Young people are accessing pornography from a younger age and more frequently than we may like to think. Gone are the days of the magazine stuffed under the mattress – teens (and pre-teens!) are being exposed to, and seeking out, porn online and mostly through their friends’ and their own phones.
But what does the instant accessibility of porn mean for our young people and how is their exposure to this content affecting them?
How can parents and caregivers talk to their kids about the misconceptions that porn presents about sexual safety and consent?
How can we help our teens understand that porn is not a representation of real life and using it as an educational or instruction tool is potentially damaging, if not dangerous?
In this article we will attempt to answer these questions and give you, the parents, some practical tips to start the conversation with your pre-teens and teens about this issue.
SEX EDUCATION BY PORN
We know that kids as young as 12 (and even younger) are accessing online pornography and one of the reasons why is to learn more about sex.
So what are our young people learning?
Pornography often portrays sexual violence (particularly against women) and unrealistic notions of sexual relationships. It often depicts and teaches that aggressive and non-consensual sex is acceptable and what everyone wants. One study found high levels of aggression in pornography in both verbal and physical forms:
‘88.2% (of scenes) contained physical aggression, principally spanking, gagging, and slapping, while 48.7% of scenes contained verbal aggression, primarily name-calling. Perpetrators of aggression were usually male, whereas targets of aggression were overwhelmingly female.’ (University of Arkansas, 2010).
Porn also presents unrealistic images of both the male and female body, as many porn actors have surgically enhanced bodies including augmented breasts, vaginas and penises. Additionally, drugs are sometimes used by the actors to help them maintain erections for abnormally long durations, which may skew a young person’s expectations of performance during sex in real life.
On a purely practical level, important lessons about sexual safety, such as consent and using condoms, are mostly absent.
The ‘lessons’ that porn is teaching young people about sex, relationships and sexuality are highly problematic. There is a risk the messages could harm a young person’s sense of self, damage relationships, affect their psychological well-being and cause dangerous experimentation that could lead to health risks or even injury.
What can we do then to help counter the potentially damaging lessons our kids are learning from porn?
TALKING TO OUR KIDS ABOUT PORN VS REALITY
As tempting as it may be to ‘ban’ our kids from viewing content that we don’t approve of or know to be dangerous, this will do little to help them. The prevalence of online porn in our society means unfortunately your curious pre-teen or teen is likely to seek it out or stumble across it at some stage. Whilst advising our kids not to watch porn is a good start, we need to go further and help them understand WHY.
We need to start conversations that will help our kids understand what we see in porn rarely represents real life. These conversations need to navigate through topics such as consent, safety and respect, and ideally should start happening before they hit their teens.
As parents and caregivers, it is our responsibility to talk to our kids about sex in developmentally-appropriate ways. Below are some tips to help get parents and guardians get the conversation started.
Talking with pre-teens (8 to 12 years) about pornography
Children entering puberty and adolescence may be curious about sex and sexuality. Changes in the brain and body combined with other hormonal changes can increase your child’s interest in this area. They may hear things from their friends and they might want to know more, but asking parents about sex can be embarrassing. This may lead to kids in this age group to seek out information online or from their friends, which could lead to them stumbling across or being shown porn.
BEFORE YOU START: If your child is over the age of eight, you may have already talked to them about things like gender, body image, sex, body ownership and personal safety. Extending these conversations to include a discussion about pornography should not be too much of a stretch if done in context and using our tips below. If you haven’t yet started talking to your child about these things, now is a good time.
TIP 1 – BUILD TRUST: It’s almost impossible to have influence when there is no trust. Investing time in your relationship with your child helps them feel loved and accepted. Discussions about sexual matters will be more effective when you have a trusting relationship with your child.
TIP 2 – PREPARE: Work out what you want to say and how you want to say it. Sometimes discussions about sexual topics can be more difficult for parents than for children. Plan ahead and make a discussion outline for what you want to talk about so when the time comes you don’t get flustered and forget what you wanted to say. There are many online resources and books that you can read to help get your head around how to talk to your kids about sex and pornography (see our list of helpful resources at the end of this article).
TIP 3 – TAKE THE TIME: These discussions are best held in a one-on-one environment. Go somewhere together – perhaps for a walk, or a drive and make sure your child feels at ease. Being in a neutral environment can make things more comfortable for both parent and child.
Tailor the discussion based on your knowledge of your child and their level of maturity and development. Perhaps begin by asking if it’s ok to have a chat about ‘one of those awkward topics’. Let them know you have read some things recently that got you thinking, and you’d like your child’s opinion.
TIP 4 – ASK QUESTIONS: After your child has agreed to talk with you, rather than lecture, try to ask questions. This will help avoid your child tuning out or becoming defensive. Here are some examples of questions you may want to ask to help guide the discussion:
- Ask: What do you know about pornography?
- Ask: Do any of the kids at school ever talk about it? What do they say?
- Ask: Have you ever seen it?
If they answer yes, reassure your child they are not in trouble. Do not judge. Try to find out what you can about how they found it and why they were searching for it.
- Ask: Did someone show it to you? Or did you find it yourself?
- Ask: Even though it’s really uncomfortable, can you tell me what you have seen?
- Ask: When you saw it, how did it make you feel?
- Discuss: Talk about those feelings. Children at this age may feel ‘yucky’- even violated – but they may also feel curious or scared.
- Explain: Let your child know that pornography teaches attitudes towards sex, and sexual behaviours which are often unhealthy. You may wish to discuss some of the content portrayed in pornographic material (such as lack of respect and consent, violence, and dangerous sexual practices) to help them understand why you are concerned about them viewing it.
- Ask: What do you think is the best thing to do if someone tries to show you porn? Let your child suggest some options. Discourage them from seeking it out, or looking at it if someone does show it to them.
- Reassure: Let them know it’s always ok to talk with you if they have questions.
Talking with teens (12 – 17 years) about pornography
Consent, respect and safety are the three main topics you should focus on when talking to your teenage child about porn. If you know your teen to be in a sexual relationship or beginning one, you may also wish to discuss with them expectations. These topics should all link to the overarching concept that you want your teen to grasp, which is that pornography does not reflect real life.
Talk to your teen about the importance of always having permission to touch, hug, kiss or have sexual intercourse with another person. Porn often provides graphic examples that teach the opposite.
Help them understand that if someone says “no”, they should respect that decision. And if your teen says “no”, they should make sure their “no” is heard and not taken as a “perhaps” or a “yes”. Also let them know that consent can be removed at any time, so it is ok to say “no” after saying “yes” earlier. A valuable resource for teaching young people the concept of consent is the video called ‘Tea Consent’, which you can watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/oQbei5JGiT8
Help your teen understand that disrespect, violence and abuse are not ok. Unfortunately, some porn portrays sexual violence, and while this may be easily seen as ‘fantasy’ by an adult brain, a developing teenage brain (that may be using porn to learn about sex) could view this and think that sexual violence is acceptable, or wanted by a partner.
Discuss with your teen the importance of building trust with a partner and how physical relationships are usually shared with someone special to us that we have an emotional connection with. These factors are often missing in pornographic images and video material.
If your teen is already in an intimate relationship, you may wish to talk to them about the importance of not pressuring their partner to do anything they do not wish to do. Likewise, they should never allow themselves to be pressured. Just because their partner (or they) saw something online, it does not mean they have to do it in real life.
Help your teen recognise that what they see in pornography is rarely safe. Actors are intentionally pushed to their limits to offer increased arousal to viewers. Explain that porn actors are paid to show they are enjoying the sex – what they are showing on screen is not real.
Similarly, porn usually ignores safe sex practices including even the simplest precaution of using condoms. Stress to your teen that in real life, if protection and care is not used during sex they are putting themselves at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, or injury.
Help your teenager understand that the actors in porn, and the things they do, are more often than not unrealistic. Watching porn will not help them understand what to expect from a sexual encounter. Talk to your teen about the performance of the actors and how they are doing what they do for money. Explain to them that drugs are sometimes used by the actors to maintain erections for abnormally long durations and how there are multiple takes of scenes and storylines are contrived.
Explain that in real life, most people do not look like the actors in explicit videos, pictures or magazines, as any porn actors have surgically ‘enhanced’ bodies. Your teen should not expect their partner to look like the women/men in porn, nor should your teen be expected to look that way themselves. The body images presented in porn are not realistic.
Parents and caregivers are right to be concerned about the growing number of young people accessing online pornography and the potential effects on their well-being. Rather than lecture our pre-teens and teens, the more constructive approach is to start open, honest conversations with our kids. Asking questions about how they feel and exploring issues of consent, respect and safety will equip young people with the knowledge and tools to make good choices in the future.
Finally, be sure to tell your kids often that they can come to you at any time with questions and provide them with phone line numbers so they can talk to someone else about their concerns (we have provided a chart below with helpful phone numbers that you can print off and give to your child).
University of Arkansas (2010). Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: a content analysis update. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20980228
FURTHER READING AND USEFUL RESOURCES
Personal Safety for children and young people: A guide for parents and carers – bravehearts.org.au/personalsafety
Office of the eSafety Commissioner
Online Safety: A guide for parents and carers – https://www.esafety.gov.au/parents/online-safety-guide
Australian Institute of Family Studies
Research about the effects of pornography on children and young people – https://aifs.gov.au/publications/effects-pornography-children-and-young-people
It’s Time We Talked
Stats, research and online resources for parents around young people and pornography – http://www.itstimewetalked.com.au/resources/
Office of the eSafety Commissioner
Everything you need to know about keeping kids and young people safe online – https://www.esafety.gov.au/parents
Richardson, J (2004). Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask): The secrets to surviving your child’s sexual development from birth to the teens. AVAILABLE ON AMAZON: https://www.amazon.com/Everything-Never-Wanted-About-Afraid/dp/1400051282
Harris, R.H (2014). It’s perfectly normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health. AVAILABLE ON AMAZON: https://www.amazon.com/Its-Perfectly-Normal-Changing-Growing/dp/0763668729/ref=dp_ob_title_bk
Information & Support Line: 1800 272 831 (8:30am – 4:30pm Mon to Fri AEST)
To report cyberbullying, online grooming or sexting: 1800 880 176
Phone counselling and support for children and young people: 1800 55 1800
Mental health support for young people: 1800 650 890
National sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service: 1800 737 732
This article was written by Zoe Hermans (Marketing Manager, Bravehearts), Jason Fagg (Coordinator of Turning Corners Program, Bravehearts) and Carol Ronken (Head of Research, Bravehearts).