Q&A: Paula Hall

Paula Hall is a former youth worker, who is now a therapist specialising in sex and pornography addictions and is widely recognised as the UK’s leading expert in the field. Paula has recently authored Confronting porn, a comprehensive guide for Christians struggling with porn and churches wanting to help them. She spoke to deputy editor Ruth Jackson about how we can help young people struggling in this area

RJ: Is pornography harmful?

PH: Potentially, of course. Nobody in their right mind would dispute that child pornography is harmful. Violent pornography, ditto; lots of research is now coming out concluding that watching violent pornography can be very closely correlated to violent sex crimes. So certain types of pornography – absolutely. The problem is the shades of grey. I think this is where people slip into pornography. So a loving partner wanting to look for extra tips to spice up the marital bed – is that ok? Maybe? It could be a young person who’s wanting to understand a little bit more about their body, wanting to know what’s normal but maybe what they see is a little bit graphic… is that pornographic?

RJ: How should youth workers deal with pornography?

PH: We need education, education, education. One of my worries is that the government thinks that putting filters in place is going to be sufficient. It’s not. Adolescents just need to find out the Dutch for breasts and they’ll get through those filters easily! Just Google how to do it and you’ll probably find a video of how to get around filters. Look at how we make sure that you have to be 18 to buy alcohol. Has it stopped under 18s drinking alcohol? No, of course it hasn’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t think filters are a good idea. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be taking those measures. But there has got to be education as well, and that education has got to be about being able to differentiate between what is the really harmful, serious stuff – the coercive stuff, the underage stuff – and being able to distinguish between what are unrealistic expectations, what’s entertainment, what’s normal (if there is any such thing as normal). It’s got to include education about the potential risk of addiction.

Sex addiction is a universal label for any kind of sexual behaviour that is used compulsively. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s watching porn, masturbation, visiting sex workers, multiple relationships, dating sites or hook up apps. The thing with addiction is it starts initially as a pursuit of pleasure, but over a while it becomes a way of escaping pain, and it tends to create even more of the problem than you’re trying to escape. So, the classic situation for a young person might be that they’re worried about exams and success at school, they may be feeling slightly socially excluded, a bit awkward, a typical teenager not really sure where they fit in, so they spend hours in their room looking at porn, which makes them feel even worse about themselves and socially isolates them even more. They’ve got low self-esteem – looking at those images is generally going to make you feel worse about your body and about yourself – so it tends to create the very thing that you’re escaping from. For some people in relationships, they might be using pornography as a way of going through a sexual dry spell and that may seem like an OK thing to do, but actually it creates more distance within the relationship and is more likely to extend the dry season.

The conversation about porn needs to come from as many different places as possible. Every young person is different

Sex addiction has nothing to do with sex: it’s all about addiction, it’s all about escape. It’s like saying: “food addiction is about hunger.” It’s not. The problem is you create a bigger, bigger, bigger appetite and it’s about using sex as a form of escape rather than using it for what it was created for.

RJ: How do we stop addiction before it gets to that stage?

PH: It’s got to be education: letting people know that it’s potentially a risk and what the signs are that they’re becoming dependent. It’s different talking to churched or unchurched young people, because there’s a different level of morality about it, but I think we need to ask: is it getting in the way of your studies? Are you spending more time online looking at porn than you intended to? Are you choosing to look at pornography rather than chat up somebody you really fancy? Do you find you use it a lot more when you’re tired, when you’re upset, when you’re hurt, when you’re moody? Are you using it for emotional medication? Do you find you end up having to sit at the screen for much longer than you used to? Do you find that you’re looking at more extreme material than you did before?

RJ: What are the main effects of porn on young people?

PH: It can lead to unrealistic expectations. It gives a singular sexual perspective; if you watch porn, you’re just seeing the highlights. So it’s telling you that sex is all highly erotic and all about the orgasm. Whereas, in actual fact, a lot of it is not like that. There are all the other aspects about human sexuality: comfort, closeness, intimacy and confidence in your own body. I believe we are all sexual beings whether we’re having sex or not; it’s part of our gender, it’s part of who we are. So it really narrows down what sex is.

RJ: Is it common for young people to stumble across porn accidentally?

PH: There was a report by a children’s commissioner recently which suggested that a lot of young people will stumble across porn - it’s amazing what innocent searches can bring up. Sometimes it can be because of cookies on the computer so actually someone else has been looking at porn and it pops up. But actually an awful lot of young people are seeing porn for the first time because someone else is showing them something. And what’s often misunderstood is that a lot of young people’s initial look at porn has got nothing to do with sexual arousal, or even sexual curiosity. Some of it just comes from the absolute ‘gross’ factor. Once upon a time it would be: “have you seen this dead bird?” So sometimes it’s not about arousal at all.

The problem is some people are more susceptible than others, such as if someone has got addiction in their family, or if they’re coming from a home where there’s a lot of violence, a lot of aggression or if there’s weird, mixed sexual messages surrounding them, they’re going to be far more vulnerable to this stuff. If they’ve already got low self-esteem they’re going to be more vulnerable.

RJ: How can we try and limit what our young people see?

PH: Use blockers, that’s really important. Over-blocking is also an issue as well. So, if you’ve got a young person who is worried about chlamydia and types ‘spotty penis’ into a search engine, they’re going to come across an awful lot of porn but actually it might be a genuine sexual health thing they’re concerned about. If somebody found they needed the morning after pill and they can’t because mum’s got the blockers on, it’s going to cause a lot of issues.

Porn can lead to unrealistic expectations. If you watch porn, you’re just seeing the highlights

The other problem is the dark web, and again, a lot of young people work out how to get onto the proxy servers and then not only are you going to get porn, you’re going to get far, far worse such as beheadings, it really is the dark web. So, there’s also a concern if you get too clever at blocking: are they going to start just digging deeper? The other problem is the number of young people who find getting round the blocker is half the buzz, particularly if you’ve got someone who’s really into technology.

RJ: If we’re not always going to be able to stop young people seeing this stuff, how do we help them deal with what they’re seeing?

PH: Education about the potential risks has got to be accompanied by good, positive sex and relationship education. I’m a real campaigner for statutory sex and relationship education. It needs to be age-appropriate, but I don’t think it can start too early or be done by too many people. I get the question: should it be parents, the youth worker or the school? The answer is all three! Kids listen to different people at different times, and they’ll deliver it in slightly different ways.

There’s got to be help for those where it does become an issue. So we have to help young people recognise when their porn use is a problem. One of my concerns is if we are a society or even a church which says: “all porn is wrong – you will die”, actually a vast amount of young people are just going to stop listening to us. If we’re looking at going to unchurched young people, that message is not going to be helpful. It’s got to be: “how do you know if your porn use is becoming a problem for you? What are some of the things that you might recognise? What might you do to begin to change some of your habits?”

RJ: What about the kids who have no idea that porn is a problem?

PH: You can’t help them unless you have the conversation, so, again I think as churches and as a society we need to create more opportunities to talk. There needs to be more places where you can talk about it. There was quite a debate on whether my new book would have the word ‘porn’ in the title, or whether that would stop Christian magazines, churches, schools, bookstalls or whatever from wanting to put it out. We ended up putting ‘porn’ on it – how are people going to find the help they need if it doesn’t? We’ve got to start talking about it!

RJ: Is youth work the right setting for these conversations?

PH: Yes, absolutely. We need some meeting guides in this magazine on this issue! Naked Truth do some resources but we need more materials and resources developed so that youth workers have got the tools they need to talk about this.

RJ: What can parents do?

PH: Have the conversations, be open to the conversations, make sure that you don’t have the conversation once and leave it at that. You’ve got to be available for doing it all the time. And you have to be wise, you have to assume that young people lie to their parents, or they deceive, they minimise…

RJ: Do you think there’s one person in particular that young people are more likely to listen to?

PH: It really varies. I think the message needs to come from as many different places as possible. Every young person is different. Some people are going to learn more by sitting and watching a video about it in a big setting, others are going to be more open one to one, some will find it easier to speak to an older teen, someone else would rather have someone like their mum. We can’t be too prescriptive.

To get a copy of Paula’s book Confronting porn and to find out more about Naked Truth’s resources for young people, youth leaders and parents, visit thenakedtruthproject.com

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