Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Teenagers who read 50 Shades of Grey

I have started teaching a lesson on the media's portrayal of Sex and Relationship. The lesson focuses on movies, TV shows and visual pornography. But with all the media hype around 50 Shades of Grey I wanted to do a small scale survey of young people I work with to see if the hype had any grounding in reality. Are young people reading it and is it impacting young people? 


At the end of a session looking at the Distortion of Media I handed out some small surveys. Just half a dozen questions and a space for general feedback. I did this with two year groups both mixed gender. A group of year 10 students (aged 14-15) and a group of year 12 students (aged 16-17). With the older group I also asked if the book had encouraged them to experiment with "BDSM/fetish/kinky stuff" but talking with school staff it was decided not to ask that direct question to the year 10 groups. Below are some of the figures from my study, please note it is very small scale and may not reflect wider trends amongst young people. 


Year group Total students Number heard  % heard    Number
 read
   % read Number experimented % experiment
10
131
128
97.7%
11
8.4%
- -
12
205
188*
91.7%*
40
19.5%
4
2.0%

*It should be noted that with the year 12 group 16 people did not 
complete the survey fully so I suspect the % for those who have heard 
about 50 Shades of Grey to be higher, closer to the year 10 figure.


Looking at these figures I think it is clear that 50 Shades of Grey is impacting young people. Nearly every young person has heard about it. Whilst only 8.4% of students aged 14-15 have read it this figure rises to 19.5% of 16-17 year olds. With a film planned to come out in the future I believe awareness about this specific book (and other erotic novels) will increase. As knowledge and awareness increases of the books I believe it is reasonable too suggest that awareness and interest in all things BDSM/fetish/Kinky will increase. 

I think this means a number of things for Sex and Relationship Educators. Firstly we need to get ready to directly challenge some of the stereotyping found in erotic books. Now I know their is huge variation in the style of these books but some themes in relationships may be common. The line between romance novel and erotica is blurred and any form of popular media must be critically examined by consumers to make sure we recognise how it may misrepresent reality  I have worked with many young guys who seem surprised to find out women naturally have pubic hair, porn has taught them different. I wonder what will be the sex and relationship myths made popular in erotic novels. I think 50 shades has some specific issues, you can read about my views on them here

Secondly we need to prepared for questions based in the curiosity encouraged by these books. Just as mainstream visual porn prompts specific questions and ideas. These books will create their own specific questions and comments. Possibly questions about bondage, spanking and other kink activities. This could be a big problem if SRE workers do not equip themselves for this possibility. Equally this will mean making sure we know what is good health advice and not just knee jerk reactions. Along with the physical well-being of BDSM participants we will also need to equip young people with skills to safeguard their emotional health. For example how do you respond to a partner who wants to try spanking but you hate the idea?  If you feel completely out of depth in the area of fetish I would recommend Violet Blues book Fetish Sex as a relatively plain English exploration of some of the most common fetishes. Be careful where you get the book out with its racy cover :). To be honest I got an ebook version so I could read it on the bus. 

The work with the 16-17 year olds showed that 2% of the group admitted to being encouraged to experiment with kinky things because of these kind of books. Now these books are not the only thing encouraging kinky sex, our old friend visual porn is also encouraging this. It is not the role of SRE workers to make a judgement on someone choice to experiment, if the choose. But it is our job to make sure young people understand how to protect themselves from possible physical and emotional consequences from this form of sexual activity. 

I fear I may sound alarmist, I am not meaning to be. I just want to make sure that as a group of sexual health educators we are all ready to help equip young people with the skills and information to navigate this possible issue. I am already thinking my porn lessons needs to be rewritten, to make it explicitly clear that the sex you read about may also be as fake as the sex in most porn videos.