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Porn literacy and the new frontier of sex ed

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With the easiest of access to adult films these days — thanks to the advent of the internet — experts say that the overwhelming majority of both boys and girls have seen some form of porn by the age of 18. This reality has been met with varied responses, socially and even legislatively. More than a dozen states have declared porn a “public health crisis,” which might be a little alarmist. However, without the right context, the adult industry — steeped in misogyny, wielding negative stereotypes — can certainly instill some unsavory values into a young person. To combat that, some schools are incorporating porn literacy classes into their sex-ed curricula.

Such an initiative can be an empowering tool that awards learners a more enlightened perspective on sex, drilling in concepts such as the need for consent alongside pleasure. But, depending on their approach, porn literacy courses could perhaps ruin the porn-watching experience, or convince kids that they should never click and fap, which also isn’t healthy.

One school in Boston that has been among the early adopters of porn literacy courses is the subject of an upcoming episode of This is Life with Lisa Ling, airing Sunday night on CNN. The show appears as though it will continue the ongoing conversation about how learning the nuance behind porn can empower young people, rather than adopt misogyny and stereotypes. In a preview of the episode, one of the high schoolers says that she believes porn literacy should be “mandatory” in schools, while another girl says that sexual education in the United States teaches about safety in sex and not the pleasurable aspects of it, while porn achieves the exact opposite.

The porn literacy curriculum in Boston, according to the New York Times, “isn’t designed to scare kids into believing porn is addictive, or that it will ruin their lives and relationships and warp their libidos.” Rather, the goal is to acknowledge the reality “that most adolescents do see porn,” while “teaching them to analyze its messages.” The school’s curriculum builders believe such an approach “is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world.”

A ninth-grade porn literacy class at a Quaker school outside Philadelphia has adopted a similar outlook. Students there learn that the sex depicted in porn is far from what real-life sexual experiences are like, which helps them “figure out what, exactly, sex means to them and provide[s] them with the skills they’ll need to navigate healthy relationships and, if they choose, sex lives,” according to Philadelphia magazine.

But the extreme stance that porn should virtually disappear has been adopted by some anti-porn activists, including Gail Dines, who told a Boston news network in a report on the local porn literacy course that she wanted to see porn suffer a similar social fate to that of cigarettes. “Porn is not cool,” Dines said. “It’s not the thing to watch. We need a massive shift, a paradigm shift in the way we think about pornography.”

Some believe that overexposure to porn leads to a decrease in sexual sensitivity, can have adverse effects on how men view women, and can build insecurities about sexual performance and body types. Others argue that porn watching enhances sexual experiences, makes people more open-minded, and encourages masturbation, which can relieve stress and provide other health benefits.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but it can’t be a bad thing for people — especially teens, who are vulnerable and entrenched in such a vital developmental stage — to understand that when they’re watching porn it’s just not real. Porn also shouldn’t create unrealistic expectations for sex, and that, like most things in life, it is likely best consumed moderately, and with a little bit of context.

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