The headmaster of Downside School has spoken out against suggestions that pornography should be taught in schools.
Following comments by the broadcaster and journalist Dame Jenni Murray, in which she said teenagers should watch pornography together and analyse it as though it was a Jane Austen novel, Dr James Whitehead said that promoting pornography goes against the ethos of gender equality.
During an appearance at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, Murray suggested schools “put boys and girls together in a class and you show them a pornographic film and you analyse it in exactly the same way as you teach them to read all the other cultures around them”.
But in a blogpost for the Independent Schools Council, Dr Whitehead said Jane Austen would be “appalled”.
He wrote: “Obviously, the suggestion here is not that pornography should replace texts from the literary canon in English Literature classes, but that a new approach should be taken towards sex education, a position that is being advocated by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee. There is a general feeling that young people have lost their way in terms of having an unhealthy approach to sex based on distorted cyber-experience, one which reinforces gender inequality.
“However, young people watching porn in the presence of a teacher is highly problematic in many ways – not least for Safeguarding reasons – and it is a world away from analysing a conversation between Emma and Mr Knightley. Jane Austen, with her quiet endorsement of a Christian understanding of human relationships, would be appalled.”
Dr Whitehead went on to say that if we value human dignity, pornography is no service in achieving gender equality. He said: “Many schools in the United Kingdom were founded by Christian organisations; in fact, several thousand remain explicitly Anglican, Catholic or Methodist, and other denominations also run a number of schools. There are also other faith schools run by Jewish, Buddhist or Islamic foundations; many of these would find difficulty in justifying the study of pornography in school. Why? In short, because for the spiritually inclined, it is important that young people focus on the morality that should underpin human relationships, rather than begin to study a form of interaction that is essentially a negation of this.
“Catholic social teaching, for example, places great emphasis on the recognition of gender equality through respect for the individual dignity of every individual person. If we value human dignity as a means of achieving gender equality, this cannot be served through the study of pornography. As the Second Vatican Council put it, “A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the transcendent dignity of the human person”. Equality is lost when we forget the dignity of the other; the sacrament of marriage provides for sexual equality within a context of commitment before God. While religions may differ in how they express this, an emphasis on commitment and justice in human relationships is common to most.”
The headmaster also cautioned against patronising young people, saying “the vast majority want to live meaningful, positive lives and they do not need to analyse pornography to know that it is essentially demeaning both to watch it and to act it out.”
During her talk Jenni Murray, the Woman’s Hour presenter also called for some of the information in SRE to be moved to biology lessons.
She said: “I would put the ‘what goes where’ and how and how babies are made and all of that into biology because that is science. No parent is going to say ‘oh I don’t want my child getting involved in biology or science’, while an awful lot of parents might say, ‘I don’t want my child to have sex education’.”