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Porn Is The New Sex Ed — Here’s Why That’s a Problem

I was terrified. I can't pull off that position, I said to myself as I tilted my head to get a better angle. On my screen were two thin, white women, their eyes closed and mouths in perfect O-shapes. I could only assume this was because they were moaning in pleasure, as my volume was on mute. Mute out of fear of being overheard by my parents — because I was 13 and in the closet
No — literally — I was in my bedroom closet. 
Finding lesbian porn wasn't hard to do. I mean, there's a whole category dedicated to it. With a quick Google search, I had access to free videos, all filtered through my private browser. The black screen of my incognito mode made me feel dangerous. 
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Since my high school health class never acknowledged that it was physically possible for those of us without penises to pleasure ourselves, I was new to the concept of masturbation. And so, I watched the video like a Gilmore Girls rerun — giddy with exhilaration. That is, until my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. A text from Adam, a fellow eighth grader who smelled like Axe body spray and who had a tiny mustache sprouting on his upper lip that I hated. Actually, I can't say I liked anything about Adam, but I worried that if I didn't get a boyfriend quickly, I would continue down what I saw then as the slippery slope to queerness.  
At the time, porn was my only confidante as I tried to understand my sexual identity. It influenced my limited understanding of sex, body autonomy, and pleasure. For many of us, it was and is a form of sex education. Understandably, not always with the best results. The truth is, kids as young as nine have viewed porn — and studies have shown that exposure to porn at a young age can lead to long-term adverse effects. Besides causing personal harm, unethical porn — like any other media — builds unconscious narratives that influence society and even contribute to systemic problems like sexual and racial violence. 
But attempts to “moralize” porn, or prevent teenagers from watching it, are not new and, quite honestly, aren't helpful. Instead, sex education experts suggest incorporating "intersectional porn literacy" into age-appropriate sex education programs. Because without a critical lens through which to view it, porn will continue to promote harmful and misleading ideas about sex and the world in which we have it.
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To be clear: porn literacy does not show porn in a classroom, and it's not teachers encouraging students to watch porn. It just recognizes that porn is part of growing up Extremely Online and, therefore, can't be ignored. “We need to remind [students] that it's an entertainment industry, not educational,” says Justine Ang Fonte, M.Ed, MPH, a New York-based intersectional health educator. 
Porn literacy education aims to encourage students to think critically about the content they see. Fonte likes to compare it to any other media literacy course. “The literacy component is understanding the implications of the content, the intention behind it, and how you internalize topics around it, like sexuality," they say. Porn literacy classes might focus on deconstructing what we see on screen — distinguishing between what is realistic and what isn't and what behavior is safe or potentially dangerous.
The “intersectional” part of "intersectional porn literacy" is an important distinction. In a recent review of research literature, most approaches to porn literacy tend to be heteronormative and are often informed by public concerns (non-academic nor research-driven). Additionally, such porn literacy lessons are unlikely to include social implications like how we think about power, gender, sexuality, and race. 

Porn was my only confidante as I tried to understand my sexual identity. It influenced my limited understanding of sex, body autonomy, and pleasure.

It’s crucial to address these themes and some educators such as Fonte are paving the way in teaching these age-appropriate lessons to students. But not everyone agrees with adding them to sex ed curriculums. Last year, Fonte presented their workshop "Pornography Literacy: An intersectional focus on mainstream porn” to high schoolers at Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School in New York City. Some parents were outraged by the presentation's inclusion of porn literacy. The backlash Fonte received was fierce, and led them to resign from their health and wellness director position at the Dalton School, a high-end private institution in New York City. Since then, The New York Times has interviewed multiple sex educators who have agreed nothing was inappropriate about Fonte's classes at Dalton or Columbia — and that the lessons followed current National Sex Education Standards. Fonte's experience shows just how taboo the topic is. Dalton and Columbia have not yet responded to Refinery29’s request for comment. 
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In an Atlantic article about Fonte’s experience, the reporter asked, “[Is] porn more of a vice to be contained than a habit to be cultivated?” But what if the answer is neither? Ultimately, most young people will watch porn — so why leave them unprepared to process what they're seeing?
And yes, they are seeing it. There are more places to engage with porn than ever: PornHub, OnlyFans, apps such as Dipsea, to name a few. And Pornhub claims to have about 150 million people log on daily. “It's ignorant to think kids under 18 don't watch porn,” Fonte adds. Most kids find porn accidentally, sometimes through social media and gaming platforms, with over 60% of children ages 11 to 13 saying their initial viewing of pornography was unintentional. “They might type in ‘boobies’ in a search bar out of curiosity,” says Gail Dines, Ph.D., a leading expert on how pornography shapes our identities, culture, and sexualities; president of the nonprofit Culture Reframed, and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Dr. Dines points out that a fair share of porn that's free and easily accessible to kids is “hardcore” or shows aggressive sex. Ethical porn, which is made legally, is respectful of performers, and celebrates sexual diversity is often behind a paywall and hard to access as a teen without a credit card.
Consider Billie Eilish, who said she was “incredibly devastated” that she viewed porn — some violent and abusive — at age 11. In an interview on “The Howard Stern Show,” Eilish said porn “really destroyed my brain” and gave her nightmares. Years later, when she became sexually active, she says porn made it challenging to determine what she wanted: “The first few times I, you know, had sex, I was not saying no to things that were not good. It was because I thought that's what I was supposed to be attracted to.”
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There's no denying the impact of porn on the developing brain. Peer-reviewed studies show that adolescents who watch “hardcore porn” tend to experience less capacity for intimate connections and healthy relationships, and more depression, risky and unsafe sexual behaviors, sexual coercion, and dating violence, among other harms. Simply telling young people not to watch it isn't the answer, but arming them with the tools to navigate both ethical and unethical porn — including the reality of racial and identity stereotypes — could save them from negative experiences with long-term effects. 
“If we don't want young people to use porn as the backbone of their sex education, then we need credentialed educators to teach them,” Fonte says. “It's like watching The Fast & The Furious and assuming that's how you're supposed to learn to drive.” This analogy is a common refrain amongst sex educators, and they're onto something. We learn at a young age that Hollywood is different from reality, so why wouldn't we have that expectation set with porn? 
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It's not just that porn literacy needs to be in schools; how it's taught matters just as much — again, it needs to be through an intersectional lens. Research shows there is power in images. Racial, homophobic, and sexist stereotyping in porn is incredibly common, and even if porn doesn't directly cause the problem, it normalizes dangerous attitudes towards marginalized people. “I want to protect my BIPOC and queer students,” Fonte says. “They are surrounded by peers who are represented differently, which further marginalizes them. I want them to be a better generation, and I believe that's possible through better education.”
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Porn sites are widely known for their many categories. And they allow you to filter based on race and sexual orientation preferences. For example, currently on Pornhub, there are roughly 30,000 videos under each of the following categories: “Ebony,” “Asian,” and “Interacial.” According to PornHub's 2021 Year in Review “Japanese” remained the most viewed category for the second year, followed by “Lesbian” and “Ebony.” However, there is no “white” category, which Fonte says assumes that "white" is the norm while reducing everyone else to a “genre.”
“When we reduce someone down to, ‘I want to masturbate to a specific appearance,’ that's dehumanization,” says Fonte. “We rewire our brain every time the dopamine hits because we orgasm as we watch this.” PornHub hasn’t responded to Refinery29’s request for comment regarding their reasoning for breaking down categories based on race and ethnicity. When we contacted them for the article, PornHub pointed Refinery29 to their Pornhub Literacy 101 program and their "sexual wellness center."


When we reduce someone down to, "I want to masturbate to a specific appearance," that's dehumanization.

Justine Ang Fonte
“Race” as a genre of porn also amplifies racist violence, Fonte says. “It reinforces the fetishization of races," they say.  As examples, Fonte points to instances of sexual violence, stalking, and murder perpetrated against Asian women, and to stereotypes in porn that associate Black men with "aggression." Watching these tropes can have devastating consequences, even if it's on a subconscious level. A 2008 analysis found that kids who watch TV with specific ideas and images that support racial stereotypes can lead to accepting the harmful messaging as reality. “To ignore the racist codings of Black men in pornography… is to operate in a world of white privilege,” adds Dr. Dines of Culture Reframed. 
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Fonte wants students to remain critical of what they're looking at and stay self-aware of how they treat people in real life. Young people should examine how the ways in which performers are being directed and produced may impact how they perceive their identities. To ask themselves, Why do I say I'm into Asian girls? and Why do I consider Black men to be “my type?” “That doesn't mean you're racist, but it does require further exploration,” Fonte says. They suggest turning inwards to determine if “I prefer to have more culturally in common with people I date” is the answer or if it's “I think Asian women are subservient.” 
Including intersectionality in porn literacy's curriculum can help students better understand how porn's portrayal of racial stereotypes directly impacts marginalized groups' experience with violence in this country, Fonte says. And in the process, students will better understand their ingrained desires and where they stem from. 
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In Refinery29's 2021 Sex Re-Education survey of 1,425 people in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, only 5% of those who received a formal sex education said it thoroughly prepared them for the real world. What's more, 80% reported their schools didn't cover sex as it relates to the LGBTQ+ community. Alongside this lack of adequate sex ed, we're watching a renewed rise in homophobia as a country. From the spread of hate and misinformation online to laws like the “Don't Say Gay” legislation, it has become increasingly challenging for kids to learn about what they're seeing in incognito mode and even harder to ask a trusted adult about it. 
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When I entered high school, I didn't know if I found kissing girls arousing or if the patriarchy had me in its sweaty, Axe-scented grasp. Boys seemed to think lesbian porn was “hot” but looked down on actual lesbians. Meanwhile, I was a teenager confused about my sexual identity, and my only experience of “queer women” was what I saw in porn — those white, thin, and high femme gals I watched in my closet. In hindsight, I can see how this only underscores how the genre was a tool for men's pleasure. But did I know that at the time? Of course not. 
I'm not alone in turning to lesbian porn for guidance. In Pornhub's most recent user demographic report — which broke down “most viewed” categories based on gender (meaning men and women in the report) — the “Lesbian” genre was the most popular with women. But unfortunately, most porn doesn't help us better understand our sexual identity because it's not an accurate portrayal of real sex and intimacy, says Dr. Dines. Usually, “what we're calling ‘lesbian porn’ is not really ‘lesbian porn,’” Dr. Dines says. “It's just what men think lesbians are up to.”
If lesbian porn isn't created for lesbians, how does that further stigmatize actual lesbians? Fonte asks. “Sexual objectification inherently dehumanizes, making violence easier to commit,” they add. When all you know of lesbianism is what you see portrayed in porn, hypersexualization can lead to sexual harassment and assault of queer women. Moreover, how society stigmatizes our relationships can lead to intimate partner violence that stems from internalized homophobia and shame. 
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“If we don't want young people to use porn as the backbone of their sex education, then we need credentialed educators to teach them. “It's like watching The Fast & The Furious and assuming that's how you're supposed to learn to drive.”

Justine Fonte Ang
I see the results of this in my own life. As an out and proud queer woman, many men have repeatedly asked me to “prove” I'm on a date with a woman. Or they've asked inappropriate questions like, “How do I go down on my wife?” If porn portrays women who have sex with women as a source of entertainment or education, of course, my sexuality can only exist to please a man's needs. 
Other categories of LGBTQ+ porn, such as classifications for trans and non-binary people, have very little representation in the industry. (Pornhub has over 30,000 videos categorized as ‘Lesbian’ compared to only 17 under ‘Transgender.’) But there are likely to be more than 17 videos depicting transgender people. Fonte says performers often have to “pass” to get more work. Or it's labeled under a more derogatory term like “shemales” with 36,273 videos, which only contributes to further fetishization. 
PornHub hasn’t responded to Refinery29’s request for comment regarding breaking down categories based on sexual orientation or sexual identity. 
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It's worth wondering what it would look like if large-scale porn sites didn't reduce your identity to a genre. As an educator, Fonte never promotes porn but wants adults to know about the existence of ethical porn, which allows viewers to witness a variety of sexual desires and identities.
“You get to see what you're attracted to. [It’s] a superpower this generation has access to, compared to the big boob blonde in the centerfold under your cousin's bed,” they say. In other words, ethical porn allows for more exploration. You have more options than ever to see all kinds of representations of sex and figure out what you’re into —whereas, decades ago, you could only see the typical toxically masculine visuals that were often found in printed magazines or on VHS tapes. Now, we can learn what we like on our own terms. “Non-racist, ethical porn lets you see what your body is capable of,” Fonte adds.
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Until we see intersectional, comprehensive, and age-appropriate critical porn literacy taught by credentialed sex educators, we'll continue to see young people turning to the adult entertainment industry for answers. Poor sex education is a slippery slope that can lead to exposure to sexual violence and to a lack of critical skills to understand how racism, sexism, and homophobia in porn influence society. But if porn literacy became a staple of sex ed, it would help normalize identities many feel they have to hide because of internalized shame or external danger to their wellbeing. 
For me, watching lesbian porn was an entryway into exploring my sexuality — whether it was a good idea or not. But if I’d had a more well-rounded sex education, I might have had less fear around my experience with women for the first time (and, frankly, more time to watch Gilmore Girls).  
After untangling my initial experiences in that fated closet as an adult and with the benefit of hindsight, I no longer feel bogged down by the expectations set by porn narratives. So now, with my head tilted back and my mouth in an imperfect O-shape, I pop some M&Ms in my mouth as I reach for the remote. My two favorite brunettes pull up on the screen. My partner sits on the couch next to me and starts playing with my hair — the light tug feels nice on my scalp. Maybe this gentle touch will lead to sex. Maybe not. Either way, I now know who I am, what I like, and who I want to ~do it~ with. The kind of sexual autonomy everyone deserves.
I lean into this feeling and think to myself, Ah, this is pleasure.

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