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← How porn changes the way teens think about sex

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Showing Revision 8 created 09/05/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. [This talk contains mature content]
  2. Six years ago,
  3. I discovered something that scientists
    have been wanting to know for years.
  4. How do you capture the attention
  5. of a roomful of extremely bored teenagers?
  6. It turns out all you have to do
    is mention the word pornography.
  7. (Laughter)

  8. Let me tell you how I first learned this.

  9. In 2012, I was sitting in a crowded room
    full of high school students
  10. who were attending
    an after-school program in Boston.
  11. And my job, as guest speaker for the day,
  12. was to inspire them to think
    about how exciting it would be
  13. to have a career in public health.
  14. The problem was,
  15. as I looked at their faces,
  16. I could see that their eyes
    were glazing over,
  17. and they were just tuning out.
  18. It didn't even matter that I wore
  19. what I thought was
    my cool outfit that day.
  20. I was just losing my audience.
  21. So, then one of the two adults
    who worked for the program said,
  22. "Aren't you doing some research
    about pornography?
  23. Maybe tell them about that."
  24. All of a sudden, that room
    full of high school students exploded
  25. into laughter, high fives.
  26. I think there were some
    loud hooting noises.
  27. And all anyone had done
    was say that one word -- pornography.
  28. That moment would prove to be
    an important turning point
  29. for me and my professional mission
    of finding solutions
  30. to end dating and sexual violence.
  31. At that point, I'd been working
    for more than a decade

  32. on this seemingly intractable problem
    of dating violence.
  33. Data from the US Centers
    for Disease Control and Prevention
  34. demonstrate that one in five
    high school-attending youth
  35. experience physical and/or sexual abuse
  36. by a dating partner each year in the US.
  37. That makes dating violence more prevalent
  38. than being bullied on school property,
  39. seriously considering suicide,
  40. or even vaping,
  41. in that same population.
  42. But solutions were proving elusive.
  43. And I was working with a research team
  44. that was hunting
    for novel answers to the question:
  45. What's causing dating abuse,
    and how do we stop it?
  46. One of the research studies
    that we were working on at the time
  47. happened to include
    a few questions about pornography.
  48. And something unexpected
    was emerging from our findings.
  49. Eleven percent of the teen
    girls in our sample
  50. reported that they had been
    forced or threatened
  51. to do sexual things that
    the perpetrator saw in pornography.
  52. That got me curious.
  53. Was pornography to blame
    for any percentage of dating violence?

  54. Or was it more like a coincidence
    that the pornography users
  55. also happen to be more likely
    to be in unhealthy relationships?
  56. I investigated by reading
    everything that I could
  57. from the peer-reviewed literature,
  58. and by conducting my own research.
  59. I wanted to know
  60. what kinds of sexually explicit media
    youth were watching,
  61. and how often and why,
  62. and see if I could piece together
  63. if it was part of the reason
    that for so many of them
  64. dating relationships
    were apparently unhealthy.
  65. As I read, I tried to keep an open mind,

  66. even though there were
    plenty of members of the public
  67. who'd already made up
    their mind about the issue.
  68. Why would I keep an open mind
    about pornography?
  69. Well, I'm a trained social scientist,
  70. so it's my job to be objective.
  71. But I'm also what people
    call sex-positive.
  72. That means that
    I fully support people's right
  73. to enjoy whatever kind of sex life
    and sexuality they find fulfilling,
  74. no matter what it involves,
  75. as long as it includes
    the enthusiastic consent
  76. of all parties involved.
  77. That said, I personally wasn't inclined
    towards watching pornography.
  78. I'd seen some, didn't really
    do anything for me.
  79. And as a mom of two
    soon-to-be teenage children,
  80. I had my own concerns
  81. about what seeing pornography
    could do to them.
  82. I noticed that while
    there were a lot of people

  83. who were denouncing pornography,
  84. there were also people
    who were staunch defenders of it
  85. for a variety of reasons.
  86. So in my scholarly exploration,
  87. I genuinely tried to understand:
  88. Was pornography bad for you
    or was it good for you?
  89. Was it misogynist or was it empowering?
  90. And there was not one singular answer
    that emerged clearly.
  91. There was one longitudinal study
    that had me really worried,
  92. that showed that teenagers
    who saw pornography
  93. were subsequently more likely
    to perpetrate sexual violence.
  94. But the design of the study
  95. didn't allow for definitive
    causal conclusions.
  96. And there were other studies
    that did not find
  97. that adolescent pornography use
  98. was associated with certain
    negative outcomes.
  99. Even though there were other studies
    that did find that.
  100. But as I spoke to other experts,

  101. I felt tremendous pressure
    to pick a side about pornography.
  102. Join one team or the other.
  103. I was even told that
    it was weak-minded of me
  104. not to be able to pick out the one
    correct answer about pornography.
  105. And it was complicated,
  106. because there is an industry
  107. that is capitalizing
    off of audience's fascination
  108. with seeing women, in particular,
    not just having sex,
  109. but being chocked, gagged, slapped,
  110. spit upon, ejaculated upon,
  111. called degrading names
    over and over during sex,
  112. and not always clearly with their consent.
  113. Most people would agree
    that we have a serious problem
  114. with misogyny, sexual violence
    and rape in this country,
  115. and pornography probably
    isn't helping with any of that.
  116. And a critically important
    problem to me was that
  117. for more than a century,
  118. the anti-pornography position
    had been used as a pretext
  119. for discriminating
    against gays and lesbians
  120. or people who have kinks or have fetishes.
  121. So I could see why, on the one hand,
  122. we might be very worried about
    the messages that pornography is sending,
  123. and on the other hand,
  124. why we might be really worried
    about going overboard indicting it.
  125. For the next two years,

  126. I looked into every scary,
    horrifying claim that I could find
  127. about the average age
    at which people first see pornography,
  128. or what it does to their brains
    or their sexuality.
  129. Here's what I have to report back.
  130. The free, online, mainstream pornography,
  131. that's the kind that teenagers
    are most likely to see,
  132. is a completely terrible form
    of sex education.
  133. (Laughter)

  134. (Applause)

  135. But that's not what it was intended for.

  136. And it probably is not
    instantly poisoning their minds
  137. or turning them into compulsive users,
  138. the way that some ideologues
    would have you believe.
  139. It's a rare person who doesn't see
    some pornography in their youth.
  140. By the time they're 18 years old,
  141. 93 percent of first year college males
    and 62 percent of females
  142. have seen pornography at least once.
  143. And though people like to say
  144. that the internet has made
    pornography ubiquitous,
  145. or basically guarantees
    that any young child
  146. who's handed a smartphone
    is definitely going to see pornography,
  147. data don't really support that.
  148. A nationally representative study
    found that in the year 2000
  149. 16 percent of 10-to-13-year-old youth
  150. reported that they'd seen
    pornography in the past year.
  151. And by 2010, that figure had increased.
  152. But only to 30 percent.
  153. So it wasn't everybody.
  154. Our problems with adolescents
    and sexual violence perpetration

  155. is not only because of pornography.
  156. In fact, a recent study
  157. found that adolescents
    are more likely to see sexualized images
  158. in other kinds of media
    besides pornography.
  159. Think about all those
    sexualized video games,
  160. or TV shows, or music videos.
  161. And it could be exposure
    to a steady stream of violent media
  162. that instead of or in addition to
    the sexualized images
  163. is causing our problems.
  164. By focusing on the potential harms
    of pornography alone,
  165. we may be distracting ourselves
    from bigger issues.
  166. Or missing root causes
    of dating and sexual violence,
  167. which are the true public health crises.
  168. That said, even my own research

  169. demonstrates that adolescents
    are turning to pornography
  170. for education and information about sex.
  171. And that's because they can't find
  172. reliable and factual
    information elsewhere.
  173. Less than 50 percent of the states
    in the United States
  174. require that sex education
    be taught in schools,
  175. including how to prevent coerced sex.
  176. And less than half of those states
  177. require that the information presented
    be medically accurate.
  178. So in that Boston after-school program,

  179. those kids really wanted
    to talk about sex,
  180. and they really wanted
    to talk about pornography.
  181. And they wanted to talk about those things
  182. a whole lot more than they wanted
    to talk about dating or sexual violence.
  183. So we realized,
  184. we could cover all of the same topics
    that we might normally talk about
  185. under the guise of healthy
    relationships education,
  186. like, what's a definition
    of sexual consent?
  187. Or, how do you know
    if you're hurting somebody during sex?
  188. Or what are healthy boundaries to have
    when you're flirting?
  189. All of these same things we could discuss
  190. by using pornography
    as the jumping-off point
  191. for our conversation.
  192. It's sort of like when adults
    give kids a desert like brownies,
  193. but they secretly baked a zucchini
    or something healthy inside of it.
  194. (Laughter)

  195. We could talk to the kids
    about the healthy stuff,

  196. the stuff that's good for you,
  197. but hide it inside a conversation
    that was about something
  198. that they thought
    they wanted to be talking about.
  199. We also discovered something
  200. that we didn't necessarily
    set out to find,
  201. which is that there's a fantastic way
    to have a conversation with teenagers
  202. about pornography.
  203. And that is,
  204. keep the conversation true to science.
  205. Admit what we know and what we don't know
  206. about the impact of pornography.
  207. Talk about where there are mixed results
  208. or where there are weaknesses
    in the studies that have been conducted.
  209. Invite the adolescents
    to become critical consumers
  210. of the research literature on pornography,
  211. as well as the pornography itself.
  212. That really fits
    with adolescent development.
  213. Adolescents like to question things
  214. and they like to be invited
    to think for themselves.
  215. And we realized by starting to experiment,

  216. teaching some classes in consent,
    respect and pornography,
  217. that trying to scare adolescents
    into a particular point of view
  218. or jam a one-sided argument
    down their throat about pornography
  219. not only probably does not work,
  220. but really doesn't model
    the kind of respectful,
  221. consensual behavior
    that we want them to learn.
  222. So our approach, what we call
    pornography literacy,
  223. is about presenting the truth
    about pornography
  224. to the best of our knowledge,
  225. given that there is
    an ever-changing evidence base.
  226. When people hear that we teach
    a nine-session, 18-hour class
  227. in pornography literacy to teenagers,
  228. I think that they either think
    that we're sitting kids down
  229. and trying to show them
    how to watch pornography,
  230. which is not what we do,
  231. or that we're part of
    an anti-pornography activist group
  232. that's trying to convince them
    that if they ever saw pornography,
  233. it would be the number one
    worst thing for their health ever.
  234. And that's not it, either.
  235. Our secret ingredient
    is that we're nonjudgmental.

  236. We don't think that youth
    should be watching pornography.
  237. But, above all, we want them
    to become critical thinkers
  238. if and when they do see it.
  239. And we've learned,
  240. from the number of requests
    for our curriculum and our training,
  241. from across the US and beyond,
  242. that there are a lot of parents
    and a lot of teachers
  243. who really do want to be having
    these more nuanced
  244. and realistic conversations
    with teenagers about pornography.
  245. We've had requests from Utah to Vermont,
  246. to Alabama, to Hawaii.
  247. So in that after-school program,

  248. what I saw, is that from the minute
    we mentioned the word pornography,
  249. those kids were ready
    to jump in to a back-and-forth
  250. about what they did
    and didn't want to see in pornography,
  251. and what they did
    and didn't want to do during sex.
  252. And what was degrading to women
  253. or unfair to men or racist, all of it.
  254. And they made some
    really sophisticated points.
  255. Exactly the kinds of things that
    we would want them to be talking about
  256. as violence prevention activists.
  257. And as teachers, we might leave
    the class one day and think,

  258. "It is really sad that there's
    that one boy in our class
  259. who thinks that all women
    have orgasms from anal sex."
  260. And we might leave class
    the next week and think,
  261. "I'm really glad that there's
    that one kid in our class who's gay,
  262. who said that seeing his sexuality
    represented in pornography
  263. saved his life."
  264. Or, "There's that one girl in our class
  265. who said that she's feeling
    a lot better about her body,
  266. because she saw someone shaped like her
    as the object of desire
  267. in some tame pornography."
  268. So this is where I find myself
    as a violence prevention activist.

  269. I find myself talking about
    and researching pornography.
  270. And though it would be easier
  271. if things in life
    were all one way or the other,
  272. what I've found in my conversations
    with teenagers about pornography
  273. is that they remain engaged
    in these conversations
  274. because we allow them
    to grapple with the complexities.
  275. And because we're honest
    about the science.
  276. These adolescents may not be adults yet,
  277. but they are living in an adult world.
  278. And they're ready for adult conversations.
  279. Thank you.

  280. (Applause)