Maybe you read the recent New York Times Magazine article about a program, nicknamed Porn Literacy, that aims to help teens think critically about what they see in pornography. If you haven’t read it, you should, especially if you’ve got kids over the age of 8. (More later on why I mention that age.)
It isn’t easy reading. It will make many parents uncomfortable to read descriptions of the kinds of things often depicted in porn today and kids’ reactions to them. It should make everyone uncomfortable to think that for so many kids, porn is a major source of information about sexuality.
But the reality is that many kids do get much of their education in sexuality from pornography. Most schools provide little sex ed beyond “don’t do it” and maybe some information on avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Most parents can’t quite bring themselves to say much about sex. So kids look to the world where they spend so much time: the internet. Sometimes they may look on reputable sites…but often, they find porn. Having no information to the contrary, they think what they see in porn is normal, that it reflects what ordinary people do and what they themselves should want. Yikes.
I’m not someone who thinks all porn is bad all the time. It has its place, especially ethical pornography that depicts balanced relationships and mutual pleasure. But I’m very, very concerned about kids thinking the male-focused, aggressive, often demeaning, and often violent images shown in most porn reflect reality.
Yes, It Could Be Your Kid
In a survey I conducted of 900 young adults, 50% said pornography had been an “important” or “somewhat important” part of their learning about sex—and an additional 8% said it was “very important.” The numbers were even higher for males: 62% said porn was “important” or “somewhat important,” and 15% more said it was “very important.” That’s a lot of kids getting a lot of unhelpful, even destructive, information.
And it starts early. Teens may go looking for porn, but younger kids often stumble on it. Several survey respondents reported seeing pornographic images when they were as young as 7 or 8 years old. This happens when a kid wonders what a word means, Googles the term, but gets images rather than a definition.
How Parents Can Help
It’s crucially important for parents to start talking about sexuality when kids are small. We need to be a source they can turn to when they have questions. If we’re not, they turn to less reliable sources. It may be awkward at first to talk about sex, bodies, and relationships, but the payoff is worth it.
With kids of any age, we need to provide a counterpoint to the crass, non-loving, even violent images they may see in porn and pop culture. At a minimum, we need to tell them that what’s shown in porn is a far cry from the sex most people experience. Most women do not like being hurt, ridiculed, or made to do things they don’t want to; they do not end up enjoying it. Most guys do not look or act like porn stars. If we don’t tell our kids, they won’t know.
We can also tell them what we think sex should be: nonviolent, consenting, reciprocal, respectful, loving. We can tell them that no partner should treat them as merely an object, that there’s much more to being a good lover than physical prowess, and that sex is best when both parties are attentive to each other as full human beings. We can talk about sex as an expression of love. Maybe we can say sex should be relaxed, mutually curious, and playful. We can provide a view of a different kind of sexuality, so when kids see porn (and they will), they can put it in context. The less power those images have over our young people, the healthier their view of sexuality will be.