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11 November 2019

With pornography and teenagers, conventional wisdom suggests the two be kept as far apart as possible. But this eye-opening statistic could make most people rethink the feasibility or wisdom of such an approach: According to a group of young adults surveyed for one study in the US, 93 percent of males and 62 percent of females had viewed porn at least once before their first year of college. Other researchers have found that for many teens, porn is their #1 source of information about sex.

Given porn’s pervasiveness and its influence, could it also be used as a teaching tool? That’s the aim of an innovative “pornography literacy” curriculum created by public-health researcher Emily Rothman and collaborators Nicole Daley and Jessica Alder.

Seven years ago, Rothman, a professor of community health science at Boston University, came up with the concept. She was speaking with high school students about the causes of dating violence. As she talked about her career in public health, she noticed students’ eyes glazing over — until she said the word “pornography.” She recalls, “All of a sudden, that room full of high school students exploded into laughter and high-fives. I think there were some loud hooting noises.”

That moment led Rothman to an epiphany: Teens are interested in porn, they’re watching it, and they’re turning to it for answers about sex. She asked herself, “What if we could use the topic as a springboard for engaging them and talking to them about healthy relationships and sexual consent?” That’s when she started to think about the idea of pornography literacy.

“Media literacy” is a term that refers to the ability to think about print, video and internet messages in a specific subject area and reflect on how these messages are produced and consumed. Media literacy interventions have already been used to guide discussions with young people about topics such as tobacco and alcohol use, and eating disorders.

For their pornography literacy curriculum, Rothman, Daley and Alder designed a five-session weekly course. Among the subjects covered were the history of sexually explicit images, the unrealistic representations of sex in pornography, the link between pornography and sexual exploitation, and the impact of non-consensual pornographic images, such as sharing a person’s naked selfies. Each session was 90 to 120 minutes long, and together, they aimed to provide students with, as Rothman puts it, “tools for critical analysis that would enable them to make selections about pornography that were consistent with their values.”

In the course, “we did not show porn to the students or ask them to analyze pornographic scenes at any point,” stresses Rothman. Instead, “we used the concept of pornography in order to have deeper conversations.” She and the other researchers found that teens believed a number of erroneous or distorted ideas from their porn consumption, and that the course proved effective at dispelling many of them.

Click here to view the full article, including a run-through of some of the common myths and misconceptions that teens hold about porn and sex in general.