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The Answer Blog

Archive for August, 2013

The Trouble With Teens and Porn

August 28, 2013

Teens are viewing porn. Not all teens are viewing porn, but many teens are viewing porn.

The two most common questions I am asked about teens watching porn is, “Why do they do it?” and “How will it affect them?”

My answer to the first question is, “Because it’s porn.” It’s forbidden for teens (and with good reason), and chances are they want to see it. They also watch porn because it’s about sex, and the restricting and censoring of school-based sexuality education throughout the United States is hugely to blame for why curious young people go to porn to learn about sex.

Porn is easily accessible. It is clear, direct and graphic—as opposed to the cryptic answers they receive from the uncomfortable adults in their lives. It is arousing, and when you consider the hormonal changes adolescents and teens experience, their interest and curiosity are completely normal, just misdirected.

Comprehensive sexuality education programs provide age-and developmentally-appropriate content that research shows to have a significant impact on behaviors, decision-making and relationships. But far too many schools teach abstinence only until marriage or nothing at all. And although parents can and should be the primary sexuality educators of their children, it is unfair to expect parents to know everything about human sexuality or what is and isn’t age-appropriate. This is why it is so important for parents, schools, faith communities and sexuality education experts to work in partnership to provide young people with such important, sometimes life-saving, information.

So, if porn contains the easily accessible, straightforward information young people say they want, why are we against them viewing it?

Because it’s not designed for them. We wouldn’t use algebra to teach a second grader addition, because it’s not age appropriate. The same is true for porn. It is designed for and to be consumed by adults because adults understand that what they are seeing is a fantasy. To many younger people, what they see is what they get, so porn represents the way sexual relationships ARE, not the way some might be. Some of my former college students told me porn taught them a lot about behaviors, but nothing about safer sex, relationships, communication, consent and the myriad other topics that should be addressed in a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.

The purpose of porn is not to educate; the purpose of porn is to entertain and make money. The messages young people receive from porn are, at best, misleading—at worst, biased and inaccurate. Here are some of these messages:

  1. Only people of a certain race, ethnicity, age, body type, etc. have-or should have-sex. The visual representation of sexual behaviors in porn speaks volumes and reinforces age-old sexist, racist, ageist, ableist and other stereotypes.
  2. Bigger is better-whether penises, breasts, buttocks (on women) or muscles (on men). The number one question adolescents ask is, “Am I normal?” Porn reinforces the idea that young people are not “okay” unless their bodies look like what they see represented. This can have a significant effect on viewers’ self-esteem and body image.
  3. Girls and women exist to “service” men. Even same-sex porn between women is created for men. I worked with a group of seventh-grade boys, where we were discussing gender stereotypes. I asked them to describe boys and received unsurprising responses: “strong, athletic, funny.” When I asked about girls, the first response I received was, “Girls are here to give lap dances to guys.” There is absolutely no reason why a seventh-grade boy should know what a lap dance is, let alone have the accompanying value that a girl’s worth is in performing one.
  4. Hook up; don’t look for relationships. Porn does not tend to depict love relationships. It depicts one-time hook-ups, usually without showing or even discussing condoms or other latex barriers. Adults are alarmed by teen hook-up culture, but it’s not exclusive to teens, and it’s certainly reinforced by what is in porn.

So, what is the impact of the many messages communicated by porn? Basically, we don’t know for sure. Certainly, as I shared above, it can affect attitudes and beliefs about gender, relationships, and sexuality in general. But porn’s impact on young people’s behaviors varies depending on a variety of factors: culture (Swedish teens were able to distinguish between reality and fantasy, but Swedish culture is far more progressive around sexuality); the content of the porn (a couple engaged in a sex act versus the depiction of violence); the frequency with which porn is viewed (greater frequency resulted in earlier sexual initiation for some); the adolescent’s history with aggression (some juvenile sex offenders who consumed porn were more likely to display aggression than those who did not); and more.

As researchers continue to explore correlations and causations, young people have questions. They need to know how their bodies work, how to navigate their normal sexual feelings, how to be in relationships and how to avoid the possible negative consequences of shared sexual behaviors. They won’t learn that from porn. They won’t learn it from abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

We cannot continue to let pornography “educate” young people, and we need to stop tolerating the faux moralistic arguments against comprehensive sexuality education. New Jersey has one of the strongest sexuality education mandates in the U.S., yet school after school, district after district, waste taxpayer money on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Young people need and have the right to be taught information and skills that are medically accurate and age- and developmentally-appropriate from adults who are trained to do so. They need their parents to take the initiative to talk with them about sexuality, within the context of their family’s values, rather than waiting passively for their children to ask questions—because some children may never ask. Educated youth grow up to be well-adjusted adults. And one thing we can all agree on is that we want our children to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted.

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