Last month, the New York Times published an OpEd from author Peggy Orenstein titled, When Did Porn Become Sex Ed? When it hit my social media feeds, I braced myself for an anti-porn diatribe about how the industry is destroying our youth and must be more strictly regulated by the government. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Orenstein’s main focus was, in fact, on the failure of responsible adults (parents, schools, health care providers, community leaders) to provide factual, comprehensive sexual education to young people. Even when sex education is available, “we still tend to avoid the biggest taboo of all: women’s capacity for and entitlement to sexual pleasure.”
These omissions lead young people to “consult pornography, at least in part, as though it were an instruction manual, even as nearly three-quarters say that they know it is as realistic as pro wrestling.” According to Orenstein, the many young women that she interviewed are not prioritizing their own sexual pleasure. When they begin having partnered sex, they gauge their own satisfaction by their (presumably male) partner’s satisfaction.
Curiously, Orenstein writes very little about porn itself; the dearth of comprehensive sex education in American schools bears the brunt of her concerns. Porn performer, dominatrix, and podcaster Tina Horn tweeted at Orenstein, “This piece has great research. Why does it have to blame porn when it clearly argues bad sex ed is the issue?” Indeed, it seems that the NYT used the headline When Did Porn Become Sex Ed? simultaneously to make porn the scapegoat and to give the article a sexier, click-baity edge. Tina continued, “It’s the most sad when clear researched arguments are made and we are expected to infer porn as malevolent force.”
— Tina Horn (@tinahornsass) March 21, 2016
Even though Orenstein and the NTY manipulatively used porn as the framing device for a piece that was not really about porn, the article did spark important conversations about the intersection of sex education and pornography, and where our responsibility as porn industry workers begins and ends. It’s a conversation worth having, especially when young people are being denied information about their own bodies. I reached out to several porn performers and other industry workers to get their opinions on the matter.
Judy Hologram: What are your thoughts on Orenstein’s When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?
Princess Kali: Reading these kinds of articles that describe the ways in which young women are particularly affected by porn are always a bit heart-breaking. It’s tragic that ALL youth, regardless of gender, are left with porn as the only way to learn about the mechanics of sex, but young women seem to bear the brunt of the resulting pain, both physically and emotionally. It’s criminal (or it should be) that schools and government agencies do such a horrible, damaging job with sex education.
This is a generation that has grown up with the internet at their fingertips and cell phones in their pockets, so trying to keep information out of their hands is a battle that’s lost before it’s even begun. This is a generation that is not used to being denied information or dealing with “gate-keepers,” and so a system that was already hurtful has also become ridiculous.
Alyx Fox: The article points to the fact that Americans have trouble talking about sex, especially parents and [young people], and I think that’s true. Porn is often the scapegoat, but actually it is one of the only resources most people have to explore their fantasies and figure out their desires. I like that the author points to a need for adults to have intelligent conversations around sex—especially with each other, but also with [young people].
Kitty Stryker: I agree with Orenstein that parents, teachers, etc need to be in a position to talk about sex in a direct, honest, consensual, and respectful fashion. That said, when she discusses the Dutch’s openness around sex education, she fails to mention the study that suggested porn doesn’t seem to affect the sexual behaviour of Dutch teens. Another seemingly relevant study would be the Danish one about the impact of porn on relationships, where access to a variety of porn seems to benefit couples rather than hurt them. This leads me to question if, perhaps, porn is being scapegoated because of a lack of comprehensive sex education, rather than because it’s inherently “bad.” Just as a TV is not really a substitute for parenting, porn is not really a substitute for communicating about sex, nor should it be.
JH: It has been argued that porn literacy is an essential part of sex ed for young people. What does porn literacy mean to you? How can porn literacy be approached in sex ed?
Princess Kali: I agree that porn literacy should be a part of sex-ed for young people now, but I also believe that MEDIA literacy should be part of the curriculum. Teaching young people to understand, analyze, critique & reflect on what media shows and its effects on each of us both consciously and unconsciously is a part of living in the 21st century. To deny that porn is part of the “usual” sexual experience is an effort in futility. I personally don’t know how incorporating porn literacy in youth sex ed can be accomplished, which is one of the reasons I’ve always stayed away from youth sex ed in my personal career. But there are some brilliant sex educators (not necessarily in academia but in the schools, that are actually working with [young people]) that I’m sure have some amazing ideas. They should be sought out and listened to.
Alyx Fox: The most basic and necessary form of porn literacy is the one pointed to by the NYTimes article — knowing the difference between porn fantasies and personal realities. But to me, real porn literacy would mean knowing what kind of porn exists — who porn is made by, for, how, and why (insert cis het male gaze education here / alternative sexualities and feminist approaches). There should be a historical survey of porn with an understanding of the American film rating system and how it came to be. Add some cross-cultural study looking at other cultures and their ratings systems and restrictions, or lack thereof, around erotic media. An advanced course should include legal issues surrounding porn production and distribution with both a domestic and global POV. It should include a study of the economics of porn including piracy, “high risk businesses,” and the way financial institutions exert control over what gets produced.
Porn is often the scapegoat but actually it is one of the only resources most people have to explore their fantasies and figure out their desires.
Kitty Stryker: I think porn literacy is really important. For me, porn literacy is entangled with teaching [young people] (and adults!) that sex work is work. The adult industry is an industry, and like other industries involving entertainment, performers are paid to perform. Just as you wouldn’t try to do gymnastics like Cirque du Soilel, I think people should see porn as a job that involves practice, skill, athleticism, and, frankly, training! The more that people understand that and treat it as a job, I think the easier it is to explain the intricacies of porn as an entertainment and marketing industry.
How would you approach that in sex ed? I’m not sure, considering in some states you can’t even have proper sex ed, just abstinence only education. Despite the fact that maybe talking about porn and masturbation would help encourage abstinence, I doubt the places that go for that approach would go for it. Once you can tell [young people] how to have safer sex, then maybe you can begin to deconstruct their porn viewing habits. This site, however, is pretty well done and is made for teens.
JH: Are there instances where porn can be educational?
Princess Kali: My first response to this is always, “meh.” Can 2 Fast 2 Furious teach you to drive? Can Point Break (the 1st one) teach you how to skydive? Can 50 Shades teach you what a kinky relationship is like? (Hint, the answer to all three of those is no.) I think that porn is entertainment, and of course we can “learn” from entertainment, but I don’t think that makes it educational. That may seem like splitting hairs but to me it’s an important differentiation. Victoria’s Secret Catalogs aren’t porn but are often used as it (or were before easy online porn access!). Intention matters.
One of the reasons I created KinkAcademy.com & PassionateU.com is because I wanted to show sexual techniques (especially edgy or more dangerous ones) without the distraction of being super turned on right in that moment. When it comes to bondage or impact play, learning technique is truly a matter of safety, so I wanted people to learn how it works and then be safe to go create their own erotic in-person experiences.
Alyx Fox: Definitely. Right away I think of Crash Pad’s Guide to Fisting and Kink University but I know there are many titles that take an educational approach. But education is something that porn companies can do around porn, not only in porn. Producers can provide resources on their sites or find ways to engage in discussions around porn and talk about what they do. Foxhouse has not produced any educational titles yet, but we do participate in porn festivals and interviews and look for ways to talk about what we do and why we do it. And I think this is a very effective way to educate around porn without requiring all films to be educational. Sometimes it’s ok to have a film just be fun or twisted and taboo. With so much moral policing in our culture I think porn provides a much needed, more relaxed, indulgent experience and I’d hate to see that change.
Sometimes it’s ok to have a film just be fun or twisted and taboo. With so much moral policing in our culture I think porn provides a much needed, more relaxed, indulgent experience and I’d hate to see that change.
Kitty Stryker: I mean, educational porn is a whole genre, so yes. 🙂 That said, I think even when porn isn’t seeking to be education it can have some educational impact. I’ve discovered new turn ons through watching porn, or experimented with new positions I’ve seen other plus size performers do. I learned how to put a condom on with my mouth through watching porn. These are all great things! I have a context for sexual education, though, so I think critically about what I’m watching and if it makes sense for me. Unfortunately, we don’t tend to teach critical thinking in schools either, which doesn’t help our teens make sensible decisions.
JH: What responsibility does porn have to educate its viewers?
Princess Kali: I personally always err on the side of responsibility. I think if we had more porn literacy, there would be LESS responsibility, because viewers would have learned that it’s for entertainment and not as a how-to manual. But as of now, with porn so often acting as a form of education, I’m glad when they include safe-sex and consent discussions. When porn-as-entertainment is used as porn-for-education there’s often not much context for what’s going on or whether everyone involved has consented and is enjoying it. At least not in what is considered most “mainstream” porn. There are feminist and/or ethics driven companies creating porn and I wish mainstream media would promote those companies more.
Alyx Fox: I don’t think that porn has responsibility to directly educate. Porn should not have to pick up the slack just because Americans have a problem talking about sex, their fantasies, and desires. There are some non-pornographic films that are educational and other films that are not. If this is ok I don’t think porn should be held to a different standard just because of moral stigmas around sexually explicit content. I think it’s great that some porn takes that approach and definitely agree that those resources should be made available. This definitely makes a good case for porn literacy—helping people to understand how to view porn that is not directly educational—but that doesn’t need to come from porn itself. This is something that could also be provided by writers, sex educators, or parents.
Kitty Stryker: I don’t know that I feel porn has a responsibility to educate its viewers, per se. I would argue, more, that porn is accountable to its viewers. For example, I do believe that when people see slurs in porn is helps to normalize them, so I personally don’t use them in my work and I don’t tend to work with people who do. Is that my responsibility? No, but for me it’s a way of staying accountable to my politics and my community.
JH: How can young people/millennials affect the ways in which porn is produced, and the kinds of porn that is produced?
Princess Kali: I think this is one of the toughest problems to solve actually. Because I’d naturally say boycott those companies that don’t produce ethical porn. But no one pays for porn anymore, so it’s harder to use dollars as influence. So maybe the opposite stance. Millennials have to become willing to pay for porn that matches their desire for how it’s produced. Small companies that produce ethical porn have a very hard time staying in business these days thanks to tube sites and “amateurs” being willing to post free videos of sexual escapades in celebration of exhibitionist expression. So put your money where your mouth is, and buy porn from small indie companies!
Alyx Fox: I think it’s important first of all for young people to know about the different kinds of porn that are out there. I mean, wasn’t it just recently that Emma Watson said there needs to be a feminist version of porn? Which is a nice sentiment but actually is misleading and kind of laughable to those of us who know the amazing female directors who are already producing content right now. If Ms. Watson is clueless, then we can assume most of the people who are finding free content on tube sites are as well. Once people are aware of what is out there, we really need to drive home the fact that paying for porn is what keeps these studios and performers going. It’s really that simple. So find what you like, and pay for what you like. Even the mainstream porn industry will change once they see that independent and feminist studios are successfully producing different kinds of content. That’s already started happening, and I’m sure it will continue if porn watchers just continue to support the studios they like.
Kitty Stryker: The easiest way is to pay for your porn. Yes, you can find porn for free on hub sites, but that porn is often stolen. When producers don’t see money coming in from a particular performer or type of porn, they won’t bother booking more, which means your fave hub performer may be losing work when you’re jerking off to them for free. Help us continue to make the porn you like by paying us! Even better? Many models have their own clip stores, allowing them to be in charge of marketing and production themselves. Pay them directly and help influence independent business over big industry!