Do you remember the 2004 teen comedy The Girl Next Door? Emile Hirsch plays a nerdy, rule-abiding virginal teen about to graduate high school when Elisha Cuthbert’s character moves in next door. Hirsch’s character quickly falls for the attractive, mysterious blonde and learns to navigate his jealousy when he finds out about the porn career she’s attempting to leave behind. Conflict involving a bitter porn director, a mishandled savings account and a foreign-exchange student ensues, but spoiler alert, Hirsch’s team of geeks and Cuthbert’s entourage of porn stars join forces to create a semi-pornographic sex-ed video for high schoolers that saves the day.
This mode of instruction sounds too good to be true, but it sorta already is. After all, the reality is most of us learned about sex from porn. Though people often write about this as a new and alarming trend, pornographic material has always informed adolescents when it comes to sexuality. The difference, of course, is that past generations didn’t have an endless assemblage of every sex act imaginable available at their fingertips every second of every day. But whether through direct experience or lore, porn has always informed the public about the way we fuck — be it prehistoric cave drawings, Playboy or Pornhub.
Sexual psychologist and author Justin Lehmiller writes about this (and the tired complaining about it) in his new book, Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life:
“Pornography is an easy target to blame for almost every sexual problem, but it’s not the right one. Don’t waste your time and energy fighting the porn industry — fight against poor sex education instead. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power, and sexual knowledge is no exception. You can never know too much when it comes to sex, and the more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to lead a healthy and satisfying sex life.
“Increasing Americans’ sexual knowledge begins with our taking interest in what our kids are learning (or not learning) about sex in school. At the very least, attending to what schools are teaching on this subject will ensure that parents are prepared to fill in the gaps and answer their kids’ questions; however, this also provides a valuable opportunity to correct deficiencies in these programs. If you identify problems, you can take those issues to your local school board, which has the power to take corrective action.”
Here’s the deal: Porn teaches Americans about sex because parents, schools and even medical professionals don’t. Only 24 states, plus the District of Columbia, mandate sex education in schools. Even worse? Only 13 of those states require that any sex and HIV education is “medically accurate,” and only two prohibit sex and HIV education programs from promoting religion (California and Louisiana). And almost none of these programs emphasize that sex is pleasurable, fun, creative or exciting. Accordingly, American adolescents are horny as fuck and largely ignorant about what to do with all that horniness.
Given that context, it’s easy to see how porn performers have become this generation’s sex educators. Jessica Drake (Jessica Drake’s Guide to Wicked Sex) and Tristan Taormino (Tristan Taormino’s Guide to Kinky Sex for Couples, The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women, etc.), for instance, have both released their own series of instructional books and videos. Meanwhile, Mia Little, the president of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, a group that organizes and educates porn performers, just started her sex-ed career. There’s even speculation that virtual reality films starring porn performers will roll out into schools one day.
This isn’t as much of a career pivot as it is a career unpacking. That is, sex workers know a lot more about sex than most people, so why shouldn’t they teach it? And so, I recently spoke to two of the most prominent sex-workers-cum-sex-professors about this trend:
- Conner Habib is an author and host of Against Everyone with Conner Habib, a countercultural podcast and web series that explores his favorite topics, including sexual liberation, radical philosophy and the occult. He’s starred in many porn videos and also won the Distinguished Teaching Award at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he studied fiction writing and evolutionary biology. He’s also written a syllabus for “Porn-ing Your Way Through College,” aimed at helping students “navigate the ins and outs of pornography; how to enhance your pornographic experience by being in college; and how to pay your way through porn by being in college.”
- Nina Hartley porn career spans more three decades. She filmed her first porn in 1984, before graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in nursing. “Porn is where we hold our sexual dreams,” she said recently at her talk at the Hammer Museum in L.A. In the mid-1990s, she launched her instructional series, Nina Hartley’s Guide… after partnering with the adult company Adam & Eve. The series combines her passion for sexual freedom with her nursing training. All together, the 40 titles in her series have sold almost a million copies and many now are available for streaming on sites like Pornhub.
Here’s what they told me…
Habib: Because our culture is woefully ill-informed about sex and pornography, any porn performer who presents themselves as a full human being on social media is being educational even if that’s not their intention. I know some porn performers who are urologists and lawyers but who display their porn lives, too. This allows us to see the integration of sexuality into someone’s daily life, which we don’t typically get to see. Most people have to compartmentalize their sexuality, rather than integrate it into who they are. The nature of a porn performer’s work, though, doesn’t allow this to happen. So instead of looking for educational cues from porn, which is dumb, we can look at porn performers and see that there’s something valuable and extraordinary about their lives.
Personally, I’ve received most of my sex education by having sex. That’s how most people should get their sex education. I mean, nobody would expect you to learn anything else in life without doing it. Luckily, porn performers get to learn so much more about sex because we get to try out so many different things that otherwise would be difficult to arrange in real life. At least for me, there was no other kind of sex education. I failed my sex-ed class in high school because I always skipped it. I didn’t see it as a real education, and I never had any real conversations about sex growing up. I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about it.
When I saw porn for the first time, it was a real revelation. Porn is educational in the sense that it shows positive representations of sexuality. The trouble people have with porn isn’t as much about it being unrealistic as it is about it depicting pleasure. Today’s sex ed discusses sex in terms of how bad this thing can hurt you if you mismanage it — not how great it can be. That’s the bad thing. Sex ed should be full of conversations about stuff that feels good, and porn performers know a lot about this.
Hartley: In our culture, sexuality is sick, and sick people need a nurse’s care. I combine a nurse’s complete comfort with what bodies want and need to do with a veteran adult performer’s comfort with nudity, show business and sex, as well as my non-judgmental attitude. The Hartley Guides… are explicit and work as “porn-porn,” but they’re also designed to give factual, useful information to the consumer in an explicit manner that elicits feelings of comfort, security and confidence. There’s always a bigger message in my scenes informed by my understanding of biology, psychology, sociology and culture. I use my work to further my notions of sexual sanity and education, even while wrapped in silly, consequence-free porno-style sex.
I always intended to teach sex, sexuality and sexual expression, and I needed it to be from a place of practice, not merely theory. It’s one of the reasons I got into adult entertainment in the first place — besides ongoing, stress-free sexual access to women. My sex practice is both artistic (the transmission of emotions through performance) and science (how bodies work, how they feel and what can be done with them). Adam & Eve, the biggest, oldest and most respected adult company, has a strong commitment to social good and approached me in the mid-1990s about beginning the series. It was a new concept at the time, but it did well enough that it was copied elsewhere.
These days, I lecture wherever I’m asked. I do straight talking as well as “wet demos,” where I can role-model sexual techniques with live models. I do podcasts, in-store lectures, Q&As and presentations at museums, too. My book, based on the video series, is very good: Nina Hartley’s Guide to Total Sex. I’m also close to launching a safe-for-work site where I will coach, consult and counsel on sexual issues. More than anything else, it’s my strength — helping individuals and couples tailor-make their intimate lives so that the sex they have is a healthful expression of their values, needs, beliefs and goals.