Sex Education: How to Teach Porn-addicted Teens About Intimacy

Just because today's teens are exposed to so much pornography doesn’t mean that they know what sex and relationships are about, says social worker and sexual counselor Sivan Lotan

Social worker and sexual counselor Sivan Lotan.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Tell me what you do.

I’m a social worker. I have a master’s degree and I specialize in sexual counseling. I’ve worked at a nonprofit called Open Door for the past nine years. We offer advice to adolescents and adults about sexuality and relationships. We work through personal meetings, by phone and via the internet, and we also conduct workshops in schools, community centers, youth movements and so on.

Do adolescents really call you these days? After the invention of Dr. Google?

That’s exactly the reason. There’s so much information and so little guidance. We make them feel that they can ask anything without our clicking our tongues, or ridiculing or judging them. Unfortunately, that’s an approach they encounter quite a bit – say, from a gynecologist who will allow himself to say to a girl who’s asking for contraceptives, “What, at your age?” to teachers who shrug them off because they don’t feel like dealing with the subject. Our conversations can take all kinds of directions. Sometimes people need information, sometimes they only need someone to provide legitimacy for who they are and what they are, and sometimes it’s not completely clear why they called: From talking to these teens we get a picture of what’s really troubling them.

What kind of questions are we talking about?

Many of them are technical: I missed taking a pill, the condom broke, I took Postinor [an emergency birth-control pill]. It might stay there or it might deepen into a conversation about a relationship. Many of them ask about masturbation. Religious youths, for example, are very troubled by that and want legitimacy for masturbating. Girls will call very apologetically, saying, I’m sorry if I disgust you, but I masturbate. And I will say: That’s great, it’s a wonderful way to get to know your own body, and so forth. There are many questions about the size of the penis, the breasts. There are questions about love: I love someone but I don’t know how to start up with her. They ask about sexual proclivity: I think about girls, does that mean I’m a lesbian? One thing they hardly ask about is sexual diseases. Ignorance or misunderstanding still exists about the use of contraceptives and about safe sex. They still think that coitus interruptus is an effective means of preventing pregnancy.

A classic 1950s issue. Really weird. The world has changed so much. How do you explain it? We’ll make it clear here, of course, that we’re talking in generalities and basing ourselves only on what you see in the field.

There’s a huge gap today. On the one hand, they supposedly know everything, they’re flooded with information and sexual images, and yet on the other hand, no one is putting things in order for them. There’s no systematic sexual education in the schools. In most homes there’s no talk about sex. It’s a vacuum. Adolescents today are exposed to a great deal of violence. They’re exposed to porn, which is sex without a relationship. In today’s porn, many times you don’t even see the faces of the participants. And on the other hand, people seek contact. A connection. Intimacy. They simply get lost, because they don’t know how to get that.

So you try to endow them more with communication skills than with sexual knowledge.

Those skills are what they’re missing most. I try, for example, to deconstruct for them the whole topic of “going with the flow.” That’s something our culture sanctifies when it comes to sexuality. If I break the “flow,” the sex is supposedly less good. If I stopped the boy to ask if he has a condom, if I stopped the girl to ask what she would like her partner to do now – the sex “doesn’t flow.”

I’ve decided that I will change all that. I tell them: Let’s think for a moment about the sex we see in movies and on television. The characters kiss, undress, get into bed. Everything flows naturally. But those people are actors; they’re following a script. A lot of coordination goes on before the scene is shot. Everything that’s presented [onscreen] as natural and non-communicative has actually involved a great deal of communication. There is no such thing as sexuality without communication. I take it a step further and ask them: What’s cool about asking a girl if something is pleasant for her, or whether she agrees to a certain type of contact? And some of them are already sufficiently developed to answer, “The fact that I can be sure it’s mutual – I’ll know I’m not forcing myself on her.”

Sounds good. They seem to be more advanced than I was at their age.

The thinking is more critical. There’s awareness. There are signs of a feminist approach. Today, for example, I was sitting with some girls and one said, “It’s not right that in advertisements we’re warned to beware of being slipped a date-rape drug. Why aren’t men told, ‘Don’t use a date-rape drug?’” It’s mostly connected to one’s home – whether the subject is or was talked about.

They live in a society of opposites: There is more awareness, much of the behavior that was normative in the past is no longer normative, yet at the same time, there are very extreme images of sexuality.

Until not long ago, sexual violence was a subject that was not talked about, but then it became the be-all and end-all, and now the dialogue is only about sexual violence. A minute ago, everything was permitted – a commanding officer would touch a female soldier on her buttocks without hesitation – and suddenly we’ve moved to a situation where every movement and every word is carefully weighed. Adolescents have been badly affected by that, because there was no middle ground. No one considered what healthy sexuality looks like. How relations are constructed and interactions created. How to pleasure one another. Adolescents need basic tools in order to actualize their sexuality, and it’s a huge battle, because the media is exploding with representations we would not want them to see.

Social worker and sexual counselor Sivan Lotan.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Adult responsibilities

Let’s talk about pornography, which is increasingly available to young people. How does that situation look from your side?

The problem is that many of these young people will have seen explicit, crass sexuality before experiencing any real interaction with the opposite sex. All the parental control in the world can’t prevent that. There’s something about how people talk about youthful consumption of porn, with a sort of tongue-clucking, as though they’re accusing them. But they’re not guilty.

No. If anything, they’re the victim.

Totally. So it’s the duty of all responsible adults to talk to them, mediate for them and explain to them the fateful consequences of viewing porn. I talk to a lot of boys who are disturbed about their bodies – that’s often the damage done by porn, which they simply aren’t aware of. They think that their penis is terribly small, or that they come too soon. I ask them where they learned how long it takes for a man to come. The answer is always “porn.” From that point I can start talking to them about the differences. They aren’t completely unaware. Sometimes they say things like, “I know it doesn’t happen that way in reality.”

But they lack the necessary perspective for understanding all the nuances of the influence pornography has.

They don’t understand how much influence it has on them. On their thinking. On their patterns of masturbation. Under the influence of porn, a boy who’s perhaps masturbating once a day, might start doing it five times a day. That creates other problems, like the boy [who uses porn] who told me that he’s able to come during masturbation but not when he’s with his girlfriend. Why? Probably because she looks like a real mortal. Or because the contact with her isn’t as intense as the contact of his hand. And then there are all the other aspects as well, such as how much they know and what they understand about the [pornography] industry. What does it teach them about making choices? It’s hard for them to understand that the porn actress didn’t choose that path. It’s hard to explain that there are people who were born with the option of being a pilot or a doctor or a university professor, and people who were born with the possibility to be a porn actor or to work in the sex trade. That’s what I’ll tell the older ones, of course; with the younger ones, I focus on the clear message: Porn is bad for you.

Doesn’t that create resistance?

Obviously, if I go into a classroom and tell someone to stop watching porn because it’s bad, I’ll lose them from the outset. I deconstruct it for him by asking, what do you feel when you watch porn, what do you feel when you’re in an intimate situation with a girl – and I point out the difference and talk about it. Happily, many girls are aware that porn isn’t good, that it’s harmful, and they ask about it. They want to know how to reduce their use of it.

What other effects does viewing porn have?

The sexual scenario has changed.

Meaning what?

There’s a sociological theory according to which sexuality is a schema. That there’s a regular order of activity, from kissing to penetration, and the role of the two sides in the interaction is also clear. That is the sexual scenario we learn from our society, from culture. We aren’t aware of it, but it’s plain to us what the order is and what’s logical and acceptable at every age. So if I, as a girl, was occupied with the question – in itself totally screwed up – about who “puts out” and what form that takes, or what I’ve done sexually or not – today there’s a preoccupation with other things. For example, we have adolescents who turn to us about threesomes. Sometimes it’s a matter of fantasizing, of course, but the very fact that it occupies them, that it exists in their reality, says that the sexual scenario has changed. That if once it was about “first base” and “second base” and so on, now we’re already into sex with a number of partners. I’m not judgmental about it, because it’s their reality, so when they ask me about threesomes, I don’t faint and say, “What? You’ve only just started to have sex and you’re already into threesomes?”

“Have you already exhausted everything else, so that you urgently need to try something new?”

It’s not necessarily related to “exhausting” an experience.

Maybe it has to do with the notion that at this moment, everything is an option. Pornography, with all its categories and all the particular forms of behavior it displays, puts everything on the same level or continuum.

That’s precisely the problem posed by the absence of mediation. Someone needs to be there to explain about the different considerations that can go into having sexual relations of different kinds at the age of 16. About taking things gradually. About what a “golden shower” means, the context in which it’s done.

If I’d seen a golden shower at the age of 16, beyond not being able to imagine that anything like that exists, I would have dropped dead on the spot.

Because at those ages we had access, at most, to mainstream porn. But today, young people have already seen so many things that their stimulus threshold is insanely high and it’s very hard to shock them. Because they couldn’t care less. So I explain to them, let’s say, how anal sex, which they apparently consider to be routine, can be enjoyable but that it is more advanced and involves highly developed communication and/or a very high level of intimacy. And I will confront them with the question of whether they feel sufficiently comfortable with their partner in order to accommodate that complexity. That’s exactly where providing tools comes in.

Earlier you mentioned the subject of masturbating while watching porn.

I once asked a boy if he masturbates without porn, and his reply was “What?” – as though he didn’t understand what I wanted from him. They don’t know that they can masturbate without pornography. It’s not actually an option for them. It’s a lot easier to watch porno than to use the imagination. With girls it happens less, and in the rare cases in which girls admit they are masturbating while watching porn, they are truly ashamed. For the boys it’s completely natural.

You started to deal with this almost a decade ago, even before the era of the smartphone, which has produced multiple new phenomena. Dickpics, say.

That’s also something I’m constantly dealing with in workshops. Whom to send a picture like that to. When it’s all right, when it’s not all right. They have a thing with blaming the victim: They think that if a girl has sent a revealing picture, it’s an open invitation for them to do what they want. I explain to them that there’s no connection, and from the other side I try to impart knowledge to them, along the lines of: Should I even take a photo like that? Who can I trust to keep it to himself? Who is liable to disseminate it? I can also say to a girl: Listen, if you want to take a revealing picture like that, at least don’t include your entire body. So if it falls into the wrong hands, they won’t know it’s you.

Girls are caught in a trap today, because they are constantly confronted with a double message. If you’re sexually active, then you’re a “slut” – that hasn’t changed – but if you’re not sexual, you have a problem. The boys are also coping with a double message: They’re supposed to be both conquerors and sensitive, both the leaders and the accommodators. And they really don’t know how to do it.

I think that fiction is overly present in their lives. Screens. TV series. Social media. It’s hard to differentiate between the images and real life.

It’s all relative. I remember, for example, that my mother always told me that “A Clockwork Orange” was a terribly brutal and frightening movie, but when I finally saw it I didn’t understand at all what the big deal was.

But think, let’s say, about a boy who was addicted to television, before the era of other types of screens. Even if he watched television 10 hours a day, he would still know that he was in his living room at home, and that what was happening on television was happening on television. It’s not like seeing the other kids in the class on Instagram. The presence of images and other forms of representation in our lives, in general, was less significant. The boundary between fiction and reality was clearer.

Adolescents still make that differentiation, to the extent that they are able. But it really is complex. Let’s say, many times girls interpret particular behavior on a smartphone as a sign of love or affection. I hear more and more questions from girls who talk about communication that takes place exclusively via the smartphone – on Instagram or through WhatsApp – as a relationship. Love or virtual falling in love. Expressions of affection that exist in emojis and not in face-to-face communication.

What about body image? These individuals are totally surrounded by perfect bodies.

I remember that when I started to work, there were a lot of questions about whether to remove body hair. Today it’s not if, but how. Because they see that everyone in porn is shaved smooth, they believe there’s no legitimacy for body hair – neither for women or for men. When I tell girls that they don’t have to remove hair if they don’t want to, they’re completely surprised. By the way, being hairy has become a problem for boys today, too.

Can teens still surprise you?

I’m not surprised anymore when I talk to young people and they rattle off the names of porn actresses or all kinds of techniques from those films. I can be favorably surprised. Many times I am totally surprised by their sensitive insights. The issue of consent, let’s say: They themselves will say how un-cool it is to try to kiss someone without asking her first. I feel that people are prejudiced in some way against today’s young people and about how insensitive they are and how much they are into screens and how horrible they are. I definitely don’t feel that.

I think their adolescence is a lot more complex and frightening than it was for me or you. If anything, I’d like them to understand from this conversation how hard it is for them.

The reality for adolescents today is far from easy, there’s no doubt of that.

They also seem to be very sophisticated, and that must surely confuse parents, too.

Parents always ask: What is there for me to teach them? They know more than I do. Why? Because they watch porn? They don’t know anything about intimacy. They don’t know anything about interaction. Just because they’re familiar with a particular position in sex doesn’t mean that they understand how people feel in it, or what’s required for it. That’s the role of the parents: to mediate the implications to them. I grew up in a home where the dialogue was very open, where sexuality was talked about all the time. My father is a gynecologist.

That goes a long way toward explaining your choice.

Of course. Actually, I’ve been doing what I do today for my whole life, because as the daughter of a gynecologist, I was also the target of questions from all the kids at school. My parents didn’t flinch – they always talked to me. I really don’t know who I would be if they hadn’t talked to me about sexuality.