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Should Teens Be Taught How to “Responsibly Consume” Porn?

Porn literacy curriculum may be well-intended, but it ultimately neglects decades of studies by respected academic institutions that have demonstrated porn’s significant negative impacts on consumers, relationships, and society.

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “consume responsibly?”

Maybe a beer commercial? Or basic behaviors society expects of those who want to consume alcohol, such as don’t drink and drive, and don’t drink underage or pressure others to join in if they decline.

While this classic cautionary phrase applies to other substances, its connection to porn is new. There’s a growing feeling of acceptance that free online porn isn’t going anywhere, and so teaching kids and teens how to consume responsibly must be the best—and “only”—way forward.

Admittedly our society’s current response to the ever-growing presence of porn—that is, saying and doing nothing—isn’t working. Pretending teens don’t look at porn to learn about sex isn’t helping.

Related: Is It A Good Idea To Teach College Kids How To Consume Porn Responsibly?

Studies show that most young people are exposed to porn by age 13,British Board of Film Classification. (2020). Young people, pornography & age-verification. BBFC. Retrieved from https://www.bbfc.co.uk/about-classification/researchCOPY  and according to a nationally representative survey of U.S. teens, 84.4% of 14 to 18-year-old males and 57% of 14 to 18-year-old females have viewed pornography.Wright, P. J., Paul, B., & Herbenick, D. (2021). Preliminary insights from a U.S. probability sample on adolescents’ pornography exposure, media psychology, and sexual aggression. J.Health Commun., 1-8. doi:10.1080/10810730.2021.1887980COPY  That means that most young people are getting at least some of their education about sex from porn, whether they mean to or not. In fact, one study shows that approximately 45% of teens who consumed porn did so in part to learn about sex.British Board of Film Classification. (2020). Young people, pornography & age-verification. BBFC. Retrieved from https://www.bbfc.co.uk/about-classification/researchCOPY  Similarly, survey results also show one in four 18 to 24-year-olds (24.5%) listed pornography as the most helpful source to learn how to have sex.Rothman, E. F., Beckmeyer, J. J., Herbenick, D., Fu, T. C., Dodge, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2021). The Prevalence of Using Pornography for Information About How to Have Sex: Findings from a Nationally Representative Survey of U.S. Adolescents and Young Adults. Archives of sexual behavior, 50(2), 629–646. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01877-7COPY 

But is the “consume responsibly” approach telling the full story? Is this approach even possible when it comes specifically to today’s porn industry?

BHW - General

Porn Literacy Class is a real thing in Boston

As previously reported in a New York Times article, “porn literacy” is a curriculum being tested and tried out with high school-age students. In one Boston school, this class focuses on not scaring kids about the potentially harmful effects of porn, but giving them the tools they need to analyze what they see. Emily Rothman, associate professor, said this approach is more effective than wishing we live in a porn-free world.

Helpful in theory, right? This solution is a whole lot better than silence. In these classes, high school seniors were educated about cultural shifts in beauty standards, laws around sexting, and the porn industry’s underbelly. They are told how 88% of porn scenes show verbal and physical aggression, and then encouraged to debate whether or not they felt watching those scenes could lead to violence.

In the first classes in 2016, the teachers didn’t shy away from the tough topics. Even better, the classes were deemed a “success.”

Related: Oral Before Kissing: How Porn Culture Has Changed Teens’ First Sexual Encounters

A year after the first students completed the curriculum, they were sent a survey to assess what had changed. They still showed signs of being normal, sexually curious teenagers, but some attitudes had shifted. From the 45% who believed at the beginning of the class that porn was a good way to learn about sex, only 18% agreed afterward.

Originally, about a quarter of the students said porn was realistic, but none believed it by the end of the classes.

Elsewhere, at prestigious private New York City schools, a teacher that taught a comprehensive porn literacy class for nine years claims that her curriculum was always well-received, too.

The Atlantic reports that Justine Ang Fonte’s goals with her classes has always been to give teenagers the tools to “navigate their personal and social spaces through these three adjectives: Their world should be safe, should be fulfilling, should be pleasurable.” Fonte said that mainstream porn can work against that, while other forms of porn, such as female empowerment-inflected adult content sold at prices intended to supply decent wages, may support it. (But does it?)

Related: This Anonymous Performer’s Reddit Post About The Realities Of The Porn Industry Is Chilling

It’s worth noting that even so-called “ethical porn” can still be harmful to individuals, relationships, and society.

But aside from that, even well-intended porn literacy classes seem to fall short of including essential information about the proven harmful effects of porn.

Get The Facts

It’s free, but is it healthy?

Here’s the thing about porn literacy curriculum: as an organization, Fight the New Drug is all about making youth aware that porn is not healthy, beneficial, and it is not always consensual.

But conversely, the underlying idea of porn literacy curriculum is this: “Porn is normal, so if you are going to watch it, here’s how to do so critically and responsibly.”

While porn literacy curriculum has been deemed by many to be “successful” in promoting teens’ critical consuption of porn, there is at least one big issue with it: there is no such thing as a healthy amount of porn consumption.

This curriculum ultimately neglects decades of studies by respected academic institutions that have demonstrated porn’s significant negative impacts.

While curriculums like porn literacy point out the serious toxicity of porn culture, it seems to bypass porn’s addictive potential and the other clearly demonstrated harmful effects altogether.

Researchers have found similarities in the way porn and other addictive substances like nicotine affect the brain, namely the way they trigger the reward center in the consumer’s brain, flood it with dopamine, and ultimately train the brain to crave the next dopamine high. This can lead to porn consumers returning again and again to porn in search of new—often more extreme—content to feel the same amount of excitement.

(The good news is, even after a serious porn habit is established, you can break out of it!)

Related: Would Taking Away The Issue Of Performer Exploitation Make Porn More Acceptable?

The second issue that porn literacy curriculum seems to neglect covering is that porn doesn’t just harm the consumer. There is a direct link between the porn industry and the sex trafficking industry.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defines sex trafficking as a situation in which “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”

The trouble is, it’s nearly impossible to tell who the performers are, their age, or if they gave their full consent. In more instances than people may realize, force, fraud, and coercion are involved in the production of porn, even from more “reputable” sites. This includes non-mainstream sites like OnlyFans, too.

In some cases, professional, established porn performers have been abused or their objection is ignored—that, by definition, is sex trafficking as well, even if a performer collects a paycheck and sleeps in their own bed at the end the day.

Also, consider this. Now more than ever, a performer’s age in any depicted video can be challenging to determine since recent court rulings now allow porn productions to alter the appearance of performers so they appear younger, and most recently, gutted regulations do not require production companies to keep a record the age of performers.

Related: “Why Was The Rape Victim So Upset?”—Why Teens Need Better Consent Education

You may be asking, “But what about ethical porn, porn where it’s likely the performers are consenting and there’s no exploitation?”

The trouble is, even porn produced in an ethical environment can be significantly harmful. Even if particular content is consensual, it absolutely can still be harmful to the consumer.

In addition to the abusive behaviors consistently shown in porn, porn often promotes a number of problematic sexual narratives. Porn sites of all kinds are full of videos that not only portray but normalize and fetishize incest, unequal power dynamics, and a variety of situations where marginalized or vulnerable people are abused or taken advantage of. And regardless of how the content may differ from mainstream sites, ethical porn sites are not as accessible, affordable, and available to teens as free porn tube sites.

Of course, not all porn is nonconsensual, and not all porn involves trafficking. The problem is, as a consumer, how can you tell?

And that’s the thing—considerate consumer or not, you can’t. Not even if you’re a critically thinking porn consumer who has been through porn literacy classes.

Why this matters

Unless porn literacy courses also include educating on porn’s harmful effects on consumers and relationships, as well as the industry’s connections to sexual exploitation, child trafficking, the perpetuation of racist stereotypes, it’s not truly a full education.

While, on the surface, porn literacy classes seem to take steps in a healthy direction by opening up shame-free conversations about porn in the first place with students, we want to be clear that saying teens can “consume porn responsibly” is the equivalent of saying they can also responsibly, healthfully smoke cigarettes. Is it a nice thought? Absolutely. But is it possible? No.

The healthiest alternative to porn literacy, however, is not avoiding the topic of porn altogether. If caretakers and trusted adults do not make space to teach adolescents about sex, the internet will. If teens are not educated about the harmful effects of porn with credible information and without shame, our current culture will not give them reason to avoid it or think twice about it.

Related: Parents: If You Don’t Teach Your Kids About Sex, Porn Sites Will

More conversations about porn and its harms need to take place in our society. Will you be a part of those conversations?

If someone chooses to take up a porn habit, they deserve to know the full scope of what the potential harms of that choice might be.

We’re not here to tell anyone what to do, control their sexual choicesor provide shame. But what we can do is give anyone who is willing to listen a transparent look at the porn industry and the harms of its product, and let them decide for themself.

We can’t ignore the facts, even if we can’t keep teens from seeking it out.

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