Online pornography and sex education: Reflections on practice in Poland and the US

After attending a session titled “The internet is for Porn? Cyberspace and the New Uses of the Net,” one particular presentation stood out to me. Anka Grzywacz’s presentation “Sexualization of Polish Adolescents Through Media and Internet Pornography: Online Sex Educator’s Perspective” reminded me of how youth exposure to online pornography might be used as a means of sex education even in the US. She pointed out that Poland has a conservative catholic government and very little if any information on birth control or safe sex is available to youth. However, youth can easily access online pornography as there is no mandate for filtering or blocking software, compared to the more liberal US government which has adamantly tried to push filtering on youth through the sale of filtering software for parents, and the mandate to filter public computers that youth use in public schools and libraries.

She discussed how youth in Poland do not have access to sex education, except through family planning preparation. It is suggested that they receive this form of sex education in elementary school, however, those lucky enough to receive it may not get it until they are about 15 years old. A youth sex education hotline was developed in an effort to address youth’s questions about sex. They can call or text their questions, and the hotline has already become popular with about 10,000 calls/text questions. The sex educators that run the hotline noticed that many youth asked questions in relation to what they learned from online pornography and also expressed concerns about their body image in comparison to actors in pornographic films. One young man’s question was “…is there any method to make the penis look better…[I] used to apply cream to make it look shiny.” In addition, many of the female youth asked questions that really concerned how to please their boyfriends, as pornography most often focuses on male pleasure.

This was quite interesting because the US has sex education available for youth, and many sexuality websites run by youth that offer comprehensive sex education information and advice. Sometimes these sites may be blocked if software filters pick up on some of the sexual content on these sites. In our EROTICS research, one library patron who completed our survey commented that they were able to reach the sex education website, however they were only able to see it in text only, images from the website were not available because they were filtered out.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating to hear that a conservative religious government does not mandate the blocking of pornography online (out of concern for youth exposure to pornography) yet youth turn to this medium for their informal sex education. While, on the other hand, a said free and liberal government puts so much effort into limiting youth’s access to sexual information available online, and particularly exposure to pornography.

One great suggestion that Anka made is the concept of “porn literacy” to teach youth about the reality of porn; that porn stars are paid actors and do not reflect real interactions that youth may face, nor does pornography represent the diversity in body types that are reflected in the real world, or the lack of promoting safe sex since many porn actors do not wear condoms yet they are tested for STI’s very frequently. These are unknown facts to most youth though they may rely on pornography to fill in the gap for sex education. Though it sounds like a good idea, it may be wishful thinking on my part that porn literacy will ever be taught to US youth. Let’s see if it does happen for Polish youth.

Photo by Sonia Correa: Presentation at the panel "Electronic Sociability, Gender, Sexuality and Internet Regulation", IASSCS, July 9, 2011