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How does porn shape girls' understandings of sex

By Laura Hooberman


A few months ago, I was with a group of friends, discussing what we recalled of the sexual education we received as adolescents. As a diverse group of New York City transplants, our experiences varied. For one, a woman who grew up in a rural, conservative town in the Midwest, ‘sex ed’ in her school meant a curriculum focused exclusively on promoting abstinence until marriage. I fared, I felt, a bit better; having grown up in a more liberal community, I remembered frank and practical conversations about birth control and STI prevention. But despite certain unique differences, and despite the diversity of our backgrounds, there were, we realized, distinct commonalities across all of our experiences.


For one, each of us recalled that boys and girls had separate sexual education courses. Further, we all remembered feeling that the programming offered to the girls was fundamentally different from that which was offered to the boys. The boys, we agreed, were given a space in sex ed in which to learn about their own sexual pleasure through conversations centered on masturbation and ejaculation. The curricula designed for the girls, in contrast – and here I’ll note that as a group of people in our twenties, all of whom were socialized female, we agreed vehemently on this point – were encouraged to consider our sexuality exclusively in the context of conversations about menstruation and pregnancy prevention.


In discussing the gross unfairness of this design, a second commonality across our experiences became apparent: each of us recalled making the conscious effort to ‘fill in the gaps’ of our official sexual education through alternative sources. For many of us, that meant appealing to the knowledge of friends or older siblings, or looking to the media for representations of female sexuality (which, if you’re looking for accurate information, maybe don’t do this). Moreover, striking to me was that for nearly all of us, then teenagers in the mid 2000’s, it also meant turning to the Internet, where we could pose clumsy questions to Google. For many of us, this practice led to our first exposure to pornography.


I was reflecting on this conversation recently while reading an article about Tumblr’s new ban on pornographic content. Tumblr’s decision is worth reading and thinking about – not only because the results thus far have been an often hilarious slew of misfires – but also because it feeds into a broader conversation of just how significant a force the Internet has become in our lives, and in particular the extensive role the Internet plays in the production of sexual knowledge. Considering this led me to wonder: how is the rampant availability of Internet pornography connected to how teens today understand sexuality? And further, given how differently we seem to talk to girls versus boys about sexuality, I wondered whether adolescent girls might be using Internet pornography differently than adolescent boys.


As it turns out, I’m not the only person who’s been curious about this. In 2015, Scarcelli published a study examining the experiences of adolescent girls in Italy consuming Intern