People are turning to porn when sex education fails. Can it teach us anything about relationships?

Léa Surugue
porn

Pornography has become a resource that many people turn to when they want to find out what they weren't taught in sex education class.

In the UK, a 2015 survey by the National Union of Students revealed that more than one in two students use porn for educational purposes, with 40% saying this helps them to understand sex.

Trending: Steepest ever rogue ocean wave measured in North Sea

A number of scientific studies highlight this phenomenon, telling the story of adolescents and adults who report copying what they see in porn when they have sex, or learning new techniques via this type of content.

"Some participants say straight out, I have used porn in order to learn more about sex, because I'm curious and I have few other sources of information," Emily Rothman, from Boston University School of Public Health who published a study on the subject in the Journal of Sex Research, told IBTimes UK.

Don't miss: Johnson & Johnson lawsuits spike from men who 'grew breasts'

"It's easy for them to use the internet to find out what they want, so it makes sense that it's what they are doing in the absence of comprehensive sex education in most schools."

In the US, only 24 states and the District of Columbia – less than half – require public schools to teach sex education. Only 20 states require that if provided, sex and/or HIV education must be medically, factually or technically accurate. In the UK, sex and relationship education is compulsory from the age of 11 – but parents can choose to withdraw their children from some areas of the curriculum.

Most popular: The 10 biggest earthquakes in the last 100 years

What science says about porn

Whatever your view of porn is, the fact is that in many countries (including but not restricted to the US and the UK), it is now filling the gap created by the absence of comprehensive, evidence-based sex education.

The full consequences on people's health, psychological well-being and relationships have yet to emerge. Findings of studies that have looked at porn and whether it can educate youth about sex and relationships are often contradictory.

It's true that porn is a difficult topic to research, not least because it is a continuum of content, covering very different genres, so it can be tricky to generalise and draw conclusions about how it affects different public.

Widespread access to porn thanks to the internet is also a relatively new phenomenon. In the absence of long-term data, scientists struggle to predict how young people's sexual behaviours will be altered by this.

Grabbing the sheets

That being said, there seems to be more examples in the scientific literature making the case that porn negatively impacts on people, especially adolescents and young adults.

In a review of 20 years of research about the effects of pornography on adolescents, published in the Journal of Sex Research, scientists have found that pornography use was associated with more permissive sexual intercourse but also with greater experience with casual sex behaviour, and with a greater risk of being a victim or a perpetrator of sexual aggression.

"In my 17 years of working as a therapist, I have come to the conclusion that the data tells a compelling story about the negative impact of pornography, and I believe this story is not being communicated well to the public. We don't have enough young people who are informed about the risks associated with pornography," Dr Jill Manning, a licensed marital and family therapist whose research was referenced in the review, explained.

Read more: How much porn is too much?

Based on the data, she believes pornography is more likely to misinform young people and to produce unrealistic expectations and promote high-risk behaviours than to educate them about the reality of healthy sexuality.

This view is shared by Charlotte Rose, an English sex-worker who offers sexual training for couples. "In the absence of comprehensive sex education, people turn to porn and they sometimes struggle to understand the difference between the reality side of sex and the fantasy side of sex," she said.

That's not to say that all studies present porn in a negative light. A paper published in PLOS One showed that the use of condoms in porn movies encouraged homosexual and bisexual men to practice safe sex. Another suggested that watching porn could improve sexual communication and increase sexual experimentation, although critics have criticised its methodology.

Couple

"The results of one or two studies suggest that there are some specific forms of pornography that have improved communication for some people, in some relationships, at one point in time – or that pornography has been useful for some young adults with sexual minority orientations – but there is no compelling evidence that there is a public health benefit in making pornography as widely available as possible as a form of sex education," Rothman said.

The porn innovators

If you move beyond the data however, a new trend is emerging: a growing number of people are trying to change the industry from within, using porn and the visibility it has to pass on important messages about health.

One of them is porn actor Jason Domino. In the space of three years, he has become one of the most vocal PrEP (the drug combination that can help prevent HIV infection) and sexual health advocate in the UK. He created a project called Porn4Prep, which makes free educational porn films committed to teaching people about PrEP and sexually transmitted diseases.

Read more: I'm a gay porn star and I would like to teach you about safe sex

"Porn is already on the edge of society. This doesn't create an environment where the industry is comfortable saying 'maybe we can help'. But everyone watches porn, and I believe it is tool we need to use to get important messages out to people," he explained.

His friend Tegwyn, who works with him on the project added: "Porn is where many people get their sex education, but porn doesn't want to touch sex education, because it is just not sexy. Porn4Prep hits a middle ground and bridges those two worlds."

Another example is a platform called "Make Love not Porn", which features videos of "real-life sex" with "real people", to show sex as it is. Although some critics have said it may foster voyeurism, its founder Cindy Gallop hopes it can normalise sex and sexual health.

Pornhub logo

Even Pornhub, the largest pornography site on the internet, is joining the movement, launching an online platform known as Pornhub Wellness Centre to answer questions about sex in a frank and factual way.

These initiatives are not targeted at adolescents (in theory, you need to be over 18 to access Make Love not Porn or watch Porn4Prep videos). They don't exempt schools from promoting evidence-based sex education.

It is also unclear whether such projects can really changes things by reaching a wide audience and be replicated more widely in the industry.

But the good news is they constitute a first sign of the industry's willingness to play a more active role in promoting good health practices.

Options for adolescents

To help adolescents make sense of sex and distinguish between fiction and reality, other options need to be investigated. If they can't find any answers in schools or porn, an alternative would be to have paediatricians play a more active role in young people's education.

This could only be a question of dedicating a few minutes of their time with patients to talking about sexual health, the potential risks of porn, as well as what constitutes a healthy relationship – a topic that isn't frequently addressed anywhere.

"When it comes to sex education, it's not an understanding of the mechanics of body function that people are lacking, it's understanding healthy boundaries and how to form strong, long-lasting attachments," Manning concluded.

You may be interested in:

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes