Porn Post #2: When should we teach about pornography in sex ed?

Pornography: rarely a day goes by without some news article or tv show talking about pornography.  Even if you are not a fan of watching porn, you can barely avoid hearing about it, at the least.  So if we can’t avoid it, as Elizabeth Schroeder pointed out in a recent NY Times article on When Children See Internet Pornography, at what point should we be teaching about it?

In March 2012 I wrote my first post on Why pornography should be included in sexuality education, where I articulated the need for creating a safe, intentional space for participants to learn and talk about an issue that is so prevalent in our society.  Given its ubiquity, I argue that educators can and should bring up the concept of sexually explicit material early on in a young person’s education.

One of the observations about the negative influence of pornogaphy is that people who rely on porn to develop their sense of sexuality, sexual behavior, and relationships have unrealistic expectations in real life. A key component of developing healthy sexuality is understanding the difference between images/media (porn) and reality (real life).  This differentiation is an important learning concept that can be delivered in an age-appropriate context, over time.

How old is a child when he/she first understands reality vs. pretend? Real life vs. television/movies/books? This may be somewhat different for every child, especially given development delays/disabilities, however many children are able to differentiate between tv and real life when they are 4 or 5.  We can start helping young people think about the images that they see by using this discourse of differentiation early on, and then applying it to any image portraying sexuality.  You can talk about ‘pornography’ in the larger sense of the word- explicit material intended to cause excitement or interest- without even using the term.

Take the definition of pornography by Merriam Webster:

  1. the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement
  2. material (as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement
  3. the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction

Use the concepts of ‘depiction’ and ‘excitement’ to describe the difference between media (pretend) and reality, and then when the child understands the concept of sexuality, add that to the mix.  (Note- the Our Whole Lives program has a curriculum for Kindergarten/1st graders- 5 & 6 year olds- that teaches children about sexual behavior. Is this the time to also talk about sexual images?  Media portraying sexuality, especially in ways that are different from reality?)

Established sexuality education programs, which in most settings are not in place for audiences younger than 11 or 12, should certainly include a discussion of sexually explicit material, using a broad perspective of what constitutes pornography. Again, the goal should be to prepare young people to think critically about the images/material they will encounter in life.  And when a young person does happen upon sexually explicit material (even before it’s appropriate for them to be seeing it), use it as a teachable moment and revisit the conversation that hopefully you’ve had about real and pretend, material for children and material for adults.  No matter whether ‘sex ed’ is happening in an intentional learning environment, or just at home, the conversation should happen hopefully before someone else brings it up- whether that’s a peer, a family member, or even a child pornographer. The person/people who are resources for young people on this topic can communicate affirming messages about individual sexuality  (rather than prescribed sexuality that imitates, or tries to imitate, pornography) and informed decision-making, based on real-life situations.  Parents- I recommend not waiting until you see the receipt for that explicit iPhone or the browser history full of xxx sites.  Take the initiative, put your fears aside, and talk about what’s real or pretend, adult or not.

So the short answer to the question, when should we teach about pornography, is as early as possible and whenever there is a sex ed program.  It is the teacher’s responsibility to not only intentionally bring the topic up, but also craft messages about sexually explicit material that are age-appropriate and realistic (even if the teacher is a parent!).

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