Lessons from PornHub?

Apparently we must remain vigilant about alternative facts in every aspect of our life… including our sex lives.  

The newest educator in the sexual ed world is PornHub. Yes, the website that curates pornography, which by definition is a depiction of sexual acts, wants to teach people about sex.

But this is problematic. Porn is not designed to be an honest portrayal of sex. It’s designed to stimulate and excite the viewer. The lighting, situations, sets, actors, and viewing angles seen in porn rarely represents the reality of sex. In contrast, feature films use sex as a storytelling device and are restricted by societal standards of what exactly can be portrayed. As a result, sex is often implied and is never as explicit as in porn.

Porn, specifically in the United States, exists within the context of a fairly puritanical society. We learn that there’s something wrong with sex. It’s something that should be hidden and something we shouldn’t talk about. If someone engages overtly and frequently in sexual acts, they are immoral. Even with the sexual revolution of the 1970s, it’s very ambiguous still whether sex itself is good or bad, how much sex and what type of activity is acceptable, and for what purposes and under what circumstances it is acceptable to engage in sex.

Sexual education is primarily stuck in the puritanical thought. Students are taught only what they need to know: “Here is how your body is changing, here is what you need to do to take care of your body, here is the purpose of sex in reproduction, and here is how reproductive sex works.” Any education beyond this point varies in content. Sexual education may be abstinence-based: if you don’t want to get pregnant, don’t have sex. In 2014, 76% of all public and private high schools in the United States taught some form of abstinence sex ed. It may be more effective and teach students about contraceptives like condoms and the pill. Even more progressive programs will teach students also about STDs, other forms of contraceptives for females like IUDs, shots, etc, and homosexuality. The likely least-covered topic in any sex ed program is pleasure.

However, there is an undeniable link between sex and pleasure. If sex ed ignores pleasure completely, porn’s purpose to stimulating sexual pleasure serves as a substitute. What this means is that people ignorant about the robust information regarding sexual activity, health and pleasure, try to correct this ignorance with false information. This results in a very ignorant populace.

Which leads us to the question: Who is responsible for correcting the problem of ignorance propagated by poor sex education?

Knowledge is typically considered something that benefits society as a whole. It’s important that we know 1+1= 2, the history of the American Revolution, the Civil War, our rights responsibilities as citizens, how to read and write so we can learn more and communicate, etc. This knowledge is widely accepted and taught in schools. Knowledge about religion, relationships, personal principles, and sex are not as widely accepted, which is why we expect individuals and families to teach children about these topics. Some believe romantic relationships should only exist between a man and woman and that sex should only occur between a married couple. Some believe healthy relationships and safe sex are more important.

There is almost always some form of backlash when a private company decides to enter the realm of knowledge. See Exxon and climate change research or Cheerios featuring an interracial couple in a commercial. There’s something disconcerting about a business which has primary motivation of profit sharing knowledge. So can Pornhub share knowledge about sex and relationships while still earning a profit?

PornHub has already posted some dubious “facts” about sexual activity, health, and pleasure. Maybe PornHub thinks it can to increase viewership and online activity if it makes sex less taboo, something it can accomplish through education. But this raises a troubling thought: PornHub has no incentive to produce factually accurate material. The “facts” just need to be “mostly” right, just right enough so that they “feel right” and people don’t need to feel as guilty about watching porn.

Even me, an economics major who believes in the power of capitalist system to create efficient outcomes, thinks sex and relationships are one thing businesses should leave alone.