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AP/Gail Burton
Dirty talk.
LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX

The “post-truth” world is nothing new: Americans have been lying about sex for decades

Lux Alptraum
By Lux Alptraum

Over the past few weeks, as the idea of a Trump presidency has gone from unthinkable joke to horrifying reality, I’ve heard a new term making the rounds, particularly among my friends in media. “We’re living in a post-truth era,” they tell me, citing Trump’s many lies and contradictions, the rise of fake news sites, and a growing distrust of the mainstream media as evidence that the American people are increasingly distanced from reality.

I think this is a fairly accurate assessment. But as someone who’s been writing and educating Americans about sex-related topics for over a decade, I can testify to the fact that we’ve been living in a “post-truth” era for years. Quite frankly, I’ve been dealing with a post-truth world for my entire career.

The easiest entry point for understanding America’s fuzzy relationship between sex and fact is the sad state of American sex education. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a mere 13 US states require sex education to be “medically accurate.” To put that in context, 39 states require HIV education to either stress or cover abstinence, in spite of the fact that there’s little proof that a focus on abstinence actually helps delay sex.

Indeed, America’s two-decade long love affair with abstinence-only education (which president Barack Obama has attempted to put an end to) feels like the epitome of “post-truth.” Study after study shows that abstinence-only education doesn’t reduce the rate of teen pregnancy, delay the age at which young people start having sex, or lower rates of STI transmission. But as long as telling kids not to have sex feels like the solution, these misguided lesson plans will likely persist. (In fact, it might actually get worse; president-elect Donald Trump and vice president-elect Mike Pence are not known for an enlightened outlook on sexuality. Pence once said on national television that condoms are “very, very poor protection” against STIs).

This aversion to the truth is much more than a failing of political conservatives. In my experience, liberals are just as willing to ignore the facts when it’s convenient to their larger narrative.

Over the years I’ve rolled my eyes at numerous acts of “journalism” that perpetuated half-truths and outright lies about the sex and porn industries—often in the supposed service of protecting women. The Price of Pleasure, for example—an anti-porn documentary created by NYU professor Chyng Sun—misled many of its interview subjects and used manipulative editing to craft a vision of a ruthlessly exploitative porn industry that few porn performers recognize. A piece in The Atlantic once positioned double anal, an extreme sex act that even the most practiced porn performers need to warm up to, as a routine occurrence. And let’s not forget the New York Times’ own Nicholas Kristof, whose factually inaccurate writing has peddled numerous myths about sex work and who has positioned himself as a voice of authority in spite of numerous sex workers who’ve contested his version of the “truth.”

The topic of sex is vulnerable to this sort of misinformation for a number of reasons. It’s an intensely personal experience, and one most of us have some degree of experience with. This creates a personal sense of authority—even when we lack any facts or expertise beyond our own limited experience. Compounding this false confidence is the persistent taboo against public discussions of sexuality. Stigma around sex prevents us from openly and honestly discussing the topic, adding further fuel to the many “truthy” statements that circulate about human sexual experience.

A slumping news industry has coincided with the rise of social media—a phenomenon that has made news consumption more individualized and created information bubbles that help reinforce what feels right over what’s actually true.While unfortunate, in this context it makes sense that we’re seeing a spread of inaccuracy in our discussions of politics, the environment, and other hot-button topics that have historically been more buffered from falsehoods than sex.

But if my work in sex education offers me a deeper understanding of the factors that encourage and enable a collective divorce from reality, it also gives me hope that post-truth isn’t a permanent state of being. If we stay committed to pursuing and promoting a reality-based vision of the world, it’s possible to overcome seemingly overwhelming odds.

On the same Tuesday that Trump secured the White House, California’s adult industry battled misinformation, ignorance, and a well-funded propaganda machine to defeat the egregious Proposition 60. Opposed by many health organizations and practically all of California’s adult film actors, the proposition would have violated worker privacy and potentially made it possible for regular Californians to sue porn producers if they believed actors weren’t wearing condoms. Around the globe, sex workers have banded together to make their voices and opinions heard, and are slowly chipping away at the post-truth ethos that’s oppressed their industry for decades (if not centuries).

And even though government-funded sex education is often mediocre—if not outright harmful—a number of independent sources have harnessed the internet to provide smart, thoughtful, and fact-based sex education to young people around the globe. This is the lesson activists and politicians alike need to internalize in the age of Trump. With enough commitment, dedication, and persistence, the truth can ultimately win out.