educator about sex. But what does it teach? One commentator puts it this way: “Porn is a teacher and its teaching is insidious. Here is what porn teaches kids: ‘there’s no sexual behaviour that’s hurtful, toxic or traumatizing. Sex is not about intimacy, caring, love or respect. Sex is not about marriage or having children. Sex is casual; its recreational; its adversarial and non-intimate’” (M.A. Layden, ‘Sexual Obesity: Research on a Public Health Crisis’. Address to U.S. Capitol Symposium, Washington D.C., July 14th, 2015).

In Quinn’s article, he also cites the case of NUIG professor Kate Dawson who argues that pupils should be taught to be ‘porn literate’, that watching porn isn’t always bad and that 8-year-olds should also be taught about self-pleasure. She teaches these views as part of the HSE funded WISER programme (West of Ireland Sex Education Resource).

Another member of the same advocacy group, Grace Alice O’Shea, recently authored ‘Sex Educated’ - a guidebook for sexual education in schools and elsewhere. The main message of the book is that any kind of sexual activity is OK as long as it is consensual and safe. The author has no objection to having multiple sexual partners. As she says:

“It is not bad to have a ‘high’ number of sexual partners. This number is subjective anyway, and what one person considers a ‘low’ number may seem ‘high’ to someone else. What matters is that all sexual encounters are fully consensual and as safe as possible. You may have only one sexual partner for your life, or you may have many. There is nothing wrong with this, and there should be zero shame attached. The only person you need to talk to about your number of sexual partners is a medical professional if they ask, e.g. during an STI check. Apart from that, it is no one’s business but yours, and it certainly does not define your worth” (Sex Educated, p. 255).


With this vision of sexual behaviour, shame is banished and anything goes as long as its safe and consensual. Let’s take this logic to its conclusion. Take for example, the case of a wife who is hurt when she discovers her husband has been unfaithful. According to Ms. O’Shea’s argument, the woman’s pain is nothing but a shame inducing reaction to a right her husband has to behave as he wants. Is this what parents want their children to be taught at school? If this is the standard set for our young people then we will be putting out fires of sadness, division, heartache and dysfunction for years to come. But the fires will have begun with teaching like this.

Concerning porn she writes:

“Watching porn does not have to be bad. If someone watches porn and enjoys the experience, knows that porn is not like real sex, understands that it is all acted out and unrealistic, and knows when to switch off and look for help if they see something that felt wrong or they are worried about something, then that is a great starting point for looking at porn in a safe and healthy way….In a nutshell, watching porn can be bad for someone, depending on how it is affecting them, but watching porn in itself is nothing to feel ashamed about.” (p. 183).


The problem with these views is not only do they lack evidential support, but that despite them being abhorrent to many parents, they are already being backed at the highest level in modern Ireland. On the back cover of the book there is the HSE logo and the endorsing words of President Michael Higgins: “I have no doubt that this publication will be an invaluable resource for our younger citizens, and for all those charged with their health and well-being”.

Would the President of Ireland have given his imprimatur to a more conservative publication on human sexuality? I doubt it. Notwithstanding the appropriateness of the president’s intervention here, it certainly undermines the consultation process on these matters initiated recently by the Department of Education. If one government department has already backed a vision of human sexuality that is permissive and liberal (the HSE) then it is highly unlikely that another department (Education) will be out of step, despite the concerns that parents will raise. It seems the horse has already bolted.


Facing up to the harm porn causes:

But are the concerns of parents about the damaging effects of porn just religious reactions by conservative Catholics? Are concerns about the way porn will be taught in our schools coming from people who are sex-negative? So what if our kids watch a bit of porn now and again? What’s the big deal? So the argument goes.

One man who has studied the cultural phenomenon of pornography for many years is Australian author Matt Fradd. In 2021 publication ‘The Porn Myth’, he offers a non-religious response to the commonly held belief that pornography is a harmless or even beneficial pastime. He draws on the latest research in the fields of psychology, sociology, neurological studies and the experience of porn performers and users to demonstrate unequivocally that pornography is destructive to individuals, relationships, and society. He provides insightful arguments, supported by the latest scientific research, to discredit the fanciful claims used to defend and promote pornography. The book is aimed at helping individuals learn how to be free of porn and offers real help to the parents and the spouses of porn users.

The book and its conclusions aim at helping the many men and women who are seeking a love untainted by warped perceptions of intimacy and rejecting the influence of porn in their lives. It is a book that every parent should read and especially those who are re-designing RSE programmes in our schools. The lack of evidence to date that the Department of Education is taking seriously the destructive influence of porn and the HSE/presidential backing of a book that undermines permanent relationships and families in favour of personal freedom and a shameless society – all of these are indicators of an ideology that is being imposed on our children without the full facts being considered and understood. Yet the Department declares that when it comes to the revised RSE programme “every school, regardless of ethos, will have to deliver the amended curriculum”. Such dogmatism was typical of the Church fifty years ago. Now the State is at it.


Hope:

Yet there is hope. Some political leaders are waving red flags and about time. Back in 2016, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that a national conversation about pornography was needed. He pointed out that youth are being tainted and corrupted "growing up imagining that what they see on a screen might be normal sexual behaviour". Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín TD responded to the indication that the reformed curriculum would teach children about internet pornography. He criticised the Irish Government for choosing to teach children about pornography instead of stopping it, as he highlighted the associated dangers, and pointed to an increase in sexual abuse and sexually harmful behavior on children by children in Ireland in recent years. He stated:


“Children at Risk in Ireland (CARI), a specialist and professional therapy service for children who have been abused has found that there has been a 44% increase in sexual abuse and sexually harmful behaviour on children by children in the last 2 years. CARI found that many children happened upon pornographic sites during the Lockdowns and some of those children acted out scenes on other children, often their own siblings. This is shocking and heart breaking as it destroys the victim first and foremost, but it is also creating perpetrators of sexual crime of young children”.


The Response of the Church:

This emerging evidence of the harmful effects of pornography confirms what the Church has taught all along – that porn is not just sinful and offensive to God but devastating to human beings. Just before the explosion of the internet in the mid-1990’s, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (published in 1992) taught that “pornography does grave injury to the dignity of the participants (actors, vendors, the public)” (CCC 2354).

‘Create in Me a Clean Heart’ is a 2017 publication by the American Bishops as a pastoral response to pornography that damages people lives, especially the young (https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/pornography/upload/Create-in-Me-a-Clean-Heart-Statement-on-Pornography.pdf). In a chapter entitled ‘A Closer Look at the Effects of Pornography’, there is a long list of who porn damages – men, women, children and families, people who become addicted, marriages and future marriages, parenting, the family and broader society. Again, the evidence for this harm emerges from solid research and is confirmed by the Gospel teaching on human sexuality.


In ‘The Joy of Love’, Pope Francis acknowledges the problem of porn and warns that constant use leads to distorted sense of sexuality, objectifying women and creating unrealistic expectations in normal relationships” (cf. The Joy of Love, 281). As recently as 10th June this year, he again clarified that porn is “an attack against human dignity” (Address to Directors of the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe).

Significantly, Francis approaches the issue from a positive stance – saying ‘No’ to porn in order to say ‘Yes’ to the beauty and joy of human love and commitment. For the pope, he urges us to reject pornography and anything else that “cripples our capacity for love” (The Joy of Love, 281) or opposes ‘an education for love, for mutual self-giving’ (The Joy of Love, 280).


Conclusion:

There are worrying signs that in a culture that is increasingly permissive and liberal, the essential connection between sex, love commitment and family is being weakened or even lost. This is not just a statement of fact but a truth that has radical consequences for the understanding and attitudes of people, especially the young. For if we come to accept porn as part of our culture or tolerate as it ‘no big deal’, then the weakening of these links will be manifest in the people who are taught in this way – namely our children, grand-children, nieces and nephews and the thousands of young people coming through our school system. In the absence of any counter-value system, porn becomes a teacher of something that will have huge social consequences in the future with life-long, committed and exclusive relationships becoming a matter of taste rather than the norm on which a stable society is built. In the words of Fr Chris Hayden: “How can an ideology whose deepest principles are gratification, hygiene and consent help children and adolescents to live an integrated life? How can a worldview that attaches no deep or lasting significance to sex help parents or teachers to form young minds and hearts?” (C. Hayden, A Better Vision, 154).

This article is offered as hope and healing to those who have been harmed by pornography and to raise awareness of the corrosive damage caused by it. I have argued that porn cannot be taught as neutral or as a teaching tool without the evidence of its harmful effects being clearly outlined. Contrary to other shallow visions of the human person, Christians acknowledge the struggle to live chastely in the modern world, especially for young people, and strives to accompany human failings with compassion and with the help of God’s unfailing mercy. Yet we always keep in sight the dignity of the human person and the true meaning of human sexuality which is always united to love, respect, love, commitment and family. This is why the Church must stand athwart to a culture that accepts or tolerates porn and propose a more persuasive type of education in sexuality. I hope these words have encouraged parents to respond to the Department of Education’s invitation to make your views known. We owe it to our children and future generations. You can do so by emailing them to SPHEdevelopments@ncca.ie. The consultation will remain open until October 18th 2022.


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