If You Give a Child a Porno…: What would happen if porn were used for sex education

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“I was watching it so I could learn how not to treat my girlfriend.”

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W hen I was 14, my dad caught me watching porn after school on an afternoon in which I’d expected him home much later than he arrived. As most teens would, I tried, frantically, to close the browser before I knew for sure that he’d seen what I was watching. Unfortunately, the words, “Yeah, you better turn that shit off” emphatically killed off any doubts I’d had as to whether I was busted.

Awkward though it was to be caught looking at “Busty Mature Whores Taking Massive Cock,” I was mercifully spared what could have been an even more uncomfortable encounter. I had only just begun watching the clip and, as such, was only caught with my pants down in the figurative sense of the word.

Retrospectively, I guess I should also be grateful for the fact that 14-year-old me didn’t have more outré tastes in the fare that the porn industry had to offer. Be it my dad, older siblings or even my closest friends, had anyone walked into a room to find me transfixed to a screen showcasing some combination of a leather dominatrix suit, ball gag, horse, or all three portrayed as anime illustrations speaking Japanese, a stern lecture would probably have been the least of my worries.

In the post-mortem, after a thorough perusal of my AOL browsing history and the subsequent unearthing of a range of other search curios in an investigation that would have made an NSA data collection exercise look like a site audit at a Chinese toy factory, I was subjected to the standard line of parent-to-child “you fucked up” questioning:

  • “How did you find this?”
    • A kid at school told me about it
  • “What kid?”
    • I don’t remember his name
  • Why were you watching this? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!

There it was. My chance at an explanation that would insulate me better than any Jackie Chiles legal defense. Such opportunities–particularly in the blooper reel of predicaments that was my adolescence–were scarce. It took only a moment for what–even by adult me’s standards–was the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever manufactured to come spilling out of my mouth: I was watching it so I could learn how not to treat my girlfriend.”

I should have taken more time to think.

In the heat of the moment, it seemed like a pretty good justification. My dad, however, was none too impressed and banished me to my room after giving me another brief taste of his best Augie Garrido impersonation.

Though the intention of the explanation I provided upon being caught was pretty much entirely to get myself out of trouble, I would revisit the incident and my subsequent rationalization of it regularly as I began to pick up incremental tidbits of sex knowledge in the years that followed. Like most, I’d gone through a sex education and reproduction course in my early adolescent years, but retained little of it. This was partially because it was answering questions that I didn’t even have yet, but also because it felt way more obligatory than it did an exercise that the instructors actually wanted any parts of.

Nonetheless, the lasting takeaway that accompanied the onset of my sex life was: “This is nothing like what porn said it would be.” My partners were neither busty nor mature, and to the best of my knowledge, weren’t whores. There were no comically oversized breasts, no immaculate makeup jobs, no cucumber-sized phallic props, and certainly no marathon-like sexual stamina from yours truly.

Looking back on the sexual content I’d relied upon as a primary educational resource during my formative years, I wondered why there was such a vast disconnect between what was displayed and what I was actually experiencing. Moreover, if what I had viewed and what I was living were so disparate, for how many other people my age was this also true? It’s not as though sex ed programs featured instructional materials that were even remotely erotic, so what basis of comparison was there for what sex should actually be? It hit me:

Why wouldn’t sex ed programs use porn to explain what is and isn’t realistic to expect from sex?

The obvious answer to that is that it’s illegal. Showing pornography to adolescents is banned universally, making it difficult, if not impossible, to introduce sexually explicit content to would-be students.

Beyond legality, though, understanding why the use of porn as an educational device might be frowned upon requires a bit of background knowledge regarding the state of sex ed both in the US and in classrooms around the world.

Sex education in the US and around the world

A s of 2010, there were three federally-funded sex ed programs for teens in the US: a Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, a Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), and a Title V Abstinence-Only Program. Though all three programs have a purported end-goal of keeping teens from getting pregnant, the approaches they take to achieving that goal are markedly different.

The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and PREP focus mainly on evidence-based initiatives to prevent risky behaviors that could result in unintended pregnancies, STDs, or other undesirable health outcomes. All initiatives undergo frequent review, and those that are ineffective lose funding.

The abstinence-only program, on the other hand, relies on a much more streamlined approach: “Don’t have sex until marriage, but if you feel that you absolutely must, don’t.” Combined, the three receive somewhere in the ballpark of $230 million per year from federal grant writers and interest groups who, because of their financial clout, also often carry significant influence in course curriculum.

Interestingly, perhaps because it represents the path of least resistance to federal funding, most states tend to look to the abstinence-only blueprint when establishing their own sex ed policies.

  • A total of 37 states require that sex education include abstinence; twenty-six require that abstinence be stressed;
  • Only eighteen states and the District of Columbia require that sex education programs include information on contraception; no state requires that it be stressed;
  • A mere thirteen states require that the information presented in sex education classes be medically accurate and factual. A recent review of 13 commonly-used abstinence-only curricula found that 11 had incorrect, misleading, or distorted information.

If what Gandhi said about actions expressing priorities is true, it would seem that instructional programs are hell-bent on making sure teens don’t have sex, while ignoring what happens if they do.

Having said that, promoting abstinence-only programs isn’t necessarily an issue, provided they actually work. Unfortunately, just about every shred of literature that exists on the efficacy of such programs– including a 2007 systematic review, a 2008 comprehensive review, a 2010 policy review, and a 2007 congressionally-mandated study— indicates that such hasn’t been the case. The latter study found that federally-funded abstinence-only programs have no beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior, while other research has shown that abstinence-only strategies may deter contraceptive use among sexually active teens, increasing their risk of unintended pregnancy and STDs.

This widespread endorsement of sex ed curricula whose results tend to run counter to intended outcomes is certainly a bit vexing. More peculiar still is the fact that a number of America’s counterparts in the developed world that have opted for evidence-based sex education frameworks boast teen pregnancy rates that are a fraction of those in the US.

In Northern European countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands, for example, it’s generally accepted by educators, policymakers, and parents alike that young people will have sex. It’s believed that empowering them to make considered and informed decisions about their own lives, through comprehensive sex ed and easy access to reproductive health services, will result in better sexual and reproductive health in broad terms–including pleasure, love, and sexual well-being.

As it happens, those beliefs have been borne out in just about every quantitative dimension of sexual health available as shown in the visuals below:

At the other end of the spectrum, in many developing parts of the world–where resources, infrastructure, and political stability tend to be in short supply–the contrast in the comprehensiveness of sexual education policy is stark.

Many nations, employ sex ed pilot programs that are predicated almost entirely on the prevention of disease transmission such as HIV/AIDS with only a few of them having implemented more holistic approaches to their curriculum. Even in areas where more progressive programs have been endorsed, however, the majority of initiatives are merely extracurricular, giving students (or their disconcerted parents) an easy opt-out route.

Worse still, educational programs are entirely unavailable in many places. Knowledge of sexual and reproductive health among adolescents in such areas is limited at best, and myths run rampant. Many, for example, endorse notions of young women being unable to get pregnant the first time they have sex; that HIV can be transmitted through mosquito bites; or that men who test positive for HIV can cure themselves by having sex with virgins.

With this in mind, and considering the fact that similar misinformation exists to a lesser degree in The US, the linkages to the state of sex ed programs in America and those in developing nations aren’t nearly as far-flung as we might initially assume. This is to say that the heavy emphasis on abstinence-only instruction as the best way to teach kids about avoiding the very thing they’ll likely end up doing anyway makes a conservative stance on alternative instructional resources none too surprising.

Surely though, there’s a bit more to this issue than policy stances rooted in morality and legality-based aversion. Since its inception, the adult films industry has been the pariah of media and entertainment circles the world over. It has spawned morality debates, turned the development of child-proof filters into a viable industry, and galvanized an entire nation to cast out one of their own. What exactly are the objections to or fears surrounding porn and just how legitimate is that anxiety?

Objections to pornography

I n late June of 1986, a handful of social scientists and mental health experts convened in Arlington, Virginia to discuss the effects of pornography, particularly as they relate to children and adolescents. The convention itself came about following a request from then-US Attorney General, Edwin Meese, who, during those days, was charged with collecting as much information about porn and the impact it had on its consumers as possible under the auspices of The Attorney General’s Commission of Pornography. Apparently, the consumption of porn was alarming enough 30 years ago to warrant commissioning an investigative wing of the Department of Justice whose sole function was to conduct research and convene experts to discuss its impacts.

(There’s surely no allocation of federal funding more efficient than one earmarked for the gathering of renowned MDs and PhDs huddled around sprawling conference room tables like the Springfield Republican Party for 12-hour-long war room sessions featuring anatomically-correct diagrams of Nina Hartley and Traci Lords plastered along the room’s walls).

Though many of the conclusions from the meetings were received critically both by those within the porn industry as well as other researchers not affiliated with the commission, many of the findings ended up serving as building blocks for further investigation into the dangers of porn.

The bullet points below outline some of the conclusions of note from the conference.

  • Prolonged use of pornography increases beliefs that less common sexual practices are more common;
  • Pornography that portrays sexual aggression as pleasurable for the victim increases the acceptance of the use of coercion in sexual relationships;
  • Acceptance of coercive sexuality appears to be related to sexual aggression;
  • Exposure to violent pornography increases punitive behavior toward women

Beyond the conclusions emerging from the Surgeon General’s Workshop, more contemporary research has yielded additional concerns, which include pornography’s role in:

  • Consumer addiction;
  • Warping of self-image;
  • Stunting of Social Development; and
  • Understanding of gender roles

In short, concerns regarding adolescent well-being in the face of porn consumption have come thick and fast for quite some time now.

RABBIT HOLE:

A-brief-history-cover

A Brief History of Government-Sponsored Efforts to Ban Porn in the US

Paramount among the challenges of getting to the bottom of these concerns is the ability to conduct controlled studies that would shed light on porn’s impacts. Research surrounding all of this is limited due to aforementioned legality constraints associated with showing porn to kids and is thus largely limited to surveys and voluntary participant response. The resulting findings, therefore, typically rely heavily on words such as ‘may’ or ‘might,’ often conflict with one another, and tend to do just as much to support cases made in favor of porn as they do to detract from them. Nonetheless, this, in a nutshell, is what the research has to say about the above-listed concerns:

Prevalence of Less-Common Sex Practices

The more porn someone is exposed to, the more likely they are to assume that obscure sex acts are common. Interestingly, though, people that see lots of porn are much more accurate than those that see little to no porn in estimating the prevalence of such acts.

RABBIT HOLE:

Less common sex acts

How porn impacts our sexual behavior.

Coercion and Sexual Aggression

If we see a rape scene that shows an aroused victim, we’re much less likely to feel empathy or perceive the victim as having suffered than we would, provided a scene in which the victim shows anguish. Given the extent to which rape fantasy and “punishment” scenes surface and resurface as a trope within the ocean of existing porn genres, the argument goes that those who watch it are bound to encounter rape porn and gradually internalize rape as something that victims actually enjoy.

As far as porn’s role in encouraging sexually-aggressive behavior is concerned, it’s true that sexually violent films have the strongest impact of any form of media on those that are exposed to them. It’s also true, however, that violent, non-erotic media has a significantly greater impact on viewers than does non-violent erotica, per studies conducted in 2005, 2009, and 2010.

With the above in mind, if a male teen has a predisposition to aggression, consumption of violent porn will have four to six times the impact that it would on a male with no predisposition to aggression. By the same token, teens exposed to nonviolent porn are “statistically equally as likely” to report sexually aggressive behavior as those who report having watched no porn at all.

RABBIT HOLE:

Joffrey Torture Cover

Is porn to blame for sexual aggression? 

Addiction

To date, “porn addiction” is not acknowledged in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) due to “insufficient peer-reviewed evidence to establish the diagnostic criteria,” and the fact that it may be a symptom of a pre-existing mental health condition. Diagnosis is further hampered by rampant “addict self-perception,” wherein a would-be addict diagnoses themselves with an addiction that may not actually exist. Lots of confounding variables there.

Having said that, there is a growing body of research that links what’s called Chronic Sexual Behavior–sometimes manifested in inveterate pornography consumption–to substance addictions, both with respect to brain mapping and implications on the ability to carry out tasks.

RABBIT HOLE:

Porn-addiction-cover

Can you really be addicted to porn?

Self-Image

Focus groups and interviews with teens have revealed that nearly all respondents that have viewed porn internalize a “pornographic script” for body type and sexual performance that was reinforced by consumption of sexually explicit material. This script created ‘unrealistic and concerning’ expectations for both males and females who participated in the study, with males expressing concerns about being able to perform as well sexually, and for the same duration, and females expressing insecurities about body image while referring to the sexually explicit material as representative of the ‘ideal body type.’

Gender Roles

A generally strong link exists between adolescent exposure to sexually-explicit material and less progressive gender role attitudes for both males and females. A 2009 study indicated that male dominance and female submission are gender roles that are reinforced through sexually-explicit material. Additionally, a 2007 study involving nearly 750 dutch adolescents, which investigated the relationship between exposure to porn and perceptions of women as sex objects found that increased exposure to sexually explicit material increased the likelihood that adolescents, regardless of sex, would view women as sex objects.

In a later study by the same researchers, it was determined that viewing women as sex objects was related to increased frequency in the consumption of sexually explicit material.

The question that researchers continue to grapple with in this regard is whether teens believe women to be sex objects as a result of the porn they view, whether they consume porn as an affirmation of previously held beliefs regarding female gender roles, or both.

Development

Adolescents with higher degrees of social interaction and bonding are not as likely to consume sexually explicit material as are their less social peers. What’s more, greater porn consumption has a significantly stronger correlation to lower degrees of social integration, specifically related to religion, school, society, and family as well as maladjustment and behavioral issues among its consumers.

RABBIT HOLE:

Blame Cover

Does porn really affect child development?

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One day your 12-year-old is casually perusing cheerleader porn and the next thing you know, members of his little league team are showing up at interventions pleading to get their old friend back.

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Some of porn’s critiques are shaky at best. People that become sexually violent after watching porn are almost always predisposed to aggression, and the question of porn’s role in adolescent social development is one of the clearer chicken and egg cases you’ll find. Nobody knows whether kids watch porn and become maladjusted or do so because they’re already social deviants.

On the other hand, the aforementioned catalog of concerns does present its share of disconcerting cases that merit closer examination. Nobody wants their kid growing up with a skewed perception of gender roles or deeply-embedded feelings of inadequacy because they don’t physically identify with what they’re seeing in adult films. Even worse, what happens if porn addiction becomes a recognized disorder in the future? One day your 12-year-old is casually perusing cheerleader porn and the next thing you know, members of his little league team are showing up at interventions begging for their old friend back.

If the risks associated with these claims are even remotely real, why chance exposing a psychologically malleable kid to something so potentially harmful?

“The Internet is for Porn”

More than an earworm from a Broadway musical, it’s an affirmation of something we’ve known to be true for some time, but continue to sweep under the rug.

To date, there are more than 800 million porn sites in existence, with one site claiming more than 80 billion views per year. Using a slew of sources to estimate how much of the web is dedicated to porn, a pair of American neuroscientists calculated that 40,000 of the most-visited websites, listed by Alexa, a web-analytics firm, are dedicated to pornography. The same neuroscientists also analyzed all 434 million searches entered into Dogpile, a site that returns results from all the biggest search engines, between July 2009 and February 2011. Almost 49 million, or 11%, were of an obviously sexual nature.

Pair that information with compiled data regarding child internet use…

…and the fact that on average American teens own 3.5 mobile devices, and it can be safely assumed that even with the tightest parental web surveillance, somebody’s  everybody’s child– sooner or later–is stumbling upon Pornhub. I hope your child isn’t reading this.

All of the purported risks associated with porn, real or exaggerated, aren’t going anywhere. Neither is the internet, and by extension, nor is porn. And while some might think of adolescents as a group that’s too naive to actively seek out porn because they’re already engulfed in the “Run around, scrape your knees, get dirty for crying out loud!” brand of adolescent shenanigans that only the 1950s and cinematic wonders like The Sandlot could inspire, that sort of coddling from parents is a lot more self-serving than it is in any way useful to kids.

Porn is everywhere, and as a standalone, it doesn’t do the best job of evenhandedly addressing safe sex, gender roles, self-image, or a laundry list of other risks, regardless of whether it’s actually deserving of the blame it receives for associated negative impacts.

Giving way to pragmatism, and acknowledging that porn consumption by adolescents is going to happen, might floundering sex ed programs take a proactive stance and use porn as a tool to clarify what’s realistic and what’s dramatized; what practices are safe and healthy versus those that are effectively playing Russian Roulette with your genitals; and work to dispel myths about rape fantasies, aggression, and common sex practices?

Heaps of data collected over the past two decades have proven that basing a sex ed curriculum on the assumption that teens will remain celibate is characteristic of a severely detrimental kind of naivety. In the same way, the argument that shielding a child from porn will in some way prevent them from becoming sexual deviants–even if the content was later explained by health experts or industry insiders–is about as salient as not giving a child a flu vaccine for fear that exposing them to a controlled dosage of the strain might kill them.

Porn as a form of sexual education is certainly a huge departure from the status quo. Classrooms would become graphic in the most cringe-worthy sense of the word, and scores of parents would protest, if not remove their kids from schools entirely. By the same token, it would serve as a way forward, and a valuable hands-on tool in explaining what’s out there. Besides, without porn, what would we use to teach kids “how not to treat their girlfriends?

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