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Pornography 101: Why College Kids Need Porn Literacy Training

Mobile technology and abstinence-only guarantee that more young people get their sex ed from pornography. It's time to talk to them about what they're watching.
 
 
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I am a professor. As I return to the classroom this fall, my thoughts turn to porn. More specifically, to the fact that in apartments, dorms -- and from the back of some WiFi-ed classrooms -- college students are cruising the Internet with the left-handed mouse.

This should come as no surprise. We live in a world filled with sexual imagery: There's Miley Cyrus' advanced-beginner pole dance at the Kids' Choice Awards last year; a breathless homoerotic shower scene in the HBO vampire series, "True Blood," and commercial advertising (like this from Axe) that takes double entendre to a new level. Pornography itself is a ubiquitous and easily accessed part of our media landscape. And with many schools lacking comprehensive sex education, many young adults are now getting information about sex from sites like youporn and redtube.

The use of Internet porn hardly represents the first time people learned about sex from pictures. Playboy launched its first issue in 1953 and Penthouse has been around since 1969. The Joy of Sex became a best-selling book when it first hit the shelves in 1972, in no small measure for its how-to illustrations. But access to high-speed, live-action visuals ups the ante. With laptops overtaking sales of desktop computers and the proliferation of smart phones, sexual gratification and research is available to many of my students anywhere, anytime.

"Sex" is the number-one search term used around the globe. Every second, people spend $3,000 on Internet porn. There are an estimate 370 million Internet porn sites, and industry revenues surpass earnings by Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple, and Netflix combined.

But along with its popularity, there is also cause for deep concern about the effects of mainstream pornography on our culture. Whether we like porn or not -- and based on the figures, many people like it -- we would be smart to figure out strategies for dealing constructively with the impact of this media genre instead of trying to silence it, shut it down or uncritically supporting it.

Pornography both shapes and reflects assumptions about straight masculinity, female sexuality, expectations of beauty, and how women are treated -- particularly women of color. Porn has the potential to affect the sexual pleasure and safety of all.

Like all forms of pop culture entertainment, mainstream porn often reenacts bias about gender, race and power. In this sense, porn is no different than Disney films or "Jersey Shore," "CSI: Miami" and the sports section of your local paper. But because porn is explicitly focused on sex instead of simply infused with sex-power innuendo, porn can blur the line of consent by making non-consensual domination seem sexy.

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that vanilla is the only flavor of the day. Unlike some, such as Pornland author Gail Dines (who worries that men watching gonzo porn is increasing pressure on women to accept heterosexual anal penetration, or bondage and domination), I trust adults to make their own best decisions about their sexual choices. Whether spanking, teasing, topping, or switching -- or even nuzzling, fondling, spooning, or kissing -- it's not clear that porn is an evil culprit. Certainly there's nothing wrong with human proclivity for both cuddle and kink. But what matters in every moment is consent.

Better information about the politics of media creates in young people -- and all of us -- stronger abilities to distinguish between fantasy and reality, yes and no, coercion and consent -- lines that can be fuzzy in porn. The more we understand how to "decode" porn media, the better situated we are to know the difference. The more willing we are to teach age-appropriate media literacy to children and young adults, the better able they are to navigate the sexually mediated world we live in.

 
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