Porn isn’t the issue for teens - poor sex education at school is, says expert

Teenage boy looking at computer. Poor sex education in schools can lead to unhealthy attitudes to porn among teens. (Getty Images)
Poor sex education in schools can lead to unhealthy attitudes to porn among teens, says leading sexpert. Posed by model. (Getty Images)

A leading therapist says a lack of honest sex education at school is driving teenagers to seek out porn with harmful consequences.

“The big issue is that teenagers going through puberty are naturally very interested in sex, but there is hardly any sex education," says Silva Neves, a sexpert on BBC3’s Sex on the Couch and author of Sexology: The Basics.

“Sex education in schools is basically about contraception and STIs. There is no conversation about understanding your body, sexual pleasure, body diversity or desire.

"So… young people instead turn to porn for sex education. But porn is not sex education.”

Leading sex therapist Silva Neves of BBC3’s Sex on the Couch
Leading sex therapist Silva Neves of BBC3’s Sex on the Couch says young people are turning to porn as misguided form of sex education. (Supplied)

A survey carried out by City, University of London in 2021 found that 78% of respondents aged 16-17 had seen online pornography.

But Neves argues that what they see gives them false messages about sex and because they have nothing to compare this to, these “messages feed the belief that this is how it’s done. To change that belief once it is set is really hard.”

"Porn literacy" aka “understanding what porn is, what porn is not and how to access it safely” is what’s lacking in sex education, argues Neves.

It’s one of the issues he covers in his book, a guide he wrote for parents, teachers, health professions and GPs to "bridge the gaps in sex education".

Porn is just fantasy

As a psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist, Neves is on a mission to get teachers and healthcare professionals talking about the fact that underage teenagers are accessing porn and the need to explain to young people that porn is ‘fiction not education’.

Teacher with pupils in classroom. (Getty Images)
Sex education in schools could be improved, says a leading sexpert. Posed by model. (Getty Images)

He says that mainstream, crucially free porn sites – the ones that young people tend to access – are the worst offenders.

“The actors are carefully selected for having a specific body type. It’s all large penises and often women being quite submissive and the guy being quite aggressive," Neves explains.

“There is no conversation about consent – it’s straight into intercourse, which lasts 20 to 30 minutes.

“If you’re a 17-year-old boy you may watch that and think, ‘My penis is too small’ or ‘I will never last 30 minutes’ (not realising that the filming stops and starts) or ‘My partner’s body needs to look a certain way.’ A young person gets all the wrong messages which can make things go awry in their own sex lives,” he adds.

Read more: ‘I want women to take ownership of their sexual pleasure,’ says female director of hook-up app

One of the biggest issues is young people may think that certain extreme sex acts performed in porn videos are normal.

“Teenage boys may watch these things and think they’re ok to do with their partner," says Neves. "But often they don’t even talk about what they’re going to do, they just do it and think it’s going to make them a great lover.”

As a result, Neves says their sexual partners may later even end up in sex therapy. “We hear things like, ‘My first experience of sex was when my partner pushed my head against the pillow because he thought that was the right thing to do.’”

Man and woman having sex
Some teens may be unaware that the sex portrayed in porn films does not reflect reality. (Getty Images)

Disturbed by porn

A survey carried out by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) in 2020 as part of their plan to introduce an age verification system for porn, found most children had viewed pornography they found disturbing.

They reported it influenced how they behaved in sexual encounters as well as their body image.

“But porn is fantasy,” reiterates Neves. “It can’t be translated into the bedroom of ordinary people. It is also adult entertainment, which means if you watch it before you’re an adult, you’re going to see things you’re not prepared to see.

“If teens understood that it would make a big difference.”

Read more: Meet the ethical porn producer creating female-friendly erotic films

Porn addiction

Despite this, being curious about porn as an underage teenager is totally normal and we should be careful not to ‘scare people’, says Neves.

He is skeptical as to whether porn addiction truly exists, but says, “What can happen is that watching porn begins to feel easier [than real life sex] because there’s no performance anxiety.”

“This is because you have full control. You don’t have to worry about how your body looks, how big your penis is, or what other people think,” he adds.

“There is an interesting study that shows even if there is no dysfunction in a relationship, people find sex with a partner more difficult than porn sex [i.e. watching porn].”

So, it’s not that porn causes problems like erection dysfunction, it’s that you are more likely to have erection problems with partnered sex because there’s more anxiety involved.

Neves argues this anxiety comes from a lack of sex education across society. “So even people who don’t watch porn feel like, 'We don’t know what to do in the bedroom.'”

Hands on computer: Watching porn doesn't involve the 'performance anxiety' of real life sex, says a leading sexpert. (Getty Images)
Watching porn doesn't involve the 'performance anxiety' of real life sex, says a leading sexpert. (Getty Images)

Good sex education

For proper, ‘age appropriate’ sex education for young people, Neves suggests the website Bishuk.com, which is a guide to sex and love for young people over the age of 14.

Once your child turns 18, Neves suggests some great books listed at the end, but also seeking out ethical porn.

“Ethical porn is usually created and produced by women, so it’s very female-friendly. It shows real sex with all different body types, and there is the romance element with the sex that makes it’s much more realistic," he says.

Read more: Why I'm proud to be sex-positive

How to discuss porn with your teen

Concerned your child might be watching porn? If you want to talk to them, how do you broach the subject while minimising the cringe factor? Pick a moment when you’re not rushed and above all, try to be calm and matter-of-fact.

“Your body language, attitude and tone of voice are very important,” says Neves. “If you’re anxious, your teen is going to pick that up straight away.”

As a parent, you need to validate the normality of their curiosity, so that it’s not some shameful secret and remember, any little conversation is better than making the topic completely taboo.

“Most importantly, make it clear that porn is adult fantasy entertainment and not what goes on in real life," emphasises Neves. "Tell them, if something they watch makes them feel uncomfortable, they should stop watching straight away.”

“Real life sex is not about sexual techniques,” adds Neves. “It’s about connection with partners and how they are attuned to each other.”

Remind your teen to enjoy themselves, but remain safe and never be coerced into something they don’t want to do.

Young couple holding hands. (Getty Images)
As parents, it's important to remind your teen to enjoy themselves but never be coerced into something they don't want to do. (Getty Images)

Further resources

“It’s important to remember that young people are naturally curious about sex and diverse sexual behaviours,” says Neves. “So this is about educating them on how to meet their own natural curiosity, rather than encouraging them to watch porn."

Neves suggests the following books as good sources of adult sex education:

  1. Mind The Gap: The Truth about Desire and How to Futureproof your Sex Life by Karen Gurney (£14.99, Headline Home)

  2. Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century by Sophia Smith Galer (£14.99, HarperCollins)

  3. Sex Ed: A Guide for Adults by Ruby Rare (£12.99, Bloomsbury)

  4. Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel (£10.99, Hodder and Stoughton)