Think Critically about Porn
So in that Boston after-school program, those kids really wanted to talk about sex, and they really wanted to talk about pornography. And they wanted to talk about those things a whole lot more than they wanted to talk about dating or sexual violence. So we realized, we could cover all of the same topics that we might normally talk about under the guise of healthy relationships education, like, what's a definition of sexual consent? Or, how do you know if you're hurting somebody during sex? Or what are healthy boundaries to have when you're flirting? All of these same things we could discuss by using pornography as the jumping-off point for our conversation. It's sort of like when adults give kids a desert like brownies, but they secretly baked a zucchini or something healthy inside of it.
We could talk to the kids about the healthy stuff, the stuff that's good for you, but hide it inside a conversation that was about something that they thought they wanted to be talking about. We also discovered something that we didn't necessarily set out to find, which is that there's a fantastic way to have a conversation with teenagers about pornography. And that is, keep the conversation true to science. Admit what we know and what we don't know about the impact of pornography. Talk about where there are mixed results or where there are weaknesses in the studies that have been conducted. Invite the adolescents to become critical consumers of the research literature on pornography, as well as the pornography itself. That really fits with adolescent development. Adolescents like to question things and they like to be invited to think for themselves.
And we realized by starting to experiment, teaching some classes in consent, respect and pornography, that trying to scare adolescents into a particular point of view or jam a one-sided argument down their throat about pornography not only probably does not work, but really doesn't model the kind of respectful, consensual behavior that we want them to learn. So our approach, what we call pornography literacy, is about presenting the truth about pornography to the best of our knowledge, given that there is an ever-changing evidence base. When people hear that we teach a nine-session, 18-hour class in pornography literacy to teenagers, I think that they either think that we're sitting kids down and trying to show them how to watch pornography, which is not what we do, or that we're part of an anti-pornography activist group that's trying to convince them that if they ever saw pornography, it would be the number one worst thing for their health ever. And that's not it, either.
Our secret ingredient is that we're nonjudgmental. We don't think that youth should be watching pornography. But, above all, we want them to become critical thinkers if and when they do see it. And we've learned, from the number of requests for our curriculum and our training, from across the US and beyond, that there are a lot of parents and a lot of teachers who really do want to be having these more nuanced and realistic conversations with teenagers about pornography. We've had requests from Utah to Vermont, to Alabama, to Hawaii.
So in that after-school program, what I saw, is that from the minute we mentioned the word pornography, those kids were ready to jump in to a back-and-forth about what they did and didn't want to see in pornography, and what they did and didn't want to do during sex. And what was degrading to women or unfair to men or racist, all of it. And they made some really sophisticated points. Exactly the kinds of things that we would want them to be talking about as violence prevention activists.