A study out of Ireland this year highlighted a scary reality: if you take two young people, aged 10-25, odds are one of the two won’t understand what “consent” is.
The study found that 58% of participants didn’t understand the term, how it could be manifested (verbally or otherwise), and its importance in relationships, sexual or not.
This isn’t good news.
This study, conducted online by one of the largest youth organizations in Ireland, the National Youth Council of Ireland, based its findings on data from over 200 participants in different youth organizations and universities, as well as five focus groups from youth work organizations.
Here’s what their data tell us, according to one of the youth workers in the focus groups:
“How to ask? When to ask? Shyness in talking about the issue and their experiences…not having the language to ask for consent during sex.”
Apart from the fact that over half of the study’s participants revealed they were confused about what “consent” really means, the study also showed that almost one in four (23%) struggled when it came to communicating and feeling confident discussing the topic in a relationship. And what’s more, almost one in five (18%) said that they felt like peer pressure was an issue for them when it came to consent in sexual activity. In other words, doing something you might not feel comfortable with sexually is preferable to being called a prude.
Another quote from the study by a student:
“Feeling peer pressured to keep up with friends, being too embarrassed to say no in case they look uncool…being called frigid [is] perceived as the worst thing.”
This study makes it clear that “consent” is a confusing topic for many young people. But where are young people getting their information from in the first place?
Learning about “yes” and “no”
While slightly over 20% listed their friends or family as one source, there’s a large percentage that learn about it from other, more concerning places: 27% of partipants said they are learning about consent online, listing pornography sites and YouTube as sources for learning about sexual health and consent. Some participants noted the ease with which they could gain “access to pornography.”
Over one in three participants (34%) said they used “media” as a source of information on consent, a category broken down into social media like Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter (18%), and television (16%). This easy access to social media and porn (sometimes overlapping) was flagged as a cause for concern by one of the focus groups, that insisted on the value of teaching young people media literacy skills, especially when it comes to the portrayal of sex.
One youth worker even said the “ease of access to [social media and pornography] on phones is a concern where opinions and attitudes are formed so young.”
Here at Fight the New Drug, we’ve been giving visibility to the facts from studies and personal accounts for over 11 years that porn is not as harmless as some might think. And while we’re glad to see more data reinforcing this, more conversations starting, and more studies being done that reaffirm the need to consider before consuming, we know there are still skeptics out there who don’t agree that porn is harmful.
We’re here to try and change that.
If you’re still skeptical, here’s more research
If you still are unsure whether to believe porn is harmful, consider that what this study reveals is not an isolated reality.
This study by the National Youth Council of Ireland may be one of the more recent, but it unfortunately isn’t the only one of its kind to pinpoint this issue of consent being a problem for young people today and to point out porn’s role in the matter.
Let’s start with something most of us can agree probably agree with: young people today need better, more accessible information about sex. This is partially because the “sex education” many young people are receiving today is directly from porn.
Studies show some pretty stats on how often a misleading source on sex is used to learn about it.
One study shows over 60% of students said they use porn to learn about sex. Another revealed that students age 16-17 used porn as a reference for sex more than their peers, family, school or other source. In a 2016 survey of over 1,000 youth in the UK, it was found that over one in two (53%) boys and over one in three girls (39%) thought that porn was “realistic.”
Summarizing the way porn can mislead young people to justify how they approach real sex, in the words of one senior boy interviewed, “I’ve never seen a girl in porn who doesn’t look like she’s having a good time.”
Here’s the interesting thing: porn is fake. Many consumers know it. Yet if it’s the main, or only education young people receive on sex, no wonder it’s confusing them.
The largest study of its kind done to date, a collaboration between Middlesex University and The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, revealed that 75% of participants didn’t feel that porn helped them understand consent. Personal accounts highlight how this confusion over consent can play out in real life, with terrible consequences.
In fact, the porn industry is a pro at selling harmful, and illicit behaviors as sexy and desirable. With a selling point of “no means yes” on tons of mainstream porn websites just a click away, even for minors, what can we expect them to think about consent in regards to sex?
Is it any wonder that adolescents don’t understand consent or have a healthy understanding of respecting sexual boundaries when the top videos on Pornhub glorify rape and feature videos of women being assaulted even after saying “no” or “stop”? Consider how in one study, 95% of women responded positively or neutrally to physical or verbal violence.
Psych 101: learning from examples
It’s no secret that humans learn from their environment.
In psychology, it’s called social learning theory: humans are likely to imitate behavior we see as realistic or that is rewarded, even and especially on screen when it comes to sex, because our brains learn best through images when we’re sexually aroused.
Let’s go back to porn in light of this information—see how this can be a problem, especially when it comes to young people who increasingly use porn as their main or sole source of information about sex?
If we want to create positive sexual health for young people, and all people, we have to start having early, honest, and ongoing conversations about sex that don’t include shame. Getting informed is one of the best steps to making good decisions, right? This applies to sex, too.
Kids and adolescents deserve better information about sex than what porn provides. If you’re a parent or educator, click here to see our step-by-step conversation guide that can help you educate others on the harmful effects of porn.