If it’s not like porn, what’s sex really like?
Pornography has been around for four centuries, but the industry didn’t fully come in to its own until the 1960s. Since then, generations of men and, to a lesser degree women, have hidden magazines under beds and watched videos when nobody’s home. Now, in the 21st century, ingenuity is no longer required, as free and limitless quantities of porn are available via our smartphones.
“Porn movies are science fiction. Like Spiderman or Star Wars,” Iván Rotella tells a class of 14- and 15-year-olds. “There are actors and special effects. They’re not real. Do you understand?”
The students of a third-grade class of a public high school in Avilés, in the northern Spanish region of Asturias, listen to Rotella with varying degrees of conviction as he delivers one of the three sex-education lessons due this course. A blond boy with an angelic face who still looks pre-pubescent is eyeing him with amusement. When the issue of pornography arises, his classmates all refer to him as the expert. Yes, he admits, he has been watching porn since primary school and, yes, he thinks the sexologist is exaggerating.
He is not alone in watching porn at such a young age. Statistics indicate that the age has dropped to around nine or 10. And it is no coincidence that this is exactly the age when a child often gets their first cellphone. At 10, 26.25% of children have a smartphone; at 12, that figure rises to 75.1% and by 14, 91.2% are in possession of the device that has come to dominate our lives, according to data from Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE). The smartphone and the child become inseparable. And, in what often becomes a no-go zone for parents, kids are on WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube, places where pornography is readily available.
The girls in the fourth grade of secondary school, aged 15 and 16, exchange looks, then stare at the floor and shake their heads vigorously when asked if they watch porn, unlike their male counterparts who freely admit to it. The responses come thick and fast:
“When do we watch it? Me, daily.”
“Not as much as that. It depends. When I feel like it.”
“Before studying and before going to sleep.”
According to Loles Campo, a science teacher in a primary school in Avilés, “The talk about it starts at the end of primary, but you can’t generalize. I teach year five and year six [between nine and 11 years of age] and it depends on the group. I had one that, from the way they spoke and the things they spoke about, was definitely watching porn, but the group last year was more in-between – some clearly watched it but most didn’t. And this year my students are real babies.”
The fact that porn is the 21st century’s sex education is an idea shared by experts around the world. Of course, it wasn’t designed as such. But the videos that flood the internet are treated like instruction manuals and that is something Rotella is up against daily as he deals with adolescents aged 12 and over in his private counseling sessions and at the local council’s Center for Sexual Awareness (CASA) in Avilés – a city that has been at the cutting edge of sex education in Spain.
“I didn’t used to be worried about porn; in fact I wrote numerous articles defending it as an erotic pastime,” he says. “But five years ago, my take on it was no longer valid because I started to detect that it was being seen as a reality rather than as fiction. There has never been such easy access to adult material before, but no one is teaching us to view it critically. So many first experiences go wrong, partly because of the expectations generated by pornography. It is creating a lot of disappointments.”
In his sex-education sessions, Rotella makes sure to tell students that for most women vaginal orgasms simply don’t exist, despite what they might have seen in films, adult or otherwise. The students respond by giggling and looking generally disconcerted.
He also tells them that anal sex is not advisable the first time, that size has nothing to do with pleasure and that porn movies are rigorously edited in order to show what they show.
“If we don’t do something, I will be working solely as a therapist in 10 years time and I won’t be able to cope. Already there are boys coming to the consultancy worried because they think they have a problem with premature ejaculation, simply because they can’t last 45 minutes during intercourse. And I get girls who believe they can’t have orgasms because they don’t have vaginal orgasms. We have allowed them to learn about their sexuality through pornography and when that is applied to their relationships, the problems begin. I am sick of hearing the same complaint among girls, who ask me, ‘What is wrong with men? When I get together with someone, they think they are in a porn movie and it’s all very aggressive.’ When I mention this to the boys, they are surprised: ‘Ah,’ they say. ‘But isn’t that what women want?’”
A lot of girls have told me that their partners have tried to choke them during their first encounter
Erika Lust, director of Lust Films
Rotella is now treating the first generation of “porn-natives,” a term coined by Analía Iglesias and Martha Zein in the book What the Hole Hides. Pornography in Obscene Times to describe the millennials who were born in the 1980s and grew up on internet. Then there are their children, the neo-porn-natives who started playing with iPads and smartphones before they could walk. They don’t remember life without technology. And sexologists like Rotella and his partner, Ana Fernández Alonso, president of the Asturian Association for Sex Education (Astursex), keep that increasingly in mind when they design their courses.
Pornography has distorted our vision of sex and the smartphone is also redefining approaches to foreplay, such as how we understand seduction, intimacy and friendship. “Increasingly, we are seeing couples who hand over passwords to their cell phones and their social media accounts as a proof of their love; by doing so, they accept control mechanisms that belong to the realm of toxic relationships. There is a resurgence of misunderstood romantic myths that we thought we had dispensed with,” says Fernández Alonso. When she asks a class of 14- and 15-years-olds if anyone knows of people involved in such relationships, several shyly admit they do.
Sexting – sending racy messages and photos on social media – is another area that is open to abuse. When a group of 15- and 16-year-old students are if they do this, the answer is an enthusiastic “yes!” “We are ‘sexting’ because it turns us on,” says one female student.
Another says, “Boys send photos of our genitals and the girls of their ass and tits.”
But sexting can have a downside.
“Girls usually go out with older boys who can manipulate us, saying things like, ‘If you don’t send us a photo, I won’t speak to you…’ And in the end you do it and it [the photo] ends up where it shouldn’t have. That’s happened to me.”
“A lot of the time we send photos to turn us on but it doesn’t go beyond that,” adds one.
“And sometimes by the morning you aren’t turned on anymore and you regret it. That has happened to me,” adds another.
The lost parents
The parents in the group laugh as they recall their embarrassment when their children asked them about sex; for example when one woman’s oldest daughter sprung a question on her and her mother and father-in-law had to come to her rescue; and when another had to come up with an answer on the spot to the question, “Mom, what does ‘fuck’ mean?” They say there are occasions when they have had to consult the internet to know what their children are talking about.
These parents of the students at La Magdalena public school in Avilés never got a sex education. They belong to generations and generations of Spaniards who worked sex out for themselves. At home, sex was quite simply not talked about and they were expected to fumble around for their own answers.
Nowadays their children do get sex education at school, and these parents organize workshops to help them learn about the subject. It is the only way to avoid history repeating itself, they agree. “These talks [workshops] are as important for us as they are for the pupils,” says Noelia. “My daughter, who is 15, never wants to come to the activities we organize in the parents’ association but if Iván Rotella is coming, then she signs up. And that is very important because it means they are getting information that they absorb and use. And for us, the talks help us to continue the conversation at home.”
When a society has integrated sexuality properly, the result is a sense of great social wellbeing
Sexologist Iván Rotella
Parents of adolescents and pre-teens are enormously concerned about the time their kids spend, or want to spend, on a screen and that they don’t know exactly what they are looking at online.
“It has never occurred to me that my daughter might be watching porn, but that doesn’t worry me too much,” says Carmen. “She is 17 and I think I have dealt with things pretty well. But from now on I believe I have to give her more space. I want her to feel she can come to me and ask me when she needs to. It’s all I can do; work on our relationship so that she can approach me when she has doubts.”
The question Erika Lust and her husband Pablo Dobner get asked constantly from other parents is whether they have told their daughters what they do for a living. Both are directors for Lust Films, an adult movie production studio that produces a different kind of porn: material that is ethical, feminist, diverse and artistic. “We explain it all in a very natural way because we have open minds and aren’t scared to talk about sex,” says Lust. “But we believe that this conversation is not just our job as part of the industry, it’s also the responsibility of the parents. The only difference is that we have an advantage: most people don’t know how to go about this conversation and we do.”
In fact, the advantage that Lust has is two-fold. She herself is Swedish and it could be said that her country takes sex education more seriously than anywhere else. “At school, there are biology and reproduction classes at age 10 or 11, and we also provide support from sexologists and gynecologists who talk about sexual relations, feelings and consent,” she says. “But I have been living in Barcelona since 1997 and my daughters are growing up here and it saddens me to see there is still so much resistance. What we need is a small army of sex educators. It’s not about sexualizing the youngsters, it’s just about giving them tools to understand their sexuality.”
In 2017, Lust launched a project called The Porn Conversation, a website in English with resources aimed at parents and educators.
Lust was already talking about how it was time pornography changed in 2014 when she delivered a popular Ted talk on the subject. She spoke of mainstream porn as “sexist and often racist, about naughty housewives and desperate young girls, about women as an object to satisfy men’s desires.”
From the start of her career, Lust wanted to direct X-rated movies – ones that she wanted to see which explored the beauty of sex from a different perspective. There is of course indie pornography that you pay for, but most is free and defined by Lust as “the main source of knowledge for the majority,” and this sector does not show any signs of improving.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, there were real movies with a story and characters,” she says. “Now, porn consists of two people somewhere fucking like crazy. Nothing else. You don’t know who they are or anything about their desires. There is no context. And the youngsters think this is real and then they act as if they were porn stars. A lot of girls have told me that their partners have tried to choke them during their first encounter and I don’t think these erotic practices are a good idea for the inexperienced. Things have become tremendously distorted in their minds,” she says.
The theme of the most popular video on Pornhub, the global website containing free, professional and amateur porn, is: hot guy fucks his stepmother. The video lasts just 16 minutes, which is almost twice the time 71% of male users and 29% of female users invest in one session. The average is nine minutes and 20 seconds, according to data published annually by the site, which attracts 92 million visitors daily. The categories favored by the Spanish are Mature, Lesbian, Anal, MILF and Threesomes. According to Lust, the only way the industry will change is to adapt to consumer demand, so it is up to parents and professionals to stop looking the other way and start talking about porn.
“Trying to put the brakes on through technology is no use,” says Lust. “I know from experience that parental controls don’t work. The only thing that works is communication, information and conversation. And the conversation about porn is as essential as the one about tobacco and alcohol when it comes to the [your child’s] first night out. We hand them technology without any instructions and at nine, 10, and 11, they are using computers without supervision; sometimes they look for inappropriate content and sometimes it just appears. If you write the word ‘cock,’ Google is not going to send you to Wikipedia, it will take you to a porn site. Some children will get scared. What they have seen will make them feel bad. But others will become curious.”
Cristina Gutiérrez’s job is to make sure parents and children have the right information to keep the youngsters safe online. She works with Internet Security For Kids (IS4K), an initiative from the Spanish National Cybersecurity Institute (Incibe).
IS4K has been up and running for two years and though there is still much to be done, there is good news. “Finally, we are starting to grasp the fact that we cannot leave the so-called digital natives alone with their smartphones, tablets and computers,” she says. “It’s obvious that they know how to use them, but whether they use them correctly is quite a different matter. Technology is changing very fast and we got on board without thinking, but now we are taking time to reflect.”
IS4K has helplines for minors, parents and teachers while more than 600 volunteers deliver talks to schools and hand out a family contract regarding the responsible use of the cellphone. This contract, which can be downloaded from the site, should be negotiated between parents and their children. “Almost 30% of the calls we get are from parents who are worried because they don’t know how to limit their kids’ use of technology. There are some really out-of-control scenarios,” says Gutiérrez.
An army of sex educators
In the 1930s, Hildegart Rodríguez, secretary of the Spanish League for Sexual Reform on a Scientific Basis and an advocate of sexual liberation, was already criticizing traditional education, which had made sex taboo. But she wasn’t the only one arguing for sex education in schools. Much of the medical literature in Spain from the start of the 20th century coincided on the need to begin sex education at an early age. Fast forward 80 years and we are still not entirely sure what to do about it. It is not part of the academic curriculum, despite the fact that the 2010 Sexual, Reproductive and Voluntary Termination of Pregnancy Health Law included a recommendation to have sex education in primary and secondary schools. And, as the 2017 Save the Children report points out, when sex education is given, it is either limited to a few classes for older students with biological content that focuses on risk avoidance, or it depends on the funds and/or the wishes of the teachers, the parents association and the councils.
It has never occurred to me that my daughter might be watching porn, but that doesn’t worry me too much
Like Avilés, the council for the district of Leganés in Madrid has been proactive about sex education. “It’s a program that starts in nursery school and finishes in high school, and it’s used in most of the nursery, primary and secondary schools in Leganés,” says Carlos de la Cruz, sexologist and coordinator for Equality and Youth for the area. “There is a consensus that there should be sex education, although we still can’t agree on how to do it. In the 1980s, we argued over whether it should be given at all and that debate is behind us. However, it’s also true that not everyone coming out of standard education has had sex education and that has to be guaranteed.”
According to specialists, part of the problem lies in the term “sexual.” “The adult mind immediately associates ‘sexual’ with intercourse,” says Rotella. “But it’s not about that. It’s the education of the sexes – what it means to be a man and a woman, learning to understand each other and relate to each other in the best way possible. When you explain that to families, they understand it, whatever their ideology. It’s not that difficult. When I hear that sex education leads to promiscuity, I don’t know what they mean. In secondary schools, I dedicate just 10 minutes to talking about condoms. I don’t talk about them until I can put them in context. In the 1980s, [the condom campaign] Pónselo, póntelo, was essential, but 30 years down the road there are more important matters to tackle.”
When it comes to consent, Rotella delivers an unambiguous message. “A ‘yes’, boys and girls, has to be explicit and continuous,” he tells the class. “It’s not okay to say, ‘They said yes, and then they passed out,’ or ‘They said yes, but then they got drunk.’ The ‘yes’ has to be there all the time so the person is participating and enjoying what they’re doing in the same way as their partner. That’s easy, right?”
In the various Astursex programs, Rotella also talks to baccalaureate students about sexism and homophobia. Younger high school students get the chat about personal hygiene, sexual diversity and safe sexting. For those in the pre-teen bracket, the sessions focus on not confusing jealousy and control with love, identifying the risks of social media and empowerment and feminine solidarity. With regard to three- to six-year-olds, classic stories are used to speak about love and how the female and male characters behave; sometimes they are encouraged to make up alternative endings.
There is no better time to begin sex education than in tandem with education in general, according to the experts. The worst-case scenario is when it is left until adolescence, by which time the students will have got their education elsewhere.
“If I have sex education that goes beyond how intercourse and condoms work; if I have been taught to respect my partner, to listen and to understand erotic relationships and that satisfaction is about [fulfilling] two desires, then when I see porn and see that it does not reflect any of this, I will realize it’s not the real world and there’s an end to the conflict,” says De La Cruz. “In pornography, the relationship model between the man and woman is one of inequality, but in fact it’s not that different from mainstream cinema where the actors keep their clothes on. If we had a society where those prototypes were anecdotal, pornography wouldn’t be a problem.”
In March, 2017, a court in Cantabria in northern Spain sentenced a man to three years and nine months behind bars for sexually abusing a child over a period of five years. The girl began to suspect that her neighbor had lied to her after studying the reproductive system at school at the age of 10. That’s when she understood that his kisses and the way he touched her was not normal or right. It was not, she realized, a game.
Now, porn consists of two people somewhere fucking like crazy. Nothing else
Erika Lust, director of Lust Films
“Sex education is a tool that can empower boys and girls,” says Carmela del Moral, a legal analyst for children’s rights with the not-for-profit organization Save The Children. “This case is a classic example; if she had known, she could have acted earlier. As long as it is adapted to the age group, sex education not only stops children from becoming the victims of sexual abuse, it also helps them embark on more positive, healthy and equal relationships when they grow up. In any case, we should be clear that minors are going to get a sex education. Whether it is a good or a bad one depends on us.”
Rotella believes it is time the politicians in particular and society in general took sex education seriously. “Sex is what we are from the day we are born until the day we die,” he says. “There are few things more important than sex. When a society has integrated sexuality properly, the result is a sense of great social wellbeing. These societies are less violent and there is far more respect between people. Here, we only need to look around us to see we are failing.”
English version by Heather Galloway.