Parenting

How To Talk To Your Kids About Porn

Here are some age-appropriate ways to discuss pornography with children.
10/17/2018 11:16am ET | Updated October 22, 2018
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HuffPost spoke to sex educators about the best ways to talk to kids about porn. 

The idea of talking to your child about pornography may feel terrifying, humiliating or just straight-up awkward. But it’s a necessary conversation for parents who want to raise kids with a healthy understanding of sex.

“It’s frustrating to me how slow society is in getting on board with how important porn literacy is for young people,” sexuality educator Robin Wallace-Wright told HuffPost. “I teach in many middle and high schools and it is very apparent that students are getting a lot of their sex education through viewing porn. I see from the questions they ask me how it skews what healthy relationships and sex should be like, causes body image issues and unrealistic performance expectations.”

Although porn is a tough topic, it’s a reality in our world, with kids as young 5 years old being exposed to sexually explicit media thanks to smart devices, video games and other mainstays of the digital age. Fortunately, parents have the power to shape their children’s worldview through meaningful discussions about these issues.

To offer some guidance, HuffPost spoke to sex educators about the best ways to talk to kids about porn. Here are 11 things to keep in mind.

Start Early

“We know from preliminary research that the average age of first viewing of porn is between 10 to 12 for boys and 11 to 13 for girls. So it’s best to get ahead of that,” sex education teacher Kim Cavill told HuffPost.

Many kids come across porn accidentally while searching for something unrelated on the internet or when they’re feeling curious about puberty and their bodies, but kids often show it to younger kids on the playground or even at school as well.

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Speaking calmly and in a neutral tone of voice makes a difference in these kinds of sensitive discussions.

“Talking with children helps prepare them and can help minimize potential harm. It also allows the parent to give the child some insight into what they may see,” said Wallace-Wright, who advised parents to be mindful about giving their children smartphones and tablets and setting rules for internet use.

Remain Calm

Speaking calmly and in a neutral tone of voice makes a difference in these kinds of sensitive discussions, according to Wallace-Wright. “Parents are understandably concerned, but this fear cannot creep into their voices during discussions, or their child will sense this and become anxious,” she noted.

Wallace-Wright also offered a general script for parents who want to broach the subject:

“If you ever come across naked bodies doing sexual things like touching each other’s private parts, rubbing against each other ― this is called pornography or porn. I know it seems weird that I’m bringing this up with you ― I feel awkward talking about it. I bring it up because you might accidentally see porn and I want you to know these images and videos are for adults and don’t show what real, loving relationships and sex are. If you see these, please know that you are not in trouble. I’d like you to close the computer or turn off the phone and come talk with me so I can help explain what you have seen.”

Reassure Them That Their Curiosity Is Natural

“Always let them know that their curiosity about sex, about nudity, about bodies, about porn is normal,” sex educator Melissa Carnagey explained, noting that parents should reassure their children that they’re glad they came to them to ask about these curiosities. Shame and secrets should not be part of the discussion either.

“Always let them know that their curiosity about sex, about nudity, about bodies, about porn is normal.”

- Sex educator Melissa Carnagey

“It’s important that parents create that safe space so that no topic is taboo essentially. Parents often underestimate their influence when it comes to this area,” she continued. “Make sure kids understand that porn is not sex education. So if kids want to know more about these different topics, then the best place to go is the parents, and there are also safer places online where they can get accurate information about sex.”

Don’t Get Too Personal At First

When it comes to older kids or teens, Cavill believes it’s better to enter into the discussion from a digital ethics perspective, rather than bombarding your child with deeply personal questions like “Have you watched porn?” “What kind of porn do you watch?” and “Where are you watching it?”

“The internet feels very private to each of us, when in reality, it’s not, so bursting through that shroud of perceived privacy can be really confronting, which is not a great way to start off a conversation,” she explained.

Instead, she recommends asking open-ended questions about what friends and classmates are doing. It can also be helpful to feign a little bit of “old-people ignorance,” by asking questions like, “I heard this story on the radio today about these sexting rings. Have you heard about anything like that happening at your school?” That allows parents and young people to start the conversation in a non-confrontational way and see where it takes them.

asiseeit via Getty Images
It's important to emphasize to young people that pornography has little to do with sex in real life.

Emphasize That Porn Is Entertainment, Not Reality

“I always make sure to say that pornography is sex as entertainment. It is not sex in real life,” said Cavill. “Some of that sex as entertainment is made to simulate real life, but it is entertainment. It has very little to do with sex in real life.”

The sex educator added that she usually follows this declaration by joking that watching pornography and feeling like you’re ready for real-life sex makes as much sense as watching “Star Wars” and insisting to NASA that you’re ready to pilot the shuttle.

In explaining that porn is entertainment, it’s important to emphasize that it’s not a healthy way to learn about sex. Carnagey noted that mainstream pornography transmits mixed messages and harmful ideas about the human body, about what’s natural and what’s enhanced, about consent and about safety.

“Oftentimes in mainstream porn, they’re not showing condom use or other contraceptive use, so it’s not a healthy representation of sex,” she explained. ”Porn is an industry that’s for profit, not sex education. It’s not going to give a curious child accurate information about relationships, bodies and sex.”

Break Down The Ways Porn Differs From Real-Life Sex

Wallace-Wright offered a number of talking points for parents of older children to break down the ways porn is not like sex in real life.

“In a healthy sexual relationship partners talk to each other, they find out what feels good for both of them and check in: ‘Does this feel OK?’ Before doing any kind of sexual act, they get consent from their partner: ‘Are you OK with us doing this?’” she explained. “Partners treat each other with kindness and respect throughout.”

“[W]atching pornography and feeling like you’re ready for real-life sex makes as much sense as watching 'Star Wars' and insisting to NASA that you’re ready to pilot the shuttle.”

Other talking points include the fact that the bodies in porn usually don’t look like most people’s bodies (penises are often larger than average, breasts have been enlarged, etc), consent is seldom asked or given, the sex can be violent and there’s rarely equality in gender roles in heterosexual porn as women are “servicing” men with little consideration to their own pleasure.

“Porn is acting. Actors are paid to do what they do. This is not what real sex looks or sounds like,” she stressed. Wallace-Wright also suggested that parents tell their kids, ”The only thing that appears to be of value in porn is how sexually desirable a person’s body is. Your value is so much more than what you look like ― it includes your personality, character, interests, talents ― all the things that make you you!”

Teach Them Everyone’s The Boss Of Their Own Body

When it comes to sexual matters, young children generally have two main fears: “Do I have to do that?” and “Does it hurt?” When it comes to porn, little kids may worry that the people in the video are in pain because of the moaning sounds they make.

After clarifying that the porn actors are not hurt, parents can take the opportunity to remind their child that they are the boss of their own body.

“I’d reassure them that you never have to do anything with your body that you don’t want to do,” said Cavill. “So if you don’t want to watch videos like that or if you don’t want to do the same things with your body, you don’t have to do that. You’re the boss of your body.”

Regarding the pain concern, she added, “Most people choose to have sex because most of the time, sex feels really good. But you don’t have to do anything with your body that you don’t want to do.”

Use Resources

Carnagey and Cavill both recommend Amaze.org’s YouTube videos to help guide the discussion about pornography. “There’s a video called ‘Porn: Fact or Fiction’ that’s short, fun and age-appropriate,” Carnagey said.

“A parent watching something like that with their young person is a great way to spark a conversation, and it can offer some language to parents feeling nervous about how to say what they need to say,” she added.

Carnagey also recommends the book Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World by Devorah Heitner, who also offers resources online to help parents raising digital natives.

Additionally, Carnagey is an ambassador for The Porn Conversation, an organization founded by ethical porn producer Erika Lust to help parents have meaningful conversations with their children about these topics. She also has a free downloadable resource on the Sex Positive Families website called “Porn Talks: A Cheat Sheet for Parents & Caring Adults.”

Make It Clear They Can Come To You

“It is key that the parent reassures the child they can come to them any time they see something upsetting or have any questions,” Wallace-Wright said. She advised parents to tell their children: “If you ever see anything you don’t understand, or that makes you uncomfortable, please let me know. I’m here to talk to and help you.”

Ideally, before the porn discussion comes up, parents will have already started having small conversations about sexuality with their children on topics like body parts, gender, puberty and relationships.

“This gives their child a foundation of knowledge the parent can build upon ― i.e., they’ve already discussed how loving relationships involve communication, tenderness, respect, so it makes more sense to the child about how porn does not convey a loving relationship,” Wallace-Wright explained.

Kids often have questions about what exactly porn is, or the specific acts they saw when they came across porn, said Carnagey. Although there are ethical forms of porn on the internet, the videos and images kids see tend to be mainstream porn, which gives off a lot of harmful and toxic messages about consent, gender roles, dynamics, race, ableism, etc.

“[Y]ou can’t really effectively parent from a place of fear, as understandable as it is.”

“What we have to do as parents and caring adults is open up those conversations, so we make sure that we give them the tools and lens to be able to interpret what they see and to know they have a safe place to go to if they have questions or if something comes up,” she explained.

Know It’s About More Than Online Videos

Cavill emphasized that the pornography discussion shouldn’t revolve solely around PornHub-type media.

“That’s not the only way young people are experiencing pornography,” she explained. “Because of the normalcy of sexting and digital life and sending nudes back and forth, there have to be conversations around the laws that intersect with those kinds of behaviors.”

In many states, there are laws that criminalize teenagers sending nude photos back in forth as manufacturing and disseminating child pornography, and although enforcement is inconsistent, Cavill believes it’s important for middle and high schoolers to be aware of what their state’s legal system says.

Parents can broach this topic by asking their kids if classmates engage in sexting. “Then you can say, ‘I think we should probably look up what the laws are in our state about this, just so we know, right? Why don’t we look those up together?’”

That way, families can frame the discussion in terms of internet ethics and being responsible online. From there, Cavill recommends talking about specific family values when it comes to sex: “This is what the law says is legal, but this is what our family believes is the moral thing to do and not to do on top of those legal standards.”

Teach Them To Reduce Digital Risk

Parents can ask their kids to refrain from risky digital behavior, but issuing commands like “Never send nudes!” is not particularly effective. Cavill noted that it’s important to send the message that it’s illegal to ask for nude photos as well.

“Many young girls have reported feeling harassed and coerced into this kind of behavior. They’re not choosing it but get a lot of persistent messages until they finally just send a photo to make it stop,” she said, adding that young people also don’t know what to do if they’re being harassed in this way.

Westend61 via Getty Images
The conversation around nude photos should cover the risk in sending nudes but also in asking for them. 

Ultimately, Cavill advised parents and caring adults to be realistic about the kinds of behaviors young people engage in and give them the information they need to reduce their risk ― like the laws in their state, what to do if they feel harassed, how to deal with nude photos after a consensual relationship has ended, who to talk to if they’re in a tough situation, etc.

“My main caution for parents who are understandably fearful about this kind of stuff ― though I’d argue you can’t really effectively parent from a place of fear, as understandable as it is ― is not to go into it with a kind of authoritarian rule-passing,” she explained.

“Parents want to go into the conversation like, ‘Let me see your phone!’ ‘Where’s your fake Instagram account?’ ‘Let me check your phone every day!’ ‘Don’t do this!’ For some kids, that does work, but not for most,” she continued. “For most, you get what looks like compliance. But they just get better at hiding it, and then you haven’t really talked about risk in a way that feels connected to what young people are dealing with on the ground.”

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