abstract illustration of a fair-skinned hand with black fingernails holding a phone, their face reflecting in the screen. web pages hover around the the phone and display, from top left to top bottom, a red play button, a blue toned image of two people kissing, and a blue toned image of an open mouth; and on the bottom right, a search for “ethical porn” Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Brittany England

I don’t remember the first time I watched an erotic video — but I remember the first time I got in trouble for it.

“True Blood,” a steamy HBO adaptation based on Charlaine Harris’ beloved book series “The Southern Vampire Mysteries,” first aired in fall 2008. I was 15, and I was obsessed.

You could argue that “True Blood” counts as erotic content — it does have more than its fair share of explicit sex scenes, after all — but it wasn’t watching “True Blood” that landed me in hot water.

(Likely because my mother didn’t know I was watching it… but that’s a story for another time.)

Anyway, it was what came on afterward. Back in those days, HBO aired adult movies and TV shows late at night.

I fell asleep with the TV on, something pornographic came on while I was sleeping, my mom heard the moans, and the rest is history.

Up until that point, I’d been raised with my mother’s beliefs that sex before marriage is a sin, masturbation would land me in hell, and watching other people have sex would further separate me from God.

She didn’t believe that I’d fallen asleep with the TV on, so she pulled me from my slumber to put the fear of God back into me.

Where sex negativity begins

Unfortunately, my mother wasn’t — and still isn’t — alone in these beliefs. Many people share the same negative and often harmful feelings about sex and sexuality.

Oftentimes, people associate these attitudes — collectively considered to be a form of sexual repression — with religious upbringings.

Although that was certainly a factor in my own sex-negative childhood and adolescence, it’s far from the only cause.

Traditional ideas about sexual behavior can also stem from things like:

  • misinformation, or lack of information, from caregivers, teachers, and other sources
  • strict views and expectations of gender roles at home, school, and other environments
  • negative personal experiences with sex and sexuality, such as receiving a fear-based sex education and having unsatisfying sexual encounters

And that’s just what I can name off the top of my head.

How individual beliefs shape the information we’re given

All of the factors mentioned above roll up into the way we think about our own sexuality and how we do or don’t express it over time.

And our beliefs have a habit of shaping our expectations for those around us, regardless of whether we know them personally or in passing.

A good example of this is the way secondary schools handle sex education.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a school that offers a comprehensive — let alone accurate — sex ed curriculum that covers the full breadth of adolescent sex and sexuality.

And to be clear: Talking about porn and other forms of adult entertainment is a crucial component of a comprehensive sex education.

Why we need to talk about explicit content

A widely shared figure claims that the average child is around 11 years old when they’re first exposed, accidentally or intentionally, to pornographic material.

Research conducted in 2019 by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) offers more context. After surveying 1,142 children ages 11 to 17, researchers found that:

  • 51 percent of 11- to 13-year-olds reported that they had seen pornography at some point
  • 66 percent of 14- to 15-year-olds reported that they had seen pornography at some point

That, if nothing else, demonstrates why adult entertainment should be a part of secondary sex education curriculum — and the conversations shouldn’t stop there.

One study published this year in the Journal of Sex Research looked at the way 1,392 adults ages 18 to 73 interacted with porn, if at all.

Researchers found that, of their sample group, 91.5 percent of men and 60.2 percent of women reported using porn in the past month.

It’s clear that people of all ages are being exposed to or are actively engaging with pornographic material — so let’s treat it like we would any other “need to know” subject or skill.

Making informed decisions

To be clear: Porn and other forms of adult entertainment aren’t inherently bad. (And for what it’s worth, premarital sex and masturbation aren’t either.)

Pornographic photos, books, and recordings aren’t evil. Sex workers aren’t victims. Getting turned on by an ethically produced scene or scenario isn’t going to land you on Santa’s Naughty List.

“Ethical,” however, is the key word here.

Adult entertainment — no matter its form — refers to media or interactions created by consenting adults for the purpose of sexual arousal or pleasure in other consenting adults.

It doesn’t refer to the nonconsensual buckets of media or interactions so often referred to as “porn” and credited for “destroying our culture” or “decaying our moral character.”

So-called “revenge porn,” for example, isn’t porn at all; it’s a collection of sexual media created by one person for the enjoyment of the person they gave it to — not for the entertainment of any other person who happens to come into contact with it.

Learning how to tell the difference between content voluntarily created for public (adult) consumption and photos, videos, or other materials that were not is key to developing a healthy relationship with adult entertainment.

Another key factor? Understanding what porn and erotica are and aren’t.

For example, adult entertainment is just that: entertainment. It isn’t an educational material, and it isn’t meant to serve as or supplement sex education.

Where to start

Over the next couple of months, we’ll be going back to the basics to provide you with the tools you need to create a healthy relationship with porn and erotica — should that be a form of media you’re interested in.

And we’re working with sex workers to do it.

Clinical research and literature aren’t the definitive voice in sex work and adult entertainment — the folks who work, or have worked, in this industry are.

We’ll be leaning on and elevating the voices of folks who know this industry best to ensure that you’re getting the most informed advice on how to build or refine your relationship with adult content.

The first in the series — all of which is penned by sex and wellness writer Gabrielle Kassel — looks at how OnlyFans and other social platforms fit into the adult entertainment landscape.

Intrigued? Check back here to learn more. We’ll be updating this page with links to each article as they publish, starting November 2.

Catch up on what you missed:

Coming up next:

  • On 12/7/20: Is Audio or Written Erotica More ‘Ethical’ Than Photo or Video?
  • On 1/11/21: Does It Really Matter If You Use Free Erotic Content?
  • On 1/25/21: An Adult’s Guide to Exploring Erotic Content
  • On 2/8/21: An Adult’s Guide to Exploring Erotic Content — With Your Partner(s)
  • On 2/22/21: You Know That Thing You’re Into? There’s an Erotic Creator for That

Tess Catlett is a sex and relationships editor at Healthline, covering all things sticky, scary, and sweet. Find her unpacking her inherited trauma and crying over Harry Styles on Twitter.