Is she a perv or something?
No, I’m not a perv. Actually, I’m a first-year PhD candidate in York University’s Education — Language, Teaching, Culture program. My area of focus is on sexual health education and the media, and specifically (as you may have noticed), porn. This interest came out of a few experiences that I’ve had as an educator. In 2009-2010, I worked as a volunteer sexual health workshop leader for Central Toronto Youth Services “Youth Sexual Empowerment Project.” The aim of this project was to provide youth led workshops on sexuality and sexual health issues to teens around Toronto. The topics we covered included STD and unwanted pregnancy prevention, healthy relationship building, consent and communication — your typical sex ed stuff. But we got the opportunity to talk about some unusual stuff too, such as pleasure, desire and sexual diversity. An excellent, Toronto-based sex shop called Come As You Are had donated a bunch of sex toys to the project, and we brought these out to initiate discussions with the teens. And I was shocked at what I heard.
Most of the teens we talked with didn’t know much of anything about sex, pleasure or the body — even though some of them were sexually active. Many of the boys didn’t know what or where the clitoris was and some of the girls didn’t really understand how the female reproductive system worked — even though one of the girls had already given birth! Some of the teens mentioned that they had watched porn, but they didn’t seems to have any real context for what they’d seen. Their ideas around what turned women on — rough sex, multiple partners — and how men were supposed to be — dominating, erect for hours, ejaculating everywhere — was far removed from the reality of what most men and women wanted out of sex.
A year later I became a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course at Ryerson University called “Sexualities, Identities and Society.” Although many of these students were in their 3rd or 4th year of university, a lot of them expressed to me that this course was the first time they had ever been asked to think about gender and sexual stereotypes, racism in the media or sexual diversity. Many students also complained that their sexual health education in high school did not adequately prepare them for the realities of sexual adulthood, as many of them had receive an abstinence-based education or information on only the basics of reproduction and STDs.
Both of these experiences left me with the firm belief that our sexual health education curricula — and our media literacy education — are not doing a good enough job of addressing the issues that matter to young people and are not giving them the tools they need to go into the world as thoughtful, critical, respectful citizens and healthy sexual beings. Not only do young people need a more comprehensive sexual health education that goes beyond the essentials of pregnancy and STDs’, but they need a sex-positive education as well, one that acknowledges them as sexual beings with their own desires, needs and interests. Ours is a hyper-sexual world — images and insinuations of sex are being thrust at us in every direction. But without possessing the media literacy skills to make sense of these messages, a young person’s own sexual development as well as the way they relate to others is at risk of being distorted.
This is why I am focusing on pornography literacy. While there have been some efforts in schools to educate young people on the effects of advertising and the presence of gender and racial stereotyping in the media, pornography is a more complicated object for young people to engage with critically, because it is appealing directly to sexual urges that teens are just starting to explore and make sense of. Situating porn as a cultural artifact worth investigating helps to take some of the mystery and power away from it. I believe that talking with teens about how and why porn was made, what it depicts and what it obscures will help them determine how porn can be integrated — or not — into their sexual lives in a healthy and realistic way.
The fear that talking to teens about porn will only make them want to watch it more is a moot point in a world where up to 90% of teens have already been exposed to it. I am adopting a harm-reduction model towards pornography viewership, which means that I start with the assumption that teens are sexual beings and are likely to search out information about sex online, including porn. Rather than ignoring this fact or trying to prevent it, I believe that intervening with education and engaging young people in dialogue around the issues raised by porn will help to mitigate any potential negative effects that could be related to viewing porn at a young age. In this way, I am adhering to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s 2008 Guidelines for Sexual Health Education, which include a stated aim of supporting informed decision-making by “providing individuals with knowledge, personal insight, motivation and behavioural skills consistent with each individual’s personal values and choices” (25). If we do not provide teens with the knowledge they need to navigate life in a digital world that is highly sexualized, then we are not doing our job as educators.