Porn literacy: why we need to educate ourselves on the impact of pornography

Mental Health

In 2022, adult sites regularly outperform the likes of Netflix, and sexualised content is omnipresent on social media. So why is talking about it so taboo? Here, an ethical porn director and a clinical sexologist discuss why we need to examine, and educate ourselves on, the impact of porn

“My story is not that different from other young women’s stories. For me, porn was part of trying to figure out who I was. But it brings up mixed feelings. It’s both about watching images and feeling turned on, but at the same time the images, often, are representing scenarios that made me feel uncomfortable.

“Little by little, I realised that my male friends had a very, very easy time with pornography. They use it in their lives, they like it, they enjoy it, and they haven’t really thought much about it – whereas most of my female friends, they had a similar experience to mine.”

I’m speaking to Erica Lust, an award-winning erotic filmmaker whose cinematic films are starkly different to the clips that might first come to mind when you think of ‘porn’. These days, she heads a global business, and works with directors from the United States, the UK, Berlin, Finland, Colombia, Venezuela, Australia – the list goes on. But it all started in 2004 with her first indie erotic film, The Good Girl, a tongue-in-cheek take on the classic pizza boy trope and, she says, an experiment in breaking the mould for erotic stories. Since then, she hasn’t looked back.

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If you’ve ever wondered what could qualify someone to direct pornography, consider this. Beyond her cinematic know-how, Erica has a degree in political science and gender studies, and she notes how this first prompted her to deconstruct and analyse the power imbalances that are so often present in pornography. As she sees it, porn is a discourse about sexuality, about masculinity and femininity, and the roles we each play sexually, so understanding who’s directing that discourse is key.

“The more I was thinking and learning about it, I came to understand that it’s all about the creators who are making it,” Erica says. “The stories we have seen in porn repeated time after time, it’s the white, middle-aged, fit, hetero man’s story, and his vision of sexuality and what he finds sexy. You know what that is – that is breasts, and butts, and fancy cars, and cigars. It doesn’t matter if he’s from Los Angeles, Stockholm, Barcelona, Budapest, or Sydney, it’s the same guy.”

In Erica’s films, performers practice safe sex, they communicate, they have conversations about consent, and – crucially – they behave in such a way that the viewer can see they respect one another. But it’s not just about creating an authentic film for the sheer pursuit of realism – many young people, and adults learn about sex from porn. Porn literacy – a framework for breaking down and understanding how, what, and why sexual images affect us – has, therefore, never been more necessary. In 2022, it’s a kind of virtual life jacket for teens and young people, but also for adults reflecting on their own relationships with the content, and the conglomerates that are behind them.

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It’s a landscape that led Erica to create the Porn Conversation, an educational platform, made in collaboration with experts, that offers information and conversation guides for parents and educators. A mother herself, Erica makes the point that she wouldn’t let her daughters go to a bar without first talking to them about alcohol, so why don’t we talk about porn when letting children have access to the internet?

Avril Louise Clarke is a clinical sexologist working with the Porn Conversation, and she notes how the omnipresence of pornography means we need a new approach.

“Porn is a form of mainstream media and it influences you just as an influencer influences you,” she notes. She shares her tips with us for approaching conversations with children and teenagers, but notes how adults could benefit from reflection, too. “Start asking yourself questions like, is my consumption of porn in a healthy space? How much time am I really spending on this? What kind of porn am I consuming? Is it using racial stereotypes? And am I bringing that into my own life? Is it changing the way that I relate to myself and my body? Am I objectifying people based on what I’ve seen online?”

This two-pronged approach is what porn literacy is all about: taking the time to break down and analyse the media you’re consuming like Erica – asking critical questions, and tracing the root of the tropes – and then turning inwards and asking hard questions about what this means for you, as Avril suggests.

And then, amongst this awareness is an alternative, a new age of pornography that is more than erotica, more even than art, and is a movement. When I put this to Erica, it rings true.

“When I’m trying to identify myself and thinking about my work, I always see myself as an activist,” Erica says. “The question I’m asking myself is how can I show sex in a way where it feels like you understand why they are turned on by each other? It’s not only about showing skin and showing people having sex, but it’s really an invitation into their inner, erotic world.”

So, what does entering that world tell us about who we are? Our society? Our own, personal sense of sexuality? How we think and feel about others? And what we truly desire? Well, that’s for you to find out.

How to talk to kids about porn:
Clinical sexologist Avril Louise Clarke shares her tips:

“When we start with the younger age groups, eight to 11, we really talk more about media literacy than porn literacy. Talk about their favourite Netflix series, ask them what messages does it send you? How do you feel when you watch this show?

“With teenagers, it’s more to the point. In our guides, we talk about fetishisation, racial stereotypes, consent, and boundaries. We also talk about safer sexual practices.

“For nervous parents, check-in with yourself and recognise that this is not easy. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. You don’t have to make it so serious. It can be a conversation that’s had at the dinner table or on a drive to soccer practice. It’s scary, but give yourself the grace to understand that just showing up and trying is great.”

Find more information and guides for parents and educators at thepornconversation.org


Photography | Monica Figueras



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