Words: Charlotte Philby
Images: Heji Shin

How soon is too soon to have that conversation with your child? How much information is too much? How do you strike a balance between cool, understanding parent and weirdly intrusive over-sharer? Even as an adult with children of my own, I’m still unable to sit in the same room as my mum if so much of a snog is taking place on TV; so am I dreading the day I have to sit my kids down and bring up the subject of sex? Hell yes.

What I’m dreading more, though, is the moment when – with me safely out of the way – one of them sits down at a computer screen and quietly types a few key words into a search engine in order to find out what all the fuss is about – because how else does anybody research anything these days? At which point they are likely to find themselves faced with any number of brutal images that could disturb even a fully-grown, emotionally-hardened adult.

The impact of porn on the next generation is one that has been well-documented. Just last month a report by the Institute of Public Policy Research think tank found children as young as 11 were regularly exposed to online porn, and by the age of 14, 45 per cent were watching explicit content on the internet. The same poll of 500 British 18-year-olds also found that at least 70 per cent felt “pornography leads to unrealistic attitudes to sex” and “can have a damaging impact” on views of sex or relationships, with more than half of those surveyed saying “it would be easier growing up if pornography was less easy to access for young people”.

Clare Lilley, Head of Child Safety Online at the NSPCC, adds that Childline has had a number of calls from young people in recent months and years about the impact that seeing such explicit images at a young age has had on their lives. “These children are talking about the effect of porn on their relationships and the expectations within those relationships,” she said. So much so that the NSPCC has now commissioned, in conjunction with the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, a study into the subject.

For young people – many of whom have no other reference as to what is acceptable within a loving relationship and what they themselves should be expected to do – can even be, in the extreme, a factor in sexual abuse. Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham. Earlier this year she chaired an inquiry into the efficacy of current legislation surrounding sexual offences, during which she interviewed young people who had been victims of abuse.

By the age of 14, 45 per cent of children are watching explicit porn on the internet

As a result of those conversations, Champion – who previously ran a children’s home – says she was shocked to find that a shortfall in decent sex education was having a profoundly damaging effect on girls and boys. “These days the internet is how children find out what is normal in a relationship, because there isn’t statutory child sex education in schools and what there is doesn’t really cover child protection. Instead, children are as their first port of call going to the internet and finding very graphic pornography and taking that as normality,” she explains.

One of the witnesses Champion spoke to was a girl who had from a very young age had been groomed and then sexually exploited: “She didn’t think what was happening to her was right but she couldn’t speak to mother and she was scared to report what was happening, so she went online and found very graphic images of bondage and of women being raped, and she thought ‘this is normal that gangs of men rape women’. That is normal. It justified what the abusers were doing to her, and she kept quiet for another few years.”

Effective sex education, agrees shadow Home Office minister Seema Malhotra, is vital to empower children. “Violence in young relationships is a huge issue,” she says. “Only through ideas like compulsory sex and relationship education can we tackle the root causes of domestic abuse and give young people the tools and support they need to make informed decisions about their lives.”

The lack of sex and relationship education in Britain is causing more and more concern among parents, teachers and teenagers themselves

At present, state secondary schools run by local authorities must offer sex and relationships education, but free schools and academies are not required to do so. Experts from organisations including ChildNet and Barnados agree that lesson-time which addresses not just the mechanics of intercourse, but which talks around the issues, which has the confidence to engage young people in a frank conversation that bolsters their emotional welfare, is vital. Indeed, last month the Liberal Democrats announced that children should have lessons about sex and relationships from the age of seven, with “age-appropriate” lessons part of a wider “curriculum for life”.

But change has been a long time coming.

As the Hamburg-based neuro-psychologist and sexologist Ann-Marlene Henning discovered after writing her book (originally in German) on sex and relationships, aimed at young people. Henning, whose adaptation of the book for a UK audience ‘Sex & Lovers: A Practical Guide’ is published tomorrow, believes that with the World Health Organisation (WHO having recently announced that a third of British teenagers have had sexual intercourse by the age of 15, often with little or no understanding about how to look after themselves or their partners, something has to give. “The lack of sex and relationship education in Britain is causing more and more concern, especially among parents, teachers and teenagers themselves,” Henning explains.

Henning’s book is a bold and unapologetic riposte to the absence of an engaging debate on sex in formal education

With this in mind, she has created a manual that answers in explicit details some of the questions she believes young people want answered – and some they never knew existed – in a bold and unapologetic riposte to the absence of an engaging debate on sex in formal education. Alongside graphic images of real people having sex, some of the less explicit of which are published here – images that will no doubt prove controversial – chapters include Touching: Masturbation and intimate caressing, The first time: Here goes!, and Take care! Contraception and sexual health. There is also a list of useful websites including Childline and gay charity Stonewall.

Because what is clear is that not to teach our children about the intricacies of sex in the hope that they will then somehow not be exposed to them is foolish and naive, and fails to equip those we care about with the tools they need to protect themselves. In a characteristically frank address to her audience, Henning, who was born in Denmark and has one son, introduces young readers to her ideas with an introduction that reads: “Our book has been written for young people who are just beginning to have sex or thinking of doing so. We start from the idea that everyone has an innate ability to become aroused, but that sexuality (and how to enjoy it) has to be learned. We want to encourage you to find out as much as you can about what goes on in you own body and how it feels, and to work out what your own preferences are and where your boundaries lie. Then you’ll be quipped to discover the pleasure you can have with a healthy sexuality that’s been defined by no-one but you.”

‘Sex & Lovers’: A Practical Guide by Ann-Marlene Henning and Tina Bremer-Olszewski, £18.99, is published on 25 September by Cameron & Hollis

More in Features

Researching Edith and Kim

By , 17th November 2021
From a compendium of stories about life at the Bauhaus to a Modernist memoir by the founder of the iconic Isokon, here are some of the books that inspired my forthcoming novel

Book festivals 2021

By , 19th August 2021
From a celebration of the life of John le Carré at Cheltenham to an exploration of women and crime in Chiswick, please join me at one of the following events, across the country (and the internet!)