Challenging Conversations

PORN, Teach About It Or Not?

Delaney Ruston, MD
August 17, 2021

In my June blog post entitled “We’re Talking Hot Love,” I wrote, "And then there is the issue of pornography which I have written about in the past and will do so again this summer,“ and sure enough...here we go.  

A close friend of mine, Laura Pacheco, is a wonderful filmmaker who has been making social impact documentaries for many years and has put her heart and soul into directing an upcoming film about sex education in America. The film explores, in part, a program where teens get trained to give sex-ed lessons in schools in Boston, which can include having them leading discussions on pornography — such as the troubling messages that get conveyed in porn. Yes, teens teaching teens. 

Recently, I spoke with Laura about the program, and today I share some of that conversation with you. The issue of whether porn should be included in sex education is a keen way of instigating dialogue about porn with tweens and teens in your life. (And remember, smartphones and all computers are unfortunately an easy portal into porn, so nudging ourselves to talk more frequently about porn is so important — these are not easy conversations to have).  

The program included in Laura’s film is Start Strong, and it’s run through Boston’s Public Health Commission. A major reason for this program is to promote positive relationships and prevent things like teen dating violence. Adolescents in the program meet after school at the Commission building, where they are taught a curriculum around sex ed that includes topics on porn. They meet together with instructors for an entire academic year 1 to 2 times a week. 

About halfway into the year, these trained adolescents, called Peer Leaders, are invited into schools to give workshops to middle and high schoolers about many topics related to healthy sexuality and relationships, including, at times, the topic of porn. The workshops are different for middle vs. high schoolers. This is called porn literacy, and it is not presumed that students have seen pornography and, no, pornography never gets shown during the workshops.

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I know it is wild to think of teens being the teachers around the complicated topic of porn. Laura has been so impressed with the intelligence and skill by which these trained peers mediate very constructive conversations on these topics. 

Laura told me how she constantly is reminded by both the ubiquity of porn viewing and how disturbing so much of it is.  For example, on several occasions, she has been filming a group of boys, who aren’t even friends, and someone will start talking about a particular porn video, and then so many of them will all chime in about having also seen it.  One time she was filming a group of 9th-grade boys, and they all started talking about a “Sandbox” video, and Laura told me NOT to Google it because it would make me want to “throw up.”  

One Peer Leader, let's call her Sheila, told Laura that it is like when you realize wrestling on TV is made up. It is the same with porn; it is made up. Sheila really likes being a Peer Leader, and she thinks it is important to help peers understand that porn is not real life.  

Laura told me that she is aware that youth are learning things from porn, and while they often say, “Ahh, we know it is not real,” clearly they are being influenced. For example, one teen boy talked in a class about girls being “spanked” in porn and whether he should do that. 

In a study of Dutch teens, the researchers wanted to know if more frequent viewing of porn increased the odds that teens would accept what they saw as real. Indeed, they found that more frequent viewing did increase the odds of “perceived social realism.”

One thing that particularly worries Laura (and, of course, I agree) is that porn does not model consent.

She shared this story with me:

A teen boy talked about how he started to hold his girlfriend's neck in a choking way, and he was assuming she would like it since that is what he had seen while watching porn. When his girlfriend stopped him and said she did not like it, it was a moment of insight for him. One, he realized porn was shaping his actions in ways that he was not happy about. And two, he realized how important it was for him to ask his girlfriend before trying new things to see if she would be okay with it. (I know the idea of a teen choking his girlfriend is so freaking disturbing, which makes having talks with our kids so critical.)   


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Finally, let me highlight something Peggy Orenstein wrote in her recent opinion article in the New York Times, entitled “If You Ignore Porn, You Are Not Teaching Sex Ed.”  (You may recall that Peggy is in Screenagers).  She wrote about Emily Rothman, who helped create the porn literacy program that Start Strong uses. 

“Emily Rothman, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University ... found that after taking a nonjudgmental, science-based course that she developed with colleagues, teens were less likely to believe that sexually explicit media was realistic, an easy way to make money, or a viable form of sex education. They also better understood the legal implications of sending nudes when underage. And they weren’t more likely to watch porn — that is, just as comprehensive sex education does not prompt sexual activity (in fact, quite the opposite), talking about porn does not appear to motivate teens to seek it out.”

One last point, while I only gave examples of teen boys above, we know that girls are also getting exposed to porn, and some seek it out. It is equally important that we have conversations with our girls as it is with our boys. 

Ideas to get the conversation started:

  1. Should sex ed classes in schools include the topic of porn in it? 
  2. If you don’t think porn should be discussed, why not? If you do think so, why so?
  3. What do you think about training teens to lead discussions about healthy sexual relationships that include conversations around porn?

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Challenging Conversations

PORN, Teach About It Or Not?

Delaney Ruston, MD
August 17, 2021

In my June blog post entitled “We’re Talking Hot Love,” I wrote, "And then there is the issue of pornography which I have written about in the past and will do so again this summer,“ and sure enough...here we go.  

A close friend of mine, Laura Pacheco, is a wonderful filmmaker who has been making social impact documentaries for many years and has put her heart and soul into directing an upcoming film about sex education in America. The film explores, in part, a program where teens get trained to give sex-ed lessons in schools in Boston, which can include having them leading discussions on pornography — such as the troubling messages that get conveyed in porn. Yes, teens teaching teens. 

Recently, I spoke with Laura about the program, and today I share some of that conversation with you. The issue of whether porn should be included in sex education is a keen way of instigating dialogue about porn with tweens and teens in your life. (And remember, smartphones and all computers are unfortunately an easy portal into porn, so nudging ourselves to talk more frequently about porn is so important — these are not easy conversations to have).  

The program included in Laura’s film is Start Strong, and it’s run through Boston’s Public Health Commission. A major reason for this program is to promote positive relationships and prevent things like teen dating violence. Adolescents in the program meet after school at the Commission building, where they are taught a curriculum around sex ed that includes topics on porn. They meet together with instructors for an entire academic year 1 to 2 times a week. 

About halfway into the year, these trained adolescents, called Peer Leaders, are invited into schools to give workshops to middle and high schoolers about many topics related to healthy sexuality and relationships, including, at times, the topic of porn. The workshops are different for middle vs. high schoolers. This is called porn literacy, and it is not presumed that students have seen pornography and, no, pornography never gets shown during the workshops.

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