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These Sex Educators Want to Teach Schoolkids About Porn

You might know that a porn film is a performance, but your younger sibling probably doesn't.

by Almaz Ohene
28 June 2019, 8:15am

Photo by Rowan Morgan / Alamy Stock Photo

On the set of a porn film, it's clear that what's happening is a performance, like a TV show or piece of choreography. But for young people whose first experiences of sexual activity come from watching porn, it can give them a false impression of what sex is actually like in real life.

Two reports published this month from the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee and digital nonprofit Internet Matters say that teens and children as young as 11 appear to be using porn to learn about their sexuality. Globally, sex educators agree that this is because comprehensive sex education doesn't go far enough in terms of teaching young people about sex-based issues such as consent, pleasure and masturbation, right to privacy, sexual identities and respectful relationships.

“In the absence of comprehensive sex education, people use porn to learn about sex – what sex looks like, who gets to have it, and what it means to be sexy,” Jiz Lee, a non-binary adult performer and sex educator, tells me. "On its own, that’s fine. But a limited example of what porn is has the danger of dictating what’s ‘normal’, raising issues in our understanding of sexual health, and also our sexual psyche.”

The UK government has attempted to legislate pornography with the introduction of age-verification under the Digital Economy Act 2017, which means all commercial providers of online pornography will be required by law to carry out robust checks on users to ensure that they are 18 or over. There is no evidence to suggest this will curb stop young people from accessing porn, and the law – originally intended to come into force in July – but has since been delayed.

"One issue we face as teachers is being familiar with the language and range of terminology and ensuring this is used accurately,” says Nat*, a secondary school RSE (relationships and sex education) teacher from north London. “However, there can sometimes be a tendency to make incorrect assumptions that teenagers are naturally more up-to-date and more knowledgeable and comfortable with topics such as sexuality than was the case, say, ten years ago."

There's no denying that much mainstream porn replicated highly problematic tropes, but the focus on banning access overshadows conversations that seek to engage with the problem, through effective education focusing on critical engagement and open discussion. For an industry that often markets itself as being LGBTQ-friendly, it is common to see porn producers fetishising LGBTQ relationships and using seemingly innocuous terminology such as ‘interracial’ to allow consumers to pursue various combinations of racialised characters and racist scenarios.

Sex educators worry that all of this only legitimises certain messages about racism, sexism and transphobia. Young people who identify with some (or all) of the key marginalised intersections of sexuality deserve inclusive and sex-positive RSE that rejects toxic tropes often normalised in mainstream porn.

“There have been very few discussions or research on the racial stereotypes that are present within porn and how these may harm people of colour," Dr Annabel Sowemimo says. The community sexual and reproductive health doctor is the founder of Decolonising Contraception, a grassroots organisation that promotes discussion about the colonial history of sexual and reproductive health and how it is still implicated in our practice today. "The narratives are not dissimilar to colonial images – for example, black men being hypersexualised, black women are dominant, and Southeast Asian women are presented as submissive."

People of colour also experience greater negative reproductive and sexual health outcomes compared to their white counterparts. Some of these include difficulty negotiating condoms use, increased rates of domestic violence, language barriers, concerns about confidentiality and cultural stigmas.

"Reinforcing these stereotypes is likely to be quite damaging to both those involved in the industry and the consumers of porn," Sowemimo continues, adding that she is currently crowdfunding for a one-day sexual health festival for people of colour in order to combat this. "It is important that sex education accounts for the different backgrounds of young people and that we have these difficult conversations.”

Another worrying aspect of mainstream porn is that condom visibility is sparse. This is particularly concerning for people like Josina Calliste, the Strategic Lead for Women at Prepster – a UK-based charity that educates and agitates for access to PrEP. While Prepster’s work typically doesn’t include people of school age, Calliste would like to see information about PrEP integrated into RSE in schools.

“Men having sex with men and people from specific ethnic backgrounds are at greater risk of contracting HIV," she says, "so RSE messaging should include information about pleasure during sex. PrEP enables people to have fewer concerns about HIV risk, and combining that with other STI prevention messages will allow people to have pleasurable, worry-free sexual experiences.”

Sowemimo isn’t the only person looking to increase porn literacy among young people. Natasha Richards is a PhD candidate at the University of Essex, whose research explores creative approaches to RSE with a focus on theatre techniques. Currently working with Sexplain – an independent organisation that provides inclusive and comprehensive sex education workshops for young people – she incorporates creative games and exercises into her RSE classes with young people.

Richards says that an interactive learning experience that encourages dialogue, action and reflection can provide young people with an opportunity to reflect on their personal experiences and question what modern society looks like to them.

“Pornography and sexually-charged mediatised images and social media are increasingly present in the lives of young people, and provide young people with certain interpretations of relationships and sex," she tells me. "Theatre can become a space for young people to interrogate the different contexts of the actor and the character and the way they are constructed and understood, therefore highlighting the differences between reality and fiction when deconstructing the narratives and the characters within porn."

As Nat points out, sex educators face an uphill battle to tackle these issues in schools. “There are many young people who are gaining incorrect or unrealistic information through things such as porn, but on the other hand there are also those who have very little exposure to sex education and to understanding of related topics such as gender and sexuality identity.

“In other subjects we have data on previous assessments, learning needs, etc, so can differentiate accordingly. However, in PSHE, it's hard to know which students have already started their periods, which ones may have already become sexually active, and those who have seen porn – so it can be a challenge to pitch a lesson at the right level for a class and for each student.”

Still, it’s a fight worth having. It’s crucial for young people to be taught that everyone deserves to learn about the full spectrum of human sexuality and discover their desires shame-free.

* Name has been changed

@almazohene

Almaz is the founder and creative director of Kayleigh Daniels Dated, a new web platform combining sexy stories with informative health features to encourage and normalise free and frank discussion about sexuality. Kayleigh Daniels Dated, is currently crowdfunding to raise £10,000 needed to complete the pilot season.

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