On display

My third year of university kicked off with a flurry of phone calls from my two best friends — both of whom were in new relationships, and frantically seeking help navigating the terrifying realm of sex. After about a half dozen phone calls, it began to dawn on me that what I was witnessing was actually the result of a glaring failure in sexual education.

Most of our generation was never taught to have basic sexual conversations with a partner, or how to make sex a positive experience. As Jack*, a third-year art history specialist pointed out, “we weren’t really given a good way to visualize sex outside of the diagrams of the reproductive system.” Lisa*, a third-year women and gender studies major, added, “my sexual education in middle and high school was ‘this is how you protect yourself from pregnancy the one or two times you have sex in your life.’ I didn’t understand that people had sex for pleasure and on a regular basis; I thought I’d just do it once I realized I loved someone.”

With so many gaps in the sexual education of young people, it’s unsurprising that many turn to the most accessible representation of sex available: porn. While it certainly provides a clear visual, the fact that pornography is used by some to fill in for a lack of education produces a cascade of questions surrounding the function of sexual education in society, and the role pornography plays within it.

Images and shortcomings

Brian*, a fourth-year computer science specialist, believes that, “pornography provides something visual that pictures and diagrams cannot provide.” Lisa echoed this sentiment, “I think porn lets young people know that it’s okay to seek pleasure in masturbation and sex… it’s awesome that we can watch people having sex as a way to understand what to expect in our own encounters and to be reassured that everyone does it,” she said.

Carlyle Jansen, a prominent sex educator in Toronto and founder of Good For Her sex shop explains that consuming porn is not as simple as providing a visual to sex. “Most folks don’t necessarily understand what is realistic in terms of how most people orgasm, what genitals actually look like and how long penises stay hard for example… the viewer doesn’t always take into account the fluffing, what is edited out, and the performance factor,” she explained.

The shortcomings of porn are highlighted further by David Rayside, the former director of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at U of T. “There are still widespread patterns of denigrating women, and of stereotyping women,” said Rayside. “There is still an underrepresentation of minority groups, no matter how you define minority groups. Most pornography aimed at same sex desire is male, and aimed at men, so there is an underrepresentation of pornography made for lesbians. There is also very little that is trans-focused.”

Despite this, Rayside affirmed that censorship of porn is not the answer. “First of all, I don’t think it works,” he explained. “Censorship almost inevitably leads to censoring the wrong things for the wrong reasons. It’s not a useful way of responding to pornography, and we’ve seen ample evidence of that… [It] also sets up a judgmental category of good sexual representation and bad… [T]he vast majority of pornography shouldn’t be treated as criminal.”

Jansen agrees that not all pornography is bad, or worthy of censorship. “Lots of folks are making porn that does educate and that tries to fill the gaps where the mainstream fails in terms of reflection of diversity and perpetuating stereotypes.”

Professor Nick Matte of the sexual diversity studies program at U of T echoed Jansen’s beliefs, and said, “sex-positive folks, like promoters of feminist pornography, encourage people to embrace pornography that is ethically-produced, that provides pleasure and education in a world where racism, patriarchy, transphobia, and other power relations often only allow images that do promote pain, vulnerability, and insecurity, especially with regards to people of colour, women, and other marginalized groups.”

Regulation and education

Among everyone I spoke with ­— students and professionals alike — the consensus opinion was that porn should not be censored. Elizabeth*, a graduate student at the Institute of Medical Science, suggested that addressing porn as part of sexual education curricula would “provide the opportunity to discuss myths or misconceptions surrounding sex, sexuality, and the idea of consent, as well as to talk about more global issues such as the sex trade.” Elizabeth also made an important point that, “understanding the difference between sex and intimacy — and the lack of the latter when it comes to porn — can help foster healthier romantic relationships.”

Alex McKay, executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN), agrees that the focus should not be on regulating pornography, but rather on educating young people about the context of porn and how to think think critically about it. “Just as it was impossible to keep an issue of Playboy out of a teenage boy’s hands 50 years ago… it is equally untenable and unrealistic that young people today aren’t going to be exposed — either willingly or [accidentally] — to porn,” said McKay. “If we’re going to buffer [that exposure], then there must be some form of proactive education on the part of schools, and dialogue from parents to equip young people to critically evaluate what they’re seeing, and to think about the extent to which [porn] is not necessarily a reflection of healthy sexuality or what people should want out of their interpersonal relationships.”

Last January, the Ontario Ministry of Education released a new sexual education curriculum for grades 1–8, the first update since 1998, which was implemented at the beginning of the school year. The changes ­­— which include increased mentions of sexual identities, ‘sexting’, and consent, and start as early as grade one — have been met with resistance from many parents. “I think that the new sex ed curriculum in Ontario is an effective way to start these conversations and is definitely an improvement,” said Elizabeth.

Matte also supports the new curriculum, on the basis that “[it] is a huge and necessary improvement to what was previously being taught.  Students deserve relevant, up-to-date education.”

Jansen likewise emphasized the importance of starting sex education at a young age. “The average age of first exposure to porn is 10; beyond parental controls on Internet usage, there is not much we can do. And even if we have controls in our own home, we have little control over what our kids see at their friends’ houses. Age-appropriate education about porn literacy is critical by age nine,” she said.

McKay, while also supportive of the change, cautions that this update constitutes only one small step forward. “We need to keep in mind that sexual health education is one small part of health education and health education is one small part of the entire school curriculum,” said McKay. “Relatively speaking, there’s little time to adequately address the issue of access and exposure to porn. We’re going to need to go beyond what’s in the provincial curriculum.” As Rayside accurately puts it, “there’s no simple answer to educating people about sexual difference and sexuality. Getting the perfect sexual education curriculum isn’t the whole answer.”

Reaching beyond school curricula is necessary in order to gain a better understanding of sex, and to evaluate pornography critically. At U of T, the Sexual Education Centre (SEC), located on the sixth floor of the Sussex Clubhouse, acts as an inclusive space for students to stop by and ask questions about the world of sex, including porn, as well as to request informational workshops for a group.

“At SEC, we have a presentation which we tweak to fit each group’s needs, which we offer for free to groups on or off campus, such as fraternities, high schools, or community centres,” said Isabel Carlin, the Public Relations Representative at SEC. “This presentation includes information on consent, STI transmission and stigma, LGBTQ identities, types of relationships, safer sex supplies, birth control, and sex toys. We also have several pamphlets in our office, which contain information about sexual health, sex toy use, and specific resources for different groups.”

As Professor Matte stated, “it’s no longer enough to avoid or embrace pornography; it is part of the world and we can engage with it to address problems and promote positive experiences and values.”

*Names changed at students’ request