Brook, the young people’s sexual health charity, is worried by the government’s proposal to filter online pornography. Writing for PinkNews.co.uk, its chief executive, Simon Blake, explains why ministers should focus instead on providing LGBT inclusive sex education. 

There is a lot of policy and media concern about young people accessing pornography and the potential for it to cause harm, including sexual violence.

A recent report by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner was called “Basically… porn is everywhere”. Without getting bogged down in the techie arguments currently raging about whether or not filtering software will prevent young people from seeing pornography, the fact is that porn is more easily available.

We know, of course, that for some gay boys and girls their Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is woefully inadequate. As a result pornography may be, for some, one of the first places they see their sexuality represented positively or that they learn about same-sex relationships.

This is clearly not good enough, and has to change. Whatever your views on pornography, most sensible adults would agree that pornography is not the best place to learn about relationships, sex and sexuality.

Better SRE is an important part of the answer. Young people tell us that internet filters may work up to a point, but there are problems. In their view, it is more important to provide SRE that is inclusive of all sexualities and genders, teaches critical media literacy, and provides a safe space to ask questions and get advice about things they are concerned about. Young people tell us time and again the SRE they’re getting in schools is simply not good enough, and that they deserve better. This is often particularly true for young people who attend our LGBT youth groups who have often felt SRE at best ignores them and at worst is prejudiced.

So should we really be concerned about pornography? It is clear from the young people visiting our services that more and more are seeing pornography. But most can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. And if we were to say, “we need to improve the online safety of children and young people”, would anyone argue the reverse?

When it comes to the proposal for internet safety filters to be activated as a default, there are many people who think this is sensible, reasonable and proportionate. One person’s perfectly reasonable suggestion – say, that “adult” material should be filtered out by internet service providers – is another person’s creeping censorship.

I reserve judgement at this stage. The devil is in the detail. But I am concerned.

Brook is all too often accustomed to our online content running afoul of crude filtering software. One Wi-Fi provider blocked our website because it was listed under “sex education”. I am worried about those young people whose access to sex and relationships advice could be inadvertently blocked by these filters. Despite reassurance from the Prime Minister that there will be a ‘white list’ of sites to prevent this happening, we and our colleagues at online charity YouthNet are mindful that this will be tricky to get right, and of the devastating effects of getting it wrong.

Last week I appeared on Newsnight as part of a panel discussing the effects of easily available porn. One of the other people on the show, Tom, talked about how finding gay porn online “was something of a comfort” for him. As a young gay man who had been brought up in a place where sexuality wasn’t discussed it helped him realise he wasn’t “some sort of a freak”.

I don’t want young people learning about sex from pornography because their education system failed them. If they choose to watch it I hope they are clear about fact and fiction. My worry, however, is for the thousands of ‘Toms’ whose access to information about sex and sexuality might be restricted in future.

We need to involve young people in this debate; we need to listen to their voices – especially the voices of LGBT young people who could be disproportionately affected by relevant and useful information being restricted if we get this wrong.

All young people, whatever their sexuality, deserve much better.

Simon Blake OBE is the chief executive of Brook, the young people’s sexual health charity, www.brook.org.uk