Without comprehensive sex education, porn is the only solid information kids are getting about sex. 

What Women Really Think
Nov. 18 2011 10:53 AM

Kids Are Learning Sex from Porn

sex education
Singer Solange Knowles promotes safe sex.

Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

For years now, the debate over sex education in the mainstream has been along the lines of, "Do we tell kids sex is an awful thing and they shouldn't do it at all, or do we tell kids sex is an awful thing, but if they must, here's how to be safe?" Those of us who argue for a third way---that comprehensive sex education should value sexual pleasure and even that young people should learn nitty-gritty information about how to have not just healthy but pleasurable sex---have been left hoping kids find Scarleteen, but otherwise afraid to speak out too loudly for fear of having the entire pro-choice and public health movement branded as Satanic by a right wing that already thinks we're perverts.

But in the past month, it seems that there's been a shift in the mainstream toward a willingness to speak openly about incorporating talk of pleasure into sex education. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy partnered with the usually controversy-hostile Ad Council to promote contraception as a fun, sexy topic with the Bedsider campaign. Sociologist Amy Schalet is getting coverage in big newspapers with her research showing that the "Dutch model," where parents accept their minor children's relationships and even let them have sleepovers with sex partners, results in much better health outcomes for teenagers. And now the New York Times has a glowing profile of a specific sex educator who embraces the pleasure-centered approach, along with an overall endorsement of this strategy.

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Is truly comprehensive sex education an idea whose time has finally come? Let's hope so, because as the sex educators in the Times piece make clear, if teenagers don't learn much about sex beyond how to use a condom from trusted adults, they're going to turn to porn. And while porn has a great many valid uses (OK, one really), sex education isn't one of them. Porn is especially bad when it comes to educating about women's pleasure, as you noted, Bryan. At best, women's pleasure is treated with indifference in porn, and often, especially in the kinds of porn most likely to be discovered by inexperienced teenagers, women's pleasure is antithetical to the whole enterprise, a subject I addressed in more depth yesterday at Slate. The result of leaving it up to porn to educate kids is that young women aren't getting a whole lot out of sex.

Although Vernacchio encourages students to think about fairness, he certainly doesn’t encourage a direct quid pro quo for oral sex — and the girls, the main givers, were not terribly enthused about being the recipients. “[My boyfriend] completely offered, and I did not want that,” one said. Another agreed: “It just creeps me out.”.... And another said she doesn’t enjoy cunnilingus, but taking the personal is political to heart, she asked her boyfriend to do it anyway: if she was expected to service him orally, he should have to return the favor.

Obviously, there are a couple of problems, politically speaking, going on here: Some girls have keyed into how unfair it is for sex to be something women do for men, but others are still stuck in having absorbed sex-negative messages about women's bodies being gross. But in cases where they try it and it's not working for them, an experienced adult could probably suggest the most obvious reason: Their boyfriends learned their "technique" from porn, and as anyone who's seen porn can tell you, what's going on there may work for the camera but isn't really doing anything for the recipient, which is why she gets the moniker "actress." Along with information about birth control, young women do need to be told they can pipe up and say "slower" or "harder" until he unlearns the tricks he got from porn and learns to please a real life lady. Information like that, in turn, can subtly remake their vision of what sex can be, giving them more power in their lives and especially in their relationships, along with more pleasure. Hopefully, we as a society are finally making the move toward providing this proper education for kids, and getting away from the dark ages of abstinence only. 

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.

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