All I Really Need To Know I Learned From Porn — Or Not

This piece originally appeared on the Blowfish Blog.

Porn is not sex education.

I’ll say it again: Porn is not sex education.

I’m saying this to everyone who’s reading this. But I’m especially saying it to parents: Porn is not sex education. So you need to make sure your kids are getting actual sex education. Because if you don’t, then all they really need to know about sex they’ll learn from porn — and they’re going to get it completely wrong.

This came up because of a piece I heard on the NPR radio show, “This American Life.” The program was on the topic of “talking to kids,” and it had a whole segment on talking to kids and teenagers about sex. The entire segment was excellent… but the part that jumped out at me was the teenagers saying that they didn’t have good information about sex. Specifically, they didn’t have good information about the actual mechanics of sex, what goes where and how.

And so they looked at porn.

And I didn’t know whether to vomit, throw things, or cry.

It wasn’t just the appalling state of sex education in our country that made me want to cry. Although that was a big part of it. The sex education these kids are getting from their schools is pathetic and insulting, and they know it.

No, what was really making me want to throw bricks through windows was that these teenagers were getting their sex education from porn… and I know, in great and vivid detail from the many years I’ve been watching porn, exactly how lousy that education will be.

Here is a very short list of things that people will get grotesquely wrong if they get their sex education from porn.

What women’s genitals look like. This is a biggie. If you’re looking at porn video to satisfy your curiosity about what a pussy looks like — well, standards of female beauty in porn are almost as rigid with pussies as they are with basic body types, and female genital cosmetic surgery in the porn industry is getting increasingly and depressingly common.

What male genitals look like. Another biggie — literally. Every time I read a letter to a sex advice columnist from a guy complaining that his dick is pathetically small — not like the guys in the porn videos — I want to scream and bite people. Male porn actors are specifically selected for their large genitalia. They are not a statistically representative sampling. Statistically speaking, they represent the far, far end of the bell curve.

The realities of female sexual response. This may be the worst offender of the bunch. There’s already enough ignorance about what gives women sexual pleasure and what gets us off, without “porn as sex ed” adding to the mix. Look, I have no doubt that there are some women out there who don’t need foreplay, get very aroused by giving blowjobs, have intense multiple orgasms from intercourse alone, and couldn’t care less if you touched their clit. But if that’s how you’re trying to get a woman off, you’re really not playing the percentages. Trust me on this.

The realities of male sexual response. If you’re getting your sex education from porn, you’re going to think that it’s normal for men to get rock-hard immediately, at will, and to stay rock-hard throughout the encounter until they come. You won’t necessarily know that (a) male porn actors are specifically selected for their ability to get wood and keep it; and (b) the omnipresence of wood in porn videos is due in large part to the miracle of video editing (and more recently to the miracle of Viagra).

To round it all off, we have the actual mechanics; the “What happens during sex?” stuff that the teenagers in the NPR story were desperately looking for. The sex in porn videos is choreographed to give a clear, unobstructed view of the penetration. It’s choreographed to look good — not to feel good. I shudder to think of a generation coming into their sexual prime thinking that reverse cowgirl and that stupid position where the woman sticks her leg up on the wall are the gold standard of the sexual nuts and bolts.

And all of that is just the tip of the sexual misinformation iceberg.

So I want to say a few things to parents:

1. Sex education in our country is in an appalling state. It has huge holes in it at best, and dispenses gross misinformation at worst.

2. If you think your kids aren’t seeing porn, think again. Even before the Internet, kids and teenagers were looking at porn. (How many of us swiped our dad’s Playboys for a peek? I sure did.) And with the Internet, the horse is definitely out of the barn

So do something. If you’re not comfortable talking frankly with your kids about sex yourself — and I have more sympathy for that position than you might imagine, I sure didn’t want to talk with my parents about sex — you need to make sure they have a way to get the information they want and need. Get them books. Point them at the Scarleteen or San Francisco Sex Information websites. Send them to the sex education programs offered by the Unitarians. Make sure there’s an adult in their life they can talk about sex with. Or suck it up, get over your discomfort, and talk to them yourself.

But for the love of all that is beautiful in this world, do not let them grow up thinking that they can get accurate, useful sex information from porn. They can — once they’re adults, of course — use porn to get entertainment, inspiration, arousal, even some interesting new ideas. But the sex information they’ll get from porn will be, if possible, even more useless and misleading than the sex information they’re getting from their schools.

All I Really Need To Know I Learned From Porn — Or Not
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14 thoughts on “All I Really Need To Know I Learned From Porn — Or Not

  1. 1

    “The sex in porn videos is choreographed to give a clear, unobstructed view of the penetration. It’s choreographed to look good — not to feel good.”
    While I get that you’re probably right about this, I still wonder whether it’s actually what the overwhelming majority of people want the overwhelming majority of the time. I find the ridiculous contorted positions frequented by porn actors rather off-putting because of the complete lack of realism. Less detail and realism is preferable. I cannot possibly be the only person to feel this way!

  2. 3

    Well done. I’m comfortable talking to my kids about sex, but they’d rather I didn’t (puritans!). Fortunately, they can’t always avoid it, though I don’t think they’ll ever again ask what a taint is in a fast food drive through with friends present. Thanks for the great links, which I will forward to my kids in the most mild-mannered way I can manage.

  3. 4

    An excellent post, Greta. I, too, rail constantly against the use of porn as sex ed, as it’s not designed to be sex ed, but sex entertainment. As someone who does both education and entertainment, there is a big difference between the two. We need to do more in school, and at home, to teach our young people about the realities of sex.
    Speaking as an insider though, the comment, “standards of female beauty in porn are almost as rigid with pussies as they are with basic body types, and female genital cosmetic surgery in the porn industry is getting increasingly and depressingly common,” is off base. If you look closely at the now-visible vulvas of the women, you’ll see “innies,” “outies,” and all other sorts of vulvar types. The stunning variety in the appearance of female genitalia is now on display in ways it never was in the 1970’s. To my knowledge, only two women have had any type of cosmetic genital surgery, so it’s certainly not at all common in porn. Women in porn are not accepted or rejected over the appearance of their vulvas, since a willingness to show said vulva is what’s selected for.
    Body types are actually more varied than we’re lead to believe, though they are almost always very heavily groomed (hair removal, manicures, tanning, hair coloring/extensions, etc.) to reflect dominant-culture sensibilities. LIke people everywhere, porn performers like to make the most of what nature gave them, and the blonde, nordic beauty is still the standard of comparison (though there is a large and growing “ethnic” niche in porn, as well, which has a much wider range of body types in it.)
    If you look behind the grooming, however, you’ll see all sorts of bodies (like mine) what would never have been able to make it in any other modeling medium. I’m six inches shorter, and 25 pounds heavier, than your average fashion model, yet I’ve made a good living for 25 years in this game. A fair number of women are actually on the skinny, flat butted, boxy-hipped, square-torsoed side of things. The women are pretty enough, but rarely pretty enough to have made it in straight modeling or acting. In general, a porn performer is slightly above average in appearance and makes the most of what nature gave him or her.
    Porn is not about “reality,” though real people perform in the videos. It’s about sexual fantasy. Toward that end, people are groomed within an inch of their lives. One thing that is very common with both genders is the shaving of pubic hair. This is not a tip of the hat to covert child sexualization. It simply is to make things more visible; more pornographic, if you will. The men do it, as well, which is a spill over from gay porn sensibilities. Plus, the players feel cleaner (you’re having sex with people you don’t know very well. Being shaved is like using breath strips-it’s a way of being polite), and sensations are carried better on smooth skin than on furry. In the case of the men, “the shorter the shrub, the taller the tree.” Some men even go through the tedium of full-body shaving, which women don’t have to do.
    Luckily for us, more and more lesbians and other queer people are making movies that reflect their sensibilities, and these videos are finding an audience. Support your local alterna-porn if you can find it.

  4. 6

    An incredibly minor quibble about a great post: This American Life is produced by Chicago Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International, not National Public Radio. PRI is kinda like NPR, in that it produces and distributes content, and some of that content ends up on NPR stations, but they’re different animals. Anyway, great post!

  5. 7

    Yes, the quibble about genital surgery was minor, which is why I mentioned it, as the entire post is realy excellent overall.
    I think Greta likes to be in the know about these things, which is why I posted it in the first place.

  6. B!

    4 words, honey:
    Midwest Teen Sex Show!
    Online videocast, very funny and real. Created by a mom who wanted REAL sex info for her kids and her kids’ friends. Very good stuff, and fun to watch!
    Hi, Nina!!

  7. 10

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    I don’t know where parents get the misguided notion that if schools don’t mention sex (or tell them “Just Say No”) then kids not only won’t do it, but won’t go looking for information about it. Have they forgotten their own youth? Of course they’ll try to lie and claim they never snitched a look at nudie mags or peeked in a neighbor’s window but that’s just not the case.
    I can’t fathom why a parent would prefer their kids get an education from anywhere but knowledgeable instructors armed with facts.

  8. MFL

    Interesting post. No porn is definitely not sex education. The purpose of all porn is sexual arousal [often without gratification]
    There are a lot of porn sites featuring women on women which are rather popular with men [and distasteful to most lesbians]
    I wonder what your take is on lesbian movies [no porn] and lesbian porn
    Lesbian Movies

  9. 12

    Good article. My only comment would be about “the standards of female beauty in porn.” I’ve watched my share of porn and “beautiful” women in porn are very few and far between. An actually pretty face every now and then would be nice. Since they are so rare I have virtually given up on porn.

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