Education

Porn Education Is Totally Unprepared for Modern Porn

Earlier this year, Manhattan’s prestigious Dalton School bid farewell to Justine Ang Fonte, its then-director of health and wellness, who had guided the academy’s sex education for years. Their parting was the conclusion of a minor media scandal with all the makings of a major one: Fonte, who also gives presentations at other institutions, had become the subject of controversy after offering a frank porn-literacy course to high schoolers at Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School in May, resulting in a scandalized write-up in the New York Post. A handful of Columbia Prep parents were, it seemed, appalled by the allegedly explicit presentation Fonte had given their children.

Fonte was taken aback. In her nine years of teaching porn-literacy courses, she had always felt that her work was well received. Exposure to porn is an almost-guaranteed fact of adolescent life thanks to the rise of smart devices and the ubiquity of the internet—and yet, Fonte told me, some parents “may not be ready for the actual truth as to their role in addressing it, and the reality of what their child is actually seeing.”

“It’s not a Playboy magazine anymore,” Fonte said, citing familiar but no less crucial facts about the kind of explicit material available to kids today. “It’s bodies in motion—amplifying certain beauty standards that are harmful; amplifying lack of protection in certain cases, void of emotional intimacy; and, because race is a genre, amplifying racist sexual violence.” Her goal, she said, is always to give teenagers the tools to “navigate their personal and social spaces through these three adjectives: Their world should be safe, should be fulfilling, should be pleasurable.” Mainstream porn can work against that tripartite goal, Fonte said; other forms, such as feminist-inflected porn sold at prices intended to supply decent wages, may support it.

What seemed lost on the outraged parents of Columbia Prep was that their kids weren’t so much titillated by Fonte’s presentation as annoyed and bored: “Everyone was texting each other, ‘What the hell is this? It’s so stupid.’ Everyone knows about porn,” one student told the Post. Why skip an Advanced Placement class or two, with a test on the horizon, just to hear a spiel about porn, consent, and gender that any self-respecting scion of the upper class could likely recite from memory? And, perhaps closer to consternated parents’ concerns, why spend the proceeds of their hefty tuition checks on woke proselytizing about gender, sexuality, race, and the rest, when porn is more of a vice to be contained than a habit to be cultivated?

But dismissing porn literacy as progressive evangelizing suggests an enormous misapprehension of the problem itself. Many digital natives who pride themselves on a certain kind of ennui likely far underestimate exactly how difficult it is to be an ethical user of pornography, or even to begin to judge how to be such a person, given the dark, circuitous routes porn travels before it arrives as a thumbnail on a streaming site. And parents who imagine porn-literacy courses like Fonte’s to be little more than crash courses in en vogue libertinism seem entirely unaware of how dire the stakes are. The risk isn’t that their children may be exposed to something “dirty” or politically incorrect, but that their children may well be exposed to things that are brutal, cruel, vicious, even genuinely criminal—the sort of material law-enforcement agents carefully train themselves to encounter—all without a sense of how to distinguish the authentically violent from that which only masquerades as such. If anything, courses like Fonte’s aren’t given nearly enough funding, time, or other resources to fully demonstrate just how onerous ethical porn use really is. Without that kind of guidance, how are teenagers supposed to have any idea how to be good people in the world we’ve created?

How are any of us, for that matter?

Consider the case of Pornhub, a cheerfully mainstream porn-streaming platform that averaged 115 million visits per day in 2019, then boosted its traffic further by offering its premium services free of charge during the pandemic.

Victims’ advocates have long argued that the website, which received almost 7 million new video uploads in 2019, allows users to share content depicting actual sex crimes in progress—including child pornography, material made or stolen without victims’ knowledge, and recordings of sexual assaults. In December, the journalist Nicholas Kristof brought those concerns to national attention with a startling exposé in The New York Times. In February, the Canadian House of Commons published transcripts of its evidentiary hearings on what, exactly, Pornhub had offered its millions of monthly visitors.

One woman told the House’s Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics that she had found a video that her abusive ex-husband had made in which she was sexually violated while asleep or unconscious, possibly drugged. Another woman recounted that when she was 15, she was extorted into sending videos and images of herself to a man online, who uploaded the material to Pornhub. The man “made me send videos of vaginal and anal masturbation, videos of me removing my clothes, videos of me spitting on myself and more,” she said. “The videos that made me quit contact was when they went on to ask me to eat my own feces and drink my own urine.” The site has also served as a clearinghouse for actual stolen hidden-camera footage—video of female athletes in a South Carolina college locker room, for instance—and revenge porn, meaning explicit photos or videos created in the context of an intimate relationship and later released to humiliate an ex-partner.

Thus any or none of the videos on Pornhub titled, as one activist read to Parliament, “Innocent Teenage Girls Are Used and Exploited”; “Crying Teen”; “Passed Out Teen”; “Very Young South American”; “Junior High School Student”; “Anal Crying Teen”; and “I’m 14” could be authentic. If parents imagine that they have nothing more to worry about than their teenagers coming across explicit material—or a too-liberal curriculum aimed at helping them process the stuff—then they’ve hugely underestimated the task before them. Ideally, any web user in regular contact with explicit content could have some sense of what to do when met with material that ought to be brought to the attention of authorities. But that would require much more guidance than adolescents—let alone adults—are given now.

After all, distinguishing between images or videos carefully tailored to appear genuine and those that indeed are is a hard task even for the law-enforcement agents trained in investigating these kinds of sex crimes.

Sonja Nordstrom, a retired FBI special agent of 23 years, has seen more of these horrors than most. She began investigating images of child sexual abuse shared online in the 1990s, when the virtual spread of such material was still new. Her job required her to personally analyze “thousands upon thousands of terabytes” of potentially criminal pornographic material. The images that she and her colleagues analyzed and compiled would then be checked against databases of images already known to law enforcement. If novel images surfaced, Nordstrom told me, investigators “would also be in a position to verify with certainty, This is in fact a child, right? Because it’s not always easy to tell.”

Nor is it necessarily clear when ostensibly adult, consensual, paywalled content is something else altogether. Last month, federal prosecutors for the Southern District of California announced that Ruben Andre Garcia, a porn actor, recruiter, producer, fraudster, and sex trafficker, had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the GirlsDoPorn and GirlsDoToys franchises, each of which had posted clips to Pornhub. Garcia, the release stated, had been in the business of tricking women into signing up for clothed modeling gigs, then coercing them—often with the help of paid female shills, drugs, alcohol, and threats of force—into participating in porn shoots with false assurances that the results would never be posted online. One woman, who was 19 when she appeared in a GirlsDoPorn segment, reported that she had been given several rum-and-Cokes before her scene and was drunk during filming. Someone happening upon her video in pursuit of something barely legal would’ve been further from the mark than they could have known.

Likewise, commercially successful adult-film performers have alleged coercion and exploitation not unlike the predations of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein, save that for many of them their sexual abuse is the product itself. In a candid podcast episode that aired earlier this year, the actor Lana Rhoades recounted a scene in which she had been gagged by a male performer until she vomited into a bowl, which he then urinated in and commanded Rhoades to drink from. “I didn’t know how to say no,” Rhoades said. “I could be dying inside doing something, but I would have a smile on my face and say, ‘Thank you for the work, everyone.’” A contract may have been signed, but the cruelty and degradation were unsimulated.

Rhoades has since said that she would destroy the videos she made while working in the adult-film industry if she could. “If I could go back, I would give up everything to have my dignity and respect back, and for people not to be able to see me in that way,” she said during a recent podcast interview. But Rhoades doesn’t own the rights to all of her work, and even if she did, that likely wouldn’t matter.

“If you look at the volume of material that goes in and out of social-media sites or hub sites or whatever, it could be on there for five minutes, and it is forever captured and now available somewhere else, even if you were to take it down,” Nordstrom told me. Content that’s only very briefly or very closely shared can instantly blend into the warp and weft of the internet. At that point, extricating the material becomes all but impossible.

Minor victims identified by law enforcement have a right to receive notice, Nordstrom told me, anytime a new cache of child pornography is recovered that includes their image. “Sometimes,” she said, “they get inundated with so many letters, they just say, ‘Don’t even tell me anymore.’” When something terrible happens to someone as a child or an adult, conscious or unconscious, in whatever stage of coercion or desperation—it has happened to them for the rest of their lives. When it’s recorded and promulgated as entertainment, it is happening to them, over and over again, just the same. And that wouldn’t be possible without an audience.

When Nordstrom began her work, photos and videos that had been shared among a select group of criminals via U.S. mail were just emerging on the fledgling web. Now, she says, material that was once risky and challenging to access disseminates so quickly and so permanently that “it’s almost hard to escape.” The same seems true of porn overall, which has those ambiguous, dark reaches woven in. Given the ubiquity of porn online and in our culture at large, a reasonable person might wonder whether teenagers would be much interested in trying to grapple with the ethics of it, and their obligations as consumers.

And the same person might be surprised by the answer. On a July weekend, I sat down with four teenagers—three girls and one boy, ranging in age from 16 to 18—to talk about their reflections on pornography and the way it has influenced their lives so far. None of them was especially enthusiastic about the genre, largely because they were enthusiastic about sex. (I agreed not to use their real names so that they could speak candidly about this sensitive topic.)

“The boys that I have had sex with,” Thalia, 17, told me, “I can tell while having sex with them which one’s watched too much porn, based on how they behave during sex.” It comes across as a certain impersonal performance, she said, “or they’ll do certain things that … I know they probably wouldn’t have thought of organically.”

I asked about the nature of those learned behaviors. Were they violent, disconcerting, uncomfortable?

“When I first started having sex, I thought that I was just—because of watching porn and also listening to other people my age talk about sex, the weird ubiquity of BDSM culture—I thought that I was just supposed to like being, like, choked and stuff,” Thalia said.

Joy, 18, agreed: “I think there was a point in my life where I tried to convince myself that I could possibly be into that. And now that I have grown up, I’m like, ‘No way, I would never let anyone do that to me.’”

“Personally I have only had sex with one person,” Callie, 18, added. “And he is not even as exposed to porn as I would think that most boys are, and he thought that [choking] was a normal thing.”

Thalia mused that the light, obligatory strangling had become vanilla among a certain set of her peers. “It’s taken on a weird flavor, maybe, where it’s like—who can have the most weird, violent sex? It’s like a contest.”

She herself found the violent turn, both online and in real life, quite disturbing. “You see some fucked-up stuff,” Thalia said about scrolling through sites such as Pornhub. “People looking like they’re in pain … people pretending to be raped.” Those scenes had stayed with her, though she hadn’t sought out porn in some time. In fact, none of the girls had.

But more surprising to me was the fact that Arthur, 16, had chosen to regulate his porn use too.

During the pandemic shutdowns, Arthur had spent more time than usual viewing porn. But there came a point when he realized that the ordinary, commercial-grade stuff featured on the front pages of popular streaming sites wasn’t cutting it anymore. His tastes were changing—for the worse.

“I feel like, when you watch more of it,” he said, “that’s when you start getting the more specific stuff; you know what I mean? Because it’s like, when you eat a bunch of pizza, pizza don’t hit the same … If you open up a homepage, and you’re not Wow, then you should just get off. You should wait for a different time.”

It wasn’t that he couldn’t have found material that was more novel, more extreme, more titillating. At 16, Arthur already knows that the internet is awash with every sort of sexual content you can imagine, and some you likely—hopefully—can’t. It was that he had the foresight to realize that the search for novel extremes can be bottomless, and he had no desire to peer into that void.

“I was like, ‘Fuck this,’” he told me, “and I started spacing out” time spent with porn. “It works.”

Since the Canadian House of Commons’ investigation, more than 30 women have sued Pornhub’s parent company for profiting off videos of their sexual exploitation, and the website has hastily tidied up its offerings—though when I asked Nordstrom how much good that would do, she wasn’t optimistic. “I think it requires an inherent societal change, a behavioral change where society says, ‘This is important to us,’” she said. “There is no way to regulate” our way out of this mire.

On that count, Fonte seems to agree. The adolescents who consume free porn from streaming sites aren’t “thinking about the politics behind it, the economics behind it, and certainly not the ethics behind it,” she said, because they’re too often concerned with very elementary questions they lack answers to: Are their bodies normal? Should they look a certain way? Is this what sex is supposed to be like? With more leeway for comprehensive sex education, Fonte told me, she would raise the question of “Who is on the other side of the screen that you’re benefiting from?”

People will have to determine for themselves that the answer to that question matters; that the expenditure of resources on education, for prevention, and law enforcement, for prosecution is worth it; and that they don’t want to be the sort of individuals who enjoy artifacts of others’ suffering, inconvenient as that might be. It’s the kind of decision Arthur has already made; the only shame is that he had to make it on his own.