EDUCATION

5 Reasons Why Porn Should Be Taught In Sex Ed

Sex therapist Jason Winters says that including discussion of pornography in sex ed classes will help students develop healthy attitudes toward sexuality

EDUCATION
(Photos: Dreamstime, Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Sep 17, 2015 at 1:45 PM ET

Sex therapist Jason Winters sparked a debate in Canada after stating that a dialogue about pornography should be part of the country’s sex education curriculum.

Winters gained support for his comments after they were published last week in a CBC article, but those who didn’t read beyond the headline labeled him a pervert who was advocating for pornography to be shown in class, which he stresses he is not. Instead, Winters, who is trained in clinical psychology and also teaches in the psychology department at The University of British Columbia, is calling for schools to acknowledge the fact that students are most likely already watching pornography, teach them how to separate reality from fantasy, and assess the impact, both positive and negative, that porn can have on their interpersonal relationships.

“I see the fallout of poor sex education in the undergraduates I teach and then also in my clinical practice,” he said. “People not getting decent sex ed can have a hugely negative effect on them that tends to persist into adulthood.”

Winters recommends a graded approach when it comes to teaching children about sexuality, and says that discussion around pornography should be incorporated at the right time. While gauging the right time is difficult, a study from the University of New Hampshire shows that some children are exposed to pornography, intentionally or otherwise, from the age of 10, with that number increasing dramatically from age 12. Most important, says Winters, is that all conversation be free from “any sort of moral judgement.”

“If you talk to your average teenage boy, especially one in the senior years of high school, porn use has become normalized. It’s not something that would be considered a big deal.”

There will always be parents who disapprove of talking about pornography in an educational setting, and Winter believes that all idealogical viewpoints be considered when coming up with the best way to introduce it into the curriculum. However, he says this should also be based on the understanding that one’s child might not follow their example when it comes to abstaining from pornography or they might come across sexually provocative material unwittingly and not fully understand what it is they’re looking at.

“If they’ve been told that they can’t watch this, that it’s shameful or sinful or immoral to look at and they’ve not been given any education about it, that’s when you end up with problems,” Winters said. “You’re increasing shame, guilt, embarrassment and anxiety and then, on top of that, they don’t understand what they’re seeing. For them, this may end up seeming like the reality of sex.”

While anxieties around the topic of sex ed often center on the idea that it will lead kids to having sex earlier, the opposite is true. Though there aren’t studies that look at porn specifically, Winters explains that if one is to compare comprehensive sex ed with abstinence-only sex ed “the data is absolutely unequivocal” that the former group are more likely to wait until a later age before having sex. He believes that taking the same pragmatic approach with pornography will lead teenagers to make better choices.

Winters laid out for Vocativ why he believes the discussion of pornography should be included in the school sex ed curriculum:

Students are already looking at porn

“Kids are going to encounter this, either by accident or intentionally. So simply not talking about it is the head-in-the-sand approach. It doesn’t make it go away and it doesn’t make it any less likely that kids are going to seek out pornography or encounter it accidentally. It’s better to prepare them than pretend that it’s simply not going to happen.”

Pornography doesn’t represent real relationships

“If kids aren’t porn-literate, they don’t understand that what they’re seeing is a fantasy, much like when we watch Hollywood movies or read a romance or sci-fi novel… Pornography is about distilling the most intense aspects of a sexual encounter into these short clips featuring lots of visual stimulation, but it misses out on all of the other things that happen in a sexual encounter, even if it’s just a casual sexual encounter. It misses out on things like consent, it misses out on things like using contraceptives, it misses out on things like the emotional connection that typically happens before a sexual encounter.”

Porn use can become a problem

“I don’t buy into the model of porn addiction, as there is no scientific evidence to validate this as a legitimate disorder. When you see problematic porn use it’s usually indicative of something else, and the porn becomes a bad solution to the problem that person is experiencing. Take your average 13- or 14-year-old boy, he’s had no comprehensive sex ed, no discussion about pornography, he discovers this, he’s horny, and it’s a very arousing and rewarding experience. Say he’s struggling in other parts of his life: anxiety about school, difficulties with mood, he’s a socially awkward kid who gets bullied. Porn can become his refuge. It becomes his way of coping with all of these unpleasant experiences in his day-to-day life, because he can escape for that fleeting moment when he’s watching porn and masturbating. For some people it becomes a very maladaptive coping mechanism. That should be part of the conversation, too… This is much like video games, or people that watch much too much TV or spend hours on the internet—it becomes an avoidance behavior.”

Watching porn can impact self-esteem

“This is a great argument for why this should be part of sex ed. The people that are featured in pornography are generally more attractive than the average—when people want to watch people have sex, they probably want to watch attractive people have sex. The problem with that is if kids start watching pornography they’re going to assume that all men have 9- or 10-inch erections and women have these perfectly sculpted bodies, perhaps with fake breasts. Knowing that can be important in terms of those comparisons.”

Pornography can have positive effects later in life

“People don’t tend to focus on potential positive impacts, but that has shifted over the last five or 10 years. What they’re finding is that when it’s consumed by people who have had comprehensive sex ed and understand what they’re seeing—that this is fantasy and doesn’t necessarily match up with real-life experiences—you do see positive effects [Ed’s note: Winters is referring to studies conducted among undergraduate populations]. There’s permission giving: people that come from a conservative background start watching pornography and, as long as it doesn’t increase shame and guilt and all of these toxic, negative emotions, it can be a way of giving them permission to try things that they wouldn’t have tried before… We also know that people who watch pornography regularly tend to be more interested in sex in general, so you see increased amounts of sexual behaviors in their relationships. It doesn’t necessarily take away from sex in relationships, it may actually increase the amount of sex. It tends to also increase sexual satisfaction and intimacy—it can be a net positive for relationships.”

However, despite the potential for positive outcomes, Winters says it’s unlikely that talk about pornography will be included in sex ed curriculums any time soon. He points to the negative stereotypes held by older generations, which is compounded by a lack of awareness about just how prolific porn is today.

“Parents now grew up pre-Internet, or at the beginning of the Internet, so I don’t think they understand how different this is,” he said. “If you talk to your average teenage boy, especially one in the senior years of high school, porn use has become normalized. It’s not something that would be considered a big deal.”