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In a world where pornography, sexting and explicit imagery are rife, Burnet Institute researchers are breaking down myths and correcting misconceptions around sex for young people.

Thanks to funding provided by the eSafety Commissioner's Online Safety Grants Program, and partnering with the Centre for Excellence in Rural Sexual Health, Burnet is running a pilot program called The Gist which aims to help young people and adolescents navigate sex and relationships in a safe and respectful way. 

The program includes a website, educational videos and in-person education sessions in alternative schools and youth services across Victoria.

The program’s lead researcher Associate Professor Megan Lim said The Gist was providing a safe space for young people to learn about sex and relationships and help them separate pornography from real life.

“We know that pornography is seen by almost every young person, usually from a young age,” she said.

“Most young people have unintentionally seen porn from the age of 11, and have sought it out intentionally from the age of 13, long before they have engaged in a sexual relationship.

“There is a growing body of evidence showing that pornography is associated with a range of harms including mental and sexual health problems.”

The program is targeted at marginalised young people who have additional needs, are sexuality or gender diverse and who may not have had adequate sex education. 

“Pornography and lack of sex education is a massive problem, particularly in remote areas,” Associate Professor Lim said.

“Through our research we’ve found that young people have good factual knowledge about sex and are taught what not to do, such as avoiding unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but they aren’t taught about what good, positive, pleasurable and consensual sexual relationships look like.”

Associate Professor Lim is now looking for funding to expand the program beyond the pilot.

“We have identified some things we want to change and areas for improvements to make the program more accessible,” she said. 

“When it comes to pornography and young people, the argument is usually that we need greater education but there isn’t any clear evidence about whether pornography education actually works.

“We want to do more research into this area so we can find out what young people need, what they relate to, what they find interesting and what is most engaging for them, in order to improve young people’s sexual health and wellbeing.”

“We hope this will close the gap and provide evidence about what is successful so we can find the best way to help young people navigate sex and relationships safely and respectfully in the context of universally accessible pornography.”