Did you know that 73 percent of women and 95 percent of men report using porn in the last six months? It’s true, according to a 2016 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. The age at which people are first exposed to porn is quite young, too. The American Psychological Association reports that the average age was 13 among men (porn use among women and nonbinary individuals is not as well studied). Most of these first encounters with porn were reported to be accidental, but a third reported accessing pornography intentionally.
Based on these numbers, it’s clear that the majority of people view porn at some point in their lives, and many, fairly regularly. So why don’t we talk about it more? Porn is a subject that many parents feel uncomfortable talking about with kids and may be unsure how to even approach it. Adults, too, have difficulty talking about porn, even within close relationships with friends or partners. This can lead to feelings of guilt, as well as unhealthy attitudes toward sex. So, let’s talk about it here!
Porn literacy, is, in short, being able to think critically about pornography. UConn PhD candidate Rachael Farina, LMFT, compares using porn to driving a car. Both activities carry risk and can potentially result in negative outcomes. Just like learning to drive, learning to use porn safely can reduce one’s risk of harm.
Some people like to gloss over or ignore the risks associated with pornography, but it’s important to acknowledge them so we can address them. Age of first exposure is closely associated with bad outcomes. Doctoral student Alyssa Bischmann, co-author of the APA study mentioned earlier, states that “…the younger a man was when he first viewed pornography, the more likely he was to want power over women.” (Interestingly, the older men were the first time they viewed porn, the more likely they were to adhere to what we think of as more promiscuous masculine norms.)
Much of the evidence on whether porn is “good” or “bad” is inconclusive. Some studies say it leads to higher relationship satisfaction; others say the opposite. Others say that it leads to increased safer sex behaviors, and some say it’s associated with less condom use. To me, this suggests that the effects of porn are largely individual. It depends on a person’s unique personality, sexual preferences, porn of choice, and even brain makeup. Thus, it’s all the more important to develop the tools we need to use porn safely and critically. The earlier we start talking about healthy sexuality, and by addressing porn in a timely manner with our kids, the more likely we are to approach porn in a healthy way.
So how do we help our kids (and ourselves) become porn literate? It’s all about asking questions. Why do we like the porn we like? Is it realistic? If not, what about it isn’t? How are performers of different genders portrayed? How can the porn we watch affect our expectations of sex and gender? When we start thinking critically about porn, we can make informed decisions on what kind of porn we watch and how we use it, if we use it at all. We can also evaluate how it affects our sexual selves, and if it’s affecting us negatively, take steps to address that.
Porn use is just like any other facet of sexuality. We have our preferences and habits. Some are positive, some neutral, and some negative. Porn literacy can help us identify the habits that cause us harm, and work to change them for the better.