This study explores how pornography can be taught as part of secondary school sexuality education and is based on a collaboration between five researchers, five teachers and 25 students. While the teachers’ request to engage with the topic took the form of a response to societal debate on adolescent pornography use, it also proved to be relevant from a school policy perspective. A new curriculum for compulsory schooling (Swedish National Agency for Education Citation2022), addressing sexual portrayals in the media and pornography was announced during the course of the study. Since all Swedish schools now are obliged to become engaged with pornography education, classroom-based studies are needed. The study therefore contributes to this field of research and to practice. Haraway’s (Citation2016, Citation1994) work on string figuring proved useful in tracing and unfolding threads within this teaching and contributed to fabulations on possible ways forward for education about pornography. The theoretical framing made it possible to acknowledge the importance of material arrangements, such as films, cases and policy documents, in education.
Swedish sexuality education, mandatory since 1955, initially promoted sexual abstinence among adolescents. Since the 1970s, however, it has aimed to promote sexual responsibility through education about contraceptive methods (Bolander Citation2015; Centerwall Citation2005), pleasure-oriented perspectives (Bäckman Citation2003), and gender equality (Skolöverstyrelsen Citation1969). In the 1970s, the topic of pornography was also included in policy frameworks, although these required it to be taught in negative terms. In the 1980s, due to the spread of HIV, sexual responsibility became even more central. From being taught within a few subjects, mostly Biology, the knowledge area became interdisciplinary in the 1990s, with a focus on ethical matters and making responsible decisions (Centerwall Citation2005). In the 2000s, a norm-critical pedagogy1 sought to challenge inequality and exclusion by problematising norms and power structures as part of teaching (Bengtsson and Bolander Citation2020; Bromseth and Sörensdotter Citation2014), and has been highly influential in sexuality education. Protection from sexual risks is further stressed in the new curriculum via teaching about sexual portrayals in media, pornography and consent (Swedish National Agency for Education Citation2022).
Despite these developments, previous research has concluded that Swedish sexuality education mostly provides factual knowledge, has a focus on danger and negative outcomes of sexuality, and leaves little room for discussion and debate (Swedish Schools Inspectorate Citation2018; Unis and Sällström Citation2020). Schools are further said to provide too little information on HIV, relationships, gender equality, LGBT perspectives and societal norms (Public Health Agency of Sweden Citation2017).
Pornography – a topic for school?
Irrespective of public or scholarly debate, young people take an interest in pornography. Their engagement meets a variety of needs, such as masturbation/self-sex, the exchange of sexual knowledge between peers and partners, curiosity about specific sexual practices, boredom and/or stress reduction (Bridges and Morokoff Citation2011; Goldstein Citation2020). Young peoples’ engagement may further be due to their sexuality education not being sufficiently relevant (Hancock and Barker Citation2018). Since young peoples’ interests are diverse, education needs to recognise the reproduction of problematic gender representations as well as their pedagogic and erotic potential (Byron et al. Citation2021; Goldstein Citation2020). However, there remains little consensus on how to address pornography in educational settings (Goldstein Citation2020), nor what the teaching should entail (Dawson, Nic Gabhainn, and MacNeela Citation2020).
To our knowledge, research is often based on group discussions or semi-structured interviews (Dawson, Nic Gabhainn, and MacNeela Citation2020; Goldstein Citation2020; Healy-Cullen et al. Citation2022), the observation of extra-curricular activities (Rothman et al. Citation2018; Rothman, Daley, and Alder Citation2020), or uses online questions and surveys (Spišák Citation2016; Vandenbosch, Johanna, and van Oosten Citation2017). In contrast, this study aimed to provide an in-situ investigation of pornography education. The questions guiding the study were: how can pornography education come into being; what troubles are materialised when this occurs; and what future forms of teaching might be possible?
Theoretical and methodological base – string figuring
The theoretical and methodological approach adopted was inspired by Haraway’s (Citation2016, Citation1994) work with string figures (SF). String figuring occurs within ‘feminist, multicultural, antiracist and technoscientific projects’ and is aimed at transgressing culture-nature or human-nonhuman categories (Haraway Citation1994, 61). The relational ontology it implies acknowledges the agency of human and nonhuman actants in the materialising of worlds. Although string figuring has mostly been used in multispecies and technoscientific contexts (Haraway Citation2016, Citation1994), it has also been used in educational research. Niccolini, Zarabadi, and Ringrose (Citation2018), for example, engaged British postgraduates to yarn a string figure on gender and education, and Tolbert and Bazzul (Citation2020) used the approach to intertwine the science education, aesthetics and politics.
In this study, string figuring was used to materialise the becomings of Swedish secondary school pornography education, as well as to stress relevant material relations and engagements. The string figure in the making proposes and materialises patterns, but also fabulates future possibilities for teaching. Because one person cannot ‘make all the patterns alone’, string figuring is a collective process (Haraway Citation1994, 70). In this study, teachers, students, researchers and their material world(s) all took part in the weaving of patterns at stake – although the figure was finally passed to the authors to hold still and write about.
In addition to String Figure, SF also stands for Speculative Feminism, Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, Science Fantasy, and Scientific Facts (Haraway Citation2016). String figuring thereby invites engagement with storytelling, fact telling and fabulations at school and in wider society (see Niccolini, Zarabadi, and Ringrose Citation2018). Although this study focused mainly on human knowledge production concerning pornographic material, our aim was also to invite nonhuman encounters. Consequently, both human and material threads are picked up and followed in the analysis. Since SF practice also concerns troubles, Haraway (Citation2016, 3) stresses the need for the corresponding field of research to stay ‘with the troubles in real and particular time and places’. Here, the troubles of teachers, students and their material intertwinings in relation to teaching about pornography are explicitly acknowledged. The following concepts were therefore put to work in the analysis: materialising and troubling.
Response-ability for materialised stories
Haraway describes storytelling as a collaborative, material and ethical practice (Niccolini, Zarabadi, and Ringrose Citation2018). The collective process of knowing and doing drives the need to cultivate response-ability within research (Haraway Citation2016). Even though our data were produced in collaboration with teachers, students and materialities, the final response-ability for the selected threads and displayed patterns is our own as the authors of this paper.
Since all the bodies present in the classroom are ethically involved in the process of worldmaking (Niccolini, Zarabadi, and Ringrose Citation2018), research ethics and data protection regulations guided the research process (Swedish Research Council Citation2017; EU 2016/679 Citation2016). Participants were informed orally and in writing about these guidelines and since some students were under the age of 15, their legal guardians also approved their involvement. The research project itself was approved by the Swedish Ethical Review Authority (Ref: 2020–00823).
Ethical considerations in relation to Swedish schools’ more general work on norms were also taken into account. Although the focus of the study was not on education about norms, a normative stance was taken, for example, with respect to the use of gender-neutral pronouns in teaching. Inspired by this stance no information on gender or sexual orientation was collected, and participants are neutrally named. This practice may be viewed as problematic and a limitation causing gender blindness in research, especially since the topic of pornography is intimately connected to gender power and gendered sexual scripts, as revealed in our analysis. However, the decision was based on our wish to recognise the situatedness of the study.
Setting the scene
This study was part of a four-year project, partly financed by the Swedish Research Council. The larger project includes five researchers, five schools, and uses a collaborative methodological approach to explore aspects of secondary school sexuality education. This study focuses on one of the schools which, like many secondary schools in Sweden, is organised into interdisciplinary teaching teams responsible for a specific grade. Five of the teachers in Grade 8 (14–15-year-olds), specialising in Civics and Arts, Music, English and Physical Education (P.E.), Science, and Science and Mathematics, agreed to participate. The teachers had a general interest in sexuality education but soon formulated a specific goal, namely, adding a focus on pornography to the annual week-long sexuality education unit. Organising sexuality education into a teaching block is common in Swedish secondary schools.
The research was conducted mainly through a series of teacher-researcher meetings with the five teachers and included questions on how to engage with the topic, what should be included, and the scrutiny of subject-specific syllabi for links to pornography. In addition to four one-and-a-half-hour exploratory teacher-researcher meetings on these issues, data were also obtained from one-and-a half-hour participant observation session undertaken in class (i.e. in the developed lesson on pornography), and two evaluation sessions with teachers after the completion of the thematic week and at the end of the school year. Data also included thirty minute-long semi-structured group interviews with participating 14–15-year-old students. Although the research project concerned sexuality education in general, this study only engaged in data collection related to the teaching of pornography. Each occasion was audio recorded, transcribed and documented with notes to provide an overview and help in tracing certain events.
The MAXQDA 2020 data software programme, was initially used to trace the threads in the data. The becomings of pornography education were further informed by the teachers’, researchers’ and students’ discussions and material activities of which some are exemplified in analysis. To further materialise different approaches to pornography education, the data were intertwined with international research. Before we present the threads materialising the SF, we introduce the teachers’ reasons for engaging with pornography, here as reflected on by the Music teacher in one of the teacher-researcher meetings at the beginning of the collaboration:
I think a lot about the importance of not closing one’s eyes and pretending that it [Internet pornography] doesn’t exist. Just because everyone knows it exists. It shouldn’t be “the elephant in the room”, so to speak. To point out that it’s fiction, like action movies. You don’t watch The Fast and the Furious to learn how cars work. Just like you don’t watch porn to learn about sex.
The Music teacher pinpoints the school’s responsibility for engaging with contemporary societal phenomena – especially topics that qualify as ‘the elephant in the room’. By addressing pornography, the phenomenon is materialised in school. The fictive character of pornography is also highlighted through the parable of the action movie The Fast and the Furious which actualises the need to challenge some of the sexual images portrayed in pornography, especially for young and mostly sexually inexperienced students.
In addition to the introductory statement by the Music teacher, pornography education in this study was materialised as a four-threaded string figure.
The weaving of a figure on pornography education
Four threads wove the string figure on pornography education: 1) gender, 2) conditions for teaching, 3) student engagement, 4) normativity, materialised as communicating specific views about pornography.
The thread of gender
Within this thread, the discussions on gender that took place during teacher–researcher meetings were materialised – focusing, for example, on how pornography consumption influences girls, boys and their relationships:
If you look at the relationships, I think it in many ways is more [gender] equal in young people’s relationships today than it was 20 years ago. But I still think that the porn industry contributes to destructive and negative parts of it. […] Even if it is that the woman, that the power structure is that the woman is affected, it is not a positive development for the guy either […] (Science and Maths teacher)
I think it will be very important to point out that this is not about, this is about everyone being affected by this, regardless of who you refer to as the victim. (Science teacher)
Yes, exactly what it gives boys is that they get an idea of how they are expected to behave in their sexual relationships with girls. Or with partners, one should say. […] That’s exactly what I was talking about. I am of the opinion that they think you should be like this. It does not matter that she says no. Because it means yes, sort of. So, you get on with it and it becomes both harmful and against one’s will. One then thinks, yes, it should probably be like this and then you put up with it and accept it. Which isn’t okay. (English and P.E. teacher)
While the Science and Maths teacher concluded that gender equality had increased in Swedish society, they were troubled by how gender is often portrayed in pornography, commenting: ‘the power structure is that the woman is affected’ and ‘it is not a positive development for the guy either’. The other teachers added, ‘this is about everyone being affected, regardless of who you refer to as the victim’, and through it boys can ‘get an idea of how they are expected to behave in their sexual relationships with girls’.
In some ways, teachers’ stories may be seen as linked to ideas about sexual scripting (Simon and Gagnon Citation2003, Citation1986) which stress how the ‘sexual’ takes shape and meaning in relation to societal expectations and contexts, and reveal how cultural and heteronormative expectations influence sexual interactions between men and women. Research has suggested that pornography consumption can serve as a source of scripts that influence sexual behaviour negatively (Goldstein Citation2020; Marshall, Miller, and Bouffard Citation2021; Rothman et al. Citation2018), an argument also used by the Science and Maths teacher: ‘But I still think that the porn industry contributes to destructive and negative parts of it.’ Although teachers talked about how pornographic films might influence adolescents in heterosexual relationships, they broadened the focus of their concern to include others by introducing the gender-neutral word partner (partner). Terminology such as this is widely used in Swedish classrooms, the result of the earlier described norm-critical pedagogy.
The teachers also materialised gender in relation to issues of consent, although this exact term was not used. In the comment ‘it does not matter that she says no. Because it means yes … ’ the English and P.E. teacher came close to offering a description of pornography as being the opposite of consent. Research has shown that young adults consider pornography to often be conflated with non-consensual and rough sex, stressing the need for sexuality education to problematise these matters in relation to sexual consent (Dawson, Nic Gabhainn, and MacNeela Citation2020).
Importantly, this thread materialises pornography education as both gendered and scripted. Allen (Citation2011) concludes that if the overall school curriculum does not aim to challenge gender inequality and actively seek to promote sexual justice, educational programmes with a singular focus on pornography are unlikely to lead to significant change. However, Swedish school have a responsibility to challenge students’ notions of what are considered female and male attributes (Swedish National Agency for Education Citation2022), and the curriculum thereby offers a solid basis for approaching pornography in gendered terms. Although gender differences and equality are possible entry points for pornography education, other opportunities for doing so were identified in subject-specific fields.
The thread of educational conditions
In the new curriculum, reference to the word ‘pornography’ occurs (once) in the general introduction and while it is mandatory for schools to engage with this issue (Swedish National Agency for Education Citation2022, 8), doing so is not part of any subject-specific syllabus. In the teacher-researcher meetings conducted as part of this study, a search for entry points for pornography education occurred. Accordingly, this thread materialised possible consequences for subject-specific teaching:
In English [language classes] then. [We can engage with pornography] in the use of language, that is, how to talk about sex in particular but also relationships. That’s what it says. Relationships, love and so on in the syllabus. Maybe what kind of vocabulary is used. (English and P.E. teacher)
The only thing I can think of that is connected to P.E. and porn is the sexualisation of the female body in sports. (English and P.E. teacher)
Say you have something in Art History. For instance, how it has been permitted to show nudity and sexuality, that is, in different times and different cultures. So, you have a scale like this [gets up and draws on the whiteboard]. How strict or how liberal it is—back and forth. (Civic and Arts teacher)
I came to think of one thing now. It says, “how music is used in different media”. […] Music in porn movies but also, I think, music in the media. Music videos. The explicitness in them. And the lyrics of course. And maybe how they have changed historically. (Music teacher)
Scrutiny of subject syllabi identified space to address sex, sexuality, relationships, love and even nudity in teaching as well as to problematise the sexualisation of the female body in sports and music. The Civic and Arts teacher came up with the idea of using Art History to illustrate how views on sexuality and nudity have changed over time and vary in different cultures. The teachers’ suggestions thereby aligned with the first part of the new education policy’s encouragement for there to be a focus on relationships and sexuality in the media and other contexts (Swedish National Agency for Education Citation2022). Although the teachers found several ways of addressing relationships and sexuality in education, they also found it troublesome to make links directly to the topic of pornography.
Teachers’ trouble finding subject-specific entry points for pornography education echo findings from a UK-based study. In it, Hancock and Barker (Citation2018) identify critical thinking about sexually explicit media and pornography reasonable content for sexuality education. However, to be effective, teaching needs to have a broader base and should include students’ relationships to themselves and others, as well as communication, consent and how to recognise and respond to inequality. The importance of there being a broad base for learning also formed part of the teachers’ discussion. For example, they expressed the need for educational forums to address topics of concern more openly in a way not limited by subject-specificity. The thematic week on sexuality education was identified as a key setting in this respect.
But it’s hard to link [certain topics] to specific subjects as well. All of these [topics] are important, so the thematic week will be a way to know that they are addressed … (Science and Maths teacher)
The Science and Maths teacher considered the thematic week an important means to engage with topics ‘hard to link to specific subjects’ such as pornography. A similar issue has been documented in a US study where a pornography literacy curriculum took the form of an extra-curricular activity (Rothman, Daley, and Alder Citation2020). The use of the curriculum had several positive outcomes such as improving factual knowledge about pornography, providing young people with the opportunity to critique content and language use, and problematising sexual norms. Such an approach, when it engages with discussion of shame, acceptability, communication, consent, body and genital image, safe sex, porn as education, the realities of sex, as well as sexual functioning may assist in the development of more personalised sexual scripts (Dawson, Nic Gabhainn, and MacNeela Citation2020; Rothman et al. Citation2018). Although this kind of work could be part of school-based sexuality education in Sweden, teachers found it troublesome to link it to specific school subjects.
In this thread, pornography education was materialised in terms of curricular and organisational contexts. It showed that if thematic, interdisciplinary and extra-curricular forums for discussion of pornography as part of sexuality education are not available, this may be troublesome for teachers’ opportunities to address the topic. Although this thread mostly inspired questions about how the teaching could come into being, it also led to questioning about student engagement.
The thread of student engagement
Even though they were not invited to be part of the planning students were constantly present in teachers’ discussions, for example, via their previous criticisms of material engagements in sexuality education. In one teacher-researcher meeting, the Science teacher shared a story from previous year’s screening of the educational film Sex on the Map (RSFU and UR Citation2012). This is an age-appropriate, sex-positive, and inclusive film produced by the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education and the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company. The film is widely used in Swedish secondary school sexuality education and has also been shown internationally. The teacher had used the film many times in Biology classes:
It’s a cartoon. It is about the first time, fumbling with the condom. It’s about how it should happen, how it shouldn’t happen, and then they fall in love. There are two girls or a girl who is in love with a girl and they become a couple. I think it’s really sweet and I think it’s informative. Very good from the perspective of the Biology syllabus. I think they do it in a fun way but twice it has just been a flop [with comments such as] ‘Fucking porn movie!’ and ‘What the hell is this?’ and they [the students] cannot watch it because they are embarrassed. (Science teacher)
The Science teacher described the cartoon as norm-conscious in the way it engaged with the first sexual encounter as well as being ‘informative’ and ‘good’ from the Biology syllabus point of view. However, the film could also become the ‘flop’ the teacher had experienced twice. Since the film shows explicit forms of sexual activity, some former students had seen it as a ‘fucking porn movie’.
When the film was shown to pre-service teacher students in Australia as part of a course on pleasure-oriented sexuality education, one of the students also said, ‘I felt like I was watching porn’ (Ollis Citation2016). Regardless of whether the association with porn was made by Swedish or Australian students, the Science teacher concluded that some students ‘cannot watch it because they are embarrassed’. This embarrassment could be due to discomfort with desire-oriented sexuality education or because teaching about pleasure so rarely occurs. Although pleasure has been promoted as an integral part of sexuality education in Sweden for a long time (Bäckman Citation2003), teachers’ accounts evidence the trouble that can arise when explicit portrayals of sex are shown in the classroom.
In the teacher–researcher meetings, student engagement materialised in terms of polarised debates. Hence, a few voices tended to dominate classroom discussions in general and the teachers were worried that this might also happen when teaching about pornography:
There should rather be a focus on talking about [pornography] and not about imposing values. It can still end with that some students interpret it [teaching about pornography] as a call for a debate. It can become very polarised in the classroom. They think it’s fun: there will be a debate and I’ll pick one side or the other. They [also] think that when it’s Civics, they should have different opinions. (Civic and Arts teacher)
I’m thinking of a class where three of the guys are very dominant and the rest of the class is quiet. (Science and Maths teacher)
In general, it will not be possible to discuss [pornography] in a whole-class forum, we have to exclude that [option]. I don’t think that would really work in any group working with this topic. Who really sits in a group of 30 others and speaks frankly? No, you want a little more … How would we group them together? Maybe we should put them with their friends? (English and P.E. teacher)
Student engagement is often promoted as a key aspect of sexuality education (Dawson, Nic Gabhainn, and MacNeela Citation2020; Goldstein Citation2020; Hancock and Barker Citation2018; Spišák Citation2016). Although teachers in this study aimed to engage students, the Civics and Arts teacher expressed concern about discussions turning into ‘debate’ which could make the classroom ‘polarised’. The same teacher also stressed the importance of ‘talking about’ rather than ‘imposing values’. The Science and Maths teacher on the other hand was worried about a few voices dominating discussion while most students remain silent. The account ends with the English and P.E. teacher stating that pornography is a topic that is not ‘possible to discuss in a whole-class forum’.
This teachers’ comments triggered questions about how best to organise the teaching that would take place. In response to these concerns, students were seated in small groups throughout the week-long sexuality education unit, with the grouping being based on teachers’ prior knowledge of individual students. The teachers’ reflections also aroused questions on how best to engage students during the specific teaching about pornography. Part of the lesson was therefore devoted to discussing and digitally posting anonymous answers to questions and situations inspired by the Swedish youth clinics web site (https://www.umo.se/sex/porr/) on the board at the front of the classroom.
The following materialised stories come from the researchers’ notes taken during a participant observation to the class:
The first question that came up on the board
What do you think of when you hear the word porn? Words are written on the board: “Sex, violent, usually goes by the norms, biased, different categories, often hetero, undressed people, rough, hard sex in pictures, can be violent, positions, available on websites, sex movies in front of the camera, sex in video, not reality, can be rough, positions, sex in the media”.
Another question that appeared on the board
How does society view looking at porn? Four alternatives were given for the students to discuss and choose from. The options were “encouraging”, “okay”, “okay in secret” and “not okay”. A green bar appeared on the board: “Okay in secret” was the answer given by all five groups.
A case study
Your friend says that their partner is nagging them to do things from porn movies. Your friend does not like this as it sometimes can be unpleasant. What do you say? “Dump them, say what you feel, stand up for yourself, talk to your partner, consent, talk, respect, everyone likes it differently”.
In response to the first question asked, students described the word ‘porn’ in terms of ‘sex, violent, usually goes by the norms, often hetero, not reality, can be violent … and rough’. The answers given here could be taken to mean that the students had already developed a range of critical skills. Byron et al. (Citation2021), Spišák (Citation2016), and Litsou et al. (Citation2021) suggest that adolescents already have a degree of pornographic literacy, and that this needs to be acknowledged. On the second question, about society’s views on porn, students’ answers were unanimous – it is okay to watch porn in secret. The answers to these two questions show parallels to findings from a study among Canadian university undergraduates where it was found that normative discourses of pornography present in research and the media constrained student discussion (Goldstein Citation2020), which may also have been the case in this study.
The lesson about pornography, taking place in the middle of the thematic sexuality education week, included several case studies, one of which materialised a troubling situation about an individual being unwilling to perform the sexual acts commonly portrayed in pornographic films with a real-life partner. In their response to it, students emphasised the importance of communication, consent and respect. Importantly, the lesson did not end in polarised discussion, nor did specific voices dominate in the classroom. Instead, the students seemed subdued, did not seem keen to discuss pornography, and did not ask questions. This materialisation of silence could be due to ambiguities about what the teaching was aiming to achieve, or it could have been due to the fact that students were restrained from discussing pornography by normative societal values.
Within this thread, pornography education was materialised in terms of how best to arrange teaching prior to lesson delivery. Students’ answers to questions and the case studies materialised societal views about pornography on the board. However, the students’ somewhat normative responses, in line with current Swedish political debate, require further scrutiny and attention.
The thread of normativity
Initially the Music teacher had likened pornography to ‘the elephant in the room’. By addressing the topic, explicit reference was made to it in school, but also produced questions as to whether the teaching aimed to be normative. This thread mostly materialised stories from the teachers’ evaluation meetings and student interviews conducted at the end of the thematic week:
It’s difficult to bring them into the discussion […] A discussion for which they are not sufficiently mature. (Science and Maths teacher)
Me and the Science and Maths teacher were very particular in considering our own opinions about porn. Is that what should come out of this? No, we were in agreement that we didn’t want that, rather we should try to let the students vent and talk […] (English and P.E. teacher)
But I think the issue is still tricky. What do we want to achieve? What do we want to say when we stand there and talk about porn? Do we want them to think it’s good or do we want people to think it’s good in a certain way? Do we want them to think it’s bad? So, what am I trying to convey? (English and P.E. teacher)
[…] So, I think you need to de-dramatise it if you are to include it. I think it would need to be included as a, like now you talk about it on one occasion for an hour and a half and then it was, like: That was porn day! Puff, and then it’s over! I do not think that’s good because then it lands a bit on a pedestal. (English and P.E. teacher)
Teachers’ anxieties about normativity were materialised in several ways. The Science and Maths teacher was unsure whether to involve students in discussions they might not be ready for. The English and P.E. teacher, on the other hand, emphasised how teachers tried to ensure that their own opinions about porn were not conveyed, but also that the teaching purpose was unclear. Ultimately, were students to think pornography ‘good’, ‘good in a certain way’, or ‘bad’? Teachers’ reflections ended in critique of having an isolated lesson on pornography and stressed the need for a future more ‘de-dramatised’ approach (see also Dawson, Nic Gabhainn, and MacNeela Citation2020; Goldstein Citation2020; Hancock and Barker Citation2018; Spišák Citation2016). In many ways, the teachers’ stories interconnect with Ideas expressed by the Swedish National Agency for Education (Citation2022, 8), which suggests students should be ‘given the opportunity to develop a critical approach to how relationships and sexuality are portrayed in various media and contexts, including pornography’ [our translation] – raising important questions about what ‘the critical approach’ might aim for. Elsewhere, Byron et al. (Citation2021) problematise the adoption of a critical approach as too often encouraging reading of pornography as something negative and unrealistic, and avoiding attending to the value people may find in it. In this study too, teachers found it troublesome to include views that were not negative.
In interviews at the end of the thematic week on sexuality education the students implicitly confirmed the normative basis of the teaching. In addition to the questions and case studies, pornography education had been materialised through the screening of the YouTube film High Speed Internet Porn and the Experimental Generation (Lind and Thurfjell Citation2020). The film, which has a focus on porn addiction, had a clear impact on students. In response to the questions about what they had learned in class, students gave the following answers, which we have merged into a sequence:
That it’s very bad, like … . You know you shouldn’t look at it … . I thought that lesson was very instructive, also on how it affects the brain … . I thought you sort of learned how it can affect you as well … . I think it is important that everyone understands that it is not, that what you see in porn is not really the reality.
During evaluation meetings, implicitly negative messages also materialised in teachers’ discussions. For example, the English and P.E. teacher reflected on the choice of the film, confirming that ‘it’s partly angled at guys, and it has a message that is one-sided’. Film has previously been used as a pedagogical device in Swedish education. For example, some twenty years ago all upper secondary students were asked to view another film, Lilja 4-ever (Moodysson Citation2002), with the goal of promoting gender equality and increasing awareness of the sex trade. However, analysis of the classroom activities that followed the screening concluded that certain understandings of masculinity were normalised rather than questioned by the showing (Sparrman Citation2006). This raises questions about how school can best facilitate discussion that goes beyond the one-sided reproduction of stereotypes. In sum, this thread materialised and troubled normativity in terms of the negative messages conveyed by teaching and identified challenges for schools wanting to engage with this topic in a nuanced way.
In this study, pornography education was materialised as a complex four-threaded string figure of gender-related issues, curricular and organisational conditions for teaching, student engagement, and normativity. The theoretical and methodological premises associated with SF helped to unfold the threads in a troubled web concerning how, where and when discussions on pornography are to take place in school. What remains is to fabulate possible ways forward for teaching.
Participating teachers’ decision to include teaching about pornography in the school’s sexuality education proved troublesome in terms of gender. Stereotypical representations were blinded in relation to pornography by the use of gender-neutral questions and case illustrations, making it difficult to address gender patterns and relationships. A norm-critical pedagogy is used in many Swedish schools (Bengtsson and Bolander Citation2020; Bromseth and Sörensdotter Citation2014). However, in this study national educational regulations on gender equality and norm-critical pedagogy worked contrary to their stated goals of equality and contributed to the ‘invisibilising’ of gender norms. We thereby fabulate that teaching about pornography should not only explicitly identify gender norms but also the other norms portrayed in pornographic material.
Teachers in this study had trouble linking the topic of pornography to particular school subjects. Although some scholars have argued for a pornography literacy curriculum (Rothman et al. Citation2018; Rothman, Daley, and Alder Citation2020), in this study the thematic week became a way to engage students. Other ways to address pornography might be to include the topic in already existing discussions on sexuality, relationships, gender equality, consent and communication (see Dawson, Nic Gabhainn, and MacNeela Citation2020; Goldstein Citation2020; Hancock and Barker Citation2018; Spišák Citation2016). Importantly, teachers in this study came to the conclusion that pornography should be addressed within a wider context. Doing so could enable teaching to reach beyond the normative discourses present in research and public media (see Goldstein Citation2020) to engage (variously) with students already existing levels of pornography literacy (Byron et al. Citation2021; Litsou et al. Citation2021; Spišák Citation2016), their discomfort with desire-oriented sexuality education (Ollis Citation2016), and the difficulty of discussing pornography in a school context. Accordingly, we fabulate on the need for future education to acknowledge and depart from what it is that students already bring to class and the need for research on how to materialise more open and nuanced discussions about desire and sexual portrayal.
The ‘critical approach’ to portrayals in various media and pornography, now prescribed as part of the Swedish curriculum (Swedish National Agency for Education Citation2022, 8), was not published at the time teachers questioned what it was that the teaching aimed to achieve. However, this call awakened questions on what it is that ‘critical’ aims for and what it is possible to teach about in school. Here, teaching became rather one-sided and did not include the more positive aspects of pornography consumption. This was, for example, revealed in student interviews where pornography was deemed to be only negative. Researchers have concluded that adolescent interest in pornography meets a variety of needs (Allen Citation2011; Bridges and Morokoff Citation2011; Goldstein Citation2020), and education may therefore need to address it in a more nuanced way (Byron et al. Citation2021; Goldstein Citation2020). Acknowledging young peoples’ curiosity about sex enables yet another fabulation on possible ways forward for sexuality education. Since SF has various meanings, we fabulate on an additional abbreviation of SF, Speculative Fucks, whereby sexuality education more explicitly addresses a variety of sexual practices. This is not an easy task, as shown in the Science teacher’s story about the film Sex on the Map (RSFU and UR Citation2012), stressing the need for further research on how these matters might best be addressed in education.