In order for young peo­ple to flour­ish, their intrin­sic val­ues, auton­o­my, and capac­i­ty for con­nec­tion need to be sup­port­ed and pro­tect­ed as they grow. This analy­sis sug­gests how the main­stream online porn indus­try active­ly vio­lates these needs, manip­u­lat­ing young peo­ple to demote core parts of them­selves, to treat oth­ers and them­selves as less than human, and to cut their devel­op­ing sex­u­al­i­ty away from rela­tion­al con­nec­tion, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, and true appre­ci­a­tion of self and oth­er. It does this by bam­boo­zling them (blitz­ing them with con­tent and con­fus­ing fact with fic­tion) whilst at the same time push­ing ver­sions of sex that are gen­er­al­ly about pow­er, dis­re­spect, vio­la­tion, and/​or self­ish grat­i­fi­ca­tion. Peo­ple are shaped towards being the type of per­son that makes the indus­try mon­ey. One of the great­est ironies in all of this is that view­ers can feel in con­trol, whilst all the while their pow­er to achieve their deep­est aspi­ra­tions is being crit­i­cal­ly undermined.

So where do we go from here? First young people’s expo­sure to online porn needs to be dras­ti­cal­ly cur­tailed – need­less to say far from reduc­ing their auton­o­my this works to safe­guard it, pro­vid­ing the space and free­dom they need to author their sex­u­al­i­ty in line with the rest of who they are. We would nev­er coun­te­nance a sit­u­a­tion where young peo­ple with a sim­ple click can get free cig­a­rettes any­time, and actions that would be tak­en to stop this were thwart­ed by argu­ments about the inher­ent free­dom to explore your smok­ing iden­ti­ty’. Yet the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion with porn is more con­cern­ing, giv­en how it pow­er­ful­ly tar­gets sex­u­al arousal, and the depth and breadth of ways it com­pro­mis­es human health and flourishing. 

Seri­ous dis­cus­sion also needs to be had about wider reg­u­la­tion of the porn indus­try. Pol­i­cy-mak­ing and leg­is­la­tion look­ing to address tech sur­veil­lance, manip­u­la­tion and algo­rith­mic deci­sion-mak­ing have so far been focussed on social media and search engines – this must change so that online porn is always square­ly in scope. This reg­u­la­tion should run along­side efforts to rid porn plat­forms of abuse and exploita­tion, and in addi­tion, be part of a wider pub­lic health approach. Fol­low­ing on from all we’ve explored around auton­o­my, pub­lic health actions should include those that help all porn view­ers to make informed deci­sions about their use.

On a relat­ed note, a crit­i­cal role for PSHE edu­ca­tion is devel­op­ing young people’s abil­i­ty to author their selves and lives in line with their deep­est val­ues and aspi­ra­tions. This is an active defence both against online porn as well as the actions of oth­er soci­etal actors that seek to shape us towards their own ends. Such edu­ca­tion includes teach­ing on busi­ness mod­els, indus­try prac­tices and meta-mes­sages, along­side foun­da­tion­al lessons on our val­ues and rights (and act­ing in line with them); the nature of ful­fill­ing, healthy’ rela­tion­ships and sex­u­al­i­ty (and how these can be achieved); and auton­o­my, includ­ing its rela­tion­al dimen­sions. Along­side this, there is the need for par­ents to be sup­port­ed in under­stand­ing porn’s meth­ods, pro­tect­ing their chil­dren from it, and sup­port­ing their val­ues, capac­i­ty for rela­tion­al sex­u­al­i­ty, and agency in the face of it. 

In this first issue of Ful­ly Human, we have explored main­stream online porn both as an issue in and of itself but also because it is an arch exam­ple of what can hap­pen when we treat each as less than human. In tan­dem this of course informs our think­ing on what it means to do the oppo­site. We should apply this analy­sis to all parts of soci­ety, ask­ing the core ques­tions of our poli­cies, prac­tices, process­es: do they respect and sup­port people’s human­i­ty, or do they dis­re­gard or, at worst, vio­late aspects of it? Our intrin­sic val­ues, capac­i­ties for con­nec­tion and self-embrace, and auton­o­my are core human goods and should be con­sid­ered in all big deci­sions that affect us.

In inter­ac­tion, let us as a soci­ety open­ly ask and grap­ple with fun­da­men­tal ques­tions that con­sid­er the sta­tus quo, our pos­si­ble futures and the jour­neys between them. What do we most val­ue and what do we want to val­ue? What kinds of free­dom do we think are most worth­while? Where do peo­ple find mean­ing, and what kinds of soci­ety help them find it? If pornog­ra­phy depicts what an end of the world looks like, let’s instead reflect on, hope for, and work towards worlds that reflect our most eth­i­cal and fun­da­men­tal aspirations.