Sexual Media Literacy

Without question, pornography is more pervasive in our culture than ever before. Through the Internet of Things and the mass commoditization of sexuality, we are inundated with hundreds, if not thousands, of sexual messages every day. This is an unprecedented problem for any parent raising a child in our technocentric world. At a higher level, however, is the age old problem of talking to children about sex. Parents, teachers, and guardians all share some responsibility in teaching kids about the birds and the bees; about healthy relationships, responsible behaviours, and right from wrong. However, there's no roadmap for talking about porn. Through a position of harm reduction, I researched and designed a strategy to help mitigate the influence of sexual media on adolescent attitudes and behaviours.

North Americans spend close to $14 billion a year on sexual media. This does not include sexually permissive pop-media, common in Western culture. Fictional depictions of sex and sexuality are everywhere, but our comfort and willingness to educate is almost non-existent in comparison. On average, students receive a total of 17 hours of sexual health instruction over their entire primary and secondary education. As part of my research strategy, I attended several weeks of a grades 9 and 10 sex education class at Manhattan area high school. The majority of sex education is still limited to biological functions and birth control, when not further limited to an abstinence-based approach. However, porn is where the majority of students, especially male, get their (mis)information. The effects of this media-driven education often become evident in attitudes and behaviours, such as gender stereotyping, physical and emotional boundaries, and safer sex practices.

Contextualizing my research with the participation of adolescent health specialists, physicians, health educators, and parents was intended to be part of a series of linear steps towards ultimately working with adolescents directly, in a participatory design strategy. Collaboration with the intended audience ensures authenticity and effectiveness of both the medium and the message. Working in such a delicate problem space required tremendous trust and patience. However, this process also lead to a significant reframing. Combined with limitations imposed by the Research Ethics Board in talking directly to adolescents about sexual media and an increased awareness of the ecology of influence around adolescents, I chose to influence that ecology using some of the same media that kids are exposed.

Helping parents use media to positively influence their children became the most opportune strategy for several reasons. First, parents themselves communicated a need for an education in sexual media as much as their children. When working in focus groups, mothers expressed significant fear in facing this issue as a parent. Many parents expected or assumed their schools to be addressing the issue. Most schools, however, do not have the resources, mandate, or parent's permission to discuss pornography with minors. Second, media is obviously a powerful tool. If specific media was harnessed and consumed at the right time and in the right situation, 'teachable moments' could be constructed. The challenge was to turn popular media that was mildly sexually suggestive into a digestible bite that could be deconstructed understood and discussed by the parent with the child. Third, if done properly, the media content itself could absorb potential tension without pointing fingers between parent and child, creating a buffer for open discussion.  To understand this better, I collaborated with the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a non-profit specializing in comprehensive sex education in the US. 

I began charting adolescent and pre-adolescent trends pertaining to physical and mental development, parent-child communication, education, sexual activity,  and media consumption/exposure. The next opportunity became immediately evident. When looking at the data, it was clear that the media exposure and sexual experience trends peaked during puberty and coincided with a parent-child communication decline. If parental communication could be boosted at all during this period of time, could it influence adolescent attitudes and behaviours around sex? If so what were the steps to getting parents to a place where they could talk about sex more with their kids?

The decision was made to address this communication gap at an age where children were still comfortable talking about their bodies, still talking to their parents, and being exposed to G- and PG-rated notions of sex and sexuality within popular media. The goal then became to provide parents with the skills and comfort level to start discussions with their children when they encountered them within media in a controlled environment. To do this, segments of popular media involving intimacy, safer sex, and gender roles would be captured and deconstructed using media literacy and comprehensive sexual health information experts. Key elements or teachable moments would be hi-lighted and a guide towards discussing similar scenes with a child would be developed. Using contemporary popular media examples would teach parents what to look for when consuming media with their child(ten), then how and when to discuss it in a safe non-confrontational way. Different media examples could be used to discuss a range of issues, from bullying to first kisses, providing parents with an extensive list of preparative tools. 

The ultimate goal of this strategy is to empower parents to help kids learn about sexual health, maintain communication with their parents about sex, and develop basic media literacy skills. The 'teachable moments' approach reduces the need for the one-big-awkward-talk by breaking it into non-confrontational opportunistic lessons. A parent can focus the discussion on the actions or attitudes of the characters instead of real-life, emotional occurrences. Once produced, these segments could be packaged or offered individually and made available through schools or online. 

Though not yet available for distribution, a pilot segment was produced and exhibited at Parsons School for Design, The NYS-PTA, SIECUS NYC, and Emily Carr University of Art + Design. My thesis 'Sexual Media Literacy: Bridging the gap between clicks and conversation' is available here.