• Kate Charlton and Megan Clarke

The Impact of Sex Education and Pornography on Relationships and Gender Based Violence

An investigation into the effects of sexual education and pornography on healthy sexual relationships and the rise of Gender-Based Violence.


Artwork by Nyree Troughton (she/her) (Instagram: @_hiitsny_)

Image description: The artist has employed multiple forms of media to make up this collage-like piece. The central image is of a woman covering her chest, her hands grasping herself from the view of the camera. Surrounding her, the artist has included candy wrappers and the remains of a receipt. The image is surrounded by a circular motion of yellow paint, which is contrasted by the use of black and pink oil pastels in an erratic and expressive motion. The image gives the allusion of almost being clouded over, a washed down white pigment takes up a large amount of the left piece, allowing the yellow to lose its vibrancy.

In light of the murders of Aisling Murphy, Sarah Everard, and Sabina Nessa, conversations regarding safety on the streets have been pervasive in the media. Some discourse has centred on the responsibility of the individual to keep themselves safe, advising measures on what women can do to stay out of potentially dangerous situations.

Laura Bates initiated a discussion on how phrases such as ‘she was just going for a run’ and ‘she did all of the right things’ trended after the death of Sarah Everard, with the implication being that the case wouldn’t have been quite so tragic if she had been doing something else; if she had been walking home in the early hours of the morning, alone, and drunk after a night out we can’t help but think that the framing of the case may have been different. Fundamentally, it does not matter what Sarah Everard or any of these women were doing. Women shouldn’t have to do ‘everything right’, or have to put every possible protective measure in place to be deemed worthy of sympathy and grief. This narrative of the ‘perfect victim’ continually works to devalue women’s lives. There is no way women can anticipate the movements of these people to keep themselves safe, nor should they have to. While we are not suggesting that there is a singular solution to stopping gender-based violence (GBV), these events did prompt us to consider the potential root causes of GBV.

We thought that if we could trace back to the roots of sexually motivated violence, we could potentially gauge a better understanding of how to have useful conversations that can lead to helpful and pragmatic changes. To gain a general understanding of the consumption of porn among our generation, we undertook some anonymous interviews with various Edinburgh university students about their personal experiences with sex education in British schools and their relationship with porn.

An overwhelming (and unfortunately, unsurprising) response we had to the question; “What were your experiences with sex education and were they positive?”, centred around the inadequacy of sex education in their formative years of learning. The general consensus was that sex education in schools did not successfully set students up with a well-rounded knowledge about sex, that it was mainly biologically or reproductively focused, and that the idea of sexual pleasure and emotional intimacy was rarely covered.

Interviewee A recounted his experience of sex education at an all-boys school, observing that due to this single-gendered environment, his sex education was very much catered to the male gaze - this perhaps founding a perception of sex as for men’s pleasure, informed through a heteronormative, male lens. Despite the inevitability of a single-gendered environment in the example provided above, even in mixed schools, sex education has traditionally been split into separate classes of boys and girls. Topics such as contraception, sexual and reproductive health, consent, and sexual pleasure are not gendered. This education is relevant and essential to everyone to ensure empathy and healthy sexual relationships. These lapses in knowledge between genders often lead to misconceptions surrounding sex, holding the potential to negatively affect the sexual experiences of young people.

Interviewee A went on to say how porn was treated as a taboo topic in school; porn wasn’t discussed in sex education lessons, meaning that when he first discovered porn at age 15, it was mainly out of a desire to keep up with his peers. Individual development and sexual curiosity should be encouraged rather than shamed. However, when it isn’t first introduced in a safe and informed environment, and individuals are left to their own devices (both figuratively and literally), it has the potential to move into dangerous territory.

Internet porn is largely unregulated; violent female debasement and sexual cruelty featuring more prevalently. There is an assumption that this is how men are supposed to perform, and that this is what women want, or find pleasurable. Alarmingly, our generation is the first to grow up with pornography that is this easily accessible and unregulated, the effects of which, we argue, have been highly damaging. When the consumption of porn goes unregulated and uninformed, for example on a platform like Pornhub, people can explore darker content, feeding into a precarious relationship with healthy and safe sexual relationships.

Interviewee B stated that when she was at school her first experience of porn was non-consensual; a boy shoved an explicit video on his phone in her face. This scenario speaks volumes about the idea of sex ‘happening to’ women, that it is under a man’s control. Further, Interviewee C commented on how she didn’t engage with porn until she was 20 years old when her boyfriend encouraged her to try it for her own pleasure. She explained that up until that point, she had always viewed porn as something for male pleasure; this could have been disproven had it been included in the sex education curriculum. We also had our own experiences of gender separation in sex education classes; for girls, the teaching was firmly biologically based and centred upon how to prevent pregnancy, and the idea of sexual pleasure was never broached. Sexual pleasure and masturbation are often assumed to be the prerogatives of men, meaning women’s sexual pleasure becomes secondary and of lesser importance.

Interviewee C highlighted some of the differences she had noticed between male and female perspectives on pornography and the different relationships to porn which appeared to her along gendered lines. In past sexual experiences, she said that she could tell when a boy had watched porn as they often acted ‘performatively’; she described how it often felt rehearsed as if there was a prescribed set of stages you had to go through, which didn’t feel natural or authentic to her.

Porn can deeply impact the behaviour of the viewer; people turn to porn not just for pleasure, but as an instructive tool, with one of the top 10 categories on Pornhub in 2021 being ‘how to …’ (Pornhub.com). However, Interviewee C noted how she had never used porn for guidance, suggesting that this was a key difference between male and female users of porn. Interviewee C noted how there is often an acute female awareness that porn is not real, an awareness that is perhaps lacking from the average male viewer. Typically, we have found that boys often discovered porn at an earlier stage of maturity than girls, perhaps explaining this discrepancy. She subsequently touched on how common it is for her and other women to watch lesbian porn due to its foregrounding of sexual pleasure, whereas heterosexual porn is heavily attuned to the male gaze at the expense of portrayals of female sexual fulfilment.

In the interviews, it came across as though it was common for male viewers to attempt to recreate something they have seen online, which they have assumed was pleasurable for the other(s) due to the performance of sex workers who appear to be enjoying it. This raises concern surrounding those boys who watch porn as an instructive tool, some of whom are technically children. Porn frequently promotes sexual cruelty to women through ritual humiliations and dark male fantasies; in an article for GQ Magazine, Tony Parsons emphasised how ‘teenage boys are being raised on a diet of female debasement’ due to our generation’s consumption of pornography. A significant effect of this is the entrenchment and perpetuation of rape culture within our society, as prevailing social attitudes find expression in porn and have the effect of normalising and trivialising sexual assault and abuse. Thus, we believe that porn has a lot to answer concerning the contemporary rise in GBV.

But how can we blame those 16-year-old boys who have grown up thinking that rough, violent sex, with a notable lack of respect and care for consent, is normal? The effect porn can have on how men view both women and sex often has dire consequences on the girls and women on the receiving end of this kind of treatment, forcing them into precarious situations.

We researched sexual violence in conjunction with the recent developments in the world of online porn, prompted by the Trafficking Hub campaign; the campaign sought to hold Pornhub accountable for its role in perpetuating the toxic environment of online porn and treatment of its workers

This brings us to the locus of the issue of porn, in our opinion - Pornhub. Recently, after an extensive campaign by Trafficking Hub, Pornhub finally took the necessary measures to attempt to regulate their content, at least to a certain extent, by implementing age restrictions and taking down some videos exhibiting blatant sexual abuse or child pornography. When the main site for porn (hitting 33.5 billion visits in 2018) fails to ensure the safety of its workers whose labour they make a huge profit from, it sets the same precedent that sex needn’t be had respectfully; as though it is a commodity one is entitled to. When we see no repercussion for people posting videos of rape and abuse - how does this help an endemic in GBV?

The dangers of online pornography when unregulated also pertains to the ‘culture’ of revenge porn. Oftentimes, abusers resort to sharing explicit content without consent, as it can go unregulated on the internet and without repercussions. This only serves to reinforce the strength of the link between sex and violence which needs to be rectified. A report shows that 1 in 7 women in the UK have experienced threats of having their private, explicit images or videos shared. Further, circling back to the idea held by some that sex is something that happens ‘to’ a woman, the report also documented that a fifth (19%) of participants aged 11 to 16 have been sent unwanted sexual images, as Interviewee C herself experienced, increasing to a third (33%) of 17-21 year-olds. This perpetuates the perception that sex needn’t be consensual on behalf of all parties. To ensure safe sex in real life, we crucially need to reform the attitude and respect to online sexual content, for this is evidently the source of many young people’s information and attitude regarding sexual acts.

The report concludes with a statement about the upcoming proposition of an Online Safety Bill;

“Women and girls have the right to express themselves freely without the threat of abuse. We need an Online Safety Bill that addresses online VAWG, so that all women and girls, including those from Black and minority communities, are protected from online harms.”

The displacement of responsibility on the victim for having to keep themselves safe both online and in real-life situations is extremely important in such a wide-reaching and influential discourse.

Structural change at the root cause for violence is what we need - not damage control once the crime is already committed.

Closer to home, the University of Edinburgh has been consistently ranked as one of the UK universities with the highest number of reports of sexual assault. The Feminist Society (@uoefemsoc) recently asked students to tell them of their experiences during the first few weeks of the first semester. The open letter to the Principal, Peter Mathieson, can be found here or in the link in their bio; by adding your name to the letter you can help to place pressure on the University to address the issue. The more signatures signed, the more likely we will see change.

Helpful resources:


The Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre: https://www.ercc.scot

Health in Mind: https://www.health-in-mind.org.uk/services/counselling_for_survivors_of_sexual_abuse/d168/

Engender: https://www.engender.org.uk/content/organisations/369-edinburgh-rape-crisis-centre/




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