Porn and sex ed

Listening to CBC’s The Current this morning I had a flashback to one of my earliest experiences teaching a puberty class, some time in the 1980s.

I was answering their written questions, when I came across one about a woman and a horse.  In those days, kids’ access to porn was through magazines and videotapes – you know, those things that were  supposed to be locked up in the cabinet?  If memory serves, I answered the best I could without being too graphic.  I let them know that sexual activities with a person and an animal is called bestiality, which is illegal, because it exploits the animal.  And although some adults like to watch those videos, they are not for children.

I am not sure how I made through the rest of the day.

The introductory lesson we used in puberty classes for 10 and 11 year olds included asking where they got their information about puberty and sexuality.  I began to ask classes whether they had computers at home and if they had access to the Internet.  Then I asked whether they had ever come across images that upset, frightened or grossed them out.  Inevitably, at least half of the hands would go up.

I wanted to know how they handled it.

Most of them said they would “exit” or shut off the computer.  I also suggested that they tell an adult that they had come across these images so that they could deal with their feelings and have their questions answered.  Hopefully the adult(s) at home could prevent any inadvertent re-appearance of porn sites.

Their admission gave me the opportunity to tell them this was adult entertainment, that it was not a typical representation of how people were intimate with each other; and that it was not helpful for them to continue looking at it at their age.

Back in the 1987, York University’s Dr. James Check said 12 – 17 year olds were the primary consumers of pornography (address at Humber College conference, “Sexuality ’87: Male Sexuality” April 23-24, 1987).  In the age of the Internet, it is safe to say that children and adolescents have free access to explicit sexual images (as well as some very useful information if they know where to find it).  Some kids will seek out pornographic images out of curiosity and/or because they want to masturbate to these images.

Is pornography harmful?

The adolescent/adult use and misuse of pornography has been a pretty hot topic these past few decades.  Feminists, academics (feminist or not) sex educators and religious critics have weighed in on the potential ill effects; e.g., the porn driven sexual scripts adopted by young people, the unrealistic expectations raised by perfect bodies, huge penises and never ending streams of ejaculate, the need for increased jolts upping the ante in visual violence; and the normalization of sexual activities which, although considered repugnant by some, may become an inevitable expectation.

While some adults choose the erotica or pornography with which they feel comfortable, others have become increasingly dependent on it, disturbed by their inability to relate intimately with real, live lovers.  However, while there is plenty of ink spilled on these issues, the academic literature is far from definitive.

We do not yet know for certain the effect of these images on children and adolescents.  “Not helpful” is a safe guess.

Consent and choice

Guiding principles for sexual health education include comprehensiveness.  Talking with children and adolescents about porn is part of sex education.  The cornerstone of teaching about sexual activity is, as always, consent.

When friends encourage them to watch porn, when they are asked to send sexual images of themselves or when their images are sent on for the entertainment of others there is a clear lack of consent.  Talking with older adolescents about pornographic scenarios and the portrayed lack of consent as well as the normalization of violence is critical to their understanding of how damaging some of these scenarios may be to their sexual development.

People who are raising children – and their allies in the classroom – need to face reality: children and adolescents are exposed to images which we do not feel are appropriate for their age.  Frank discussions about the reasons why they should wait until they are older to make these decisions are a critical component of comprehensive sexual health education.  We do not need to be judgmental or prescriptive; but we do need to try to dissuade them from using porn while they are children.

I look forward to the day when erotica and pornography for adults will be like fair trade coffee or chocolate: made by participants who have a stake in the game; enjoyed by people who savour what they have chosen.

In the meantime, this does not include our children.

 

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Women in Lust – The Sex Goddess Project

In April of this year, I attended the Toronto International Porn Festival.  I spent a few hours watching films – and clips of films – curated from the last ten years of feminist pornography.  I am not a consumer, but I figured any sex educator worth her salt should dip in every now and again.  I’m glad I did: There was fun; there was joy; and consent was the order of the day.

My views of pornography had evolved over the years.  Consumer prevalence remains high.  An article in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality reports that, when asked about their recent online solitary arousal experiences, 91.7% of the men interviewed said they had watched sexually explicit videos involving men and women; and 47.4% of the women.  The sample: 239 young adults at a Canadian university.  Current mainstream heterosexual pornography, where the scenes are rough and misogynistic, appeals particularly to young adult males.  While they work for self-pleasuring, they are not so good at helping men figure out how to be good lovers.

There is quite a difference between what one considers to be great sex and popular depictions of sex aside from pornography.  On TV doc-and-police shows, the scene goes straight from the mutual recognition that two people want to get it on, to ripping off each other’s clothes at the nearest opportunity.  No slow build and little context.  And standard, gorgeous bodies.

In the new TV series, The Good Fight, so far, there is only one loving, ongoing intimate relationship – Maia and her wife – and sadly, their sexual intimacy gets splashed all over the Internet in retaliation for her father’s Ponzi scheme.  Maia’s mother has a long-term adulterous relationship with her brother-in-law.  Lucca the lawyer, (remember her from The Good Wife?) seems to be as cold blooded as The Good Wife’s Kalinda.  Diane Lockhart sleeps with her ex-husband, which she says the next morning, was nice, but then refuses to renew their relationship beyond friendship.

Perhaps the lack of relatable intimate relationships is a metaphor for the series’ theme of whom to trust.  After all, trust is the hallmark of a positive relationship.  And from vanilla to kink, consent needs to be the order of the day.

Enter Ricardo Scipio

Ricardo contacted me about his newest book, “The Sex Goddess Project”.  Huffington Post recently interviewed him about it and  included some of his photos.  I liked what I saw and willingly posted excerpts from his press release on my professional Facebook page.

Says Scipio,

“If sexual images were food, people would be inundated with cheap junk food. I wanted to create a body of work that offers something more nutritious and satisfying for the health conscious, more discerning palette.”

He sent me a preview of photos from his latest book.  Lucky me: I had the opportunity to peruse dozens of images of women having a lusty old time doing all kinds of sexual activities in a variety of positions with a variety of partners.  These images reminded me of those I had seen at the porn festival – except they are not porn.

Scipio is not producing porn, which he doesn’t watch and whose messages he abhors.

“I’m a lover of all things authentic, and porn isn’t authentic.”

“Women have for too long, and in too many cultures, had their sexuality suppressed – only to be pseudo-released within the stiflingly unkind world of porn. I’m extremely humbled and proud to provide a vehicle for women to unapologetically express themselves with love and authenticity; something porn cannot offer. Sex is way too important to leave in the hands of pornographers.”

His photos portray real people of all body types, skin tones, genders and orientations. One of his models said,

“This was important.  It was a chance to be an activist in the sensual world. To reclaim sex for the othered bodies. The fatties, the people of color. To call bullshit on the ones who say ‘we’ don’t do this simply because they had never seen it done.”

Many of the women in his photos are looking straight at the camera with a huge smile on their face.  It is not the come-on of porn: It’s “Look at me; I am having such a good time”.  Most of the focus is on their pleasure.

To be honest, I did not get a buzz from the photos; my pleasure as a viewer was aesthetic and political.

His models understand this:

“Let’s just say that the bloom is beginning to fade. I’m a 51-year old woman who is 150 lbs overweight…  After Ricardo asked if I would be photographed for his Sex Goddess book, I realized that showing the inner me – the one who loves sex and feels that it is her special, healing gift – should be shown in full daylight. Yes, I’m fat. Yes, I’m older. However, I don’t want to be shamed into feeling badly about my body because our culture deems it ‘ugly’ or ‘gross’ to be sexual if you’re of a certain age and size…”

I am looking forward to seeing the rest of the collection.  The book is not available to the general public – just to Scipio’s supporters and those who collect his work. However, in order to showcase the “ethos” of the project, he is planning an invitation-only online gallery screening for Canadians on May 20 and 21. Anyone can request an invitation.  I recommend that you do.

 

 

The sticky question of pornography – March 5, 2013

About 40 years ago, feminists were making a distinction between pornography and erotic films. Of course no one was able to quite put their finger on the difference, although it was easy to hate pornography after Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace revealed her abuse during the 1972 filming; or Bonnie Sherr Klein’s Not a Love Story showed us the shockingly exploitative side of adult entertainment. For some of us, all pornography is exploitative, demeaning and violent.

Enter women who began to make erotica for women, followed by women who started making porn for women. Today there are plenty of women who consider themselves feminist and who love their porn.

So what’s a girl to do?

As a sex educator, I believe that a big downside of pornography is the role it has played in the sex education of boys. I winced during a sexual health workshop with adolescents when a male student said, “it’s not like that in porn, miss.” I could just picture him playing out some of the common sexual acts in contemporary pornography without asking for consent. Pornography creates a script for adolescent sexuality as do music videos and reality shows. Not being a consumer, I had to do a lot of reading to familiarize myself with the current norms in pornography, such as “facials” and “double penetration.”

With the increase in availability, a kind of hunger for bigger and bigger shocks seems to drive the industry to a continual pushing of boundaries. The resulting outrage from feminists isn’t so much moral outrage as anger—and fear. A long-standing debate continues about whether or not pornography is directly linked with violence against women and children. According to some, research has never made a clear causal connection between pornography and sexual assault. Writer Debbie Nathan, in an interview by Dr. Joy Davidson says, “Research has shown that legalization and mass consumption of porn is correlated with declines in rape rates, not increases.” Yet, when we hear about someone convicted of sexual assault with a cache of violent pornography on their computer, it echoes other research that indicates a link between porn and attitudes that support violence against women.

I am reminded of another workshop, this time in a battered woman’s shelter, when a participant told the group about her husband who, after watching porn, would insist that she repeat the acts. When she refused, he would beat and rape her.

There are other issues. Some women who do not watch porn find it upsetting that their partners do and consider it a form of cheating. Sex columnist Dan Savage insists that all men watch pornography and the rest are lying. Some people are so used to getting off watching porn that they find it difficult to be intimate in flesh and blood.

Is there an upside?

There are couples who revel in watching porn together—and there is something for every gender, orientation and taste. People who may feel guilty about their sexual predilections may find comfort in the availability of their kinks online. They may find similar communities of people and even partners.

Nathan paints a positive picture:

“… to keep porn in the mix, we’d have to demystify it, to stop condemning it as immoral. If we could do that, we might not have pornography anymore. Instead, we’d have a gorgeous carnival of sexual imagery and sexual aids which would speak to everyone’s fantasies, desires and yearnings. … I think the solution [to stereotyping] is not making less of it but more. More, that is, if it’s produced by all kinds of people, and not just by big businesses catering to the mass market and trying to make mega-profits.”

Perhaps informed consumers of pornography can treat it like chocolate. They can seek out the equivalent of organic, fair trade porn (made by companies that pay their actors well, give them options about scenes and insist on their using protection) and get that good dopamine high—not as a guilty pleasure—but as a treat. If people patronized the ethical porn companies, it might start the process of shifting mainstream pornography to something more palatable … for more of us.