I was interviewed today by the Canadian Broadcasting Company about my concept of porn literacy, especially for young people. Here's what I said:
~ Parents really need to talk with their kids about porn.
It's everywhere, and kids are going to encounter it—intentionally, or accidentally, or through their friends. It isn't ideal that kids consume porn, but if they do, they need adult guidance.
~ What parents should tell kids about porn:
* Porn is not a documentary. It's more like a highlight reel, involving lots of editing, deliberate selection of shots, and lots of off-camera preparation. The goal of a highlight reel isn't to educate you, it's to thrill you with a series of disconnected moments.
* Porn doesn't portray sex the way it really is. It leaves out a lot of what most people like about sex—such as emotions, laughing, talking, and feeling close. Because movies about that stuff wouldn't be sexually arousing (which is the goal of porn), porn makers don't show it very much. Instead, they mostly show bodies rubbing against bodies, which is sex without most of its real-world context.
* Porn is like a video game—it isn't designed to be real, it's designed to entertain. No one designing a video game says, "people can't fly or shoot bullets out of their fingers, so we can't put that into the game we're creating." So just like you watch a video game and you know it isn't real, if you watch porn you need to keep the same thing in mind—it isn't real.
* Porn features unusual bodies doing unusual things. Your body doesn't, and probably never will, look like the bodies in porn. That's really OK. And your body may never do some or most of the things you see in porn. That's OK, too.
~ Clearly, you don't want the first conversation you have with your kid about sex to be about porn.
Therefore, talk to your kid about sex NOW. Then you'll both have some experience discussing sex together (even if it's really awkward) when you do talk about porn. Topics you two should talk about, depending on your kid's age, include gender; bodies; that almost everyone touches themselves for pleasure; how people become pregnant; how to decide if you want to kiss or have sex with someone; how alcohol and drugs affect sexual decision-making; and the crucial importance of contraception. Of course, your mileage may vary; the important thing is to figure out what's relevant to your kid, and to talk about it.
~ How should parents start the first conversation about porn:
I'm not comfortable discussing this. I guess you aren't, either. Still, we need to talk about porn—it's my responsibility. Porn is made for adults, and therefore I don't want you to watch it, but if you do, I want you to understand 3 key things:
* It's not real—it's a bunch of professional actors and actresses who follow a written script and play characters, just like in other movies.
* It's made for adults who have some life experience with sex, or at least with emotions and a few relationships. That means it uses certain kinds of codes that adults understand and kids don't. Like a woman having sex with the pizza delivery guy represents that she's horny, not that most woman are going to do that.
* It doesn't show a lot of what makes sex worth doing—the connection with another person that makes the whole physical thing way more meaningful and enjoyable. And it doesn't show that sex can be relaxed rather than frantic.
~ Most porn is poor sex education—and the antidote is better sex education.
That means parental conversations &/or books. And, by the way, school sex education.
~ Parents can calm down.
Kids have been accessing sexual images, ideas, and experiences in ways their parents dislike since the beginning of time. Most parents did so when they were kids. And most of them—like most kids—turned out fine.
I've just returned from teaching in Croatia and Germany. While culturally similar in many ways, their differences with regard to sexuality are instructive—especially for Americans.
With the enthusiastic support of its Catholic Church, Croatia just took a giant step backwards, terminating what little sex education public schools used to offer. It's now actually illegal for any school district to offer a sex education program. Germany has plenty of Catholics, too (why else would the Reformation have started there?), but it has a vigorous public sex education program through both schools and the healthcare system.
Prostitution is legal and regulated in Germany (and seven other European countries). Prostitutes are far safer on German streets and in German brothels than they are in most other countries. However, there is still some social stigma around the profession, and prostitutes themselves often continue living a double life to protect themselves or their children from social judgment. Prostitution is illegal in Croatia, and prostitutes are regularly arrested and harassed.
Although it has one of the largest mosques in Europe, only 1.5% of Croatia's population is Muslim, following the ethnic wars of the 1990's that destroyed Yugoslavia. In contrast, there are almost 5 million Muslims in Germany (about 5% of the population), half of whom are German citizens. These people typically desire to keep their own customs, language, and family structure as distinct from Germany's. Increasingly politically powerful, they are often against sex education, prostitution, and equal rights for women. While Germany does have its conservative Christian population, the Muslims tend to be the real cultural conservatives.
One could say that Muslims in Germany play a similar cultural role as Catholics in Croatia, seeing sexuality as problematic, the domain of men, and needing to be controlled.
Here in America we have both—conservative Catholic and conservative Muslim populations. We also have a conservative Evangelical population. Religious people, of course, are not the only ones who are culturally conservative when it comes to sex. For example, left-wing feminists sometimes oppose prostitution, pornography, or both. In America, activists such as Gail Dines and Melissa Farley even falsely conflate these two issues with sex trafficking, deliberately creating confusion among the public and policy-makers.
But those who believe that religion has special insights about virtue or morality when it comes to sexuality need to think again. In Croatia, the "morality" of Catholicism is being used to keep a generation of children ignorant of the information and life skills they need to live productive and safe lives. In Germany, the "morality" of Islam is being used to segregate the genders, reduce the use of contraception, and punish female sexuality. In both countries, the "morality" of religion empowers people to ostracize and attack gay men and women.
In America, the "morality" of both religions is used to suppress sexual expression, sexual health, and sexual education. As a pluralistic democracy, we're all responsible for supporting the rights of a great diversity of human expression. And as a pluralistic democracy, we should be vigilant that no group can successfully assert that religious beliefs have a special place in the marketplace of ideas—especially regarding something as personal and subjective as sexuality.