What Teenagers Are Learning From Online Porn - The New York Times

It’s not surprising, then, that some adolescents use porn as a how-to guide. In a study that Rothman carried out in 2016 of 72 high schoolers ages 16 and 17, teenagers reported that porn was their primary source for information about sex — more than friends, siblings, schools or parents.

“There’s nowhere else to learn about sex,” the suburban boy told me. “And porn stars know what they are doing.” His words reflect a paradox about sex and pornography in this country. Even as smartphones have made it easier for teenagers to watch porn, sex education in the United States — where abstinence-based sex education remains the norm — is meager. Massachusetts is among 26 states that do not mandate sex ed. And a mere 13 require that the material be medically and scientifically accurate. After some gains by the Obama administration to promote more comprehensive sex ed, which includes pregnancy prevention, discussions of anatomy, birth control, disease prevention, abstinence and healthy relationships, the Trump administration did not include the program in its proposed 2018 budget; it also has requested increased funding for abstinence education. Easy-to-access online porn fills the vacuum, making porn the de facto sex educator for American youth.

One Thursday afternoon, about a dozen teenagers sat in a semicircle of North Face zip-ups, Jordans, combat boots, big hoop earrings and the slumped shoulders of late afternoon. It was the third week of Porn Literacy, and everyone already knew the rules: You don’t have to have watched porn to attend; no yucking someone else’s yum — no disparaging a student’s sexual tastes or sexuality. And avoid sharing personal stories about sex in class. Nicole Daley and Jess Alder, who wrote the curriculum with Emily Rothman and led most of the exercises and discussion, are in their 30s, warm and easygoing. Daley, who until last month was the director of Start Strong, played the slightly more serious favorite-aunt role, while Alder, who runs Start Strong’s classes for teenagers, was the goofier, ask-me-anything big sister. Rothman also attended most of the classes, offering information about pornography studies and explaining to them, for example, that there is no scientific evidence that porn is addictive, but that people can become compulsive about it.

In the first class, Daley led an exercise in which the group defined porn terms (B.D.S.M., kink, soft-core, hard-core), so that, as she put it, “everyone is on the same page” and “you can avoid clicking on things you don’t want to see.” The students also “values voted” — agreeing or disagreeing about whether the legal viewing age of 18 for porn is too high, if working in the porn industry is a good way to make money and if pornography should be illegal. Later, Daley held up images of a 1940s pinup girl, a Japanese geisha and Kim Kardashian, to talk about how cultural values about beauty and bodies change over time. In future classes, they would talk about types of intimacy not depicted in porn and nonsexist pickup lines. Finally, Daley would offer a lesson about sexting and sexting laws and the risks of so-called revenge porn (in which, say, a teenager circulates a naked selfie of an ex without consent). And to the teenagers’ surprise, they learned that receiving or sending consensual naked photos, even to your boyfriend or girlfriend, can be against the law if the person in the photo is a minor.

Now, in the third week of class, Daley’s goal was to undercut porn’s allure for teenagers by exposing the underbelly of the business. “When you understand it’s not just two people on the screen but an industry,” she told me, “it’s not as sexy.”

To that end, Daley started class by detailing a midlevel female performer’s salary (taken from the 2008 documentary “The Price of Pleasure”): “Blow job: $300,” Daley read from a list. “Anal: $1,000. Double penetration: $1,200. Gang bang: $1,300 for three guys. $100 for each additional guy.”

“Wow,” Drew muttered. “That makes it nasty now.”

“That’s nothing for being penetrated on camera,” another boy said.

Then, as if they had been given a green light to ask about a world that grown-ups rarely acknowledge, they began peppering Daley, Rothman and Alder with questions.

Photo Credit Photo illustration by Sara Cwynar

“How much do men get paid?” one girl asked. It is the one of the few professions in which men are paid less, Rothman explained, but they also typically have longer careers. How long do women stay in their jobs? On average, six to 18 months. How do guys get erections if they aren’t turned on? Often Viagra, Rothman offered, and sometimes a “fluffer,” as an offscreen human stimulator is known.

Daley then asked the teenagers to pretend they were contestants on a reality-TV show, in which they had to decide if they were willing to participate in certain challenges (your parents might be watching) and for how much money. In one scenario, she said, you would kneel on the ground while someone poured a goopy substance over your face. In another, you’d lick a spoon that had touched fecal matter. The kids debated the fecal-matter challenge — most wouldn’t to do it for less than $2 million. One wanted to know if the goop smelled. “Can we find out what it is?” asked another.

Then Daley explained that each was in fact a simulation of a porn act. The goopy substance was what’s called a “baker’s dozen,” in which 13 men ejaculate on a woman’s face, breasts and mouth.

“What?” a girl named Tiffany protested.

The second scenario — licking the spoon with fecal matter — was from a porn act known as A.T.M., in which a man puts his penis in a woman’s anus and then immediately follows by sticking it in her mouth.

“No way,” a 15-year-old boy said. “Can’t you wash in between?”

Nope, Daley said.

“We don’t question it when we see it in porn, right?” Daley went on. “There’s no judgment here, but some of you guys are squeamish about it.”

“I never knew any of this,” Drew said, sounding a bit glum.

Daley went on to detail a 2010 study that coded incidents of aggression in best-selling 2004 and 2005 porn videos. She noted that 88 percent of scenes showed verbal or physical aggression, mostly spanking, slapping and gagging. (A more recent content analysis of more than 6,000 mainstream online heterosexual porn scenes by Bryant Paul and his colleagues defined aggression specifically as any purposeful action appearing to cause physical or psychological harm to another person and found that 33 percent of scenes met that criteria. In each study, women were on the receiving end of the aggression more than 90 percent of the time.)

“Do you think,” Daley said, standing in front of the students, “watching porn leads to violence against women? There’s no right or wrong here. It’s a debate.”

Kyrah, a 10th-grade feminist with an athlete’s compact body and a tendency to speak her opinions, didn’t hesitate. “In porn they glamorize calling women a slut or a whore, and younger kids think this is how it is. Or when they have those weird porn scenes and the woman is saying, ‘Stop touching me,’ and then she ends up enjoying it!”

Tiffany, her best friend, snapped her fingers in approval.

“Yes and no,” one guy interjected. “When a man is choking a woman in porn, people know it is not real, and they aren’t supposed to do it, because it’s violence.” He was the same teenager who told me he would just “do” anal sex without asking a girl, because the women in porn like it.

Pornography didn’t create the narrative that male pleasure should be first and foremost. But that idea is certainly reinforced by “a male-dominated porn industry shot through a male lens,” as Cindy Gallop puts it. Gallop is the creator of an online platform called MakeLoveNotPorn, where users can submit videos of their sexual encounters — which she describes as “real world,” consensual sex with “good values” — and pay to watch videos of others.

For years, Gallop has been a one-woman laboratory witnessing how easy-to-access mainstream porn influences sex. Now in her 50s, she has spent more than a decade dating 20-something men. She finds them through “cougar” dating sites — where older women connect with younger men — and her main criterion is that they are “nice.” Even so, she told me, during sex with these significantly younger nice men, she repeatedly encounters porn memes: facials, “jackhammering” intercourse, more frequent requests for anal sex and men who seem less focused on female orgasms than men were when she was younger. Gallop takes it upon herself to “re-educate,” as she half-jokingly puts it, men raised on porn. Some people, of course, do enjoy these acts. But speaking of teenagers in particular, she told me she worries that hard-core porn leads many girls to think, for example, that “all boys love coming on girls’ faces, and all girls love having their faces come on. And therefore, girls feel they must let boys come on their face and pretend to like it.”

Though none of the boys I spoke to at Start Strong told me they had ejaculated on a girl’s face, Gallop’s words reminded me of conversations I had with some older high-schoolers in various cities. One senior said that ejaculating on a woman’s face was in a majority of porn scenes he had watched, and that he had done it with a girlfriend. “I brought it up, or she would say, ‘Come on my face.’ It was an aspect I liked — and she did, too.”

Another noted that the act is “talked about a lot” among guys, but said that “a girl’s got to be down with it” before he’d ever consider doing it. “There is something that’s appealing for guys. The dominance and intimacy and that whole opportunity for eye contact. Guys are obsessed with their come displayed on a girl.”

Many girls at Start Strong were decidedly less enthusiastic. One senior told me a boyfriend asked to ejaculate on her face; she said no. And during a conversation I had with three girls, one senior wondered aloud: “What if you don’t want a facial? What are you supposed to do? Friends say a boy cleans it with a napkin. A lot of girls my age like facials.” But a few moments later, she reversed course. “I actually don’t think they like it. They do it because their partner likes it.” Next to her, a sophomore added that when older girls talk among themselves, many say it’s gross. “But they say you gotta do what you gotta do.” And if you don’t, the first girl added, “then someone else will.”

These are not new power dynamics between girls and boys. In a 2014 British study about anal sex and teenagers, girls expressed a similar lack of sexual agency and experienced physical pain. In the survey, of 130 heterosexual teenagers age 16 to 18, teenagers often said they believed porn was a motivating factor for why males wanted anal sex. And among the guys who reported trying it, many said friends encouraged them, or they felt competitive with other guys to do it. At the same time, a majority of girls who had tried anal sex said they didn’t actually want to; their partners persuaded or coerced them. Some males took a “try it and see” approach, as researchers called it, attempting to put their finger or penis in a girl’s anus and hoping she didn’t stop them. Sometimes, one teenager reported, you “just keep going till they just get fed up and let you do it anyway.” Both boys and girls blamed the girls for pain they felt during anal sex and some told researchers the girls needed to “relax” more or “get used to it.” Only one girl said she enjoyed it, and only a few boys did. Teenagers may not know that even while porn makes it seem commonplace, in the 2009 national survey of American sex habits, most men and women who tried anal sex didn’t make it a regular part of their sex lives. And in another study, by Indiana University’s Debby Herbenick and others in 2015, about 70 percent of women who had anal sex said they experienced pain.

Drew had firsthand experience with what he had seen in porn not translating into actual pleasure. The first time he had sex, he thought he was supposed to exert some physical control over his girlfriend. But the whole thing felt awkward, too rough and not all that fun. And things that looked easy in porn, like sex while taking a shower or mutual oral sex, didn’t go so well.

Photo Credit Photo illustration by Sara Cwynar

At one point during sex, Drew’s girlfriend at the time, who was a year older and more experienced, asked him to put his hand around her neck during sex. He did it, without squeezing, and though it didn’t exactly bother him, it felt uncomfortable. Drew never asked if she got the idea from porn, but it made him wonder. Had she also picked up other ways of acting? “Like, how do you really know a girl has had a good time?” he said one afternoon, musing aloud while sitting with some friends before Porn Literacy class. “My girlfriend said she had a good time,” he went on. “She was moaning. But that’s the thing: Is it fake moaning?”

Even if you know porn isn’t realistic, it still sets up expectations, one senior told me. In porn, he said, “the clothes are off, and the girl goes down on the guy, he gets hard and he starts having sex with her. It’s all very simple and well lit.” Before he had sex, porn had supplied his images of oral sex, including scenes in which a woman is on her knees as a man stands over her. At one point, he thought that’s how it might go one day when he had sex. But when he talked with his girlfriend, they realized they didn’t want to re-enact that power dynamic.

I spent acouple of hours on a Wednesday afternoon at Start Strong with a senior girl who took the first Porn Literacy class in the summer of 2016. Looking back over the last several years of middle and high school, A., who asked me to identify her by the first initial of her middle name, said she wished she had had someplace — home, school, a community sex-ed program — to learn about sex. Instead, she learned about it from porn. She saw it for the first time by accident, after a group of sixth-grade boys cajoled her to look at tube8.com, which she didn’t know was a porn site. She was fascinated. She had never seen a penis before, “not a drawing of one, nothing.” A few years later, she searched online for porn again after listening to girls in the high school locker room talk about masturbation. A.’s parents, whom she describes as conservative about sex, hadn’t talked to her about female anatomy or sex, and her school didn’t offer any sex education before ninth grade; even then, it focused mostly on the dangers — sexually transmitted infections and diseases and pregnancy.

Aside from some private schools and innovative community programs, relatively few sex-ed classes in middle and high school delve in detail into anatomy (female, especially), intimacy, healthy relationships, sexual diversity. Even more rare are discussions of female desire and pleasure. Porn taught A. the basics of masturbation. And porn served as her study guide when she was 16 and was the first among her friends to have sex. She clicked through videos to watch women giving oral sex. She focused on how they moved during sex and listened to how they moaned. She began shaving her vulva (“I’ve never seen anyone in porn have sex with hair on it”).

Porn is “not all bad,” said A., who was frank and funny, with a slew of advanced-placement classes on her transcript and a self-assured manner that impresses adults. “I got my sexual ways from porn, and I like the way I am.” But what she learned from porn had downsides too. Because she assumed women’s pleasure in porn was real, when she first had intercourse and didn’t have an orgasm, she figured that was just how it went.

For A., it wasn’t enough to know that porn was fake sex. She wanted to understand how real sex worked. Rothman and her team did consult a sex educator while they were writing the Porn Literacy curriculum but decided to include only some basic information about safe sex. It came in the form of a “Porn Jeopardy” game during one class. The teenagers, clustered in teams, chose from four categories: S.T.D./S.T.I.s, Birth Control, Teen Violence/Sexual Assault and Porn on the Brain.

“S.T.I.s/S.T.D.s for $300,” one student called out.

“Why is lubrication important for sex?” Alder asked.

“What’s lubrication?” Drew asked.

“It’s lube,” another teenager said, in an attempt to explain.

“Is lubrication only the little tube-y things?” a girl with long black hair asked. “Or can it be natural?”

“I never learned this before,” Drew announced to the class after it was mentioned that lubrication decreased friction, increased pleasure and could reduce the risk of tearing and therefore of S.T.I.s and S.T.D.s. Drew’s only sliver of sex ed was in sixth grade with the school gym teacher, who sweated as he talked about sex, “and it was all about it being bad and we shouldn’t do it.”

As if to rectify that, Alder offered a quick anatomy lesson, drawing a vulva on the whiteboard and pointing out the clitoris, the vagina, the urethra. “This is called a vulva,” she said. Alder repeated the word slowly and loudly, as if instructing the students in a foreign language. It was both for humor and to normalize a word that some of them may have been hearing for the first time. “This is the clitoris,” Alder went on. “This is where women get most pleasure. Most women do not have a G spot. If you want to know how to give a woman pleasure, it’s the clitoris.”

“Let’s move on,” Rothman said quietly. Alder had just inched across a line in which anatomy rested on one side and female desire and pleasure on the other. It was a reminder that as controversial as it is to teach kids about pornography, it can be more taboo to teach them how their bodies work sexually. “The class is about critically analyzing sexually explicit media,” Rothman told me later, “not how to have sex. We want to stay in our narrow lane and not be seen as promoting anything parents are uncomfortable with.” Daley added: “I wish it were different, but we have to be aware of the limitations of where we are as a society.”

Porn education is such new territory that no one knows the best practices, what material should be included and where to teach it. (Few people are optimistic that it will be taught anytime soon in public schools.) Several years ago, L. Kris Gowen, a sexuality educator and author of the 2017 book “Sexual Decisions: The Ultimate Teen Guide,” wrote extensive guidelines for teaching teenagers to critique “sexually explicit media” (she avoided the more provocative term “porn literacy”). Even though Oregon, where Gowen lives, has one of the most comprehensive sex-ed programs in the country, Gowen said that teachers felt unequipped to talk about porn. And though the guidelines have been circulated at education conferences and made publicly available, Gowen doesn’t know of a single educator who has implemented them. In part, she says, people may be waiting for a better sense of what’s effective. But also, many schools and teachers are nervous about anything that risks them being “accused of promoting porn.”

The most recent sex-education guidelines from the World Health Organization’s European office note that educators should include discussions about the influence of pornography on sexuality starting with late elementary school and through high school. The guidelines don’t, however, provide specific ideas on how to have those conversations.

In Britain, nonprofit organizations and a teachers’ union, along with members of Parliament, have recommended that schools include discussions about the influence of porn on how children view sex and relationships. Magdalena Mattebo, a researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden who studies pornography and adolescents, would like porn literacy mandated in her country. “We are a little lost in how to handle this,” Mattebo told me.

More than 300 schools, youth and community groups and government agencies in Australia and New Zealand use components of a porn-education resource called “In the Picture” that includes statistics, studies and exercises primarily for teenagers. It was created by Maree Crabbe, an expert on sexual violence and pornography education, who lives near Melbourne, Australia. As she put it during a United States training program for educators and social workers that I attended in 2016: “We want to be positive about sex, positive about masturbation and critical of pornography.” One key component of the program is often neglected in porn literacy: providing training to help parents understand and talk about these issues.

Last year, a feminist porn producer, Erika Lust, in consultation with sex educators, created a porn-education website for parents. The Porn Conversation links to research and articles and provides practical tips for parents, including talking to kids about the ways mainstream porn doesn’t represent typical bodies or mutually satisfying sex and avoiding accusatory questions about why your kid is watching porn and who showed it to them. “We can’t just say, ‘I don’t like mainstream porn because it’s chauvinistic,’ ” says Lust, whose films feature female-centered pleasure. “We have given our children technology, so we need to teach them how to handle it.” But she takes it a step further by suggesting that parents of middle- and high-schoolers talk to their teenagers about “healthy porn,” which she says includes showing female desire and pleasure and being made under fair working conditions. I asked Lust if she would steer her daughters in that direction when they are older (they are 7 and 10). “I would recommend good sites to my daughters at age 15, when I think they are mature enough. We are so curious to find out about sex. People have doubts and insecurities about themselves sexually. ‘Is it O.K. that I like that, or this?’ I think porn can be a good thing to have as an outlet. I’m not scared by explicit sex per se. I’m afraid of the bad values.”

Tristan Taormino, another feminist porn filmmaker and author, speaks frequently on college campuses and produces explicit sex-ed videos for adults. “The party line is we don’t want teenagers watching our videos,” she says, noting they are rated XXX. “But do I wish teenagers had access to some of the elements of it?” In addition to seeing consent, she said, “they would see people talking to each other, and they’d see a lot of warm-up. We show lube, we show sex toys.”

That may be more than most parents, even of older teenagers, can bear. But even if parents decided to help their teenagers find these sites, not only is it illegal to show any kind of porn — good or bad — to anyone under 18, but, really, do teenagers want their parents to do so? And which ones would parents recommend for teenagers? “Unlike organic food, there’s no coding system for ethical or feminist porn,” Crabbe notes. “They might use condoms and dental dams and still convey the same gender and aggression dynamics.” Also, “good porn” isn’t typically free or nearly as accessible as the millions of videos streaming on mainstream sites.

Al Vernacchio, a nationally known sexuality educator who teaches progressive sex ed at a private Quaker school outside Philadelphia, believes the better solution is to make porn literacy part of the larger umbrella of comprehensive sex education. Vernacchio, who is the author of the 2014 book “For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health,” is one of those rare teenage-sex educators who talks directly to his high school students about sexual pleasure and mutuality, along with the ingredients for healthy relationships. The problem with porn “is not just that it often shows misogynistic, unhealthy representations of relationships,” Vernacchio says. “You can’t learn relationship skills from porn, and if you are looking for pleasure and connection, porn can’t teach you how to have those.”

Crabbe notes one effective way to get young men to take fewer lessons from porn: “Tell them if you want to be a lazy, selfish lover, look at porn. If you want to be a lover where your partner says, ‘That was great,’ you won’t learn it from porn.” And parents should want their teenagers to be generous lovers, Cindy Gallop argues. “Our parents bring us up to have good manners, a work ethic. But nobody brings us up to behave well in bed.”

To prepare his students to be comfortable and respectful in sexual situations, Vernacchio shows photos, not just drawings, of genitalia to his high-schoolers. “Most people are having sex with real people, not porn stars, and real bodies are highly variable. I would much rather my students have that moment of asking questions or confusion or even laughter in my classroom rather than when they see their partner’s naked body for the first time.” He, along with Debby Herbenick, who is also the author of the 2012 book “Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Questions Answered for Better, Smarter Amazing Sex,” advocate that adolescents should understand that most females don’t have orgasms by penetration alone, and that clitoral stimulation often requires oral sex, fingers and sex toys. As she notes: “It’s part of human life, and you teach it in smart, sensitive ways.”

As the students from the first Porn Literacy classes moved through their lives in the year after their courses ended, some things from the discussions stayed with them. In surveys from the first three sets of classes, one-third of the students still said they would agree to do things from porn if their partner asked them to. Several also wanted to try things they saw in porn. They were, after all, normal, sexually curious, experimenting teenagers. But only a tiny number of students agreed in the postclass survey that “most people like to be slapped, spanked or have their hair pulled during sex,” compared with 27 percent at the start of class. And while at the beginning, 45 percent said that porn was a good way for young people to learn about sex, now only 18 percent agreed. By the end of the class, no one said pornography was realistic; just over one-quarter had believed that at the outset. The survey didn’t reveal the catalyst for the changes. Was it the curriculum itself? Was it something about Daley and Alder’s teaching style? It’s possible the students created the changes themselves, teaching one another through their in-class debates and discussions.

A., the young woman who said she had never seen an image of a penis until she watched porn, resisted the idea that porn was uniformly bad for teenagers. “At least kids are watching porn and not going out and getting pregnant,” she said. But recently, she told me that she’d given up watching it altogether. She disliked looking at women’s expressions now, believing that they probably weren’t experiencing pleasure and might be in pain. When Drew watched porn, he found himself wondering if women were having sex against their will. As another student said with a sigh: “Nicole and Jess ruined porn for us.”

In the months after the class, A. had created a new mission for herself: She was going to always have orgasms during sex. “And I did it!” she told me. It helped that she had been in a relationship with a guy who was open and asked what she liked. But even if Porn Literacy didn’t go into as many details about sex as she would have liked, “in this indirect way, the class shows what you deserve and don’t deserve,” she said. “In porn, the guy cares only about himself. I used to think more about ‘Am I doing something right or wrong?’ ” Porn may neglect women’s orgasms, but A. wasn’t going to anymore.

Drew, who had once used porn as his main sex educator, was now thinking about sex differently. “Some things need to come to us naturally, not by watching it and seeing what turns you on,” he told me. The discussions about anatomy and fake displays of pleasure made him realize that girls didn’t always respond as they did in porn and that they didn’t all want the same things. And guys didn’t, either. Maybe that porn clip in which the nice, tender guy didn’t excite the girl was wrong. What Drew needed was a girl who was open and honest, as he was, and with whom he could start to figure out how to have good sex. It would take some time and most likely involve some fumbling. But Drew was O.K. with that. He was just starting out.

Maggie Jones is a contributing writer for the magazine and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh’s M.F.A. program. She has been a finalist for a National Magazine Award and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The New York Times Magazine delivered to your inbox every week.

A version of this article appears in print on February 11, 2018, on Page MM30 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: When Porn Is Sex Ed.

Continue reading the main story