Is porn the new sex education? Discuss

24 November 2016

The answer to this question was obvious for the NGOs, sexperts and digital practitioners who were gathered at an IDS round table event this week to discuss how growing access to online porn is changing sex education in developing countries. Is porn the new sex education? Yes it has potential.

New research from The Institute of Development Studies and Love Matters details how online pornography has become the predominant channel through which young women and men are learning about sex, not only in the developed world but in developing countries too.

A quick look at the numbers and it becomes obvious that there is enormous potential for audience messaging. One of the largest commercial porn sites, Porn Hub has 1.3 billion online visits per month – 650 times more visits than the two million visits per month to the number one sex education site Scarleteen.com, based in the US.

Exposure is not education

But as one roundtable participant put it, "exposure in itself is not education”. Analysing search terms can provide clues for sex educators but if someone searches online for the word “penis” or “born a virgin” it’s difficult to ascertain whether they are looking for arousal or seeking health information. 

What can be assumed is that if growing numbers are searching online for sexual content, then current modes of sex education are failing youth. Sex education may be struggling to keep up with the trends, but we do not know whether young people would access sex education sites using search terms that lead them to porn, or whether porn would still end up being the predominant mode of sexual education.

Can porn makers and sex educators work together?

What all round table participants agreed on is that sex educators and policymakers have to think carefully about if and how they can use the power of porn to reach audiences with comprehensive sex education and/or how responsible porn promoting respectful, equal and pleasurable roles for all genders could be produced.

There was also agreement that although online porn may have the potential for new strategies for sex education content, this isn’t a straight forward issue. Porn is a huge term that needs to be nuanced and better understood.

Online porn deals with fantasy worlds that are built and maintained by people with a range of interests. There are issues of profit, privacy, consent, digital literacy, ethics, censorship and new gatekeepers. In fact the list of considerations is endless.

Understanding the data

The role of data, and particularly the new world of bigger, faster and more detailed data (the so-called Data Revolution), highlights the potential of new information to solve long standing issues. In the case of the porn industry, significant data exists that could be built on to develop new types of realistic, evidence-based and non-judgemental digital sex education environments. But these will only work if they are built collaboratively and show awareness of the needs of both the audience and the market.

Navigating digital pathways

Understanding the incentives and navigating the digital pathways between, porn and online sex education platforms is critical for sex educators. Recognition that the shift from traditional ‘gatekeepers’ to sex education such as faith leaders and governments to the influencers from new online gatekeepers like Facebook and Google is crucial if levels of sex education are to be improved.

There can be little doubt that policymakers, practitioners and parents must deal with the realities of sex and sexual desire – including porn – if they want their sexual and reproductive health programmes to be successful. Everyone at the discussion agreed that to do more we need to understand more but we need to act quickly. Trends change quickly online and if sex educators want to connect the offline realities with online worlds they need to be action orientated and fast moving.

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