When teenagers think porn teaches them about real sex
Photo by Ian Broyles.
This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.
Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this third installment of our roundtable, we’ll be discussing how to address the false belief among young people that pornography is real sex education.
Fuller Youth Institute: Researchers have found that a lot of young men see viewing pornography “as education about proper sexual technique” despite the fact that what is depicted in porn is not realistic, normal, or healthy. Ironically, a recent study found that porn, in effect, ruins a couple’s sex life—a higher frequency of porn use among young men was “related to greater gender role conflict, more avoidant and anxious attachment styles, poorer relationship quality, and less sexual satisfaction.”
Fuller Youth Institute: Do you think it is possible to tactfully address or combat this misperception that porn is somehow educational during adolescence rather than waiting until adulthood, when it is more appropriate to talk about, but the damage may have already been done?
Adam McLane: We’ve talked about this in my small group with high school guys. The sad reality is that porn is about the closest thing they’ve had to sex education—schools have outdated and uncomfortable sex ed and their parents are absolutely not talking about it. So my small group is about ten guys including two married adult men, and we have “myth-busting” moments for sure! More than once my co-leader or I have said, “Um, if you really tried that you would either hurt yourself, or your girlfriend would kill you for trying it.” It is worth noting that the young guys in my life have absolutely no problem talking about what they’ve seen in porn or their own sexuality, which can be shocking.
Billy Jack Blankenship: Yeah, I’ve had some of the most honest conversations ever with early college students. I think the only way to enlighten older teens about how ridiculous porn is, is to talk with openness, with clarity, and talking specifics. In the many conversations I’ve had, I have never had a student, male or groups of females, tell me I am being too honest or candid. My best piece of advice would be to locate a trusted adult outside of the family that a teen knows, loves, and respects, and ask that adult to journey with teens on these issues—and that is applicable to lots of tough issues, not just porn. This is where the value of intergenerational relationships is so vital. Find people who can open the door to talk about and laugh about the pure awkwardness and messiness of sex, and point out how unrealistic and downright fake porn really is.
Annie Neufeld: I feel that in adolescence we can dismantle the mentality that “sex is a craft I can learn how to do independently of a loving relationship.” Watching porn to learn how to “do it” creates rote, detached, impersonal sex—and this is both unfulfilling and not how we were created to live. I think it is appropriate to set a high standard for sex and talk about this with adolescents by talking about how God created sex to be good by creating intimacy, connection, wonder, and commitment. Watching porn to “improve your skills” doesn’t belong in the category of Christian sex because Christian sex always involves honoring another person in marriage rather than simply “doing it right.”
Mike Park: I think it’s absolutely necessary to talk about this misperception during adolescence. Helping young men and women understand sex in the context of a committed and mutually-giving relationship between a husband and wife is vital. A lot of the young men that I talk to understand that sex is more than just a physical act but don’t yet fully understand the emotional and spiritual implications. Helping young men to understand these aspects of a sexual relationship gives them the chance to see sex beyond the faulty façade of pornography.
Brad Howell: I also want to underscore that we are talking about spiritual disciplines here. When I was a teen, and during the early years of my youth ministry, the message to teens was typically an in your face: “Don’t do it! Promise us! Here, sign this card to show us you mean it!” Spiritual disciplines are about training, and practicing responses that demonstrate trust in God and not ourselves so that when we face the real thing our instincts are rooted in trusting God. There is this common myth about the young man’s awkward first sexual experience that seems to warrant this excuse of wanting to educate yourself in sexual technique with porn. That is really steeped in a ‘trusting yourself’ versus a ‘trusting God’ mentality. Parents and leaders need to be very strategic about helping young people to develop spiritual practices that train for the kind of committed, mutually respectful relationships that we hope for them to experience.
FYI: Before we move on to discuss sexting in our next post, we want to note two things researchers have found that effectively reduce the likelihood or frequency with which a young person will view porn: religiosity and good self-esteem. When young people are part of a network of folks who challenge them to higher standards of behavior while also encouraging and affirming them, they are less likely to be drawn to porn. Digital technology has led to a proliferation of porn in recent years, but it is important to remember that parents and adult leaders can and do have a positive impact on the young people in their lives!
 Regnerus, M. D. (2009). Forbidden fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, USA.
 Szymanski, D. M., & Stewart-Richardson, D. N. (2014). Psychological, Relational, and Sexual Correlates of Pornography Use on Young Adult Heterosexual Men in Romantic Relationships. The Journal of Men's Studies, 22(1), 64-82.