Open letter to Warwickshire CC: Stop normalising the use of pornography to children

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UPDATE: We are aware the website has been taken down and is currently "under review". However, we note that Warwickshire County Council have made no comment which recognises the harmful nature of some of the content of this website, nor have they sought to explain to parents how this came to be published. We would like to encourage people to continue to sign our petition until WCC address our concerns. 

We, the undersigned, have grave concerns about Warwickshire County Council’s (WCC) endorsement of the ‘Respect Yourself’ website. We urge WCC to withdraw the site and review the processes which have led to inaccurate and potentially harmful information on the website being published.

‘Respect Yourself’, - respectyourself.info/ aimed at young people aged 13-25, describes degrading or dangerous sadomasochistic practices inspired by pornography, such as ‘cock and ball torture’ and ‘bukkake’. The site acknowledges that many practices it describes can be painful, e.g. anal sex, but it fails to address the fact that young women usually experience it as painful, risky and coercive[1].

Whilst it is understandable that children and young people will be curious about sex, the detailed descriptions of niche sadomasochistic practices are unnecessary. It is likely that a young person reading this website would understand from this that these practices are a normal part of sex. 

We would remind you that this website says it is aimed at children as young as 13, although queries from younger children have been shared, including a plea from a 12-year-old girl asking for help with what she described as an addiction to pornography. The response to this question exemplifies our concerns: having said that she stays up half the night masturbating and watching pornography, and has a crush on her teacher, the girl is informed that this is ‘perfectly natural’. The harmful and addictive effects of porn are not mentioned.

Watching pornography is described on this website as being no different to going to the cinema, and as an area where women can out-earn men and have higher self-esteem and job satisfaction. It says that female porn stars are ‘in control’ and dismisses any suggestion that pornography may have a negative impact on society. It doesn't address the negative impact on children.*

*We note that the Pornography section of the website is now under review.
Adults have a responsibility to set parameters when it comes to the protection of children. There is no justification for normalising the use of pornography amongst children.  A brief summary of some of the negative consequences of pornography use are outlined below:

Harmful Sexual Behaviour
●Studies show that adolescent consumption of pornography is associated with stronger belief in sexist stereotypes, more casual sex and higher levels of sexual aggression[2]
●Women exposed to pornography as children are more likely to accept rape myths[3]
●Men who use pornography are at increased risk of committing sexual offences[4]

As such, in failing to condemn the use of pornography the Respect Yourself guidance is effectively sacrificing the best interests of women and girls in order to seem ‘sex positive.’  The poorly reasoned approach of Respect Yourself will undoubtedly prevent many adolescents in Warwickshire from enjoying healthy, mutually enjoyable sexual relationships in adulthood. 

Addiction and Escalation
The impact of viewing pornography on the adolescent brain is an area of particular concern; for both boys and girls watching online pornography can alter grey matter, which may lead to a change in sexual tastes.[5]  At a life stage where boys and girls form crucial attitudes, preferences and expectations for their future, pornography’s influence is particularly strong and long-lasting[6]. 

●Boys exposed to pornography at a young age not only use it more as adults, but are also likely to have pornographic ideas invade their ‘real-life’ sexual experiences, lowering their levels of sexual satisfaction (ibid)
●Their tastes are also more likely to escalate to ‘deviant’ material (in particular, material depicting the abuse of animals and children[7]
Grooming & Familial Estrangement
●Watching online porn is associated with young people reporting a poor emotional bond with their caregiver[8]
●Exposure to pornography is known to be woven into the process of grooming[9]
It is imperative that any disclosure that a child has seen pornography should be deemed a safeguarding concern.

Body image
● Frequency of pornography use amongst women and men is positively linked to body image insecurity and to increased anxiety in romantic relationships[10]
At a time when so many children report experiencing poor mental health it is irresponsible to ignore the detrimental impact that watching pornography has on self-esteem and body image.
 
Whilst there is arguably some merit in encouraging children to speak openly about their concerns, the advice offered on the Respect Yourself website minimises the proven risks from pornography.  It is perfectly possible to be positive about sex and healthy relationships whilst critiquing pornography and the abusive practices within it; indeed this is the backbone of responsible Relationships and Sex Education.
 
Government Guidance
The Disrespect Nobody website produced by the Home Office offers comprehensive advice on healthy relationships[11].  Unlike the Respect Yourself guidance, addiction to online pornography is acknowledged and visitors to the website are signposted to support; in addition a powerful testimony from a pornography-addicted child is offered.  Conversely, Warwickshire’s Respect Yourself guidance asserts that there is ‘no evidence’ that pornography is addictive.
Guidance produced by the Department of Education[12] notes ‘use of technology has become a significant component of many safeguarding issues’ pointing out that ‘being exposed to illegal, inappropriate or harmful material; for example pornography’ is a core ‘area of risk’ with regard to online safety. With the upcoming introduction of Age Verification technology to restrict children’s access to pornography sites, the UK has become a leader in the fight against pornography. 
By failing to acknowledge harmful and addictive nature of online pornography, Warwickshire County Council have fallen out of step with both government and leading researchers in the field.  We ask that Warwickshire County Council remove the Respect Yourself guidance and undertake an investigation into how such poorly researched and partisan guidance came to be offered to children and young people.

We hope Warwickshire County Council will heed these concerns and take action to keep children safe.  In anticipation of a swift and positive response

Yours sincerely,

Safe Schools Alliance UK and Click Off

www.safeschoolsallianceuk.org
 
[1] Marston C, Lewis R (2014),Anal heterosex among young people and implications for health promotion: a qualitative study in the UK, BMJ [https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/4/8/e004996 } (accessed 06.10.2019)
[2] Eran Shor, “Age, Aggression, and Pleasure in Popular Online Pornographic Videos,” Violence Against Women (2018): 1‒19, doi: 10.1177/1077801218804101.
[3] Elizabeth Paolucci-Oddone, Mark Genuis, and Claudio Violato, “A Meta-Analysis of the Published Research on the Effects of Pornography,” The Changing Family and Child Development, ed. Claudio Violato, Elizabeth Paolucci, and Mark Genuis (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2000), 48–59.
[4] John D. Foubert, Matthew W. Brosi, and R. Sean Bannon, “Effects of Fraternity Men’s Pornography Use on Bystander Intervention, Rape Myth Acceptance and Behavioral Intent to Commit Sexual Assault,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention 18, no. 4 (2011): 212–231.
[5] Norman Doidge, (2013) ‘Brain scans of porn addicts: what's wrong with this picture?’ The Guardian, 26th September
[6] Jochen Peter and Patti M. Valkenburg, “Adolescents’ Exposure to Sexually Explicit Internet Material and Sexual Satisfaction: A Longitudinal Study” Communications Research 35, no. 5 (2009): 171–194. doi:10.1111/j.1468- 2958.2009.01343.x.
[7] Eileen M. Alexy, Ann W. Burgess, and Robert A. Prentky, “Pornography Use as a Risk Marker for an Aggressive Pattern of Behavior among Sexually Reactive Children and Adolescents,” Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association 14, no. 4 (2009): 442–453.
[8] 5 Michele L. Ybarra and Kimberly Mitchell, “Exposure to Internet Pornography among Children and Adolescents: A National Survey,” CyberPsychology & Behavior 8, no. 5 (2005): 473–486.
[9] Kimberly Mitchell et al., Trends in Youth Reports of Sexual Solicitations, Harassment and Unwanted Exposure to Pornography on the Internet 120-122, JOURNAL OF ADOLESCENT HEALTH 40 (2007), at http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV135.pdf (last visited Jul. 20, 2017) (on file with the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children).
[10] Julie M. Albright, “Sex in America Online: An Exploration of Sex, Marital Status, and Sexual Identity in Internet Sex Seeking and Its Impacts,” Journal of Sex Research 45 (2008): 175–186, doi:10.1080/00224490801987481
[11] HOME OFFICE, Disrespect Nobody [online] https://www.disrespectnobody.co.uk/ 2019 (accessed 03.10.2019)
[12] DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION, Keeping Children Safe in Education, [Online}. 2015 (accessed 03.10.2019)