Sex

Kids Need Porn Literacy

They're going to watch it no matter what we say. Here's how we can help them.

Posted Oct 30, 2016

Everyone agrees that American teens and pre-teens look at porn. And almost everyone agrees that this is a problem.

What people can’t agree on is a realistic response. That’s because most adults are unwilling to talk with kids about sex honestly. And it’s impossible to have a meaningful talk with kids about porn without talking about sex—honestly.

What’s the problem with kids looking at porn?

Porn is a product made for adult consumers. It features images, words, metaphors, and stories that young people can’t comprehend as they were intended. Lacking real-world experience as context, most kids have no reason to think that porn isn’t real. And without media literacy—understanding the basics of how media are created, and how consumers are shaped by the media we consume—kids typically don’t deconstruct the imagery and emotions that make porn so powerful.

So that’s what we need to explain to kids: porn isn’t real sex. Porn isn’t a documentary; it isn’t even “reality” TV (which isn’t real either). Real sex doesn’t feel the way porn looks. 

If you say that to an intelligent 12-year-old, they’ll ask the obvious question: “if porn isn’t real sex, how is it different from real sex?”

That’s the point at which most parents go running out the door. Some adults manage to eke out “Well, in real sex the people often care for each other, or at least know each other longer than thirty seconds.” But that’s just the start of the conversation, not the end.

If adults are unwilling to talk with kids about porn (beyond “it’s crap, stay away from it”), don’t blame porn. If as a result kids think that porn is real, don’t blame porn. And if adults are unwilling to provide kids with decent sex education, don’t blame porn for being the default sex education for millions of kids.

That’s the height of irresponsibility—blaming porn for our shortcomings as parents, our cowardice as politicians, and our naivete as abstinence advocates. That’s like blaming cars for car accidents because they can be driven really fast in the rain by really tired people. How sympathetic would anyone be about that explanation for a car accident—“they shouldn’t make cars that can drive so fast, and shouldn’t make it possible to drive in the rain.”

In addition to conventional porn websites, kids watch porn in ways that most adults aren’t aware of: tumbler, reddit, instagram, snapchat, kik, and new apps being invented while you’re reading this. It’s fine to tell kids not to watch porn—and even more important, why we don’t want them to—but we need to prepare them in case they do. You know, like how we say “I want you to bike safely, but wear a helmet anyway.”

So kids need Porn Literacy. Here are some basics:

* Whether you’re watching professional stuff or amateur stuff, what you see is typically edited. It’s often a series of events made to look like a single event. The lighting, makeup, camera angles, and music make it look different than it really was.  

* All professional porn, and lots of amateur porn, involves preparation that you don’t see. The people talk to each other ahead of time, agreeing on what they’re going to do and not do, and how they’ll arrange their bodies for the camera. They generally know what to expect, and what’s expected of them. Before the camera’s turned on, they generally use various products: birth control, lube, Viagra, maybe even enemas. 

* All professional porn involves unusual bodies doing unusual things in unusual situations. These professionals are playing fictional characters, just like James Bond, Harry Potter, or Wonder Woman. Like in any other movie, they’re pretending to feel stuff they don’t feel, and pretending to want stuff they don’t necessarily want. If you expect real sex to be like all that pretend stuff, you’re going to be surprised and disappointed.

Even in amateur porn, the people you watch are unusual. Most men and women don’t make porn and they don’t sext. If you expect every young woman or man you meet to do those things, you’re going to be surprised and disappointed. 

* Most porn leaves out most of what people want from sex: kissing, hugging, laughing, feeling close, whispering, feeling special, a sense of discovery, and talking afterwards. Most porn is about what the bodies are doing. For most people, what the bodies are doing during sex is only the second most important thing. 

For most people, the most important thing in sex is how they feel—whether it’s comfortable or anxious, attractive or self-conscious, relaxed or worried, confident or confused, warm or cold, pleased or pressured, close or isolated. 

* * * 
So, Mom, Dad, teacher, politician, nurse, clergy person, or activist—how are you going to have helpful discussions about porn with the young people in your life? Here’s a tool that just might help you start.

BONUS: PORN LITERACY CHECKLIST FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

Excerpted from my new book, His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America’s PornPanic With Honest Talk About Sex.

Feel free to hand this to your kid, read this to your kid, share this with your kid, or print it and leave it laying around where your kid will find it.

[ ] I know that porn is fiction, not real.
[ ] I know professional porn is shot with actors and actresses following a script, using special lighting and camera angles, and that the film is edited to create a finished product that looks like it really happened.
[ ] I know that actors and actresses prepare themselves off-camera right before a shoot with products like Viagra, enemas, and lubricants (not to mention yoga and back exercises) to help create the images I see.  
[ ] I realize I know nothing about porn actors and actresses as people.
[ ] I understand that most people don’t have bodies like porn performers.
[ ] I understand that some recurring images in porn (such as ejaculating on someone’s face, anal sex, threesomes, sudden sex without talking and relating first) are theatrical devices, and don’t reflect what most women or men want in sex.
[ ] I understand that people are paid to act in porn films, and wouldn’t do it for free.
[ ] I understand that most people aren’t as uninhibited as the characters portrayed by porn performers.
[ ] I understand that most women don’t want rough play or violence in their sex.
[ ] I understand that demonstrations of dominance and submission are cooperatively staged, and end the second the camera is turned off.
[ ] I understand that a lot of the arousal and orgasm I see in porn is pretend, not real.
[ ] I understand that porn is made by adults for adults. If I don’t understand the many good reasons minors should not watch porn, I should ask an adult I trust.