With the Internet literally at people’s fingertips, pornography has become more accessible in the last few decades than ever before. Youth-serving adults are often expected to educate about Internet safety concerns with students, but sometimes it can feel difficult to start conversations about pornography. 

While it may be tempting to simply tell youth not to look at porn, youth may still stumble upon porn that slips through filters, see it at a friend’s house, or seek it out. Ignoring the existence of porn or telling youth to avoid it without a larger conversation can also send the message to youth that sex and sexuality are shameful topics. These messages may make youth less likely to ask questions or approach other trusted adults with questions about sex. This is especially true if youth are afraid they’ll be punished once adults find out what prompted their questions. 

It’s important to remember that trusted adults are hugely influential in youth’s sexual choices and development, and therefore have the unique ability to guide youth. Intentional discussions around porn can empower critical thinking and encourage youth to approach trusted adults with questions they may have about sex instead of seeking the answers from the Internet and, ultimately, porn websites.

So, what is porn literacy? Porn literacy is a form of media literacy, which teaches individuals to think about, analyze, and evaluate the media they choose to consume and the media that is naturally around them, such as billboards and advertisements. Everything has a message, whether it’s intentional or not. Knowing how content is created, why it is created, and for whom it was/is intended for can help youth better understand what they see and what they hear and how they can make healthy decisions for themselves.

How can youth-serving adults teach porn literacy? The first things they can do is make a list of common concerns surrounding youth and pornography. Answers may or may not include:

  • Problems with porn as an industry (how they recruit, treat, and pay their workers)
  • How women are treated, especially in heterosexual porn
  • Feelings that may come up before, during, and after watching porn
  • What conversations are missing in porn, like STI status and consent
  • Frequent absence of condoms or conversations around condoms
  • Lack of emotional intimacy
  • Possible negative effects on people with poor body image
  • Possible negative effects on expectations around sex
  • Possible negative effects on sexual/romantic relationships
  • Porn is made for adults over the age of 18
  • All porn is a fantasy

The purpose of this is not to create a list to scare or shame youth about porn, but to provide an outline of concerns to help guide conversations. While viewpoints on porn vary depending on personal values, beliefs, culture, and personal experience, it’s our job as educators and youth-serving adults to remain values-neutral and acknowledge that curiosity about sex and sexuality is a normal human experience.

After a youth-serving adults has thought of a list of concerns, it’s vital that they think critically about these concerns before encouraging youth to do the same. Reflect on questions like: why are these considered ‘concerns’? What are some possible outcomes that could happen if people never thought about these points? And, most importantly, how can youth be taught to think more critically about porn in sexual health lessons? It’s through personal reflection on these probing questions and then engaging youth in similar discussions that youth-serving adults can start to teach porn literacy.

With porn, this may include conversations around how porn is created. Just like television shows and movies, porn is a fantasy and is made on a set with actors. There’s a ton of preparation that happens before anyone gets in front of a camera. This can include conversations around the role, contracts, and medications (like birth control and Viagra) and supplements. Also, people who star in porn have certain bodies that directors look for depending on their roles, just like all TV shows and Hollywood movies. Youth struggling with body image may be tempted to compare themselves to porn stars. Sometimes youth may wonder if their breasts or genitals are normal after watching, so it’s important to address that different is normal when it comes to bodies. 

Additionally, it’s important to talk to youth about how porn centers around the pleasure of the person watching porn rather than the two actors having sex. In real life, it should always be about the people having sex and their boundaries and their feelings. People should talk to their partner about what they do or don’t like, what is or isn’t okay to do, whether or not they have been tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and always ask for consent (permission) before doing anything sexual with another person. This is an important part of teaching porn literacy since youth may see certain sex acts performed in porn and assume that it’s something their future sexual partner may want based on the actor’s reactions, or feel pressured to try something they’re not comfortable with. Let youth know how sex is different from porn. Remind them that the only way for them to know for sure how someone does or doesn’t want to be touched is by asking them. Sexual relationships, just like every relationship, require open communication, trust, and respect to be healthy.

There are so many different cultural and personal values, beliefs, and judgments related to watching porn. These factors can make porn can feel like a tricky and difficult topic to discuss, but it doesn’t have to be awkward. In the end, it’s normal to watch porn and it’s normal not to watch porn. It’s different for everyone. While it can be tempting to shy away from discussing porn with youth, addressing common concerns and encouraging critical thinking can enrich sexual health discussions and prepare youth to make healthy choices. It’s relevant to conversations around puberty, healthy relationships, consent, anatomy, and more. 

Instead of avoiding the topic of pornography because it’s difficult, awkward, or potentially controversial, youth-serving adults can encourage youth to think more critically about porn and sex while also making themselves an approachable and trusted source of information.

Further reading suggestions:

*Contains gendered language and content.