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Should you consider letting your teen take a porn literacy class?

Porn is only a click or two away for teenagers. But where’s reliable information?
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Porn is only a click or two away for teenagers. But where’s reliable information?

A cover story in The New York Times magazine Sunday raised troubling questions about where teenagers learn about sex. The story suggested many are learning about it not in a health class or a book but from pornography they’ve sought out on the Internet.

The story, “What Teenagers are Learning from Online Porn,” suggested that teenagers need better information and featured a class in Boston that teaches “porn literacy.”

The class, in which no pornography is shown, was attended by students who had volunteered from the Start Strong program. Start Strong is a peer leadership program for teens based at the Boston Public Health Commission. We asked Emily F. Rothman, of the Boston University School of Public Health, Jess Alder of the Boston Public Health Commission, and Nicole Daley, who all worked on the curriculum, to tell us about the program. They responded together in written responses to the questions.

What inspired you to start a pornography literacy program?

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“We care about dating violence prevention and helping youth learn to have safe, respectful, and consensual relationships. At Start Strong, we noticed that youth were asking questions about pornography and also seemed eager to talk about it. At the same time, Dr. Rothman conducted research that revealed that some youth were imitating things they saw in pornography, many were being asked to act out things their partner first saw in pornography, and that the majority who were asked were not happy about it. We realized that pornography was something that was affecting the youth, but adults weren’t talking to them about it.”

What does the program entail, and what’s the goal?

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“This program is a series of five two-hour classes taught by staff of the Start Strong program at the Boston Public Health Commission. The purpose of the program is to encourage youth, if they’re going to be consumers of sexually explicit media, to be critical consumers. Just as we teach them to review song lyrics critically, or advertisements, we felt they could also be encouraged to analyze sexually explicit media and make informed choices about whether or not they would ever want to see pornography, with whom, when, and why. The youth in the program do not talk about their own sexual experiences or even whether or not they have seen pornography — having seen pornography is not a requirement of the class. We find that raising the topic of pornography, though, is a good way to engage youth in conversations about consent, respect, safety, and health.”

Who takes the class?

“The program is not offered in any public or private schools at this time. Teenagers ages 14 to 18 years old who are enrolled in selected after-school programs in Boston have been invited to participate in the program if they and their parents think it’s a good idea. If they are younger than 18 years old, their parents must give permission for them to participate.’’

What do you teach?

“Some of the topics covered include:

 Helping teens understand their own values and beliefs about sexually explicit media;

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 Learning the history of pornography and regulation of obscenity;

 De-glamorizing the idea of becoming a celebrity pornography star by debunking the myth that it is a quick and easy way to get rich and famous;

 Defining sexual consent and understanding basics about some sexually transmitted infections;

 Healthy flirting;

 Sexual harassment;

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 ‘revenge porn.’ ”

What can parents do to help?

“Talk early and often with your young people about sexual health, healthy intimacy, consent, and healthy relationships.”

Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.