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(Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
(Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

'Porn literacy': Is this the future of sex ed? Add to ...

If most adolescents view their first porn clip at the age of 14, chances are they’ve seen a lot of Sasha Grey before they have actual sex for the first time with a partner – that usually happens around age 17 in Canada. What are the ramifications for teens’ intimate lives? California sex therapist Marty Klein will attempt to put minds at ease when he descends on Toronto Thursday to talk to Canadian parents and educators about helping teenagers develop “porn literacy.” And while talking to kids about hard-core sex online isn’t the most comfortable proposition for most adult caregivers, “Since Internet porn is here to stay, we need to help young people think about it, decode it, and make conscious decisions about it,” says Klein, author of Sexual Intelligence. He spoke with The Globe ahead of his talk from San Francisco.

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My Grade 7 teacher in Catholic school told us that porn is fake, that the body parts are just plastic limbs. It wasn't very helpful, but there’s something to the idea that porn isn’t real sex.

The central idea of porn literacy is that porn is not a documentary. Since it’s fiction, we can’t expect that our lives are going to look like that. That’s what your teacher meant.

Porn literacy is the set of skills that people need to decode and manage the porn in their lives. It’s the larger project of developing media literacy in young people who don’t quite understand that these are artificially constructed products that involve makeup, lighting and most crucially of all, editing. Porn literacy enables young people to understand that they’re having a mediated experience, not a direct connection to nature or real life.

There are few definitive studies on how porn is shaping the way we’re all having sex. Do you believe teens are internalizing what they see onscreen?

Young people have digitally mediated lives, where second-hand imagery has, in some ways, replaced what we used to think of as one-to-one, immediate experience. Some of what’s depicted in porn is adults who are playing, “Let’s pretend that I’m going to force you to do something.” When teens look at porn there’s a good chance they’re going to see stuff they don’t quite understand yet, because it’s made for adults. Developmentally and experientially, they’re not up to speed on what’s being depicted.

How do you teach teens that intimacy isn’t about how many positions you can squeeze into five minutes?

Here’s one way to look at it: On ESPN SportsCenter they cruise all the basketball and football games, take all the slam dunks and touchdown passes and put them all in a three-minute highlight reel. In a way, porn is a highlight reel. That’s not what sex actually is, just like that’s not what a two-and-a-half-hours football game really is – there are huddles, time outs, running plays, injuries. Anyone who tunes in and thinks they’re going to see a touchdown every 10 seconds is going to be badly disappointed. The adult needs to be able to talk about sex in a realistic, down-to-earth way that puts what they’re seeing on that highlight reel in context.

Much of the debate around porn literacy is about reaching young men, but of course young women are watching too. Do you skew the message for girls?

The percentage of young people watching porn who are female is going up and we need to address them, but what I would say to boys and girls about boundaries, consent, coercion and pressure would be identical. Whether it’s a TV commercial, a window display in a clothing store, a music video or the lyrics of a song – you don’t have to do any of that. If you have a 14-year-old daughter and you’re concerned that guys are going to look at porn and pressure their girlfriends to do certain things when they’re 16 – the thing to do is to talk about manipulation, coercion, boundaries and what it means when someone says, “I care about you but I want you to do something you don’t want to do.”

Who is supposed to deliver porn literacy? Parents?

Adults need to realize the conversations they have with their kids about sex probably won’t be comfortable. But if you’re talking to your kid about sexuality, relationships, empathy, gender and bodies when they’re 9, 10, 12, 13, then you’re in a much better position to say at 14, now it’s time to talk about porn. You start before there’s a problem, by shaping a vision of what their values are and how they want to deal with all this sex that’s all over the place. This should be a conversation they can understand that doesn’t demonize porn. If the conversation is, “This stuff is garbage,” “it’s for losers,” “it’s dangerous,” “it has no value,” young people are not going to pay attention, and frankly they shouldn’t.

So should parents have the porn talk when they catch their kid viewing some?

You don’t want to wait to raise the subject when there’s conflict and recrimination; you don’t want to wait until your kid comes home drunk covered in vomit to talk about alcohol. And a message to parents: 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds don’t watch porn on those old-fashioned things we call “computers.” They’re watching on their smartphones. According to research, an enormous number of 15-year-olds take their smartphones to bed with them. We need to initiate the conversation when we first give them their phones.

What resources do teachers need to deliver porn literacy as part of sex ed in a health unit?

Well, putting it in the sex-ed curricula is better than in the punishment and detention sphere. I have a lot of sympathy for people teaching sex ed because parents are so ambivalent. They want their kids to develop a healthy sexuality and are for the most part grateful that schools want to help out with this. On the other hand, a lot of parents are nervous about what the school is telling their kids. Teachers need more sophisticated materials and a sense of support from the school, without some parent or administrator breathing down their necks.

While there’s a lot of talk about how young people are duplicating what they see in porn and ain’t that awful, let’s not idealize what used to happen before the Internet. People had crazy ideas about sex then too, and boundary issues existed between women and men and same-sex couples. Part of growing up is learning how to broker various needs that people have in relationships. The idea that 15-year-olds might not be so good at that – we shouldn’t be so surprised. A lot of adults aren’t very good at it either.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Planned Parenthood Toronto presents “Porn Literacy: Helping Youth Develop Sexual Intelligence” featuring Dr. Marty Klein at the Ramada Plaza Toronto, 300 Jarvis Street, Thurs. March 7, 7 to 9 p.m., free.

 

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