Opinion | If You Ignore Pornography, You Aren’t Teaching Sex Ed

By Peggy Orenstein

Ms. Orenstein has written extensively about boys, girls and sex education.

Parents often say that if they try to have the sex talk with their teens, the kids plug their ears and hum or run screaming from the room. But late last month, those roles were reversed: After a workshop for high school juniors at the Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School promoting critical thinking about online pornography, it was parents who flipped out. Some took to the media — The New York Post, Fox News, The Federalist and other like-minded outlets jumped on the story — accusing the school of indoctrinating children.

While I don’t know the precise content of that presentation, I can say this: Refusing to discuss sexually explicit media, which is more accessible to minors than at any other time in history, won’t make it go away. As far back as 2008 — basically the Pleistocene era in internet terms — a study found that more than 90 percent of boys and close to two-thirds of girls had viewed online pornography before turning 18, whether intentionally or involuntarily.

I’ve been interviewing teenagers about their attitudes and expectations of sex for over a decade. When talking to boys, in particular, I’ve never asked whether they’ve watched porn — that would shoot my credibility to hell. Instead, I ask when they first saw it. Most say right around the onset of puberty. They not only learned to masturbate in tandem with its images but also can’t conceive of doing it any other way. “I have a friend who was a legend among the crew team,” a high school senior told me. “He said that he’d stopped using porn completely. He said, ‘I just close my eyes and use my imagination.’ We were like, ‘Whoa! How does he do that?’”

Curiosity about sex and masturbation is natural: good for girls, boys and everyone beyond those designations. And I am talking about children here, many of whom have yet to have a first kiss; adult porn use is a different conversation. One could also debate the potential for sexual liberation of ethically produced porn, queer porn or feminist porn, but those sites are typically behind a pay wall, and most teenagers don’t have their own credit cards.

The free content most readily available to minors tends to show sex as something men do to rather than with women. It often portrays female pleasure as a performance for male satisfaction, shows wildly unrealistic bodies, is indifferent to consent (sometimes in its actual production) and flirts with incest. The clips can also skew toward the hostile.

In a 2020 analysis of more than 4,000 heterosexual scenes on Pornhub and Xvideos, 45 percent and 35 percent, respectively, contained aggression, almost exclusively directed at women. Black women have been found to be the targets of such aggression more frequently than white women, and Black men are more likely than white men to be depicted as aggressors. In other words, teens are being served a heaping helping of racism with their eroticized misogyny.

Boys I interview typically assure me that they know the difference between fantasy and reality. Maybe. But that’s the response people give to any suggestion of media influence. You don’t need a Ph.D. in psych to know that what we consume shapes our thoughts and behavior even — maybe especially — when we believe it doesn’t. Any troll with a Facebook account could tell you that.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that adolescents who frequently use porn turn out to be more likely than others to believe its images are realistic. They’re also more likely to try out some of its dangerous moves like choking a partner during sex (a potentially lethal behavior), which, like heterosexual anal intercourse, appears to have been on the rise among adolescents.

Among college men, pornography use has been associated with seeing women as disposable and, for both sexes, a stronger belief in rape myths — such as that a woman “asked for it” because of what she wore or how much she drank. The combination of exposure and perception of porn’s accuracy has also been associated with an increased risk of sexual aggression, which was defined as pressuring someone into intercourse who has already refused.

To be fair, though, mainstream media use is associated with many of the same beliefs and behaviors, so even if you could block all the triple-X sites on the internet (and good luck with that), it wouldn’t be enough. Nor am I suggesting that viewing porn will turn a tenderhearted teen violent, though it could validate existing tendencies among some.

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