Q&A with Emily F. Rothman

TEDMED: In your TEDMED 2018 talk, you briefly touched upon sex education in schools. Diving further – what does sex-ed look like in schools today and what would it look like in your ideal world? Would there be a standardized curriculum, what topics are critical to cover, and who is best positioned to share this information?

Emily F. Rothman: In the United States, sex-ed varies a lot state to state. In some places, adolescents are taught very basic information about sexual anatomy and reproduction, and perhaps about sexually transmitted infections, but nothing more. They are not taught, for example, that it is important to communicate with a partner about whether they are both enjoying sex. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Committee on Adolescent Health Care authored an opinion about what comprehensive sex education should include, which can be found here: https://www.acog.org/Clinical-Guidance-and-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Adolescent-Health-Care/Comprehensive-Sexuality-Education?IsMobileSet=false .

In case that’s too long to read, I can summarize and say that teaching teens about the context in which we make our choices about sex–why we decide to have it, with whom, when, under what pressures, for what reasons, and how other people treat us because of sexual decisions, is important. Teenagers deserve to be invited to think about those kinds of deeper issues in order to become the people that they want to be. In terms of who is best positioned to provide that information, I think in an ideal world there would be consistent messaging from parents, teachers, media stars, and everyone in between that consent and pleasure are important and that sex is supposed to be fun and make all parties involved happy. If someone is not happy, you aren’t doing it right.

TM: You mentioned that the pornography industry is profiting off content that can, in many cases, depict women in a degrading manner. In your opinion, would placing restrictions on the pornography industry be worthwhile in the public health effort to reduce sexual violence – in the same vein in which restrictions have placed on tobacco companies to reduce smoking? 

EFR: Smoking causes 90% of lung cancer cases.  I don’t think that pornography causes 90% of sexual violence cases.  So if the question on the table is ‘how do we prevent sexual violence?’, I would not say that regulating the pornography industry is the quickest and most efficient way to do that in the same way that regulating tobacco companies is for lung cancer.  

But let’s say that the question on the table is ‘how do we prevent underage youth from seeing pornography, since there is a possibility it is bad for them?’ Some of the restrictions are already there, technically. In the U.S., pornography is not supposed to be shown to people who are younger than 18 years old, but nevertheless it’s too easy for young people to see explicit content. Making it more difficult for people less than 18 years old to see pornography would be good.  But–just like underage youth get ahold of cigarettes, alcohol, or anything else that is supposed to be off limits until they reach a certain age–there are going to be those who see pornography anyway, even with more barriers in place. That’s why a public health effort will be one that operates at multiple levels simultaneously. I agree that there should be some people thinking about the most effective and logical legislation and regulation, but also have other people thinking about shifting social norms and changing culture so that it values sexual consent above all else, and safety for everyone no matter their sexuality. While all of that is happening, we also need people thinking about the individuals who are most at risk for perpetrating sexual violence, and what prevents perpetration, to make sure we are doing everything that we can to discourage that behavior, including addressing their pornography access and use. It’s a bit like limiting the access of a person who has engaged in drunk driving to a car. We don’t limit the car industry from selling to people who use alcohol or tell everyone in society that they can’t have a car–but we do limit the people at high risk. In other words, an effective public health effort is measured and considers the problem from multiple angles. 

TM: Through pornography literacy, you were able to open a conversation about identity representation in pornography as a genre of media. What can other genres of media – tv, film, music videos, video games – do differently to better promote safe sexual messages and highlight less frequently represented identities?

EFR: Pornography is one type of media–it is sexually explicit media. But other forms of media, like TV, film, music videos, and video games can also be guilty of promoting unsafe messages and contributing to our sexual violence problems. And some media content, sexually explicit or otherwise, is A-OK. To me the main point is that we have to talk about pornography because we  have to talk about all media and what it’s doing to our heads. Pornography is no exception. 

TM: What does research in the field of pornography look like currently? Are scholars still uncovering trends behind pornography use or is the focus on education and intervention?

EFR: It’s really only a handful of people who are studying education and intervention compared to a must larger community of researchers who are investigating other things. 

Some are investigating how common pornography use is and whether that has been changing over time. Others are looking at pornography and aggression, or attitudes about violence, or about women. Some study the content of pornography and try to figure out if what we are seeing when we watch pornography is changing over time. Some are studying people’s brains and how brains react to pornography to help us understand what to do for individuals who say that they are compulsive users and want help for that.

TM: If you could use the TEDMED platform to send one message to youth, what would you say?

EFR: Kids:  Pornography is not reality. It’s made to entertain people and to make money, it’s not an instruction manual for having sex. In fact, a lot of the stuff you see is staged, made up, faked, and putting a show for the camera. If you want to have good sex, and be good at sex, you have to talk to your partner. Ask them what they like, what they don’t like, even if that’s awkward. If you can’t talk about it, you shouldn’t be trying it.

TM: What was the TEDMED experience like for you?

EFR: I was really nervous!  It was hard to memorize what I wanted to say. I actually never knew that the TEDMED speakers memorized their talks–it seemed to me that people were speaking off the top of their heads, but now I know the truth.  It was also so much fun, and enriching, and I feel really lucky that I had the chance to do it. 

TM: At TEDMED, we like to think about each talk as having a “gift” — that thing that reveals new perspectives and profoundly influences our own, or our collective, health. What is the gift you’d like people to receive when watching your TEDMED Talk?

EFR: It is OK to feel two ways about something at the same time. Sometimes the answer really is that both sides are right. (For me, I’m worried and upset about the potential that pornography is contributing to violence and misogyny, and at the same time, I think it’s going overboard to denounce all sexually explicit media, wrong to judge people for wanting to see pornography, and antithetical to public health to try to quash sexual freedom).