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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.

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Your life's work, ruined – how storms can wipe out scientific research in an instant

Some researchers face the prospect of risking their own lives to save valuable scientific research that could benefit future generations.

Before the autumn of 2012, if you went into the basement of New York University's School of Medicine in Manhattan, you would find a colony of more than 3,000 live mice. This was the collection of Gordon Fishell, the associate director of the NYU Neuroscience institute, which he had spent more than 20 years building up, and which he was using to discover how neurons communicate with other cells.

As Hurricane Sandy began to approach New York State, Fishell and his colleagues, like others in the city, made preparations for the onslaught. This meant leaving extra food and water for their colonies, and making sure that emergency power was on.

But no one anticipated the size and intensity of the hurricane. On the day it finally arrived, Fishell was forced by the weather to stay home, and to his horror he saw that his lab was now in the path of the storm. As he wrote later in Nature magazine: "We were done for. It was obvious that our labs were in great danger, and there was nothing I could do." All of Fishell's mice drowned. Furthermore, scientific equipment and research worth more than $20m was destroyed.

In seeing years of academic work wiped out by a storm, Fishell and his colleagues at the School of Medicine are not alone. In 2001, Hurricane Allison, a tropical storm turned hurricane, had caused similar devastation at Texas Medical Centre, the world's largest such research centre, inflicting at least $2bn in damages. In 2011, the Japanese tsunami hit Tohoku University’s world-renowned Advanced Institute for Materials Research and destroyed some of the world’s best electron microscopes, as well as $12.5m in loss of equipment.

Such stories used to be seen as unique and unfortunate incidents. But the increasing incidence of extreme weather events over the last 20 years has highlighted the dangers of complacency.

Not only do facilities affected by natural disasters lose decades of irreplaceable research, but many contain toxic chemicals which could be potentially deadly if released into the water or food supply. During the 2007 floods in the UK, a foot and mouth outbreak was traced back to a lab affected by heavy rain. In Houston, during the recent Hurricane Harvey, leakages from industrial facilities contaminated the floodwater. 

Gradually, university deans and heads of research facilities in the United States have realised that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is badly prepared for this kind of problem. "They had never thought of how to deal with a research loss," Susan Berget, the vice president of emergency planning at Baylor College of Medicine told Nature in 2005. "To them, transgenic mice are a foreign concept."

It therefore falls on universities, local communities and regional governments to ensure they are adequately prepared for disasters. A common complaint is the lack of guidance they receive. 

Often, researchers who choose to save valuable scientific research are putting their lives at risk. One particularly harrowing story was that of biochemist Dr Arthur Lustig, who spent four days in his Tulane university laboratory before being evacuated to a shelter. Despite his tenacity, he lost more than 80 per cent of his work on yeast strains, carried out over 20 years, to flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Other than the immediate, heartbreaking effects of losing research, natural disasters also pose a threat to future investment. If a region is increasingly seen as not disaster resilient, it reduces the amount of federal and private funding for groundbreaking research, as well as applications from prospective researchers.

A recent report in the journal of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine quantified this link. It found that varius tropical storms led to as many as 120 researchers losing their livelihoods. In one instance, a psychology internship for high schoolers was discontinued. 

Disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms are usually thought of as high risk but low probability events. As Bill McKibben noted in the Guardian, Hurricane Harvey was a once in 25,000 years kind of storm, but the “normal” measurements of incidence cannot necessarily be held as true anymore. Just like the rest of us, researchers will have to be prepared for every possibility.