Between 2016 and 2022, I spoke to around 10,000 children and young people aged between six and 22 about the impact of pornography on their lives. These children were from right across the UK and a range of backgrounds. I met children in classrooms, youth theatres and clubs; I got in my car and travelled to Dundee,Cornwall, Derby, Pembrokeshire and Newcastle.
I am a theatre director and maker and undertook this research as part of the creation of two new musicals: Why is the Sky Blue? (Southwark Playhouse) and You don’t need to make a Big Song and Dance out of it (National Theatre Connections Festival); made with my brilliant collaborators Matt Regan and Shireen Mula, and produced by Tackroom.
I sought advice and support from Barnardo’s about how to broach this thorny subject with children and young people. When I stepped into a room with six-year-olds, I would ask: “What is good about the internet?” and then “What is bad about the internet?” I was very careful not to use the “P” word or to introduce the subject. With older groups (14-plus), I would begin by asking an open question such as: “What do you think about pornography?” And I would follow the track of their conversation, being careful not to judge or influence them.
In meeting so many children and young people and hearing them speak about their experiences, I became aware of how vast and complex this subject is. My fear is that early and repeated exposure to pornography is harmful to human connection and love. I also worry that it is going under the radar: we need to be unafraid to speak to children about pornography, and to find a language for it.
Here is what I discovered …
1. Children as young as six are encountering pornography
Whenever I mention to the parent of a child that age that many six-year-olds have seen pornography, they say: “Oh, my child hasn’t.” Well, as a teenager from Chichester said: “If you put a phone in a child’s hand, you are putting porn in a child’s hand … don’t do it unless you are ready to speak to them about pornography.” I was shocked to discover that it is common for children aged six to encounter pornography online. This would often be pop-ups, or through being introduced to it by an older friend or sibling.
I remember the first time I heard a six-year-old tell me about her experience of seeing pornography. She described it as seeing something “inappropriate” online. The word “inappropriate” was one I heard a lot during these conversations; I imagine children had been told by adults that something was “inappropriate” and they used the word back to me. She said she “really didn’t like it” but it had “just popped up” and she tried to do something else until it finished; “when something like that pops up, I just do my colouring in,” she said.
I met many children her age who had similar experiences. A classroom of seven-year-old boys in Edinburgh told me: “There’s a naked picture and she’s trying to run away. It’s not her fault but she doesn’t want it and she’s wearing nail polish and her nails are all scratchy.” The experience of watching such young children raising their hands to describe pornography was surreal. They used the kind of simple words a seven-year-old would use but their analysis of pornography was spot on: they were observing the lack of consent and objectification of the woman. One boy told me he wouldn’t speak to a parent or teacher about it because he would “get told off”, but that it wasn’t his fault, that it had “just popped up”.
2. For nine- to 11-year-olds, exposure to pornography is frequent
When I spoke to older primary schoolchildren aged between nine and 11, it became apparent that many children in this age group were familiar with “rude things on the internet”. An eight-year-old girl in Stoke-on-Trent told me: “I’ve been on YouTube and they’ve just come along. I like going on YouTube and watching videos of how to make slime. You see pictures of people with no clothes and I think – why on earth would that be on the internet? Why would people put it on there, because if people knew little children – four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 – would see it, wouldn’t they be a bit embarrassed?”
One 14-year-old in Dundee told me: “My dad is a teacher at a primary school and he said that it’s getting worse and worse because young children are getting phones. He said he has to deal with Primary 5 [children aged eight to nine years old] sending pictures of pornography and he gets quite upset when he talks about it.” Another 14-year-old in the same conversation added: “At my sister’s primary school, they had to ban the kids from the internet because Primary 5 were watching things like that.” Teachers told me they had to take tablets away from children for the same reason.
3. I met a 12-year-old boy who was dealing with pornography addiction
I was particularly struck by a conversation I had with a boy in London. The 12-year-old told me that he had been addicted to pornography but that his dad was “helping him through it.” He had been watching pornography “several times a day”.
When I asked Helen, a pornographic actor from Surrey, how she felt about the fact that children are watching pornography, she said: “It worries me. I worry that that could be a very damaging thing. Children do not have the context to understand that pornography isn’t real.”
4. Teenagers are learning more from pornography than sex education classes
Sex education in schools was universally ridiculed by the young people I spoke to as just not very helpful or entirely lacking. It ranged from 90s-style videos replete with metaphors such as: “a man dusting a woman with a feather duster”, or “a boy with fireworks in his trousers”, to the religious – “the Virgin Mary didn’t have to do it so neither do you; a testicle is the same size as a walnut – celibacy is fun; here – have a Bible.”
One 18-year-old told me: “For biology GCSE we had to know about vaginal intercourse. It didn’t talk about gay sex. I had never had any education on gay male sex or gay female sex. I didn’t actually find out until I was 14 how gay men had sex and I was like – ooohhh.”
As one 16-year-old said: “Adults are generally terrified of talking to young people about porn. Your parents have had you from a baby and they want to hold on to that innocent version of you.”
As a parent myself, I fully sympathise with how delicate this is. But in the conversations I had, I found a lot of children and young people who really wanted to talk to adults about pornography, sex and relationships.
5. For young people exploring their sexuality, pornography can end up filling gaps in their education
As a 14-year-old boy from Derby explained, pornography can be a source of information or even consolation: “Whenever porn is discussed, everything is negative. But there may be an act happening in the video where it can make you feel less alone. I’m gay and I remember the first time I allowed myself to watch the ones I wanted to watch instead of the women. It was a massive relief, it felt amazing.”
I spoke to a 19-year-old transgender man in Liverpool, who was of south-east Asian heritage. He described his ambivalence towards pornography: “It usually fetishises both the trans bit and the race bit. It’s not the most flattering depiction in some ways but at least it’s a depiction. I can look and see – OK – how might I go about trying to get off with someone? Or, you know, that’s what top surgery looks like – so that’s going to be me. There isn’t anywhere else I can go to learn this stuff.”
6. Pornography is confusing the issue of consent
Most of the young women I spoke to had experienced problems with consent. This would often revolve around young men performing sexual acts they had seen in pornography without asking, and young women feeling unable to express that, while they might consent to some of the acts, they didn’t consent to others.
Young women told us about the pressure they felt from pornography. “Why can’t you do this? Why won’t you do that? These porn women do it, so why won’t you?” One young woman told us how shocked an ex-partner had been by her pubic hair. “He was genuinely astonished. He couldn’t believe it.”
7. Pornography use doesn’t always conform to gender stereotypes
It can be quite difficult to avoid falling into binary heteronormative ways of speaking while talking about pornography, because it plays into gender stereotypes. It is important to state those stereotypes but also to subvert them. I met young women addicted to porn; I met young men who had never watched it.
One young woman in her early 20s told me that, in the summer between college and university, she had watched pornography every day. She said: “There is this image of the woman being like, ‘ooh, I’m not as sexual as men’, and it’s taboo for the woman to be a sexual being. So porn perpetuates that – our inability to feel comfortable to say, ‘oh yeah, we masturbate.’ In the porn that infiltrates the mainstream conversation, with big boobs and submissive women, a lot of women don’t think it is for them. So they don’t realise what exists, and you have to hunt around. There is more ethical stuff designed for women’s pleasure, but it’s probably about 1% of the porn on the internet and it’s tucked away.”
Many boys had a complex relationship with pornography and a strong sense of self-awareness about it. An 18-year-old man from London said: “I think pornography is a bit soul-sucking. It is dangerous. I say to my friends: ‘Try and go five days without it.’ I know my friends have tendencies with pornography that they can’t get out of. It drains people physically and spiritually. People can’t do anything else. I don’t want to get to a point where I feel like I’m not me any more.”
8. For many young people, pornography is their introduction to sex
A 20-year-old man from Cardiff spoke to me about how pornography can shape your sexual preferences. “I found it was a gateway to my sexuality,” he said. “I was exposed to porn before I’d had a proper sexual experience – it is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You see something and you re-enact it. That’s what I like because that’s what I did. That’s what I did because that’s what I saw. It gives you expectations about sex: ‘sexpectations’.”
9. Pornography is stopping young people from connecting in the real world
The idea that pornography stopped people from connecting with one another seemed to be at the core of this huge, sprawling conversation. A 16-year-old boy in Truro told me: “It shuts you down and closes you off. You put yourself in a bubble. Girlfriends or boyfriends are hard and complicated but with pornography, it is two clicks away, it’s whatever you want whenever you want and it can be done on your own, without anybody else; you never have to leave the house. You don’t have to put yourself out there for rejection. But I think that does make young people less skilled socially and it does mean you can get more and more anxious about going out and meeting real people.”
10. Very little is known about the effect pornography is having on young people
As another young person from Birmingham put it: “We don’t know the consequences of this generation growing up watching pornography from primary school. Nobody really knows yet quite how big it is.”
One thing is for sure: if we want to find out more to help young people, we need to listen to this generation, who understand the internet way better than we do.