Getty
Show Hide image

Sex education is too important to be left to Pornhub

The porn site is promoting a "wellness centre" which peddles sexist ideas about desire and anatomy. Unfortunately, it's filling a gap in the market left by schools. 

Pornography and sex education have a long, and unequal, association: obscenity laws have been used to quash information about sex and contraception, and sexploitation films have been framed as educational in order to circumvent obscenity laws. It’s always sex education that comes off the worst in this partnership, either banned by association or cursorily executed as cover. The latest manifestation of the latter version came from Pornhub over the weekend, when the video streaming site launched its “Sexual Wellness Center”.

Don’t, by the way, bother Googling it. Despite big coverage for the launch, and despite Pornhub’s SEO chops making the main site the number one result for “porn”, looking for “pornhub sex ed” serves a list of results like “Watch Big-tit Latina teacher gives her students a sex-ed lesson”. The Sexual Wellness Center itself doesn’t even make page one.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the site is a bad thing. Looking at it, however, its shortcomings are obvious. The entry on female reproductive anatomy, for example, informs us that the clitoris is “the erogenous ‘button’ for women” and declares it “similar to the tip of the penis”. It really isn’t: the clitoris, like a fun iceberg, is mostly below the surface. Funnily enough, the entry on male anatomy does not say that the penis is “similar to” a clitoris. Male bodies, of course, get to occupy the kingly position of the default from which women are a deviation.

Men get hard, according to Pornhub, and women get wet, “allowing the penis (or toy) to enter the body and feel pleasurable”. This, again, is a distinctly sexist take on biology that draws on stereotypes about masculine activity and feminine passivity. Erect penises are not bone-dry implements of intrusions, but produce lubricating seminal fluid; during women’s arousal, the internal clitoris swells with blood. As the writer Emily Nagoski says in her book Come As You Are: “Why do we talk about men ‘getting hard’ and women ‘getting wet,’ when from a biological perspective both male and female genital get both hard and wet? It’s a cultural thing…”

So Pornhub isn’t very good on bodies, but maybe it’s better on the ethics of intercourse. An article on consent informs readers of the need for positive consent, rightly stressing that “a person has every right to say NO at any point” and urging attention to nonverbal signals of refusal. “Submission is also not the same as consent,” it says, admirably. Shame that this advice is in outright contradiction to Pornhub’s main video business. In 2015, performer James Deen was accused of rape, harassment and sexual assault by 11 female co-stars. (He has denied the allegations and there have been no legal proceedings.) His videos, in which women are “sluts” to be “destroyed” and “punished”, don’t appear to maintain a vigilant distinction between consent and submission at all. And they’re readily available to watch on Pornhub.

The Sexual Wellness Center isn’t an act of charity on Pornhub’s part. While the main video site is a dark place thronging with orifices, the Center matches the “clean well-lighted room” that writer Emily Witt identified as the model for women-friendly dating sites: this is a place for people who wouldn’t usually go to Pornhub can get used to the idea of going to Pornhub. There’s nothing about the appearance of the site that would make it inappropriate for a curious teenage reader.

But if Pornhub is taking advantage of sex education to polish its own PR, it’s only because sex education is a niche that’s been left woefully open to exploitation. Sex education in British schools is neither compulsory nor comprehensive (and the situation in America is even more dismal): issues such as LGBT relationships, recognising abuse and understanding consent are deemed too controversial for the curriculum, and so porn fills the breach.

In research by the Women and Equalities Committee, 60% of young people said they first saw porn when they were under 14. In the absence of good sex ed, porn becomes the baseline of sexual culture. It sets expectations about how men and women should behave – expectations that make women’s pleasure barely an afterthought to the business of performing for men’s benefit.

To allow porn to become synonymous with sex is a society-wide dereliction of duty, and yet here we are: in a world where 29% of girls say they’ve experienced unwanted sexual touching at school; the porn words “slut” and “slag” are routinely thrown at girl pupils. The ad-hoc ministrations of self-interested commerce are no substitute for a frank and thorough approach to sex and consent in schools. But until politicians, educators and parents step up and realise their duty of care, wheezes like Pornhub’s Sexual Wellness Center will – depressingly – have a place.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Getty
Show Hide image

Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

0800 7318496