Thoughts on porn in the classroom

This morning, I retweeted Girl on the Net because she felt that actually showing porn in the classroom as part of sex and relationship education was a very bad idea.

This afternoon, after mulling the question over, I have reached the opposite conclusion. I feel some strong ambivalence about the idea, because the arguments against that came up in GotN’s twitter thread were all valid and important ones.

However, it seems to me that, if we wish to teach teenagers to engage critically with porn and to understand what it is, then at some point you’re going to have to have some actual porn to talk about and view critically. One doesn’t attempt to teach English Literature without students reading some actual literature, for example. In essence, attempting to tell teenagers about porn seems to me to be ineffective and rather like trying to teach about sex in general without referring to the genitalia.

Part of the objection seems to be that “show porn in the classroom” seems to be taken without any context – as if the teacher just springs it on the class with no warning or preparation. While it might go that way, I would hope that a proper lesson plan would be somewhat different, and would be part of a broader curriculum. The “today, we’re watching porn” lesson would probably fall somewhere in the middle of a sequence of lessons discussing sexual media theoretically or as a concept. At the start of the sequence of lessons, the teacher’s going to give a heads-up that in lesson 5 (for example) there will be some porn clips shown, and to be aware of that.

I am not an educator of any kind, nor an expert in sex or media or porn or anything. So what follows is just me working from “first principles” to figure it out (one might also assume legitimately that this is the sex ed class I wish I’d been taught at 15/16). But it is a suggestion as to how the porn class might possibly go.

– – –

Teacher: Today, we’re going to watch some porn.

[plays a clip showing James Bond or similar action-adventure stunt sequence]

[plays a clip showing a Jackie Chan fight or stunt sequence]

Teacher: Alright, let’s have a discussion about what we’ve just seen. How realistic is it? How much “behind the scenes” work went on to produce those sequences? What is the intended effect on the viewer? How does the way it’s presented help the film maker produce that effect?

Class discussion – if needed, Teacher can play a clip of the closing credits outtakes from the Jackie Chan movie, to prompt discussion about what we don’t see behind the scenes

Teacher: Now, keeping all those ideas in mind, I want you to make some notes about the same questions while we watch some sexual porn: what effect is it intended to have, how do the film makers do this, how much behind the scenes work did it take to do that, and with all that in mind, how realistic do you think it is?

[plays a “mainstream porn” clip]

[plays a “feminist porn” clip]

Class discussion – teacher should try to guide observations to make comparisons with the previous “action”/”stunt” clips, and ask students to reference points in the porn clips to support any observations or conclusions. Teacher should ask students not to talk about their own reactions (e.g. turned on/grossed out/whatever – though making sure it’s understood all those reactions are valid and okay to have) but talk about the films generally. Also, encourage comparisons between the two clips.

Teacher concludes by reminding that in general it is okay to choose to watch or not watch porn, and others should respect that decision; that the purpose of the lesson was (a) to demonstrate the ways in which porn is constructed and not realistic, and (b) to give an idea of what porn involves so they can make informed decisions; and remind students that there will be more discussion in the next class about different types of porn.

– – –

(I thought about including a slasher/gore horror clip in the opening clips sequence, but felt more uneasy about the idea of showing that to under 18s than about showing porn to them. Also, maybe more clips should be shown of porn, to include at least one gay scene, for instance.)

Of course, these class discussions could take place without watching videos. My feeling is that they are more effective when there is an example to talk about. Some people learn well from the theoretical discussion, but in a class I often learn best from having a go (on a VAK learning styles test, I come out as much more Visual and Kinaesthetic than Auditory – talking and being told actually doesn’t help me learn so well – writing, reading, and trying it myself are more effective). As an author, I am always being told, “Show, don’t tell”, and I think if you want to teach young people to engage critically with porn, then you have to show, not just tell them, what you mean.

One thing that troubles me about the “No, that’s a bad idea” response is that it seems to imply that we don’t actually trust the adolescents to look at the clips analytically rather than emotionally. Which is to say, the thing we want to teach them to do, we don’t think they can (learn to) do. To be squeamish about the discussion seems to make it harder to have informed discussion about consent, as well.

On the other hand, suppose we have this class, and groups of students go away discussing the clips among themselves. While they might have been engaged with writing notes and thinking critically about the scenes while they’re in the class, afterwards, will the talk be about the analysis, or will it be about their personal reactions? If someone doesn’t have the same reaction as their peer group, what message will they take away from it? (And yes, again, these questions spring from personal experience of sex ed, and of peer discussions of sex/sexual material, at that age.)

Furthermore, it does raise questions about consent: if one wants to make the lesson optional, then it’s either opt-in or opt-out, and either way there’s going to be peer pressure: “pervy”/”slutty” if you opt in; “prudish” if you opt out. How do you handle involuntary erections, or other arousal signs? It would be good to think we could create a world where that would be seen as incidental and let it be without comment, or at least, have a sex ed class where that was the case. It is harder to see how to do it effectively.

Like I said, I’m ambivalent about the idea of showing porn clips in class to adolescents as part of sex and relationship education. There are very good arguments against the idea, and I admit to feeling uneasy with the idea myself, even though I’ve argued above that it’s better than not. Consider this piece not a position paper, but a prompt for further discussion of a difficult and challenging question.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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