Health

Does Watching Porn As a Teen Ruin Sex Forever?

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It’s time for a much-needed reality check

Bonnie Rochman
Photo: Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images

WWhen Emmett Hulser-Morris was 11, he and his friends dared each other to type “porn” into the Google search bar. As soon as titillating images appeared, they deleted the window. “We got freaked out,” says Hulser-Morris, now 17.

Today Hulser-Morris says he watches pornography once or twice a week. The high school senior from Takoma Park, Maryland, is no outlier. About half of children in the United States between the ages of 10 and 17 have seen porn, either intentionally or by accidentally stumbling across it online, and a quarter of those kids ages 12 to 18 seek it out, according to national surveys.

Rather than scold or punish him, Hulser-Morris’ mother, Temple Morris, a psychotherapist in Bethesda, Maryland, takes a different approach. She talks to him openly about the unrealistic messages that porn conveys. “I don’t love that he’s watching porn,” says Morris. “I think porn is bad for women; I’m a feminist. But my goal is not to keep him from it, but to make sure it doesn’t adversely affect him and the girls he gets involved with.”

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Morris has talked about sex with her son and his siblings since they were tweens. The conversations often take place around the kitchen table or during family movie nights when she’s known to pause a film and explain that the sex scene unspooling on the screen doesn’t accurately depict what sex between regular people looks like. “That’s not how sex is,” she says. “It’s more awkward, it’s more uncertain, it’s more clumsy.”

To help her better articulate those messages to three children, and to her clients, who include survivors of sexual violence, Morris signed up for porn literacy training — a curriculum developed in part by Emily Rothman, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health who studies the public health impact of sexually explicit media. The program is meant to provide a framework for analyzing and interpreting pornography.

The porn literacy curriculum does not condemn porn, nor does it extoll its virtues. Instead, it delves into the history of obscenity, explains various types of intimacy, and digs into what healthy flirting looks like. “It may sound like it’s not directly about porn, but we use porn as a springboard for how kids will be treating each other in their relationships,” says Rothman.

The nine classes emphasize communication about sex, critical thinking about porn’s content (those are actors being paid to participate in fringe sex acts), and consent (a concept that has been pushed to the forefront in the age of #MeToo), all in the context of healthy dating and respectful relationships. Educators from as far as Hawaii, Canada, and New Zealand have taken the class.

In the summer of 2018, Morris participated in the first session that Rothman offered. She says she gained valuable context about the porn industry, including the fact that it’s actually a film industry, which is why the female actors always appear to be enjoying whatever is being done to them. But teens don’t know that, which can result in mismatched expectations of what happens during sex.

In her practice and among friends, Morris hears that anal sex, for example, has become more common. “The expectations of what young women want and are expected to tolerate has changed,” says Morris. “I’m not a pearl-clutcher, but I have concerns around girls having difficulty saying, ‘I don’t want to do that’ because they don’t want to look like they’re not woke or sex-positive.”

What to know and when to worry

Plenty of parents are concerned that their children are being influenced by sexually explicit media. And they are, says Rothman. But the degree to which it negatively impacts a person is not clear cut.

“Some parents are wringing their hands and displacing a lot of worry onto the topic of porn when it’s not warranted,” says Rothman. “Teens can see porn here or there, but it doesn’t warp their sexuality. There is no evidence that someone sees porn and their brain starts melting out of their ears and they are ruined.”

It’s important to take into consideration how often teens are viewing porn, what resources they have for unpacking what they’re seeing, their individual experiences — have they been victims of sexual violence, for example — and their unique psychology.

Watching some porn isn’t cause for parental alarm bells as long as teens understand the basics, says Rothman. Porn is made for the purpose of entertainment. It’s not reality. It’s not what most people are doing in their bedrooms every day. And keep in mind that your partner’s pleasure is important.

But there are kids whose porn viewing can be more concerning. About 5% of people who view porn are compulsive users: that is, watching porn gets in the way of their ability to go about their daily activities. “Depending upon what they’re seeing and how often, and whether they have real-life experiences that can offset some of the fantasy versions of what they’re seeing, that might influence what we call their sexual script,” says Rothman.

The impact of porn on teens’ developing sexuality could be counterbalanced by comprehensive sex education, but less than 40% of high schools and far fewer middle schools teach all 19 sexual health topics endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These topics include how to have healthy, respectful relationships, as well as where to access condoms, how to use them correctly, and the importance of using them consistently. “We could put porn in its place if it was just one of many things kids could turn to for knowledge about sex and sexuality,” says Rothman.

How to talk about it

In an age when the most innocent Google search can accidentally surface sexually explicit content, the best defense is to start talking to kids early, as Morris did.

But many parents aren’t comfortable talking about boundaries or anything remotely related to sex, says Bryant Paul, a professor of media psychology at Indiana University. In his “Sex and Media” class, Paul asks his students how many of their parents had the “sex talk” with them. Usually, between a third and half the class don’t raise their hands.

A few years ago, Paul and his colleague, Debby Herbenick, a sex researcher and professor in the School of Public Health at Indiana University, conducted a survey that assessed attitudes and behaviors associated with porn among young people. They found that teens who consumed porn at higher levels were more likely to have “porn-consistent” attitudes about sex — such as believing that women like to be treated roughly during sex, that ejaculating on somebody instead of in somebody is standard, that anal sex is the norm and feels great. But parents who talked with their kids about porn and its unrealistic portrayals of sex helped mediate those attitudes.

“All you’ve got to do is talk to your kids about this like they’re mature human beings who understand that sex is something that happens,” says Paul. “It’s part of a larger conversation, putting this in the context of things like love, altruism, hygiene, respect. Tell them that this content degrades people, that this is not what love is, and they don’t develop porn-consistent attitudes.”

In teacher Meaghan Falby’s sexual health classes at U-32 Middle & High School in Montpelier, Vermont, students submit anonymous questions into a cardboard box stamped “inspire curiosity.”

“How much porn is too much?” someone invariably asks each year.

“They’re not asking if porn is okay,” says Falby, who also participated in porn literacy training and began incorporating the curriculum into her classes last fall. “They’re saying, ‘I do this.’ So I say, ‘How much lacrosse is too much? How much broccoli is too much? When you consume things, whether it’s Netflix or online games or porn, does it sit well with you?”

In her classes, Falby focuses on consent and respect. Say a young man who watches porn is accustomed to seeing women sans pubic hair, but his girlfriend doesn’t shave hers. “If you don’t want to do that, it’s your body,” she says. “The goal of porn literacy is to understand how to communicate your personal preferences.”

Experts agree that keeping the lines of communication open — between partners and between parents and teens — is important. Even though the conversations are awkward, Emmett Hulser-Morris says he appreciates that his mother openly discusses the implications of watching porn.

“Recently I’ve started to think about it differently,” he says. “We have an understanding that it’s not really what goes on in real life.

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