Sex education in the digital age

The internet didn’t invent pornography, but it’s no secret that adult content is more accessible today than ever before – including to younger audiences. How parents and teachers approach what for many is a taboo subject will be key to adapting sexual education to the digital age.

Concerns about the effects of pornography on adolescents have become part of mainstream conversation now that 80% of the worldwide youth population are online.

Because so much freely accessible adult content features hypermasculinity and prioritizes male pleasure, a major worry is that young people who watch porn could develop harmful attitudes about sex or abusive behaviors towards women.

Most research stops short of suggesting causal links between pornography and specific sexual attitudes and behaviors. But young people themselves say that it can affect them – whether they stumble on pornographic images accidentally or search for it themselves.

Emily Rothman is a Professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health. She has been researching the connections between pornography and sexual violence for nearly a decade. In 2016, she led a study of 72 teens aged 15-17 and found that pornography was their number one source of information about sex.

Rothman wanted to understand how and why pornography played such an important role in their lives, but also felt the insights could be used to help address the risks.

She teamed up with the Boston Public Health Commission’s Start Strong peer leadership program to design an elective “porn literacy” course for high school students in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States.

The complete title of the course is “The Truth About Pornography: A Pornography-Literacy Curriculum for High School Students Designed to Reduce Sexual and Dating Violence” and it provides space for critical discussion about how gender, sexuality, consent, race, relationships and body image are portrayed (or not) in pornography.

Lessons range from defining terms used in online porn to helping students avoid clicking on things they don’t want to see. Students are also guided through sensitive discussions about whether porn contributes to violence against women.

“We actually want to talk to kids about dating and sexual violence,” Rothman says. “We discovered that kids find it fun and funny to talk about pornography. So we use it as a vehicle to talk about things we think are really critical, like negotiating consent and establishing healthy boundaries in a relationship.”

Rothman believes that the best way to defend young people against negative impacts of pornography is to equip them with comprehensive, factual and sex-positive education. “In the absence of any other kind of education or information, of course it’s more likely that kids will get their information from things made for profit or entertainment,” she says.

“If they were flush with knowledge when they first encounter pornogaphy, they would be inoculated against some of the worst potential influences,” says Rothman.

The internet can also play a positive role in providing safe spaces for young people to learn. For example, 70% of LGBTQ American college students said they researched their sexual orientation online. And many studies show that the internet helps LGBTQ youth connect with supportive peers, which in turn can increase their knowledge and self-confidence.

Positive outcomes like these is part of what free speech advocates say must be defended against censorship and why the right to anonymity matters so much. At least 16 countries censor online pornography though it’s still possible to seek content from abroad. Proposals to enforce age limits on pornographic content have been opposed by digital rights groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation who say it would infringe on the privacy of internet users.

In 2018, microblogging platform Tumblr banned adult content on their platform, sparking controversy about the loss of a “safe space” online for LGBTQ+ communities and sex workers. Bans on nudity and sexually explicit content are common on most platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, which now leaves thousands with no alternative place to go.

In this complex and changing digital landscape, what remains constant is the important role that supportive parents and educators can play in equipping young people with the knowledge and awareness to have positive understandings of sexuality and of healthy relationships. For young people on their own discovery journeys, the internet offers a wealth of resources – publications and communities of support – that can be a better starting point than porn for understanding sexuality and health, including websites like Amaze.org, Scarleteen.com and Ahwaa.org.

How should sexual health education adapt to the digital age?

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