**Content warning: This blog post touches on material which some may find offensive or upsetting, and carries a link to a newspaper article about online pornography and its effect on young people. It may not be suitable for younger readers.**
I recently read an article somewhere which asked the question: ‘Why are books for young people full of stories about the Difficult Things in life, such as abuse and bullying and death and loss and pain? Why can’t we just write stories about nice things, so that young people can read them and be inspired to be nice?‘ (Or, words to that effect. I may be paraphrasing, here.)
Then, at the weekend, I read a newspaper feature which took as its subject the ubiquity of pornography and how easy it is for young people to access it, whether it be on their computers or on their smartphones or at school, among their friends. Leaving aside my own feelings about pornography – because it’s unimportant to what I’m trying to say here – I found the article to be terrifying. I wasn’t unaware of the phenomenon, because I try to follow the trends of teenage life in order to inform my work, but I was still appalled by some of what I read.
The article outlined the sort of thing that young people – both girls and boys – are looking at on a daily basis, and it outlined the kind of behaviour they display after a diet of such material. One parent described how her son went into a fit of shrieking and shaking, followed by deep, visceral and destructive anger when she tried to remove his access to his computer; he was acting ‘like an addict’, as she described it. Another contributor described how her friend’s nine-year-old came home from school and told his mother that he and his friends had been talking about ‘boy things’ that day at lunchtime. When pressed, the child revealed they’d been discussing rape. When asked to define his understanding of the word, the little boy said that it meant ‘forcing a girl to do sex and then killing her.’
This child was nine, just in case you missed it.
The landscape that children and teenagers are growing up in is a vastly different one, in some ways, from the landscape in which people of my generation found their way into adulthood. We had pornography, sure. We had dangers, and we had concerns about our bodies, and we had bullying, and we had curiosity about adulthood and sexuality – the same as young people do nowadays. What we didn’t have was immediate and free access to the most depraved and violent material the internet can offer in order to feed this desire to learn about what it meant to be grown up; we didn’t have that, and I am thankful for it.
The ways in which modern pornography teaches young people to think about themselves and other people borders on the sociopathic, in my view. I am not an expert, of course, but it seems clear to me that young people are digesting image after image and movie after movie encouraging them to think of other people as objects, existing merely to provide them – the viewer – with a service. The idea of consent is non-existent; the idea of mutual enjoyment, let alone love, is non-existent. Women are brutalised and discarded, men are creatures of appetite and exist merely to destroy, and both are depicted as being impossibly ‘perfect’ in terms of their bodily appearance – in itself, a dreadful thing to be allowed take root in teenagers’ psyches.
I don’t know what the answer to this is. As I see it, not enough adults and parents are even aware of – or, wish to face up to – the fact that this is a real problem. Kids looking at pornography is not new; ‘we all did it when we were their age’ is the common reply when you try to sound a warning. That is true – but the type of material young people are watching is very different to the sort of thing that was around when their parents were growing up. Whatever the relative harmlessness of the pornography available in their parents’ generation, the type of thing young people are encountering today is less about sex than it is about violence, and less about titillation than it is about destruction and inflicting pain. It is new, and thrilling, and absorbing; ‘everyone’ is watching it, and so a child who is uninitiated may be pressured to watch, or forced to. It is very difficult to avoid something if the majority of your peers are doing it, and this has always been true. Kids egg each other on to watch ever more and more brutal material; smartphones and tablets with super-fast WiFi connections get passed around at lunchtime behind the bike-shed. It’s a long way from a copy of ‘Playboy’ magazine stolen from your older brother.
Children are watching things they do not understand, and for which they are not ready. Children are watching things that are warping their expectations of sex and relationships, and which are forming their opinions of themselves and one another. Boys are watching women being degraded and tormented, and trying to square that with their lived experience of having female teachers, female friends, sisters, mothers and grandmothers. Girls are watching men dominate and brutalise women, and are struggling to figure out how their brothers, fathers, and friends fit into that model of manhood. Both boys and girls are learning that other people do not matter – it is all about your appetite, your needs, and whatever the other person wants or does not want is immaterial. Is that the sort of world we want to give to the next generation? What sort of world will they create?
Books for children and young people should not be afraid to tackle important and painful subjects. There should be no beating around the bush. Children are living in a world which is as frightening as it is wonderful, and as full of inexplicable things as it is happiness and laughter. A child may have nowhere else to turn but books to try to make sense of his or her world; the life they are living may bear no resemblance to stories about missing puppies or stolen rainbows. Children are living in a strange new world and they deserve literature which is equal to it. They need a place to deal with what they’re seeing, and they need to know they’re not alone if they’re struggling to cope. Adults need to realise and be sensitive to what young people are going through, and they definitely need to stop belittling the lived experience of young people. Writing stories worthy of their young readers is one way to help with that.
Facing up to what they’re going through is another.
One of the newspaper articles I read which inspired this blog post is here; adults looking for advice on how to help their children can check out http://www.ispcc.ie, and young people looking for help with any aspect of growing up can check out http://www.childline.ie.