Should pornography be taught in sex education?

pornography

Source: Rebecca Anne/Flickr

Ethical pornography should be used to teach young Australians about sex education, a leading academic has said.

Professor Alan McKee, a digital and social media professor at UTS, said young people can significantly benefit from some elements of pornography, although he stopped short of advocating showing pornography in schools.

Speaking to Central News, Professor McKee said there was an underlying fear among parents and educators regarding pornography, as it often portrays “non-traditional” sex.

“We do have quite a bit of research actually with young gay men in particular, explaining that when they were growing up, the school sex education never taught them about homosexuality,” he said. “And I think that’s still a problem.”

In his 2020 study exploring porn’s effects on young people, Professor McKee found its use as an educational tool to further the limited sex education Australian students receive.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) is currently reviewing the national Personal Development and Health curriculum. ACARA’s proposed changes include a greater emphasis on consent from Years 1-10, following allegations of sexual assault within federal parliament, and Chanel Contos’ sexual assault petition.

We’re asking what is the best pornography for young people’s healthy sexual development… that will be a resource parents and [educators] can use if they are concerned young people might be looking at pornography they find problematic.

As part of his advocacy for a sex-positive curriculum, Professor McKee is currently part of a project consulting a panel comprised of youth experts, sexual health experts and ethical porn producers.

“We’re asking all of them what is the best pornography for young people’s healthy sexual development,” he said. “And we’re actually gathering that information so that will be a resource that parents and people who work with young people can use if they are concerned that young people in their lives might be looking at the kinds of pornography that they find problematic.”

Professor McKee ultimately believes a positive view of sex and sexuality is the best way forward for sex education in Australia. Young people, he says, should be encouraged to explore their sexuality.

“In order to give informed consent, you have to know what you like. And you can’t know what you like if you have never explored your sexuality,” he said.

In 2013, the federal government attempted to make Australian sex education more inclusive by funding the Safe Schools program.

But backlash from conservative lobbies forced the program’s end in 2017. ACARA’s proposed curriculum makes no specific mention of non-heterosexual relationships, often leaving porn as the only sexual education resource for LGBTQI+ youth.

On the other hand, Professor McKee recognised that as part of popular culture, pornography and other sexually explicit media continued to include patriarchal and racist tropes.

Though diverse and ethical content exists, most porn continues to cater towards a white, male, heterosexual audience.

Performers of other races (when cast) are often portrayed in a sexist and racist light. These trends range from infantilising Asian women, to casting black women so production houses can use the Black Lives Matter movement to market the film.
This is why consent advocates cite porn as one cause of sexual violence. A 2020 study found that one in five women who experienced intimate partner violence were forced to imitate pornographic content their partner had watched.

Australians are able to access pornography at an increasingly younger age through the internet. In a 2017 study from the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, the median age at which men first viewed pornography was 13. For women, the median age was 16. But the Australian curriculum seems oblivious to this trend. Sex education is still taught as if young people have never been sexually active or viewed pornography.

With 87 per cent of those surveyed indicating they watched porn alone, combined with little to no classroom discussions on porn, young people begin to be sexually active without understanding the complexities of sex. These trends, the study says, may result in further health issues, such as a tendency to have aggressive intercourse and worsening mental health.

As women are less likely than men to have watched porn before engaging in sexual behaviour as teenagers, their first exploration of their sexuality is with their partner’s desires at the forefront of the experience. Professor McKee said that this decreased a woman’s sexual agency, and contributed to the patriarchal culture in society.

But he still believes ethical pornography should be discussed in Australian classrooms and advocates for a sex-positive curriculum – one which teaches sex and sexuality in a positive and inclusive manner.

Alan McKee
UTS professor Alan McKee. Source: UTS

Organisations such the UK-based Bish and SHINE SA  in South Australia have developed sex-positive resources for educators and young people. These resources are designed to facilitate clear discussions with youth on sex and sexuality. Such discussions can often reveal some positive aspects of pornography, such as displaying open and clear communication between partners, and a focus on meeting each partner’s needs.

These behaviours, according to Professor McKee, encourage communication between partners during sex, reducing the likelihood of sexual assault.

ACARA is currently implementing public feedback on their curriculum proposals. The new curriculum will be available for use in schools in 2022.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. Another helpful resource maybe Sexual Assault Counselling Australia: 1800 211 028. In an emergency, call 000.

Main image by Rebecca Anne/Flickr.