Sex & Relationships

Why Isn’t Pornography Part Of Sex Education For Teens?

"Educating students about pornography can give them the tools to watch it thoughtfully, conscientiously, and with an awareness of its flaws."

Photo Credit: Patrick Foto/Shutterstock

A few months ago, writer and mother Ayelet Waldman tweeted her praise for Peggy Orenstein’s recently released book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. Then she asked her followers: “What are some non-misogynist porn sites to recommend to teens?”

I tweeted at Waldman with a few suggestions: Erika Lust, Tristan Taormino, and Stoya, women who have been labeled as feminist, queer, or “ethical” pornographers. I discovered these erotic filmmakers after years of trying to find porn I liked. As a feminist, an occasional though not avid porn consumer, and someone who can’t get off unless she knows her porn is ethically created (I’ve always been bad at cognitive dissonance), I’ve spent a lot of hours roaming the internet just trying to find a few minutes of footage to enjoy.

But I was also curious about Waldman’s plans—what was she hoping to gain by introducing porn to her teenage daughter? “If kids are going to be looking at porn anyway,” she told me when we spoke on the phone, “it would be good to know that there’s porn that isn’t just not sexist—I think that’s partly the issue—but that is not replete with destructive misinformation and misconceptions that current pornography [reinforces].”

It’s true that teens are going to be looking at porn anyway. Kids arestumbling upon it earlier and earlier—as young as six or seven,reports the New York Times. Internet porn wasn’t quite so easily accessible when I was that age, but my introduction to porn still came from online ads that popped up faster than you could “x” out of them. I wish I had been armed with some knowledge, any knowledge, because that was my first introduction to sex—and I saw it through my fingers, because although I didn’t understand what I was seeing I understood that I was supposed to be ashamed.

Today, this kind of online porn encounter is a virtual inevitability. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we be making sure our young people have access to the most feminist porn we can provide, and the ability to critique and contextualize what they’re seeing?

***

I also read Orenstein’s Girls & Sex, though not from a parent’sperspective. I read it as a white intersectional feminist who’s been interested in human sexuality from a young age but who wasn’t given even the most basic talk about the birds and the bees. I came away from the book with the conviction that there’s no reason to withhold age-appropriate information about porn in sexual education programs.

In fact, educating students about pornography can give them the tools to watch it thoughtfully, conscientiously, and with an awareness of its flaws. When young people encounter porn (which they almost certainly will) without any educational context, it can distort their ideas about sex and relationships. Why not teach students to think critically about porn the way we teach them to think critically about literature?

Outside the U.S., this is not a remarkably controversial idea. Denmark has had compulsory sex education in schools since 1970, and Christian Graugaard, a sexology professor from Aalborg University, told the Danish public broadcaster DR that pornography should be shown in classrooms of students aged 13 and above, because young people need to “develop a critical approach to what they are seeing” and learn to differentiate between “pornography and the reality of sexual relationships.” Teachers and students in Denmark responded positively to the suggestion, though it is still controversial in the U.K. and would, we can assume, also be railed against in the U.S.

Marie Crabbe and David Corlett lead Australia’s Reality and Risk, a community-based project that, according to its website, “supports young people, parents, schools, government and the community sector to understand and address the influence of pornography.” They aim to promote—you guessed it—critical thinking among young people about porn and the messages it conveys.

“As a result of modern technologies and the loudness of the porn voice,” they write in “Eroticising Inequality: Technology, Pornography and Young People,” “young people today face unique challenges as they negotiate their sexual identities…We need to find ways to equip and to encourage young people to critique [what] they see in porn.”  

But it’s not only about being able to critique the imagery, they say; “It’s is also about having frameworks with which to understand these images.” Young people should be taught how to think better about gender, power, and consent. If we give them that, then we can give them an “erotic cultural sensibility to allow diversity and individual taste.” What we eroticize can “promote equality, tenderness, communication, consent, and mutuality.”

One of the filmmakers I suggested to Waldman was Erika Lust, a Swedish-born feminist erotic filmmaker whose company, Lust Cinema, is based out of Spain. When I asked her how she felt about my recommending her work to a teenaged girl, she responded: “I am glad that my work is appreciated and seen this way. From the very beginning of making erotic films, my goal was to create something different, where both women and men have sex in an equal, pleasurable way!”

Lust feels strongly about porn being included in sex education. “There needs to be a public debate and we need to educate young people so that they can become critical viewers of porn,” she told me. “People have to start talking to their kids about porn just as we would talk about not eating junk food or abusing alcohol or smoking. Today, it is not enough to have just the sex talk, we need to include the porn talk.”

“Young people deserve to see better porn,” Lust said. “Don’t get me wrong, the porn can be ‘dirty,’ but the values have to be clean.”

***

Based on the current sorry state of our country’s sex education, we won’t see Critical Frameworks For Pornography 101 in classrooms any time soon. Only 24 states mandate sex ed of any kind for students in grades 7–12.

Even the pro-comprehensive sex ed Future of Sex EducationInitiative says nothing about pornography in its 44-page education standards. The National Guidelines Task Force’s Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education refers to porn twice in its 112 pages, but both instances frame porn as being exploitative or used in abusive ways:

  1. Sexual abuse not involving touch can include being shown pornographic movies, magazines, websites, or other materials; taking photos, videos, or other recordings; or watching sexual acts.
  2. Child pornography is illegal.

Obviously important information, but is it enough? “Child pornography is illegal” is hardly straightforward for students at this age; those laws can mean that if a teenager sexts their SO a naughty picture, both they and the recipient could potentially spend a lifetime on the sex offender registry. Pornography laws have direct effects on teenagers, and pornography has a direct effect on their ideas about relationships and sex, and yet we’re still afraid to mention porn in the classroom.

If we say nothing while kids accidentally view or actively seek out pornography, then they’re going to take porn at face value. Porn will become—is becoming—sex ed, but it isn’t representative of real-life sex or relationships. If we don’t make that clear to students, and supplement their porn exposure with comprehensive education, we’re doing a grave disservice to the health, safety, and well-being of our next generation.

***

With school systems refusing to step up, though, American teens may have to take matters into their own hands. Artist and DIY pornographer Madison Young recently released DIY Porn Handbook: A How-To Guide to Documenting Our Own Sexual Revolution. While the book is literally a how-to guide to creating the porn you want to see, Young stresses the importance and larger impact of this kind of porn, the kind that can educate and titillate.

“I don’t think that pornography’s sole purpose should be to educate our society,” she writes. “If we can shift the imagery and portrayal of sexual expression, exploration, and communication, then we can create space to lead our culture into a healthier…view of our bodies, of pleasure and of relationships with ourselves and others.” DIY and queer/feminist porn documents a different sexual culture where the goal is to “transform how someone might feel about desire, feminism, sexual identity, and more.”

This attitude is especially helpful for non-heterosexual students, who are unlikely to see their sexuality reflected in sex education at school. After all, we’re still trying to convince teenagers that sex is for reproduction only. So what’s a queer kid to do? Not only is their sexuality being rendered invisible due to this heteronormativity, but the multitude of ways anyone (queer or not) can have sex and find pleasure is being disregarded as well. For these students, reconnecting with porn can be an affirming experience, not just an educational one.

If teens are going to see porn anyway (and should they make the decision to not hide behind their fingers like I did), it should be porn that models, in Young’s words, “sexual negotiation and expression of our sexual desires.” And if it isn’t, well, at least we’ve (hopefully) already told them that porn doesn’t reflect real life.

As for Ayelet Waldman, did she end up sharing that non-misogynist porn with her daughter, who I later learned is 15 years old? “No,” she said. “I chickened out. It’s hard, you know? It’s one thing to have these conversations and another to say, ‘hey, check out this porn with mommy.’ But I did ask her if she wanted me to buy her a vibrator.” And that’s a start.

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