"Porn literacy" class picks up where standard sex ed leaves off

CBSN Originals: How porn is affecting kids

Stream the CBSN Originals documentary, "Speaking Frankly: Porn," in the video player above.


Pornography is not usually a subject taught in public high schools, but one educator in Boston is trying to change that. Surrounded by a group of students in the offices of the Boston Public Health Commission, Jess Adler discusses the origins of the word pornography before delving into a deeper discussion.

"In 1857 the word porn was actually created. ... It's a Greek word and it combines two words: porne and graphine," Adler explains. "That is combining the word 'prostitute' and 'describe,' so it's the idea of describing prostitutes."

Jess Adler is the program director of Start Strong, a Boston-based peer leadership program that helps high school students grapple with a variety of intimate topics like dating violence prevention, gender and sexuality, and healthy breakups. In 2016, a new course was added to the list: Porn Literacy. Dr. Emily Rothman, professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University and co-creator of the course, was inspired by the interest she found that kids had in the topic.

"I went to talk to kids who were involved in the Start Strong after-school program and I was there to do a usual lecture about dating violence," Rothman explains. "We realized that the kids were feeling a little bored by the usual discussion of dating violence and consent and respect, and that talking about some research that I had done on pornography really lit up the room."

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The program's creators, Rothman, Adler and Nicole Daley, the former program director of Start Strong, decided that teens' enthusiasm for porn would allow them an entry point to educate students about dating violence and relationship boundaries. It's an especially important message because some research suggests teen boys who regularly viewed porn are more likely to perpetrate sexual coercion or abuse, and are also more likely to hold negative gender attitudes.

"In the work that we do at Start Strong, we're always looking for, like, what are the conversations we're not having with young people as they're forming their relationships and thinking about healthy versus unhealthy relationships?" Daley says.

A Start Strong participant named Jay agrees that the basic sex education he got in school was not enough. "We learned about the anatomy. We learned about STIs," he said. "I never really learned about the social aspect of it."

Start Strong's porn literacy course description makes clear that the course is not pro-porn or anti-porn — and it does not actually involve watching any porn at all. It exists to "promote communication, consent, and critical thinking."

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In the age of high-speed internet and streaming video, access to porn has never been easier, and research shows that pornography consumption has increased. The American Psychological Association also found, in a survey of 330 men, the average age of first exposure to porn was 13.37 years old.

Adler says her personal experience in working with students confirms this: "I think it would be really challenging for young people to try to avoid not seeing porn at this point. We hear from our young people that as soon as it hits midnight their timeline is now filled with sexually explicit images."

Rothman says she'd prefer that this wasn't the case, but it also proves the importance of porn literacy education.

"I wish that it were a lot easier to insulate kids so that they didn't see sexually explicit media," she said. "Until that time though, because pornography, sexually explicit media, is widely available on the internet and elsewhere, I think it makes sense to equip them with critical thinking skills so that when and if they do see it, they have a better appreciation for what they're seeing and whether it reflects reality, [rather] than trying to put pornography totally out of their reach as the only strategy and not really giving them the skills that they need to unpack it when they do see it."

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