An increasing number of journal and mainstream articles have been written in recent years about adolescents and teens accessing internet porn and the impact it has on them. One solution proposed in The Case for Including Porn in Sex Ed is to openly discuss – or even show — porn in sexuality education classes. If communities were to be open to these kinds of discussions, should they take place in schools?
How Does Viewing Porn Affect Adolescents?
The research about adolescent porn consumption is far from exhaustive – in some states in the US, researchers are not allowed to ask young people any questions about their sexual behaviors – but there are certainly concerns. One study found that approximately 42% of young people ages 10 – 17 have viewed porn online. What we don’t know is the full extent to which porn affects these 10 – 17 year olds. There aren’t studies showing a direct causal relationship between viewing porn and behaviors – for example, young people who view porn are less likely to use condoms – although there is correlative research showing that viewing porn has an impact on young people’s attitudes about sexual behaviors, gender roles and body image.
A common concern is that porn is confusing and misleading to adolescents. It’s not made for adolescents, it’s made for adults. Porn presents a fantasy that is not the reality for most people — most people do not look like porn actors; most sexual encounters do not last as long as they do in porn; most women’s breasts and men’s genitalia are not the sizes presented in porn, and so on. Porn remains overwhelmingly white, and features primarily able-bodied people. All of this communicates to young people that only certain people have or should be in sexual relationships.
A Hypersexualized Culture that “Just Says No” to Age-Appropriate Sex Ed
One factor in determining the impact of porn is the greater culture. The US remains a conflicted culture when it comes to sex and sexuality. We have a puritanical history that promoted an idea of moralism and sexual restraint, while behind the scenes living a very different reality. We are a country in which young people are able to view age- and developmentally-inappropriate images on tv or online, even before they access porn – but in which talking openly and honestly about sexuality is taboo.
Given the ubiquity of sexual images and messages around us, one would think young people know more about sexuality than they actually do. But young people do not learn anywhere nearly enough of the factual, age-appropriate information they need about sexuality while they’re in school. One reason for this is that since 1998, over $1.5 billion in state and federal funds have been spent on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that come into schools to teach, among other things, that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” And while adults cluelessly push young people to “just say no,” these same young people are surrounded by peers, media and a culture that regularly and enthusiastically say “yes.”
Young People Go to Porn for Information
Why do young people go to porn in the first place? Because they are curious. Because they have questions that aren’t being answered as directly or concretely as they need.
One example of this is when a young person asks, “What is sex?”
How would you answer this question? Many adults read that question and think of male-female couples and vaginal intercourse, responding, “It’s when a man puts his penis inside a woman’s vagina.” Putting aside for a moment the heterocentricism of this all-too-common answer and its exclusion of other behaviors, that response doesn’t actually explain what this kind of sex is. It sounds antiseptic, as if sex acts are no more intimate than a handshake between business partners closing a deal. But adults don’t want to say anything more, either because they feel uncomfortable doing so – or because they feel like telling young people that these behaviors exist and are supposed to feel good encourages young people to have sex at younger ages (even though research shows the opposite to be true).
If young people don’t get a satisfying answer to their question, they visit a porn website and see that site’s version of sexual intercourse. There, they get their question answered in a concrete, specific way. The problem there is what they see isn’t always accurate – and they may not have the age-appropriate, foundational knowledge they need to analyze and contextualize what they are seeing. They see sex acts without emotional connection or relationship — where consent is not always obvious; where safer sex is rarely, if ever, practiced. Adults watch porn and know it’s a fantasy; younger people watch it and think it’s an instructional guide. And sometimes the videos themselves are less problematic than the explicit ads running alongside the videos.
Sex Ed Must Start Earlier
In the end, the problem isn’t porn. The problem is that porn is the most direct, concrete example available to young people. This means we need to spend less time railing against the fact that porn exists (it’s not going anywhere, by the way), and more time improving school-based sex ed programs. We need to teach sexuality education from the earliest ages — way before high school, when sex ed is too little, too late — in age- and developmentally-appropriate ways. Parents and caregivers who discover that their child has already accessed porn need to be sure to talk with them about what they saw.
So we are in a bit of a cultural quandary. If porn is being consumed so widely by young people, it would make sense to address it and the concerns adults have about it in sex ed class. But when you consider there are some states in whichteachers are not even allowed to show students what condoms look like or how they work, the idea of having an open discussion in schools about porn feels light years away.