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Experts recommend criteria to identify ethical pornography

13 June 2023
Importance of healthy pornography and how to define it
A team of international experts led by the University of Sydney has identified six criteria that could be used to identify healthy and ethical pornography, with the aim of helping teachers and parents with consent education for young adults over 18.

The University of Sydney-led research team brought together an international panel of experts including adolescent health experts, sexual health experts, sex educators, and pornography researchers to identify the criteria that could be used to find pornography that supports healthy sexual development.

The team discovered that healthy pornography should have elements including:

  • A negotiation of consent onscreen
  • Depictions of safe sex
  • Ethical production
  • A focus on pleasure for all participants
  • A variety of sexual practices
  • A variety of body types, genders, and races.

The findings have been published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, the official journal of the World Association for Sexual Health, and they are revealed at a time when a new study from Curtin University found 90 percent of parents want more relationship and sexuality education, including literacy on pornography, in schools from as young as grade 7 and 8.

The University of Sydney-led experts acknowledge it’s a highly sensitive area and there is no suggestion that young people under the age of 18 should engage with pornography – this study focuses on providing resources for young adults aged 18-25. But they also recognise that Australian Institute of Family Studies research shows almost half (44 percent) of children aged 9-16 surveyed have already encountered sexual material online and there is a need to consider age-appropriate consent education resources.

It is important to note that while pornography can be discussed in classrooms with young people under 18, under Australian classification law all sexually explicit material is classified X 18+ and unsuitable for a minor to see.

Consent Education

To assist in educating the public, the team has prepared a factsheet with the results of the project and a lesson plan designed for use by educators teaching media literacy to young adults over 18. The resources can be used by parents or any professional conducting consent education, including in first year University modules or in health organisations.

Professor Alan McKee, the project lead from University of Sydney, and a researcher who has been studying engagement with pornography for 30 years, said: “I started this project when a high school parent in Sydney approached me asking for examples of healthy pornography that they could recommend to their young adult sons. We realised that there was no guide for concerned consumers – and so we put together an international panel of experts to create it.”

Professor Angela Dawson, Associate Dean Research for the Faculty of Health at University of Technology Sydney and the Public Health Association of Australia’s representative on the Australasian Sexual and Reproductive Health Alliance, said: “I participated in this project to understand the characteristics and types of pornography that could shed light on information that could be provided to young adults to help them make decisions about the materials they may wish to view.”

Associate Professor Melissa Kang, adolescent health expert and former medical writer for Dolly Magazine, said: “For many young people, online porn has become a default ‘sex educator’. Our study among experts internationally has helped identify elements of pornography that could best support healthy sexual development and respectful, consensual, and pleasurable relationships.”

Kerrin Bradfield, past-President of the Society of Australian Sexologists, and author of the lesson plan for use by teachers, said: “Parents and caregivers often feel lost talking about pornography or their own values around relationships and sexuality. These criteria provide a starting place not only for decision-making, but for ongoing conversations that can support healthy sexual development and sexual citizenship.”

Download the fact sheet and the lesson plan

Declaration: This study did not receive project funding beyond University salaries for the authors.

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