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Why Young Adults Need Porn Literacy

Porn shows lots of penises, vulvas, and orgasms, but it doesn't show -- it can't show -- the things about sex that most people value: talking, laughing, kissing, whispering, negotiating, appreciating, cuddling. Feeling special, feeling desired, feeling graceful.

In addition to death and taxes, there are two other things we can be sure of:

* The internet is here to stay.

* Pornography is here to stay.

Young adults will figure out death and taxes on their own someday, but internet porn is something that they're dealing with right now. To do so it will be valuable to develop what I call Porn Literacy.

Porn Literacy is the set of skills that people need to decode and manage the porn in their lives --whether they watch intentionally, stumble on it accidentally, or are in a relationship with a porn consumer.

A cornerstone of Porn Literacy is the understanding that porn is not a documentary. It's fiction. Like all movies, TV shows, and video games, porn involves makeup, lighting, and editing. All media are constructed this way. What we consumers see and hear is a series of artificially created pieces that are cut and pasted together to form a coherent set of images.

In porn, these constructed images typically involve the human body. Porn is like an ESPN highlight reel -- full of glamorous touchdowns or slam dunks, but without the preparation, the emotions, the real-time adjustments, and the conversations that provide the real-world context for the brief moments of drama we see. If someone went to an actual football game assuming they'd see dozens of touchdowns, they'd be disappointed. They might wonder what's wrong with the teams, or with themselves, or whether football is overrated.

The same is true if people assume that real sex will be like porn. Or that it should be like porn.

Porn shows lots of penises, vulvas, and orgasms, but it doesn't show -- it can't show -- the things about sex that most people value: talking, laughing, kissing, whispering, negotiating, appreciating, cuddling. Feeling special, feeling desired, feeling graceful.

Consumers watch porn to get aroused, and watching an actual relationship is not arousing. It may be wonderful to experience, but it's boring to watch.

Young adults need to understand this when they watch or think about porn. Too many young people start their sexual careers attempting to duplicate porn, not realizing that this model lacks so much. And with valuable face-to-face communication increasingly replaced by brief digital syllables ("by 4 now;" "LOL;" "whtevr;"), young adults' ability to simply talk about what goes on in bed ("a little slower, please;" "let's stop so I can put on socks;" "I don't really like this, let's do something else;" "it seems like you're not really into this") is lagging further and further behind the needs of their sexual encounters -- whether hookup or more intimate.

Does porn drag people away from happy, exciting sexual relationships? Of course not. What masturbating-to-porn does offer is an alternative to sex that is boring, painful, or filled with anxiety. Unfortunately, many sexually troubled couples simply refuse to talk honestly about their situation. They'd rather argue about porn. They get nowhere, but it's easier than confronting "I just don't enjoy sex with you anymore."

People who don't watch porn often express concern about the content of porn, and have often been frightened by the deliberately misleading statements of anti-porn crusaders. What's actually in porn?

1. Some troubling stuff

2. Some not-troubling stuff

Some porn depicts violence; most doesn't. Some porn depicts people in pain; most doesn't. Most porn shows people with big smiles on their faces doing rather ordinary things -- things that most women and men do, have done, or would like to do. Fellatio is not violence. Cunnilingus is not exploitative. Vigorous intercourse is often quite mutual. And, as 50 Shades of Gray shows, millions of people are interested in S/M. That isn't violence either -- by definition, it's consensual and pleasurable to both parties.

When anti-porn crusaders describe depictions of happy people having oral sex as "degrading," "exploitive," or "violent," they are talking about their own misunderstanding of or discomfort with sexuality. That's a discussion of their emotions, not a rational discussion of an important social phenomenon.

So is there a reason to be concerned about the ugly, disgusting porn that is easily available on the internet? Yes and no. There is no data -- repeat, no data -- showing that people who consume porn are more likely to commit anti-social acts or have relationship problems. There's plenty of fear and speculation, but science just does not support this anxiety.

In fact, law enforcement statistics tell us that since broadband internet brought free, high-quality porn into everyone's home 12 years ago, the rate of sexual violence in North American has gone down. That reality is the exact opposite of the social disaster that anti-porn crusaders did predict and continue to predict.

The vast majority of porn consumers report no problems. The Sexual Disaster Industry, however, cynically promotes inaccurate ideas (all porn is violent, all actresses are abused, all consumers become addicted) and is successfully spreading a PornPanic throughout North America.

Which is a shame. There are indeed problems with an entire generation getting their sex education from a commercial industry overly focused on genitalia, kiss-less intercourse, and quick orgasm. But pathologizing the sexual imagery of an entire generation, misunderstanding the kind of education they actually need, and describing women as powerless victims of men's selfish pressure and uncontrollable lust is a terrible mistake that helps no one.

Young adults need society's support in creating their own vision of satisfying sexuality -- a vision that needs space for lust, passion, experimentation, and challenging taboos, along with affection and intimacy when desired. They need Sexual Intelligence, not a moral panic.

After all, sex isn't just an activity -- it's an idea.

Dr. Marty Klein is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Certified Sex Educator. He is the author of 7 books about sex, including his latest, Sexual Intelligence: What We Really Want From Sex and How to Get It. He will speak on March 7 at the Ramada Inn in Toronto on "Developing Porn Literacy in Young People," sponsored by Planned Parenthood.

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