School's Out: Of Sexts and Sex Textbooks

Oh how I wish someone would turn me loose on the elementary school curriculum. Sometimes I think that if some social justice squad and I could just re-write some of these courses, we’d nip a thousand social problems in the bud. Doesn’t look like anyone’s going to give me carte blanche, but my partner recently got close. She’s been affiliated with our university’s Sexual Health Research Lab for a few years now as a research assistant, and this past year she was invited to co-author a chapter in a new sexuality textbook with a friend of hers who is a PhD candidate in the lab. It’s for undergrads, though, not secondary or elementary students. The impetus behind the new textbook? To create the first sexuality text for Canadians by Canadians. You might be surprised how hard it is to come by stats and case studies that have to do with us on this side of the border. Also admirably, the publishers actually requested that LGBTQ issues be addressed anywhere and everywhere possible.

In the forthcoming chapter, the co-authors report that:

Sexual health education in school is mainly focused on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy prevention, which tends to assume youth are engaging in heterosexual sexual activity. Delivering sex education based on this assumption ignores sexual and gender diversity, and therefore LGBTQ youth are not receiving adequate education specific to their identity and orientation. A recent study of Toronto teens found that only 51 percent had received any formal education relating to sexual orientation (Causarano, Pole, Flicker, & the Toronto Teen Survey Team, 2010). Exclusion of these topics can be considered a violation of sexual rights for access to relevant and comprehensive sex education. More diversified programming is needed in school-based curriculum—including Ontario—to better represent all Canadian youth, as LGBTQ teens continue to face systemic barriers to inclusive school-based sex education. Encouragingly, Taylor et al. (2011) uncovered that 58 percent of non-LGBTQ youth find homophobic comments upsetting, which suggests that there is potential for solidarity amongst LGBTQ and heterosexual students for LGBTQ-inclusive education. (Boyer, S.C., & Coyle, S. M. (2012). Sex Education in Canada. In Pukall, C.F. (Eds.), Human Sexuality:  Research  and Clinical Foundations (p. TBD). Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.)

Maybe it’s not all that groundbreaking to people conversant with gender issues, but it’s so good to have some LGBTQ youth perspectives in print for the culture wars, curriculum debates, and moral panics about “impressionable youth” that will surely keep coming.

In the research for this chapter, it became apparent to my partner Shannon that Internet sources supply a huge amount of information on sexuality for kids and teens—everything from “Go Ask Alice” to the type of content I accidentally find when I neglect to type “magazine” after “bitch” in my URL bar. It can be especially important as a source of information for queer kids—for health information, as a way to find role models, to connect with other queer youth and adults, and for erotic material—because of the safety it offers through anonymity. It can also be dangerous, alienating, and misinforming. But we can’t really know the extent of its influence because studies can’t be done to see if kids under 18 watch porn because it is not legal for kids to watch “sexually explicit material” until age 18.

This restriction also has implications for other kinds of sexual health research, like the LDI (laser Doppler imaging) studies done by the Sexual Health Research Lab, which use a combination of nature films and Kinsey Institute porn clips to measure blood flow in control subjects and pain subjects (re: my earlier post touching on a type of genital pain called vulvodynia). It’s possible that the age requirements for such a study might preclude minors for other reasons of research design, but I certainly would have been grateful to participate in a study that was propelling sexual health research toward better treatments for painful sex in the years before 18. Now that “sexting” has become a seemingly widespread phenomenon (see also: On Miley Cyrus’ Tweets & Teen Privacy, and sexting PSAs), similar content regulations are also implicating minors in the creation of content unsuitable for minors (themselves and the intended recipients) and bring into play even more contentious laws about child pornography (but in this case made by “children” for “children” but distributed in a possibly viral way to others).

What do you think? Is it more important to adhere to laws that draw the age of minority at 18 for the protection of young people? Or to allow people under the age of 18 to participate in research about their own sexual health that concerns the erotic materials that they access and make?

Previously: Giving Our Schools Some Homework, Frank Sex Talk

by Sharday Mosurinjohn
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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Not sure we are that restricted

"studies can’t be done to see if kids under 18 watch porn because it is not legal for kids to watch “sexually explicit material” until age 18."

I understand restrictions on more medically invasive studies, but why couldn't this be done? We have studies on teen drug use, for example, which is also illegal.

I am unaware of drug studies

I am unaware of drug studies that actually have kids consuming/injecting illegal drugs - do you have any citations, Eve?

The problem I would see with including minors in such research is that they would need parental approval, and that would likely bias the sample in an extreme way. Parents who are restrictive (i.e., do not foster open discussions about sexuality) would - theoretically - be less likely to allow their children to participate. People who are more permissive/open would be much more likely to give the okay. Therefore your sample would never be representative, and I don't see that many of the results would be taken seriously.

I realised long after posting

I realised long after posting this that you were referring to asking whether or not teens had watched porn, rather than having them watch porn as part of a stud. My bad. However, I do wonder how useful this information would be. Does it really matter how many kids are watching porn... what does that really tell us?

I think that it could be

I think that it could be useful to know, not that youth are watching porn necessarily, but rather the influence it might have on their perceptions of sex, sexual behaviours, and sexuality overall. Like the author of this blog stated, "we can’t really know the extent of its [porn] influence because studies can’t be done to see if kids under 18 watch porn", which is something to consider given that most youth are of the "Internet generation" and have easy access to all sorts of pornography online. If youth are in fact learning something about sex from Internet porn, then parents, peers, and teachers might no longer be the primary source of sexuality education for youth - and therefore I can see how studies that investigate the influence of pornography on youths' ideas about what sex and sexuality is could be important.

Thanks for these comments,

Thanks for these comments, and apologies for my late reply. Anonymous' comment addresses some of the good reasons why restrictions on certain types of studies could be useful. It seems that in what some have termed a "raunch culture" heavily informed by the easy availability of internet porn, it would be good to know what messages young viewers are taking away. And because this self-education isn't a sanctioned part of official sex ed, it may be hard to re-frame what youth are seeing, give them a critical context for understanding the porn industry, and help them to be emotionally prepared for dealing with some of the disturbing things to which the internet can expose them.

Eve and GingerKid1984, you both raise an interesting point, also, about how studies about other behaviours considered illegal for youth don't have quite the same moral stigma and panic associated with minors and sexuality.

Studies that would involve minors reporting on their porn viewing experiences or which would involve having them watch porn are by far not the only studies concerning youth sexuality that could or should be done, but I think they do represent some very important information.

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