Media is everywhere. It can be a source of laughter, pleasure, and belonging but it can also be overwhelming and filled with standards that are impossible to meet.
We spend a lot of time on our phones or our computers on social media, scrolling through content, watching TV shows, listening to music, and reading stuff on the internet. Media has a powerful effect on us. It’s important to understand the difference between how sexuality and relationships are represented in the media and how they unfold in real life.
Most representations of sexuality, relationships, and bodies in the media are unrealistic. We can learn to be critical and challenge these messages rather than completely taking them at face value.
Every ad has a message beyond “buy this.” Every story, TV show, and piece of news has deeper messages. Advertisements, commercial social media feeds, and influencers all create ideals that play on people’s insecurities because those are what increase sales in the long run. To sell products or market themselves, brands also hypersexualize female bodies and leverage toxic masculinity, play up gender roles, and send messages that can make us feel like we’re not good enough. Becoming good at applying our critical thinking skills to media is an important way to keep ourselves healthy.
Pornography is more accessible than ever. Many of us have seen porn: maybe you looked for it out of curiosity, maybe you and your friend wanted a laugh, maybe you clicked on a link accidentally, or maybe you wanted to masturbate.
There’s nothing shameful about watching porn, no matter what your reason is. That said, we still need to be critical of its content because, just like regular media, mainstream porn mostly shows limited ideas about gender, bodies, and sexuality. For example, most porn actors look a certain way (e.g., very thin, muscular, fit, big breasts, big penis, no pubic hair, etc.), a lot of plots feature women being sexually and socially submissive, and the sex is not always realistic (e.g., there is little to no communication between partners, little foreplay before penetration, etc.) or pleasurable for everyone involved.
While mainstream porn is not realistic, sexual pictures or videos can also provide an opportunity for young people to explore their sexuality safely. This is especially true for those of us whose sexualities have been marginalized (e.g., 2SLGTBQIA+ youth and youth with disabilities). Online porn is sometimes the only place we can see our sexual selves reflected and this can feel empowering. But the ways that some of us are reflected in porn can misrepresent and fetishize people’s identities in ways that can reinforce discrimination. For example, people of colour may see themselves reflected in porn more often than in other forms of media but they also might be portrayed in stereotypical two-dimensional ways that reinforce racism. Remember, there is a profitable industry behind pornography!
There are alternatives to mainstream porn. There are sites and filmmakers dedicated to challenging the unrealistic aspects of porn and paying sex workers a fair wage. Feminist and ethical pornography provides empowering content without the discrimination.
Porn literacy is an important part of media literacy. If possible, find a trusted adult to talk about porn and people’s attitudes towards sex, gender roles, fantasy, racism, etc. There are also resources out there to dig deeper:
Here are helpful questions to ask about any of the media we consume:
- Who has created this content?
- What is the purpose of this content (To inform you? To make you feel a certain way?)
- Who and what do you see in this content? Who is represented and who is missing ( “everyone in this music video is white” or “wow, almost all the characters are boys, there is only one girl”?
- Does it represent gender, sexuality, bodies, young people’s lifestyles, etc. in a realistic way? If it is porn, do you think it offers realistic representations of sex with a partner?
- Does the content put a person or a group of people down?
- Does it use any stereotype?
- Does it sexually objectify anyone?
- How does this message make you feel about yourself? Your choices? Your body? What you have? Your life in general?
Taking in the content we scroll through all day with these questions in mind quickly becomes almost automatic when we get used to doing it. It’s about getting used to flexing our critical thinking muscles. The more aware we are of what messages are sent our way, the better we can enjoy what is empowering about technology without being weighed down by all the baggage.