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. 

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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.