Sex

A Quarter of America’s Youth Learns About Sex From Porn

The abysmal state of sex education in the United States.

Posted Mar 01, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Image by Stokpic/Pixabay
Source: Image by Stokpic/Pixabay
  • Only 39 states mandate sex education, 17 of them require that it be medically accurate, and 19 states mandate abstinence education only.
  • Comprehensive sex education should include information about preventing pregnancy and disease, as well as social skills and what is consensual. Nearly half of adolescents and young adults do not receive useful information about sex from any source.
  • About a quarter of young adults said they relied on watching porn to learn how to have sex. This is true for more young men than young women, with the latter learning about sex from their boyfriends.
  • Porn is not a good source for healthy sexual behavior.

When I was approaching puberty in the early '70s, Ohio mandated sex-education classes in the sixth grade. The parochial school I attended followed the letter of the law, if not the spirit.

They organized a “Sons’ and Dads’ Night Out.” While the dads waited in one room, Father Tom led the sons into another room to give us the talk. “Men,” he said. Yes, he called us men. “Men, do you know what sex is?”

What 12-year-old boy would admit that he didn’t know all about sex, especially in front of his peers? We glanced nervously at each other and nodded.

“Good,” said Father Tom. “Then let’s talk about religion instead.”

At the end of the night, he handed each dad a brochure. “Now, men,” he told us, “ask your dad for this when you’re ready.”

A few days later, I screwed up my courage and asked my dad for the booklet. It explained the process of insemination in sterile, clinical terms. After I’d read it, I still didn’t know how to have sex.

The State of Sex Education Has Not Improved 
Half a century has passed, and the state of sex education in this country has hardly improved. According to Boston University public health researcher Emily Rothman and her colleagues, only 39 states mandate sex education, and of those, only 17 require that it be medically accurate. Moreover, 19 states mandate “abstinence” education only.

Apparently, many preteens and teens are getting either distorted information or else nothing at all. How, then, are America’s youth learning about sex? This is the question that Rothman and colleagues examined in an article they recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

As Rothman and colleagues point out, comprehensive sex education includes far more than just the facts about insemination. It also includes information about how to prevent pregnancy and disease—other than abstinence.

In addition, teens need to learn the social skills involved in sexuality. These skills comprise things such as how to communicate interest and negotiate limits, including how to perceive nonverbal cues. Furthermore, they need to understand sex as a mutually enjoyable and emotion-laden experience. And finally, they need to learn how to accept sexual refusals gracefully, that is, with respect for the other person’s feelings and without taking it as a personal insult.

To understand more about the sources of information that young people rely on to learn about sex, Rothman and colleagues analyzed data from 600 teens aged 14 to 17 and from 666 young adults aged 18 to 24. These participants responded to questions about what sources they relied on for information about sex, including whether they had received sexual health information from their parents. They also answered questions about their solo and partnered sexual experiences as well as whether they were currently involved in a romantic relationship.

Young People Do Not Receive Useful Information From Any Source
One disappointing but perhaps not surprising result was that nearly half of adolescents and young adults said they had not received any useful information about sex from any source. Among those who said they had gotten reliable sexual information, the sources depended on both age group and gender.

The adolescents reported that they mostly got their information from their parents or else from their friends. Few respondents in this age group reported watching porn to learn about sex. This finding should help allay the fears that many parents have about their teens watching porn.

Those adolescents who’d had a conversation about sex with their parents said that this was the most helpful source of information. However, those who hadn’t had such a discussion said that they found information on TV, in magazines, or on the Internet (but not porn) to be the most helpful for them. In other words, teens really appreciate it when their parents have honest discussions about sex with them.

A Quarter of Young Adults Get Information About Sex From Porn or From Partners
In contrast, many young adults indicated that they got most of their information about sex either from porn or from their sex partner. However, this broke down according to gender. About a quarter of young adults said they relied mostly on watching porn to learn how to have sex. Most of these were young men, while young women most commonly reported that they learned about how to have sex while having sex with their boyfriends.

The likelihood of using porn as a source of sexual education also increased with age. There are surely a number of reasons for this. Teens have more limited internet access since they live at home, but young adults mostly live on their own and so have the freedom to watch any material they want.

There also seems to be the issue of what type of information the young person is looking for. Younger teens who aren’t emotionally ready to become sexually active are probably mostly looking for basic information. However, as young people become ready to start their sex lives, they want more specific information about sexual techniques. They no doubt see internet porn as a set of how-to videos.

Porn Is Not a Good Model for Healthy Sexual Behavior
There’s also no doubt that porn is often not a good model for ordinary sexual behavior. However, there’s still plenty of porn that portrays couples making love in a mutually respectful manner. The trick for these young adults is to discern what’s just for show and what reflects “real lovemaking.”

In some instances, porn may be the best source of sexual education for young adults. For those youth who find themselves having a same-sex orientation, there are few other sources of information available. Even if they do get information about sex at school or at home, it’s almost always going to be heteronormative in nature. However, watching gay or lesbian porn can help these emerging adults come to terms with their sexual identities.

The state of sex education in the United States is abysmal. Local governments need to throw off the shackles of conservative religion and mandate that accurate and comprehensive sex education be offered at all levels in an age-appropriate format. Furthermore, parents need to understand that even though it can be uncomfortable talking about sex, teens actually appreciate and value such conversations. Until we can be open and honest with our children, we shouldn't wonder why they turn to porn to learn about sex.

References

Rothman, E. F., Beckmeyer, J. J., Herbenick, D., Tsung-Chieh Fu, & Dodge, B. (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. Advance online publication. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01877-7