Playboy, porn and sex education

28 September 2017

In the week that the Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner has died, porn and its role in society once again comes under the spotlight. In 1953 when Hefner founded what would become a million-dollar industry, he published pictures of naked women and promoted a swinging lifestyle with seemingly few boundaries. 

Hefner’s lifestyle often provoked criticism, from feminists and conservatives alike, but the Playboy brand undisputedly pushed sex into mainstream culture whether we liked it or not.

It’s not the talk of Bunny Girls or cocktails bars that interests me, but how it all started. Like many young people even the teenage Hefner had struggled to learn about sex. Speaking to The New York Times in the 1990s he claimed that Playboy was ‘the antidote to puritanism’ and ‘changed attitudes towards sex’. This he said came about as a reaction to his mother teaching him ‘the biology of sex’ not the emotional aspects. 

This might seem odd given that in the years that followed he would wear a uniform of silk pyjamas and reportedly conduct ‘business meetings” from his bed, but what Hefner describes as his early sex education is not uncommon.   

Research from the Institute of Development Studies and Love Matters from earlier this year 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.

Growing numbers are searching online for sexual content and sex educators need to recognise the huge potential audience that porn sites have. 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.  

But none of this is an easy as Hefner would have liked us to believe. He paraded a carefree, opulent lifestyle whilst the reality is that 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 gatekeepers. In fact the list of considerations is endless, but it’s not until we start to show awareness of the needs of both the audience and the market that we can get to the heart of what really matters. By ignoring the power of porn we risk depriving millions of young people from accessing information that is vital for their sexual and reproductive health.

Young people need help in critically examining the sexual messages they receive, as well as access to new types of digital sex education environments that are realistic, emotionally attuned, non-judgemental and open to the messages they themselves create. Contributions to a recent IDS Bulletin suggest an urgency for academics and practitioners to understand and develop digital literacy skills in order to help build such environments. 

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