“I know it when I see it” Porn Post #1: Why pornography should be included in sexuality education

A recent discussion on a listserve of sexuality educators inspired me to put together my ideas on the relevance of pornography to sexuality education. This is the first of what I anticipate being several posts on porn.

Pornography is one of the topics that remains contentiously debated in our society- whether to permit it at all, at what age should people be able to watch/buy it, if the people on screen should be required to use barrier methods, if it is feminist to be pro-porn, and so on.  However, the truth is, people of all ages watch porn.  In fact, it’s sometimes hard to avoid!  At the very least porn takes up space in our society, and just as we learn about things like science and math (even if we think we don’t need to), individuals need an opportunity to learn about the topic of pornography regardless of whether they partake. I believe that we would be remiss in our roles as sexuality educators if we were to omit this highly relevant topic. I am not proposing having participants watch porn in class (imagine the press you’d get about that), but I do believe there needs to be time and space dedicated to the topic in a sexuality education program. (Don’t worry, I will get to my ideas on when and how to teach about porn in subsequent posts.)

So if not to watch it, what are we aiming to accomplish in a lesson about pornography?  The goal shouldn’t be to make people afraid of porn, or even to dissuade participants from watching it.   Ideally, the overall goal should be to encourage them to think critically about pornography, come to their own conclusions about whether or not to partake, and be able to articulate their personal opinions and decisions about porn to their peers and partners.

Here are a few sample learning objectives to chew on:

By the end of the lesson the participant will be able to…

  • identify at least three ways they will determine their personal values about porn.
  • discuss the feminist debate about porn.
  • recognize that porn exists on a continuum, and that some pornography is not OK (for example, child pornography).
  • explain how sexual activity could be portrayed differently in pornography vs. real life.
  • differentiate between healthy and unhealthy behaviors involving pornography.

Note: ANY lesson in sexuality education should be age-appropriate and provide any facts available.  These (draft) learning objectives will not apply to all age groups.

Not everyone is into porn, for whatever reason, and that’s perfectly healthy and ok! And at the same time we need to prepare individuals to encounter porn in their lives, however it might come up.  If we ignore it, dismiss it, or just discourage it, we miss
an opportunity to help people understand a complicated and relevant issue.  And if we just hope that people will “know it when [they] see it”, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in the 1964 decision on Jacobellis vs. Ohio, individuals will be ill-equipped to respond in a healthy way.

What does it take to be a GREAT sexuality educator?

I am always really enthused to hear about projects describing the motivations behind individuals pursuing a career in sexuality education. For example, the Center for Family Life Education is featuring a story once a week about Why I teach Sex Ed on their blog (and they are accepting submissions!).  I love reading about other people’s experiences- not only is it eye-opening, it’s just fun to think about the different ways people arrive at the same field of interest.  My first blog post was even a short story of what inspired me to become a sexuality educator.

But what does it really take to become a great sexuality educator?

A few obvious answers come to mind, including:

  • Passion
  • Dedication
  • Extensive knowledge about sexuality
  • Good teaching/facilitation skills
  • Willingness to work for little or no money

However, I think there are a few more characteristics that might not be so obvious that are vital to really excelling in this role:

Open-minded.  Having an open-mind about individuals’ experiences (or lack thereof), opinions, likes, dislikes, behaviors, fetishes, and so on is absolutely essential in order for the participants to feel comfortable in a learning environment about sexuality.  If a teacher lays judgment on something that a person says, feels, does, or doesn’t do, that individual will be less likely to participate fully in the learning environment.

Flexible. Being flexible, not just with the structure and logistics of a lesson, but also with your own beliefs and values, will model for the participants that human beings change.  Sexuality is fluid, and someone with rigid beliefs will contradict that message.

Accepting.  Accepting participants for who they are, even if they are challenging, disruptive, rude, contrary, or just plain difficult, will emphasize the importance of honoring individuality.  It’s possible to challenge someone’s flaws without putting them down, if we can accept them for who they are.

Personable.  It helps a lot to have a teacher that people are likely to get along with.  No one really likes a Negative Nancy!  And making a personal connection (while honoring teacher-student boundaries) can improve the likelihood that participants will respond in a positive way.

Honest. Someone who is honest about themselves, including their personal opinions, the role that they serve, and how they can (or cannot) help will improve the teacher-student relationship.  If you do not know the answer, the worst thing you can do is make something up!  Showing that you are a human being and also have limitations and flaws will help participants become more comfortable with themselves.

Intentional. Someone who is intentional about the words they say, the actions they make, the body language they use, the resources provided- all the way down to the way they set up a room, will be more likely to think carefully about how they teach and respond to participants.  Sexuality can be a very sensitive topic, and having a teacher who is intentional will decrease the chances of misinterpretation and misinformation.

Comfortable.  Of course, being comfortable with the topic that you are teaching about is crucial.  Too many times I hear stories about people having learned about sexuality from their awkward high school gym teacher or old persnickety health ed teacher.  One of the ways I knew this would be a good field for me is that I was comfortable  talking to anyone about sex.  My friends came to me with questions about all sorts of things, some of which I had to say, you need to ask a Dr!  You want your participants to come to you with questions, and see you as an expert, not the weirdo who doesn’t know what they are doing.

These are just 7 qualities that make a sexuality educator awesome, and I’m sure there are more.  However, if you’re looking for someone to fill that spot (or ways that you can improve on your own rock-star self), I encourage you to think about whether they are up to snuff by these standards!

You’re Calling Me a Slut?!

This week Rush Limbaugh has been taken through the ringer for calling Sandra Fluke a slut because she was advocating for health care coverage of contraception.  And rightly so!  Here’s a recap of Limbaugh’s statements, courtesy of the NY Daily News:

“What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her?” he asked his listeners.

“It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute,” Limbaugh continued. “She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

When livid Democrats asked Limbaugh to apologize, he double-downed and went even further on Thursday, suggesting women who use insurance-covered birth control should post their sex tapes online.

“So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex. We want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

Seriously?  What frustrates me the most about Limbaugh’s statements is that he has shamed her for not just using birth control (which many women use for purposes besides contraception), but having sex (which he has assumed she is doing).  The best way to DISempower and exclude someone from a conversation is to make them feel ashamed about something that they do, think, and/or feel.  Way to go Limbaugh!  And props to Sandra, and all her supporters, for calling him out on it and articulating so clearly why his statements are extremely problematic.

This national outrage provides a great opportunity to explore the way that we frame individuals that engage in sexual activity, especially in an educational context.  ‘Risky sexual behaviors’ are often described as not only potentially harmful, but also with a word closely associated to being a ‘slut’- the word promiscuous, one of my absolute least favorite words.  Since it is perceived as less offensive, promiscuity finds its way into the vernacular of educators, parents, teachers, and policy makers more frequently than the word slut, despite its equally negative connotation.  Why do I dislike this word so much?  It makes me cringe because negative associations with sexual behavior are the opposite of my agenda as a sexuality educator.  I want individuals to feel comfortable discussing and learning about sexuality, rather than ashamed.  Any language used by educators that makes people feel bad about sex will only dissuade individuals from thinking critically about their sexual choices thus excluding them from the conversation.  The question for educators is, does your language make your participants feel empowered, or ashamed?

While challenging, it IS possible to talk about risk and potential negative outcomes without saying that sex is bad, and that people who engage in sexual activity are promiscuous (read ‘sluts’).  As Sandra Fluke said on MSNBC’s The Ed Show, “this is historically the kind of language that is used to silence women.”  Let’s not silence our participants by framing sexual activity as shameful.  Be mindful of your language (I’m talking to you, Rush!)!