Features Tuesday, April 07, 2015 - 05:30
By Ellen Friedrichs Follow @ellenkatef Originally published on Everyday Feminism and re-published here with their permission. Like most people my age, my first exposure to porn predates the Internet. And while the majority of my youthful experiences were pretty tame (like sneaking into my friend Jen’s basement to peek at her dad’s Playboys), even in the days of print and VHS tapes things could get sketchy (like in eighth grade when I was shown an explicit porn by the pot-smoking adult tenant who rented a room in my friend Amanda’s house). But whatever the setting, the impact of porn on my life was much more limited than it is on the lives of a lot of today’s wired kids. So it is not surprising that in the decade that I have taught health and sex education, more than a few parents of middle schoolers have contacted me for advice after discovering their child looking at porn. Most of these parents were worried about the effect that seeing intense sexual imagery could have on a 12- or 13-year-old, and all of them reached out because it can be really hard to know what to say about porn to kids – or how to say it. So here are my recommendations to them. Stay Calm It is totally normal for a middle schooler to be interested in sex and sexual images. Porn-watching kids are not perverts, or weird, or on a slippery slope to deviancy. Besides masturbating, kids this age typically have very few outlets to express their sexuality, so looking at porn can be extremely appealing. Though a lot of people assume that seeing porn automatically damages kids, the research doesn’t back this up. In fact, most research on the subject is inconclusive at best. Parents also need to remember that just like adults, the kind of porn that a kid looks does not automatically signal the kind of sex that kid is personally interested in. Now maybe if what your kid is watching is of the BDSM, or same-gender, or kinky variety, that is an indication of your child’s current or future identity or tastes. But maybe it isn’t. And trying to determine a middle schooler’s identity based on their browser history is probably not going to be very productive. It’s also just as normal for girls to be interested in porn as boys. A big difference, however, is that boys are more likely to get the message that it is acceptable for them to look at porn, while girls may feel more ashamed of their interest. Some of It Is Sex Ed Though a lot of middle schoolers seek out porn for the thrill or to get turned on, plenty of youth actually turn to porn for sex education! Porn’s role in sex ed isn’t so surprising when we take into account that according to the Guttmacher Institute, while 75% of middle schools in the United States teach abstinence, just a little over 30% teach about any other aspect of sexuality. Additionally, a study out of Harvard found that 40% of parents only initiate a sex talk after their kids have become sexually active (which in the United States happens on average at 17). Of course, since most modern kids encounter porn online, those same kids could also access sites like Scarleteen, Planned Parenthood, or Advocates for Youth where they will get way more accurate information. Definitely steer your kids that way – but also keep in mind that there is no denying that as solid as these educational sites are, they simply don’t include the incredibly enticing visual aspect of porn. Prepping for the Porn Talk So now that you know why you need to have the talk, here are some tips on getting ready for it: 1. Don’t make your first conversation about sex be the porn talk. A lot of parents imagine they will bring up sex for the first time when a child asks about it. However, some kids will never raise the subject, so it’s up to you to initiate a conversation long before a date that may never naturally occur. Even if you just discovered your child has been browsing XXX sites that make you cringe, your initial sex talk shouldn’t focus on this aspect of sex. 2. Practice having a discussion with your child’s other parent(s), a friend, or by yourself before you talk to your child. Make a list of what you want to say and of all of your child’s potential responses. If you co-parent, you and your child’s other parent(s) don’t have to think about porn in the same way, but it can be helpful to get on the same page about having a conversation with your kids. 3. Try to have this talk when you both are relaxed and have time and privacy. Some parents like to talk while taking a walk, driving, doing an activity like shopping or playing video games. That way, silences aren’t as awkward. 4. If you’re feeling nervous or embarrassed, tell your child. Sex can be hard to talk about, and it’s okay to admit that to your kids. 5. Don’t put your shame about sex on your kids by making them feel guilty about having sexual desires. Many people seem to think that if we embarrass kids about their sexuality, we will somehow nip any deviance in the bud. We won’t. All we will do is replicate a sex-negative cycle and thwart a young person’s healthy development. 6. Ask how your child feels about the conversation. Don’t be upset if they are defensive or annoyed or silent. But do give them a chance to share how they feel. And as Melanie Davis, the program associate with Our Whole Lives, one of the most comprehensive sex education programs around, explains: “Parents should clearly express their values regarding pornography and other sexualized images. One way to do this is to talk with their children about TV commercials, magazine covers, movies, or music lyrics that focus only on people’s bodies or sexuality. Are those healthy messages? Are people being portrayed realistically and respectfully? Is sexuality being honored or cheapened? Frequent, short conversations may mean that if or when young adolescents view pornography, they do so more critically and realistically.” Now that you have some general rules for a conversation about porn, just what are you going to say? Highlight the Differences Between Pornography and Reality in a Way That Isn’t Awkward for Kids Kids should understand that what they see in porn is typically an exaggeration of sex that doesn’t really resemble the real thing. Explain that just as with any movie, what you see in most porn is simply acting. So while it’s fine to get turned on by porn, porn is a fantasy, and much like any fantasy (say, the Hunger Games or Harry Potter), we shouldn’t imagine real life looks the same. Getting this message across without making kids uncomfortable can be tough. So here are some ways to cover the differences between porn and reality that address the issue honestly, but which don’t exclusively focus on the details of the sex itself. 1. Unrealistic Bodies Male porn actors typically have huge penises. Female porn stars are usually very thin, but have very large breasts and shaved pubic hair. Though it’s not about porn specifically, you and your child can check out the documentary MissRepresentation, which offers a lot of easy to understand information about media portrayals of women and girls, and which even comes in a version specifically for middle schoolers. Plus, the movie has an accompanying curriculum that is worth checking out, even if you aren’t an educator. 2. Appropriation of Labels and Reinforcing Oppression (Trigger Warning: This section includes transphobic slurs.) “Lesbian” porn is often geared towards hetero men’s fantasies and rarely reflects typical sex between women. Terms like “chicks with dicks” and “she/male” are used to other trans folk. As a parent, it’s important to humanize people and point out that a lot of porn fetishizes difference and further entrenches negative ideas about race, gender, and sexuality. Referencing people you know (or public figures) who could be misrepresented by porn depictions is one way to challenge the idea that certain people exist only in a sexual realm. 3. Lack of Communication People in porn rarely have to discuss sex and yet have mind-blowing orgasms and intuitively know each other’s needs. Talking to young people about the decision to have sex in general can help kids understand the importance of communication. You might want to show your middle schooler this checklist I created, which is designed to help teens think about what makes someone ready to have sex and which stresses the fact that the decision to have sex should involve a lot more than simply the desire to do so. 4. Misogyny Unfortunately, a lot of porn displays hostility, disregard for, and violence towards women and girls. Though some porn is more egalitarian – or even made by women for a female audience – a lot of mainstream porn depicts women in a degrading manner. Having a conversation about misogyny with your children can be a good way to highlight how deeply entrenched a lot of sexist ideas are. Here are some questions that you might want to ask: Have you heard the term “sexism?” What do you think it means? Can you give me any examples of sexism? Do you think sexism is still a problem today? Have you ever witnessed sexism? Do you think sexist advertisements, literature, and speeches should be against the law? What about pornography? What makes someone attractive? Do you think males and females are held to the same standards of attractiveness? What is different? What audience do you think most porn is made for? How do you think that affects the kind of porn that is made? Do you think porn could make a girl or woman feel bad about herself? Why? What about a boy or man? 5. Safer Sex It’s never too early (really!) to have a conversation about safer sex. But condom use is rarely highlighted in porn despite the very real risks of unprotected sex. In fact, many people in the porn industry have fought to make sure that condoms are not required because they assume that audiences don’t find condoms sexy. Actually having condoms (and even dams) on hand to show kids what they look like when talking about this aspect of sex can make these devices seem like a normal, expected part of real life sex. 6. Sexual Activity A lot of what is depicted in porn is a wildly exaggerated version of sex. Luckily, there are plenty of decent sex education books for kids out there which can help explain sex a little more accurately. For high schoolers, I’d recommend Sex: A Book for Teens: An Uncensored Guide to Your Body, Sex, and Safety by Nikol Hasler. After getting a sneak preview with my 8-year-old daughter, I am excitedly waiting for Cory Silverberg’s Sex Is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU, which is out in May. In the meantime, Doing It Right: Making Smart, Safe, and Satisfying Choices About Sex by Bronwen Pardes and Let’s Talk About S-E-X: A Guide for Kids 9 to 12 and Their Parents by Sam Gitchel and Lorri Foster are also good bets. Encourage your child to come to you if they have any questions about porn or sex. Easier said than done, right? But it is possible. The organization Options for Sexual Health has a great publication on becoming an “Askable Adult.” Among their suggestions are: Use correct vocabulary for sexual anatomy. Keep your child’s confidences. Deliver the message “Talk to me if you need me; I promise I won’t get mad” – and mean it. Don’t make “the sex talk” a one time thing. Try to create normalcy around the subject of sexuality which opens the door for clarification. Talking the Talk An awful lot of kids come across porn during middle school, and an awful lot of parents aren’t sure how to respond when they discover this. As a result, many turn to Internet filters, punishments, avoidance, or anger. But as most of those parents will probably admit, those methods aren’t really effective. Hopefully, starting a conversation about sexuality long before porn comes onto the scene – and weaving porn into a sex talk, rather than making it the sole focus of one – will help make this topic become a much more manageable one. Ellen Friedrichs is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a health educator, sometime writer, and mom. She has worked at Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, developed sex education curricula in Mumbai, India, and run HIV prevention programs for at-risk teens in the South Bronx. Currently, Ellen teaches human sexuality at Brooklyn College (something she also did at Rutgers University). Ellen also runs About.com’s LGBT Teens site. More of Ellen’s writing can be found here. Follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef. Read her articles. Tweet Follow @thenewsminute

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