Porn Is Teaching Us How to Do Sex

Schools won't, so sex workers, porn distributors, and erotic artists are stepping up to educate their fans about the basics of sex ed.

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Feb 25 2017, 5:00am

A still from a "Watt's The Safeword" YouTube kink education video by Amp and Bolt

Ari Yarwood's sex education amounted to a brief anatomy lesson, scary words about STIs, and a video about abstinence hosted by Kirk Cameron at—for some reason—a scary haunted carnival.

"I grew up in a rural, conservative area," Yarwood said. "There were still big gaps in my knowledge base that I needed to fill in as an adult, especially as a queer woman."

If only Cameron and his clowns could see her now. Today, Ari is editorial director of Oni Press's new Limerence Press, an imprint dedicated to comics focusing on erotica and sex education. Under her leadership, the company is hard at work on books like Oh Joy Sex Toy, an erotic coloring book by artists Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan, and an erotic story entitled Small Favors by Colleen Coover.

American sex education has always drifted far from the reality of sexual practices, from absurd "abstinence only" advice to lessons that omit queer people altogether. Only 13 states require that sex ed be medically accurate, and most don't require lessons at all. Increasingly, those filling that gap are the only people unafraid to bare it all in the first place: explicit artists, porn companies, and sex workers.

Global research has shown that porn is already stepping up to fill sex ed's role. According to a 2015 British study, 60 percent of school and university students there watch porn to learn about sex. "Porn has become a cultural mediator in how young people are understanding and experience sex," Australian researchers Maree Crabbe and David Corlett wrote in another study. "Porn is our most prominent sex educator."

The role of educator is at times unfamiliar for companies that usually focus on fantasy, but x-rated creators are increasingly providing lessons that viewers may be unable to find elsewhere. Among those resources is PornHub's new Sexual Wellness Center, launched earlier this month and overseen by Dr. Laurie Betito, a distinguished sex therapist.

"I'd never been involved in the adult industry at all," she said. But "as a sex therapist and educator, I've been in the media for 30 years, and it's a dream to be able to reach 70 million people a day with quality information." The site features informative articles and videos on everything from the most basic questions about conception to queer sexuality and more.

Pornhub isn't the only company capitalizing on the need for competent sex ed; earlier this month, after Utah legislators rejected a bill that would require schools there to offer optional, comprehensive sex ed classes, the porn site xHamster redirected all its traffic from the state to the Box, its series of sexual-wellness videos.

Some adult performers are launching educational campaigns on their own, like British performer Jason Domino, who is spearheading a project called Porn4PrEP that originated after he was exposed to HIV on set.

"I wasn't really prepared," Domino recalls. After the incident, he started PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), which was able to prevent him from becoming positive, and started learning about proactively protecting himself from HIV with PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). "I needed to talk about it so new infections could be reduced," he said. "Currently, sexual education seems to be quite focused on reproduction. It seems like all queer aspects, no matter the gender, aren't tied in. The excuse is that sex education is about producing babies."

Jason's currently working on a series of videos that feature safe-sex lessons that incorporate live intercourse; he estimates they'll be coming out sometime early this summer.

Other performers and outlets are focusing on aspects of sex ed that are rarely, if ever, covered in schools—those having to do with the safe, affirmative practice of kinks and fetishes. Professional dominatrix Princess Kali started Kink Academy in 2007 to address knowledge gaps she saw in her clients. "Heteronormativity is still the baseline," she said. "I think sex education does tend to take a heteronormative, cisgender, skinny white people approach."

Porn-industry heavyweight Kink.com has also gotten into the education game, offering frequent classes in BDSM and related subjects at its San Francisco headquarters. The company's goal is "to demystify BDSM and alternative sexuality through transparency," said Dusty J, who manages the workshops.

"I've got a squirting workshop that's great," she said. "We call it hands-in instead of hands-on."

Delivering realistic, factual messages about sex can be challenging in the realm of erotica. Although faulty sex ed is responsible for a wide variety of misconceptions, pornography itself presents an imaginary form of sex. Beautiful bodies, infallible boners, and performers' impossible flexibility can create all manner of unrealistic expectations.

"Something like PornHub responds to the needs of people with fantasies," said Dr. Betito. "I'd like to see more porn where performers use condoms, so it can show a responsible sexuality side, but that's just maybe wishful thinking. I don't know. At least there's a balance, there's something. It's better than nothing."

Artists working in adult media tend to argue that if audiences think porn is real, they've been failed by the educational system, not by the adult industry.

"I fully blame the public sex-education system," said Erika Moen, co-creator of Oh Joy Sex Toy. "Is it Star Wars' responsibility to teach kids how to fly a spaceship realistically? No, it's up to the grown ups and education system."

From major companies to individual models to indie creators, those who use adult media to educate cite an urgent need for information that is more accurate and more inclusive.

"I've seen a lot of suffering over the years, a lot of people who think they're not normal for something they're feeling," said Dr. Betito. "I'd like people to avoid that kind of suffering."

"Understanding your sexual desires and how to express them is worthwhile," said Princess Kali. "Your sex life is worth an investment."

Follow Matt Baume on Twitter.

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