Gerry: Hello, and welcome to Brining Design Closer. My name is Gerry Scullion and I’m a service design practitioner based in Dublin City, Ireland. Today, I caught up with Kate Dawson, a doctoral researcher from the NUI school of psychology in Galway Ireland. Now, I actually stumbled across Kate’s work on This Morning, the UK TV show with Eamon Holmes and Ruth Langford. In that episode, Kate was speaking about how we should maybe consider teaching about masturbation and porn as part of more open discussions around sex education and our bodies with children in school.
Some of which sparked huge debate online. Now, Kate’s focus over the last number of years has been on the use of porn and sex education, particularly amongst young people. Within lies a whole host of societal problems. The proliferation of access to the internet and indirectly to porn has opened up some new challenges for designers to become aware of. How has this impacted how people communicate within relationships?
How has this affected and contributed to body dysmorphia? How has this affected consent are all discussed in this episode. We speak more openly about what needs to change in educational schools systems, but also how we as adults and parents communicate about these topics related to our bodies and our children’s bodies as they grow. We speak openly about these topics and it makes for a fantastic conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed it, let’s get into it. Kate Dawson, a very warm welcome to Bringing Design Closer. How are you?
Kate: Thank you for having me, I’m very good, thank you.
Gerry: I’m delighted to finally speak with you. We’ve tried once before and I had to cancel at the last-minute, but we’re here now, which is the main thing. You’re not a designer but you’re a designer in some other ways. Tell me how you describe what you do for our listeners?
Kate: Okay. The main things I do is, I suppose I wear two hats, I work in sex education, so I develop and deliver different workshops around sexual health. General sexual health programs around puberty, reproduction, contraception, and STIs. Then more specific ones around pornography, body image, and consent. What Is spend most of my time doing is researching porn, and I am just about to finish my PhD in the school of psychology at NUI Galway. Basically, what I’m looking at is what are young people’s experiences of watching porn, and how can we better educate them about porn, so that they don’t have to take it as a given, the content that they’re watching and have these expectations about what sex will be like.
Gerry: Yes, nice. I stumbled upon your work actually through This Morning in the UK, like the TV show that’s on in the morning. The topic that was discussed that day, and I know we discussed it before, it was probably a little bit of click-bait, but it’s: Should we be teaching children about masturbation and pornography in school? Tell me where that originated, that topic?
Kate: Where that started off was from my experience of going to trainings and learning about how to deliver sex education programs. A lot of the content that I was being exposed to was that we’d talk to young boys a lot about masturbating and that it’s a normal thing, but then when it comes to young girls, we don’t really talk about it at all. I think from my experience of working with teenagers over the last few years, it’s become really apparent that a lot of boys are very comfortable talking about masturbation and a lot of boys do masturbate, but then girls are extremely ashamed of their bodies and feel really embarrassed about their genitals.
I recently actually spoke to a young girl, she was about 16 years old, and she just didn’t know if she had a vaginal opening or not, because she’d actually never looked at her own vagina. Whereas, this is something that should be just a normal part of your body that everybody is comfortable with, but unfortunately, it’s not. We’re meeting a lot of young people who are actually having really uncomfortable and really unpleasurable first-time sexual experiences because they haven’t explored their bodies themselves and they don’t know how to communicate with their partner.
Actually, that’s hurting me. I think that’s especially the case for young heterosexual couples. For guys, they don’t know what it’s like to have a vagina and a vulva. For girls, they don’t know what it’s like to have a penis. The guy sometimes then can end up really hurting the girls, not meaning to, but then the girls don’t know how to communicate, actually, this is hurting me. I think this is why I became interested in it in the first place. Supporting people in having enjoyable experiences.
We all know that sex can be bad, you know, it can be really boring, it can be awkward. Sometimes you probably would have preferred to just sit down and have a cup of tea instead. You don’t want it to be bad all of the time. I think we have this idea that when we see sex in movies and we see sex in porn, we get this idea that sex should be this great thing. That anything from fingering, or hand jobs, or all of these things, they should always feel good. Then when they don’t, people feel really ashamed and really embarrassed. I want to be able to facilitate conversations with young people, so that they can actually figure out what they like and then have healthy and enjoyable relationships.
Gerry: Yes, there’s so much to discuss on what you’ve just said there. There’s a bit about consent there, that I’m going to come back to in a little bit, but what do you think is driving, you said there before, about the girl who didn’t really understand about her vagina, what do you think are the contributing factors to the lack of liberation?
Kate: I think it’s probably a combination of factors. A societal one, where on one hand, you’d hope parents would talk to their kids about their bodies. This is the vulva, and this is the penis and use the correct terms and stuff like that. A lot of the time, parents in Ireland, anyway, will have grown up in households where there was absolutely no discussion of sex whatsoever. Now, we’re expecting parents to have these very open conversations with their kids when they don’t have the language to discuss it and the confidence. I think on one hand, parents aren’t being supported in having these conversations, they’re not given practical information on how to start them.
Then sometimes people say the wrong thing in sex education, as well. I suppose it starts off from a really young age. Like, if a child may be putting their hands down their trousers in the sitting room or in the kitchen and then having their hand smacked away, like, that’s dirty. It’s little things that you actually might not think make a big difference, but these small things can contribute to an understanding from an early age that, okay, I don’t touch that part of my body, I don’t talk about it because it’s dirty or it’s embarrassing or it’s shameful. I think that there are a lot of things that contribute to that.
Then from where I come from, researching porn and stuff, we often get this very standardised look of what a body looks like. So, what a penis looks like, men in the porn industry have, on average, quite large penises. I think you need to be over seven and a half inches to actually get a job in the porn industry for a lot of places. That’s like two and a half inches larger than the average Irish male penis, for example.
Gerry: We’re going to edit that bit out there, obviously, I got about and say we’re much bigger than that.
Kate: You do what you need to do. For women, as well, you get this idea that labia and vulvas are all very symmetrical and small and then you don’t ever see someone who has longer clitorises or uneven labia. It’s a lot of white bodies, as well. There’s not a lot of variation. Then no one’s being told that there is a lot of variety.
Gerry: I guess it’s like there’s lots of stuff, I know people listening will probably say, how does this link into design? Why are we talking about this kind of stuff? Well, the presentation of this kind of topic is really important because how we educate now is going to impact us in the future. The proliferation of porn is changing our minds and it’s rewiring certain parts of our modelling for the future. I guess I want to discuss a little bit more about how you feel the role of education in Ireland in particular, like, I’ll give you an example. I was schooled mainly in the 80s, my mental modelling was created in the 80s in the catholic schools.
It was like, lads, today, we’re not going to be studying Irish and maths, Mr. Murphy and Mrs. Murphy are going to come in, and then they wheel in the VHS, the video-player, and the TV and they put a video in. Then they leave the room. Then we all went home in shock. We sat there and looked at the TV and then went back the next day and we asked questions. That was it, done. How do you think education is going to tackle this? What should they be doing?
Kate: I think we need to adopt a model that we see in the Netherlands. They start their sex education at a really young age.
Gerry: How young?
Kate: Like, in primary school. At a really young age, talking about your body and bodily autonomy and being safe. In fairness, we do that in Ireland, as well, there’s the Stay Safe program, so it’s talking about protecting children from being exploited and using the correct words for different parts of the body and that kind of thing. Nobody has a right to touch you in these intimate places. Likewise, you don’t have the right to touch anybody there, as well. I think from a really young age; we need to start normalising these conversations and talking about the basics on puberty and reproduction.
I think often times when I say, okay, we need to start talking about sex at a really young age, even in primary school. People go, “Jesus”, and get really shocked by that. I’m not talking about it in the same context as you would a 14/15/16-year-old. Giving little bits of information regularly. Small or short conversations happening often is more effective than sitting somebody down when they’re just about to go through puberty or have gone through puberty and saying, “We’re going to have the talk now.” Sex education needs to be structured in such a way that people are prepared for each of the conversations that you’re going to have.
You would never start off talking about pornography, for example, because you need a deeper understanding of all the different aspects to do with sexual health before you go into talking about something like porn. You can start off talking about consent from a very young age, about body image. About what normal bodies do, from a really young age, then you would develop the content to make sure that it’s age and stage appropriate as they get older. We do use lots of different activities to gauge where young people are at.
Say, we use a language of sex exercise at the beginning of our sexual heathy workshops, then because it can vary so much, because the level of knowledge can vary so much from classroom to classroom, doing these exercises and getting people to write down, like, all the words that they can think of for penis or for vagina or for breast. It gives you an understanding of what is the language that they’re using.
It also lets them have a bit of laugh because they’ve never been allowed to write willy or dick down on a piece of paper before and they think it’s hilarious. I think that incorporating humour is the best way to talk about these topics. At least if you can laugh about it, you can feel a bit uncomfortable, but you can still laugh. I think that’s really helpful.
Gerry: Yes, it breaks the taboo a little bit.
Kate: Yes, absolutely.
Gerry: Kate, what happens if we don’t change how we speak about this in schools and at home, what are the impacts?
Kate: It’s difficult to say because there are a lot of conflicting findings in the research about if people are learning about sex from porn, what exactly that means for them. I think they’ll continue to be a lot of disappointment when it comes to first-time sexual experiences, that people will expect something bigger and brighter and then they’ll feel bad about themselves and feel really uncertain about what they’ve done or what to do. I think people will also have uncomfortable and painful sexual experiences, as well. Like, the fingering thing, where girls are being really hurt and they can’t communicate that. People might be more likely to do things because they feel that they should.
This isn’t specific to if people don’t learn about porn, this is about is people that don’t have access to good-quality sex education. Good-quality sex education about bad sex I think is really important. We’ve all had bad sex education. You’re sharing your story there. We got a boob talk. Someone came in and told us that all of our breasts were different, then that was it. We were all just sitting in this big video room, going, right, thank you. Okay.
Gerry: Look out the side of your eye at someone else’s boobs and you’re going, “They are a little bit different to mine, I suppose.”
Kate: I wish I had her boobs. We also had someone come in telling us about the HIV virus and that it can breakthrough condoms because it was so powerful. We’re growing up having so many bad experiences of sex-ed. People often talk about having bad sex education, but no one’s actually taught us about the realities that sex can be bad, and that sex can be boring and embarrassing, and that that’s all normal. We know that people have disappointing first-time experiences because they’re putting themselves under a lot of pressure to perform. Then they expect something that doesn’t happen.
We know that people feel really unprepared when it comes to first-time sex, that they feel under pressure. I think there’s always been peer-pressure there to have sex. People have always asked, even when I was younger, how far have you gone, or what have you done? That pressure has always been there, and that curiosity, but now it’s almost like it’s constantly being reinforced because our society has become so much more sexualised.
Not just even in the context of porn, but billboards that we see. People have a lot more exposure to sexualised content. When you’re looking at porn and stuff, you’re getting this idea that, okay, maybe this is what good sex should be like. I’ve spoken to a lot of people that have said, “No, I’ve actively looked at porn to try to learn about how to give somebody a blowjob, because if they’re doing it professionally, that’s obviously their job. They’re probably really good at it.” Then they’re not given the skills to actually critically engage with that and taught to think about how their behaviour might affect somebody else.
I think what was really interesting that came out of our research was that people have very different opinions on the same topics. Say, for example, going back to the squirting thing, god, you’d say I rely on squirting all the time. That some people would say that porn is really bad because people are seeing squirting and then this is a really unrealistic behaviour. That most people will never squirt. Then for this tiny percentage of women who do squirt when they’re having sex, a lot of those people would say, thank god, I’ve seen it in porn, so I know that it’s a normal thing, but it’s the same around people using porn to learn about how to talk dirty.
They go, okay, I get this language and now I can know how to talk with my partner, but then it’s important for them to understand that some people would find that language really derogatory, or speaking to a lot of LGBT people about how they’re represented in porn, a lot of heterosexual people would say, porn has become really inclusive, now there’s all of these different categories and there are lots of gay and lesbian and bi porn, but then a lot of young LGBT people will say, actually, it only gives you a very limited insight into what it’s like to be a young LGBT person. I think exploring these different perspectives is really important to what we’re going to do to make change.
Gerry: Yes. Now, before I spoken to Dr. John Curran, he was also on the podcast, as well, about the normalisation of porn. Dr. John, I call him John actually, he made a really good point about gambling is addictive, you need to be over 18 to gamble. Porn is addictive as well. I’m not too sure what the legal age, it might be sixteen, technically to access porn. We know that it’s accessible to anyone who’s got access to an internet connection. With the normalisation of porn, do you feel that in the future that there might be a chance, that say, if it’s so normalised, we could see YouPorn or Red Tube or any of these porn sites sponsoring a football team?
Kate: Just going back to the thing about being addictive and then I’ll get onto the football team thing. A lot of the research actually shows that the way that people’s brains respond to alcohol or drugs if they’re addicted to alcohol and drugs, the pathways that light up in the brain, that does not necessarily happen for people who watch porn. Absolutely, people can feel like they’re addicted to porn and they can say that they’re addicted to porn.
We actually don’t know enough about whether or not porn can be classified as an actual addiction yet. Certainly, we can’t disregard the fact that some people do feel like they’re addicted. That’s important that they have support, as well. For the football clubs and normalising everything, I was thinking about this earlier on.
Gerry: I know, it’s an unusual question. It’s an unusual way of framing it.
Kate: No, it’s interesting. Do you know what? There was a team from Kent University back in 2014 called the Rutherford Raiders. They actually put the Pornhub logo on their football jersey as a joke. Then Pornhub saw this and then they offered to fund their club. Then the university said no, you can’t compete in the university games and stuff if you have this on your jerseys and things. I was thinking, maybe it’s because this isn’t going to be allowed because they’re over 18. Porn is for people who his over 18. At the same time, so it alcohol and most matches and stuff are supported by Heineken or Guinness.
There’ll be a little logo at the bottom of the screen a lot of the time. I think it’s different. I think why it’s different for porn as opposed to alcohol advertising is that porn is such a private behaviour. People watch porn in private. Whereas, alcohol is a lot more accepted in that it’s such a part of socialising and that kind of thing. I don’t know if we’ll ever to the stage where porn is accepted by everyone in the same way that alcohol is. There are so many different opinions about it. Like, some people really hate it. Some people really love it. Then the people who really love it aren’t really the people speaking out about it.
Gerry: I’m just picturing Dr. John as an 80-year-old. The family come over, “Don’t mind me, I’m just pausing it. I’m just watching some porn.”
Kate: What are you watching?
Gerry: Yes, sorry, John, it is your question about the normalisation of porn. Look, there’s so much to talk about in this topic. I’ve done quite a bit of research into the area. Where do you feel the restrictions, where do you think are the hang-ups and the hold-backs are in making this type of thinking more acceptable?
Kate: I think the main source of information that people get about porn is from the media, it’s from newspapers or articles online or that kind of thing. A lot of the time, those articles will draw on really sensationalist research findings. They’ll often misconstrue some of the research, as well. That’s happened to me with some of my studies. Then if you’re constantly getting this idea, as your only source of information about porn is that porn is bad, and that parents need to do everything to block access to porn and porn is addictive and it’ll make people become sexually violent and it will make people feel bad about their bodies, give them skewed ideas about what it is to be a human being. Then it’s never going to be something that we try to talk about it in a way that it can become normalised because we’re not allowing ourselves to want that to happen, do you know what I mean?
Gerry: Yes, just touching on that subject and building on it probably a little bit more, around porn, what do you feel is the relationship between porn and societal beliefs surrounding the treatment of women? Is there a contributing factor there towards the proliferation and the normalisation of access to porn, and the shift in liberation and how we speak and treat women?
Kate: There are so many mixed findings on this topic. Some saying that it contributes to reinforcing these traditional views about men and women, that men need to be dominant and women need to be submissive and passive. Then others have found that porn users generally have more egalitarian views towards women than non-viewers. Then, obviously, there are parts of the industry that treat people really badly, but then there are other parts that performers have a really good and positive experiences.
There’s no doubt that porn portrays people in a certain way, like only as sexual beings with no personalities and no other interests. That’s what it’s designed to do. People watch it to masturbate. We don’t hold any other media source to these standards of having to portray the best examples of human behaviour, what it is to be a wonderful person, because people don’t learn how to live their lives based off TV shows or movies. You don’t watch Fast and the Furious to learn how to drive, because you see people driving all the time, so you have a point of reference for what it’s actually like to drive.
You watch Fast and the Furious and then you go, yes, they’re doing all of this exciting stuff, but I know the reality is that you’d be stuck in traffic and you’d stall your car every now and again. It’s a problem with regards to porn in that it’s a problem when one media source becomes a person’s only source of information. Unfortunately, that is what’s happening with porn. That it’s their only point of reference for sex. Then that’s not good enough.
It depends on a person’s motivating factors for watching porn, again, are they actually watching porn to learn about how to behave and how to treat women, or are they just watching it almost as a passive behaviour, as an aid to masturbation but nothing more. It really depends on how evolved you are and what you’re actually seeking to get from watching it.
Gerry: Yes, just to build on that again, so we can’t really tackle the treatment of women in question, but how has porn contributed to consent?
Kate: The main issue is that we don’t see any communication of consent anymore because it’s scripted. The actors, they consent to doing each scene beforehand, and then they actually have to sign-off on it afterwards. Then even if there was talking or a lot of communication about, okay, you turn around now and do this, we don’t get to see that because it’s edited out. People are always really surprised when we tell them that it takes about eight hours to film a 15 – 20-minute scene. You’re only seeing the highlights.
Now, if you’re watching porn to learn about sex, what sex should be like, then that might be a big issue because it’s more about if you’re not learning about consent in other ways. If you’re not learning about as part of your sex education programs and you’re only learning about consent and sexual communication from porn, because there is no communication. It’s more about how we can support people on a societal level and how our institutions can actually support teachers and parents and stuff and having conversations about consent.
It’s not just the fault of porn. I think that this sometimes happens in the discussion around porn, is that, porn isn’t doing all of these things, but then it isn’t talking about consent. We don’t get to see consent. We don’t get to see a variety in bodies. Then that really is the job for sex education. They can give people the skills to recognise that, okay, yes, we don’t see that in porn but that’s not how I should behave.
Gerry: I guess we’re coming toward the end of the conversation, but if we were to say the things that we need to get better at is speaking more openly about and the naming of body parts with children who are younger, how young would you recommend?
Kate: Honestly, when I have kids, which I plan on having kids maybe over the next couple of years, I will from the moment I start talking to them. I will say, that these are the different parts of the body. I don’t have to necessarily say what they do, but you can say, these are your fingers, and these are your toes, that’s your vulva, and that’s your penis. That’s what it should be. It’s just a part of the body, but we associate so much more with that that I think people get a bit freaked out.
Gerry: It’s the stigma.
Kate: It’s the stigma. Yes. I’ve met so many young women who are confused when I say vulva. They’re like, what is that? It’s ridiculous that people don’t know what a vulva is. I don’t know how we’ve gotten to this stage, it’s really sad. If we can involve all of the stakeholders, so involving kids in the development of programs, involving parents, and involving teachers. It’s not good enough for an outside, like me, to say, okay, we need to talk about porn, if people aren’t actually supported in having these conversations. We need to talk to all of these people to figure out what will work for them.
Gerry: Yes, a huge amount of education of a child happens at home. Looking at Ireland is a good example, where I’m based, I’m based in Dublin, you’re based in Galway, we obviously have a lot of lingering cultural issues, lingering from the catholic church. I, myself, I probably don’t have the tooling to do this. What resources would you recommend for parents to look at?
Kate: We have developed a website. We’re still expanding the content and we have a website called Wiser, so: www.bewiser.ie. It’s a sexual health website, but there’s a section for parents that will talk to you about the stage that your kids are at. What level of detail that they need at different ages, then, obviously, it’s up to the discretion of the parent, as well, they don’t need to do exactly what we say? We have a section as well on young people and teenagers’ frequently asked questions about sex. Then we give examples of how they can answer those questions in an age-appropriate way. We’re constantly building upon that. If anybody wanted to send us an email, you can send me an email or reach out.
Kate: Yes, so my ideas about how to approach these different topics. Absolutely feel free to do that. There’s a good, when it comes to porn, there’s a good resource called: The porn conversation. That’s for parents, as well, on basically, what do you say when you kids asked what porn is, and then what do you tell them about it? That’s for different age groups, as well, so nine to eleven-year olds, up to fifteen-year olds. That kind of thing. Be Wiser. Scarlet Teen is an amazing sexual health resource for young people and for parents. It’s like the bible for sex education. There is just so much information there if people want to access that, as well.
Gerry: I’ll put those links in the show notes for the podcast, as well. Kate, look, it’s been fascinating to speak with you. I think it’s a really interesting case study for design because there’s a problem there, like there’s a design problem. You don’t classify yourself as a designer, but you’ve tackled this very much from a human-centred design perspective. I know a lot of the listeners will enjoy listening to you. Thanks so much for your time.
Kate: Not at all. It was lovely speaking to you.
Gerry: There you have it. Thanks for listening to Bringing Design Closer. If you want to learn more about the other shows on the This is HCD Network, feel free to visit: ThisisHCD.com, where you can also sign up to our newsletter or join our Slack channel, where you can connect to other human-centred design practitioners around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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