Teaching porn in schools

Posted at 20:53 on 20 Mar 2015 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: ethical porn, feminist porn, gender politics, in the news, media, politics, sex critical, sex education, sex positive, young people

On Monday a Guardian article entitled "Porn belongs in the classroom" made waves in the UK. I got home on Monday afternoon to several journalist interview requests, and an invitation to discuss the topic on BBC Newsnight (which I politely declined because seven hours notice really isn't enough for that sort of thing, although apparently it's standard). This idea has clearly made waves.

Prof Christian Graugaard of Aalborg University has called for pornography to be shown to older teens in schools to kickstart discussion and education that will help them become "more conscientious and critical consumers".

“My proposal is to critically discuss pornography with 8th and 9th graders [age 15 – the legal age of consent in Denmark – and 16 respectively] as part of a sensible didactic strategy, carried out by trained teachers,” he told the Guardian.

“We know from research that a vast majority of teenagers have seen porn at an early age – so it’s not a question of introducing youngsters to porn,” he added. According to one Nordic study, 99% of boys and 86% of girls in Scandinavia have already seen pornographic films by the time they’re 16. What Graugaard wants is to make sure teens “possess the necessary skills to view porn constructively”.

The idea that sex education be expanded to teach young people how to critically engage the erotic media they encounter is not new. Porn critics, ethical pornographers and sex positive activists have been making this point for ages, and a similar suggestion was made last year when sexual health charity Brook, the PSHE Association and the Sex Education Forum issued new guidelines for sex education in schools:

Teachers should not attempt to stop teenagers watching pornography online, but instead help them to understand the differences between “distorted images of sex” and real-life relationships, according to new guidelines on sex education.

The idea of giving young people the resources and confidence they need to make informed decisions, rather than teaching abstinence, is in fact a fundamental principle of current models of sex education.

It's good that this proposal is in the news, because good ideas need exposure, but the attention-grabbing headlines seem to be a bit of a straw man. Screening hardcore porn films isn't actually what Professor Graugaard is proposing.

"I see no need to show sexually active genitals in the classrooms — naked people in various sexual situations would do fine," he said, suggesting Cupido, a Norwegian erotic magazine, as an example of teaching material. Cupido publishes soft pornographic images with lots of diversity in body types and sexuality, alongside articles about sex and relationships. "Alternatively, teachers could search the internet together with the students — and critically discuss what can easily be found in the virtual space," he said.

Images need not even be shown at all, stressed Graugaard — what's important is talking about what is out there. "Pornography — or even erotic literature — is an excellent vehicle for critical discussion about the difference between fantasy and reality and the commercial media's expression of sexuality, gender roles, and body types," he said. "Also, softcore images may generate valuable discussions about the diversity of eroticism and even raise issues such as personal integrity, gender equality, human rights, and 'safer sex.'"

It seems to me that this is a no brainer. Porn needs to be talked about in the classroom, and there are myriad age-appropriate ways that media could be used to kickstart discussion - from watching porn performers talk about their scenes on YouTube (several feminist pornographers publically share nudity-free pre-shoot or post-shoot interviews to highlight the consent and negotiation behind their productions, myself included) to watching the introductions to different porn films and pressing pause before things get too explicit. Vice News reports,

Ethical porn is defined as that in which performers are fairly paid, all acts are negotiated consensually, there is a wide variation of body types, genders, and sexualities, and there is a focus on the pleasure of all people involved.

Showing this type of porn could neutralize the toxic effects of advertising, which tells young people that only one body type is desirable, Blake told VICE News, and combat the misogyny and degrading images often seen in mainstream porn.

"If you want to show pupils how mainstream porn is not like real sex, you would do well to show ethical porn made by real life couples in love, or porn by feminist producers which shows real life negotiation and consent by performers," she said. "You can do all this without actually showing the sex." 

It's not the mechanics of sex that should be talked about, but how to view erotic media critically - asking questions such as whose idea was this scene? What's the real life relationship between the actors? Is the dialogue scripted or improvised? How much variety is available in the body types that are depicted, and how do these compare with the bodies we see in every day life? Is there any difference in the way male and female bodies are filmed? Are there any stereotypes or tropes recognisable from advertising, TV or other entertainment media? Who is the presumed or intended audience?

When I was 15, I had known for ten years that I was kinky, and I had only told a tiny number of people. I had already started experimenting with kinky roleplay and erotic touch, but had not yet had penis in vagina sex, and wasn't sure whether I wanted to. For me, finding spanking and BDSM porn online was the first time I realised that I wasn't the only person on the planet who might enjoy acting out these fantasies. It was a hugely affirming experience, but it was another ten years before I worked out that as a woman, I was not the intended audience of these images - and that there was very little online porn created with my desires in mind.

Porn can have a positive or a negative effect on young people, as can watching films and TV. I think critical media consumption is an absolutely necessity of modern education -  not just of porn, but of the images that surround us from TV, film, magazines and advertising, particularly in relation to body image, confidence, and diversity of representation.

Porn is already taught in some university courses. I was very interested in Arielles Pardes article today about the instructive - and provocative - part porn played in her Freshman creative writing class:

After a few classes, I learned to divorce the material from its sexually gratuitous nature and I discovered that through pornography, you can pretty much talk about anything. Our class had discussions about race and gender and representation; there were conversations about power, about protection, about figuring out what turns you on. Topics like the evolution of pubic hair and breasts in pornography led to discussions about culture, politics, and identity. Porn wasn't just a way for us to learn about the mechanics and expectations of sex; it was a lens that allowed us to view the entire world. It also gave us a lens to view porn.

For me the real question is not whether porn should be discussed in schools - it absolutely should - but how teachers will be trained to lead discussion. As I told Vice News,

"My biggest concern about Graugaard's proposal is how teachers would be effectively trained when we have such a culture of sexual shame in our society, and many teachers are from an older generation who aren't familiar with modern pornography," she said. "Showing and discussing porn would have to be done by outside specialists who were under 30, internet literate, and specially trained."

I don't think we need to insist on an upper age limit per se, but I do these discussions would benefit from being led by adults closer in age to the young people they were talking to. The culture of sexual shame in the UK, and the generation gap between those who grew up online and those who didn't, make me very wary of rolling porn criticism lessons into the standard school curriculum. This would require specialist training.

As a queer, kinky 15 year old, I was already aware that my sexual interests were unusual. Young people with marginalised sexualities already face harassment and stigma, and I think there would be considerable risk involved in discussing something as personal as sexuality in as exposed and high-pressured an environment as secondary school. I faced bullying from teachers, as well as students, and my blood runs cold at the thought of how much more stigmatising and violating my school experience could have been if those teachers had been the ones responsible for leading a discussion about porn and sexuality.

Teaching porn in the classroom is a risky proposition not because the porn itself might be harmful to young people, but because the teachers' - and other students - attitudes might be. If it were mishandled, this sort of classroom discussion of sex and sexuality could be deeply traumatic for students with marginalised sexualities.

I'm not a sex education specialist, but personally I think any porn or sex curriculum would have to be designed along lines that fundamentally respected the privacy of the young people involved. Even something as seemingly innocuous as inviting students to talk about how a given porn film makes them feel is risky if the class itself is not a safe space - and asking students to discuss their sexual fantasies, desires or experience with each other or with a teacher is even more so.

I'd rather see porn criticism taught like English literature - not asking young people to share anything personal, but rather giving them the tools to critically engage with the media they encounter. And rather than exclusively demonising porn, I'd like these critical skills to be taught around advertising and other entertainment media too.

It's not like we'd need to start from scratch. Justin Hancock, who delivers excellent sex ed resources for young people and those who work with them through his website Bishuk.com, pointed out in an article last week that,

There are committed, experienced and well-trained teachers, youth workers and outreach workers out there who deliver excellent sex and relationships education – but there aren’t enough of them.

Due to cuts many of them have left the area. Voluntary sector organisations are struggling to retain contracts and expertise due to fragmented commissioning.

Rather than re-inventing the wheel, perhaps we should stop cutting funding to the UK sex education resources that already exist. Rather than acting scandalised when European academics suggest that responsible conversations with young people about porn might include watching some together, perhaps we should invest in the UK organisations and volunteers who are already trained in sex education, and fund school visits from outreach workers to kickstart a more nuanced, productive conversation about sex and sexuality.

Comments

True

This generation of politicians is awash with small-minded prudes and they would never countenance anything that transgresses their narrow opinions around sexuality.

1984 said "there is hope, but it lies in the proles" Today, there is hope, but it lies in our future. The sooner my generations fucks off out of power and hands over to our kids to run things the better we will be.

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