Teenagers, pornography and sexual consent. Teuila Fuatai examines one aspect of New Zealand’s rape culture following recent online comments by Wellington Boys’ College students

Pornography watching isn’t something I discuss in regular conversation. By all accounts, it’s a topic that makes me squirm. But as New Zealand stares down another round of offensive and bitterly disappointing comments from teenage boys – this time students at Wellington Boys’ College – pornography, and its impact on young people’s views towards women and sexual consent is back in the mix.

Patrick Walsh, principal at Rotorua’s John Paul College and former head of the Secondary Principals’ Association of New Zealand, said the prevalence of pornography in young people’s lives was changing how schools were teaching sexual and health education.

“There’s a high prevalence of pornography that students can access and quite a bit of that pornography is very graphic and objectifies women,” Walsh said.

“It sometimes has a high level of gratuitous violence and can send the wrong messages around consent. Unfortunately, when you’ve got a young teenager who has an impressionable mind and is tentatively trying to form relationships, this can have a very detrimental effect on the way they view women and what a normal dating relationship is.”

Two 16-year-old boys, who agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity, shared their own insights into teenagedom and pornography.

“Every guy and quite a large portion of the girls watch it on a pretty regular basis.” 

According to the friends – who both live in Auckland and attend a co-ed school – viewing pornography two to three times a week was “normal”, and considered an “everyday part of growing up”.

“I don’t think it does a whole lot of harm if you’re into normal porn,” one of the boys said. “But if you’re into hardcore porn – it does play into rape culture.”

Both believed, and had seen, unhealthy and harmful attitudes towards women and sex develop when people watched too much pornography and didn’t have any “real-life” context to compare it to.

“If you go to an all-boys school, and you don’t have a lot of interaction with females your own age – then it does sort of accentuate that,” one of the boys added.

University of Auckland professor of psychology Nicola Gavey said while plenty of research into pornography consumption and violent and sexual behaviour and attitudes had been undertaken, it still wasn’t clear if there was a “straightforward” causal relationship between the two.

“There is a link between mainstream pornography and rape culture – which is not the same thing as saying there is a direct link between an individual watching pornography and them then going on to engage in rape or ‘rape-supportive’ behaviours like rape jokes [and] victim-blaming,” Gavey said.

While pornography was unlikely to ever be the “sole influence” on someone’s behaviour, like all forms of popular culture, it contributed to shaping people’s expectations and perceptions, she said.

For Walsh and other school leaders in New Zealand, navigating how to incorporate the range of attitudes stemming from pornography consumption was an ongoing part of sexual and health education – particularly around consent.

“I would accept that there are many students who are mature enough and watch pornography and take it for what it is. [They] don’t become addicted to it, and it wouldn’t directly impact on their relationships with women.

“[However], there are a significant number of students – who are in the minority – who do become addicted and what they see in pornography becomes a mirror image in the way that they play out their relationships. They are the group at risk and that’s the reason why these programs are necessary in schools, and necessary for principals and counsellors and teachers to be well-informed on them,” Walsh said.

Dr Michael Flood, an associate professor in psychology at Australia’s University of Wollongong, said last year that “pornography exposure is likely to increase the likelihood of perpetration [of sexual assault] for some children and young people more than others, depending on their pre-existing attitudes and behaviours”. The comment was part of Flood’s submission to the inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through internet pornography.

His earlier research also addressed the realities of pornography consumption among teenagers:

“Given that boys and young men are likely to continue to consume pornography, an important strategy is to teach them the skills with which to read it more critically. ‘Pornography education’ centres on encouraging critical skills in media literacy, such that viewers are more resistant to sexist and violence-supportive themes in pornography.”

Putting systems in place to enable young people to develop “media literacy” skills unpacking the behaviours shown in pornography was a crucial part of combatting harmful attitudes that could result from its consumption.

And while informed and effective education programs were important, both Walsh and Gavey said discussions around the impacts of pornography had to occur outside the classroom as well.

“We can’t expect schools to do all the work,” Gavey said. “It’s important not to silo pornography, and treat it as the only form of media and popular culture that is reinforcing sexism and rape culture.

Walsh added that parents needed to be more active in understanding what children were doing online, how that could inform views and attitudes towards women, and what impacts that had on the issue of consent.

“It does need more parent involvement – more monitoring of where kids go online and parents to take an interest and have discussions with their own children about the risks of pornography and sexting and those types of issues.”

For the two 16-year-old boys who spoke to Newsroom, a large part of this was the acceptance that pornography consumption was a normal part of their lives.

“When you were younger, it [pornography] was really stigmatised,” they said.

“I think we should be more open about the fact that people have sex drives. People are real closed and stigmatised about it and it sort of plays into rape culture.”

Conversations with parents and friends – boys and girls – about how pornography was not real-life and why it could be harmful, were important for keeping things in context and understanding sexual consent, the boys said.

“You won’t watch one movie about white supremacy, and say, I’m a white supremacist. You won’t watch one porno and think, oh all women are objects. It has to be coupled with other things going on in your life,” one of the boys said. 

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