When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?

When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?

Conversations between adults and teenagers about what happens after “yes” remain rare.


THE other day, I got an email from a 21-year-old college senior about sex — or perhaps more correctly, about how ill equipped she was to talk about sex. The abstinence-only curriculum in her middle and high schools had taught her little more than “don’t,” and she’d told me that although her otherwise liberal parents would have been willing to answer any questions, it was pretty clear the topic made them even more uncomfortable than it made her.

So she had turned to pornography. “There’s a lot of problems with porn,” she wrote. “But it is kind of nice to be able to use it to gain some knowledge of sex.”

I wish I could say her sentiments were unusual, but I heard them repeatedly during the three years I spent interviewing young women in high school and college for a book on girls and sex. In fact, according to a survey of college students in Britain, 60 percent 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. (Its depictions of women, meanwhile, are about as accurate as those of the “The Real Housewives” franchise.)

The statistics on sexual assault may have forced a national dialogue on consent, but honest conversations between adults and teenagers about what happens after yes — discussions about ethics, respect, decision making, sensuality, reciprocity, relationship building, the ability to assert desires and set limits — remain rare. And while we are more often telling children that both parties must agree unequivocally to a sexual encounter, we still tend to avoid the biggest taboo of all: women’s capacity for and entitlement to sexual pleasure.

It starts, whether intentionally or not, with parents. When my daughter was a baby, I remember reading somewhere that while labeling infants’ body parts (“here’s your nose,” “here are your toes”), parents often include a boy’s genitals but not a girl’s. Leaving something unnamed, of course, makes it quite literally unspeakable.

Nor does that silence change much as girls get older. President Obama is trying — finally — in his 2017 budget to remove all federal funding for abstinence education (research has shown repeatedly that the nearly $2 billion spent on it over the past quarter-century may as well have been set on fire). Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than half of high schools and only a fifth of middle schools teach all 16 components the agency recommends as essential to sex education. Only 23 states mandate sex ed at all; 13 require it to be medically accurate.

Even the most comprehensive classes generally stick with a woman’s internal parts: uteruses, fallopian tubes, ovaries. Those classic diagrams of a woman’s reproductive system, the ones shaped like the head of a steer, blur into a gray Y between the legs, as if the vulva and the labia, let alone the clitoris, don’t exist. And whereas males’ puberty is often characterized in terms of erections, ejaculation and the emergence of a near-unstoppable sex drive, females’ is defined by periods. And the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. When do we explain the miraculous nuances of their anatomy? When do we address exploration, self-knowledge?

No wonder that according to the largest survey on American sexual behavior conducted in decades, published in 2010 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers at Indiana University found only about a third of girls between 14 and 17 reported masturbating regularly and fewer than half have even tried once. When I asked about the subject, girls would tell me, “I have a boyfriend to do that,” though, in addition to placing their pleasure in someone else’s hands, few had ever climaxed with a partner.

Boys, meanwhile, used masturbating on their own as a reason girls should perform oral sex, which was typically not reciprocated. As one of a group of college sophomores informed me, “Guys will say, ‘A hand job is a man job, a blow job is yo’ job.’ ” The other women nodded their heads in agreement.

Frustrated by such stories, I asked a high school senior how she would feel if guys expected girls to, say, fetch a glass of water from the kitchen whenever they were together yet never (or only grudgingly) offered to do so in return? She burst out laughing. “Well, I guess when you put it that way,” she said.

The rise of oral sex, as well as its demotion to an act less intimate than intercourse, was among the most significant transformations in American sexual behavior during the 20th century. In the 21st, the biggest change appears to be an increase in anal sex. In 1992, 16 percent of women aged 18 to 24 said they had tried anal sex. Today, according to the Indiana University study, 20 percent of women 18 to 19 have, and by ages 20 to 24 it’s up to 40 percent.

A 2014 study of 16- to 18-year-old heterosexuals — and can we just pause a moment to consider just how young that is? — published in a British medical journal found that it was mainly boys who pushed for “fifth base,” approaching it less as a form of intimacy with a partner (who they assumed would both need to be and could be coerced into it) than a competition with other boys. They expected girls to endure the act, which young women in the study consistently reported as painful. Both sexes blamed the girls themselves for the discomfort, calling them “naïve or flawed,” unable to “relax.”

According to Debby Herbenick, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and one of the researchers on its sexual behavior survey, when anal sex is included, 70 percent of women report pain in their sexual encounters. Even when it’s not, about a third of young women experience pain, as opposed to about 5 percent of men. What’s more, according to Sara McClelland, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, college women are more likely than men to use their partner’s physical pleasure as the yardstick for their satisfaction, saying things like “If he’s sexually satisfied, then I’m sexually satisfied.” Men are more likely to measure satisfaction by their own orgasm.

Professor McClelland writes about sexuality as a matter of “intimate justice.” It touches on fundamental issues of gender inequality, economic disparity, violence, bodily integrity, physical and mental health, self-efficacy and power dynamics in our most personal relationships, whether they last two hours or 20 years. She asks us to consider: Who has the right to engage in sexual behavior? Who has the right to enjoy it? Who is the primary beneficiary of the experience? Who feels deserving? How does each partner define “good enough”? Those are thorny questions when looking at female sexuality at any age, but particularly when considering girls’ formative experiences.

We are learning to support girls as they “lean in” educationally and professionally, yet in this most personal of realms, we allow them to topple. It is almost as if parents believe that if they don’t tell their daughters that sex should feel good, they won’t find out. And perhaps that’s correct: They don’t, not easily anyway. But the outcome is hardly what adults could have hoped.

What if we went the other way? What if we spoke to kids about sex more instead of less, what if we could normalize it, integrate it into everyday life and shift our thinking in the ways that we (mostly) have about women’s public roles? Because the truth is, the more frankly and fully teachers, parents and doctors talk to young people about sexuality, the more likely kids are both to delay sexual activity and to behave responsibly and ethically when they do engage in it.

Consider a 2010 study published in The International Journal of Sexual Health comparing the early experiences of nearly 300 randomly chosen American and Dutch women at two similar colleges — mostly white, middle class, with similar religious backgrounds. So, apples to apples. The Americans had become sexually active at a younger age than the Dutch, had had more encounters with more partners and were less likely to use birth control. They were also more likely to say that they’d first had intercourse because of pressure from friends or partners.

In subsequent interviews with some of the participants, the Americans, much like the ones I met, described interactions that were “driven by hormones,” in which the guys determined relationships, both sexes prioritized male pleasure, and reciprocity was rare. As for the Dutch? Their early sexual activity took place in caring, respectful relationships in which they communicated openly with their partners (whom they said they knew “very well”) about what felt good and what didn’t, about how far they wanted to go, and about what kind of protection they would need along the way. They reported more comfort with their bodies and their desires than the Americans and were more in touch with their own pleasure.

Is Porn Good For Us or Bad For Us?

Is Porn Good For Us or Bad For Us?
New research suggests watching porn may lead to some undesirable consequences
Posted Mar 01, 2016
People continue to ask the same questions about porn that they have for decades – is porn good for us or bad for us? Is it immoral or is it empowering? Damaging or liberating? Asking these questions inevitably leads to an intense clashing of opinions and little else.
One question that is not being asked is: what is porn doing to us and are we OK with that? There is a growing body of research that says watching porn may lead to some not so desirable individual and social outcomes both in the short and long-term.
Some people can watch porn occasionally and not suffer significant side effects; however, plenty of people out there, including teens and pre-teens with highly plastic brains, find they are compulsively using high-speed Internet porn with their porn tastes becoming out of sync with their real-life sexuality.
Just visit the sites YourBrainOnPorn and Reddit’s No Fap (no masturbating to online porn) forum to see stories from thousands of young people struggling to overcome what they feel is an escalating addiction.
In the first-ever brain study on Internet porn users, which was conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, researchers found that the hours and years of porn use were correlated with decreased grey matter in regions of the brain associated with reward sensitivity, as well as reduced responsiveness to erotic still photos.[1] (link is external)
Less grey matter means less dopamine and fewer dopamine receptors. The lead researcher, Simone Kühn, hypothesized that “regular consumption of pornography more or less wears out your reward system.”[2] (link is external)
This is one of the reasons why Playboy, the magazine that introduced most of us to the naked female form, will no longer feature nude playmates after early 2016. As Pamela Anderson, who is featured on the cover of the final nude issue, said, “It’s hard to compete with the Internet.”[3] (link is external)
A separate German study showed users’ problems correlated most closely with the numbers of tabs open and degree of arousal.[4] (link is external) This helps explain why some users become dependent on new, surprising, or more extreme, porn. They need more and more stimulation to become aroused, get an erection and attain a sexual climax.
A recent study led by researchers at the University of Cambridge found that men who demonstrate compulsive sexual behavior require more and novel sexual images than their peers because they habituate to what they are seeing faster than their peers do.[5] (link is external)
Another recent study from the University of Cambridge found that those who have compulsive sexual behavior exhibit a behavioral addiction which is comparable to drug addiction in the limbic brain circuitry after watching porn. There is dissociation between their sexual desires and their response to porn – users may mistakenly believe that the porn that makes them the most aroused is representative of their true sexuality.[6] (link is external)
It may be no coincidence then that porn users report altered sexual tastes,[7] (link is external) less satisfaction in their relationships[8] (link is external) and real-life intimacy and attachment problems.[9] (link is external)
A lot of young men especially talk about how porn has given them a “twisted” or unrealistic view of what sex and intimacy are supposed to be, and how they then find it difficult to get interested in and aroused by a real-life partner.
Indeed, for many of them a real-life sexual encounter can be a foreign and anxiety-provoking experience. This is because communication skills are required, their entire body needs to be engaged and they must interact with another three-dimensional flesh-and-blood person who has their own sexual and romantic needs.
The book Sex at Dawn offers a relevant metaphor:
There’s an old story about a trial of a man charged with biting off another man’s finger in a fight. An eyewitness took the stand. The defense attorney asked, “Did you actually see my client bit off the finger?” The eyewitness said, “Well, no, I didn’t.” “Aha!” said the attorney with a smug smile. “How then can you claim he bit off the man’s finger?” “Well,” replied the witness, “I saw him spit it out.”[10] (link is external)
Think about this in the context of young people watching online porn. Though the effects that online porn has on the brain and behavior have not yet been fully determined, never before in human history have young men experienced the phenomenon known as porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED).
In the first comprehensive study of male sexual behavior in the US, which was conducted by Alfred Kinsey in 1948 and published in the subsequent book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, just 1 percent of men under 30 years old and 3 percent of men between 30 and 45 years old, reported erectile dysfunction.[11] (link is external) Yet, in a recent study, more than a third of young military servicemen reported experiencing erectile dysfunction.[12] (link is external) Other recent studies had similar findings among non-military youth around the world, with rates showing a marked increase after high-speed Internet porn became widespread.[13] (link is external) [14] (link is external) [15] (link is external)
For our upcoming book, Man Interrupted (link is external), we interviewed a number of young men regarding their concerns about porn and how there is a lack of guidance for the overuse of porn. A common sentiment among them was: “I’d like to know that more psychologists acknowledged porn addiction at all degrees of severity. If that were the case I’d be less pessimistic about telling them about my problems.”
They also talk about how other areas of their life are affected, such as concentration and emotional well-being, by watching excessive amounts of porn because they notice massive positive shifts in their personal lives and outlooks once they stop masturbating to it.
These young men often recount how their social anxiety drastically improved – including an increase in confidence, eye contact, and comfort interacting with women. They also report more energy to get through their daily lives, concentration becoming easier, depression being alleviated, and stronger erections and sexual responsiveness after voluntarily engaging in a “no fap” challenge.
Regardless of how one might feel about porn’s value, more and more studies suggest porn users suffer detrimental effects. Ultimately, more research needs to be conducted. However, if in the meantime we continue to deny that porn can be a problem for some people, we are effectively denying these people, many of them underage, help and guidance.
This post was co-written with Nikita Coulombe. Also see our book, Man Interrupted (link is external), and my TED talk on the “Demise of Guys.” (link is external)