Making porn respectable

Carolyn Moynihan
March 15, 2018
Reproduced with Permission

If there is one thing that people across the political spectrum agree about when it comes to pornography, it is that the internet has made the stuff easily accessible to young people, and that significant proportions of kids are seeing hard-core porn. But there agreement ends.

Most people probably still think porn is bad, especially for youngsters; but an increasingly vocal minority thinks there is good porn - porn that kids should know about -- while some of the mainstream believe in a kind of sex education that the rest of us would see us a first cousin to pornography, if not the actual thing.

Porn, in short, is becoming respectable, and it's time to think about what that means for individuals and society.

There are, of course, people who have been thinking about this for some time. This week, for example, an Australian child advocacy coalition launched a campaign to get the issue of "children's online safety" in front of the nation.

Following the suicide of a 14-year-old girl in January after cyberbullying, and a report on extreme sexual behaviour at Sydney colleges, eChildhood says it's high time the role of pornography was recognised as one of the drivers of bullying, sexual harassment and abuse among children and young people.

The group is calling for "legislation and policy, digital solutions and education" - of parents in the first instance. Their message is that it is possible to prevent minors from seeing sexually degrading and abusive content if the community and the government together decide to do it.

Last year the UK government bit this particular bullet and changed the law to force porn sites to ensure that under-18s cannot access their content - under pain of fines of up to £250,000, or up to 5 percent of their turnover. There have been all sorts of objections, of course, and the restrictions have not yet been rolled out.

One of the objectors is an attractive young woman named Rosie Hodson, who is a fully-funded PhD candidate in Law and Sexuality at Northumbria University in Newcastle. This information accompanies an article of hers published last July in The Conversation - an international forum for popularising academic research - complaining that the government's crackdown on porn websites could actually harm young people.

How? Mainly, it seems, by making life harder for "queer and kink-oriented individuals" who are into "unconventional sexual practices" - practices so repulsive, by the way, that they do not bear naming here. "Set in the context of comprehensive and diverse sex education, certain pornography can actually help highlight gender and sexuality issues and safe sexual practices," claims Hodson.

Remember, the academy brought you this, so it must be a respectable view - right?

Porn literacy for teens

A programme being trialled with some high school students (aged 15 to 17) in Boston takes a more critical approach to porn, but assumes there is no way to stop kids watching it. Its designers believe, as the New York Times Magazine reported in a long feature last month, that porn has become "the de facto sex educator for American youth."

Their answer is not to keep the stuff away from kids -- to banish it to the darkest corners of the internet as eChildhood and the British government are trying to do - but to make them study it.

Emily Rothman, an associate professor at Boston University's School of Public Health, tells the Times that the "Porn Literacy" curriculum "isn't designed to scare kids into believing porn is addictive, or that it will ruin their lives and relationships and warp their libidos. Instead it is grounded in the reality that most adolescents do see porn and takes the approach that teaching them to analyze its messages is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world."

In an "adult" centred world, in other words, we must not be too ambitious for our children.

The problem, as these people see it, is not so much that teenagers are being exposed to explicit sexual material - and the risks of experimentation - but that most of what kids are likely to see is bad sex. Bad sex is not necessarily any particular type of activity but sex that gives them wrong ideas about "pleasure, power and intimacy". Porn literacy teaches teens to see, with a little prompting, what is wrong with this. It is taken for granted that many of them are, or soon will, having sex.

It's important to note here that teachers of porn literacy do not use the language of good and bad, right and wrong. There is an implicit morality, which is largely concerned with equality (of power, pleasure and feelings of intimacy) as opposed to "male-centred" sex and aggression or even violence towards women, but nobody is actually saying "Don't have anal sex, don't do choking, don't' do BDSM."

They do talk about body image, a bit of anatomy, and the megabucks involved in the porn industry, but the programme stops short of teaching about "real [good] sex." Much as those running it would love to move into this field, parents might object if they thought their kids were being taught "how to have sex." Clues are dropped, but porn literacy teachers await the day (after Trump) when sex education is comprehensive enough to talk to teenagers openly about "female desire and pleasure".

An exception is private school sex educator Al Vernacchio who already shows his high school classes photos of genitalia, and has coauthored a book titled Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Questions Answered for Better, Smarter, Aamazing Sex .

Pornographers as sex educators

Meanwhile, pornographers themselves are stepping into the breach. The Times porn literacy article makes reference to a couple of them.

Erika Lust, "in consultation with sex educators," has created a porn education website for parents." The aptly named Lust wants parents to talk to their teenagers about "healthy porn," which "includes showing female desire and pleasure and being made under fair working conditions." Cindy Gallop has given herself the mission of "re-educating young men - by 'dating' and having sex with them - not to put male pleasure first."

(In a more recent opinion piece in the Times a porn performer called Stoya writes that she is "invested in the creation and spread of good pornography" to prevent the warping of young (men's) minds.)

Maree Crabbe, an Australian (and another PhD student who contributes to The Conversation ) has concocted a porn education resource called In the Picture, which is used in Australia and New Zealand. She tells the Times : "We want to be positive about masturbation and critical of pornography."

Critical, but not absolutely opposed, because, frankly, the difference between teaching teenagers the joys of gender equity masturbation, and pornography, is only one of degree, not of kind. The bridge between them is "good," "healthy," feminist porn and "safe" porn for sexual minorities, the apologists for which already have a public platform and are talking to mainstream sex educators.

Such is the newfound respectability of porn, which is insinuating itself into the classroom even while governments and child protection groups are trying to stop kids seeing it altogether.

Times columnist Ross Douthat has called the porn literacy route the acceptance of "a sweeping pedagogical defeat". But the fact that it has become an opportunity for the expansion of explicit sex education shows that not everybody sees it that way.

Porn is just a product, says Douthat; there is no reason why it cannot be subjected to regulation and restriction "if we so desire." The question is, how many of us want that?