My 10-Year-Old Just Saw Porn For The First Time. Here's What I Told Him.

"In retrospect, porn is something I should have talked to him about before there was potential for him to view it."
A few weeks ago, my son told me his 12-year-old friend had shown him something “inappropriate” on “The Hub.” It didn’t immediately click.
A few weeks ago, my son told me his 12-year-old friend had shown him something “inappropriate” on “The Hub.” It didn’t immediately click.
Christopher Hopefitch via Getty Images

My son is almost 11 and entering middle school in the fall, which means he’s right on the cusp of puberty. While he’s not yet interested in sex in the erotic sense, he’s extremely interested in understanding the mechanics (and also in telling approximately 7,000 “deez nuts“ jokes a day). This phase has involved answering some of the hardest questions of my parenting career, from “What does semen look like?” to “How do gay people have sex together?”

And yet, a few weeks ago, when my son told me his 12-year-old friend had shown him something “inappropriate” on “The Hub,” it didn’t immediately click. He mentioned it a few times, but always amid the frenzied chaos of trying to get out of the house on time to make the bus for camp, or when I was trying to get dinner ready, and it kind of bounced off my harried single-mom brain without making impact.

Until the third or fourth reference, when he finally specified he meant PORNHUB. (He later explained that he calls it “The Hub” because saying the word porn “makes him feel uncomfortable inside.”)

Apparently, he was on a group chat with said friend and another friend when the older boy screen-shared some clips from the adult site. It took a while for all the details to come out, but it seems he witnessed some, let’s just say aggressive oral sex.

“Someone put the wiener in their mouth!!!” he shout-explained it.

I’d been dreading the approach of an age where he would need his own cell phone, partly because it felt like handing him a pocket-sized porn machine. I’m not sure why I felt like porn was any less accessible on the iPad he already has, except that he mostly uses it to play video games and usually while he’s sitting right next to me. I do regular spot checks of what he’s viewing and who he’s talking to, but I’m a single mom who works full-time ― I’d be lying if I said I supervised every second of his device usage.

Bottom line: I thought I had time for the porn conversation.

Still, at the moment, I knew I wanted to impart a few ideas: 1) You are not in trouble, and curiosity about sex is natural. 2) Porn is for adults and not meant for children, and 3) Porn is not sex education and does not necessarily reflect reality.

The third point was the hardest to explain. When I told him that porn is made by actors who are doing a job, he countered with, “What do you mean actors??? The wiener was IN her mouth!!”

Deep breath. Yes, the wiener was actually in her mouth. But porn is meant to be entertainment for adults and does not necessarily reflect the reality of sex between two people, I explained. (This led to a conversation about sex work, which I told him was a job like any other job.)

I felt pretty good about our off-the-cuff conversation, but in retrospect, porn is something I should have talked to him about before there was potential for him to view it.

Afterward, I told Erica Smith, a sexuality educator and consultant, what happened and asked her when parents should start talking to their children about porn. While she says there’s no exact age that these conversations should start, she suggests getting out ahead of the issue and offers up a few guidelines: “Before puberty. Once you know they have unmonitored access to the internet or devices. If they’re already expressing curiosity about sexuality topics. If they spend time with older kids unsupervised.”

Smith directed me to Sex Positive Families, where you can even find scripts for how to broach the topic with children of various ages.

And look, I’m sure some of you are wondering what tween boy immediately notifies his mom after viewing porn, and I, too, am continually incredulous (but grateful!) that he comes to me with all this stuff. I am sure at some point his teenage sense of privacy is going to kick in, but for now, we are having these incredibly open and honest conversations about sex and sexuality the same way we have them about social injustice, or how to deal with hard feelings.

Although I sometimes get a little weary of being notified every time he has an erection, I am glad he feels such a lack of stigma about sex that he is totally comfortable talking to me about it. (For the record, I have told him I don’t really need to know the erection thing.)

I don’t believe sex or porn are inherently bad, and treating them as such only drives children into secrecy and shame regarding their inherent curiosity and naturally developing sexuality.

“All the parental controls in the world are not as effective as having a relationship in which your kids know they can come to you with their sex questions.”

I was raised evangelical Christian with a heavy emphasis on “premarital sex = bad,” and partly as a result, I never told anyone when I was assaulted at 14. I was too afraid I’d be in trouble for having sex, even though I hadn’t chosen to.

By treating sex as a neutral topic, I increase the odds that my son will be able to talk to me if he has any kind of sexual problem in the future. As a fifth-grader, he had his first sex education unit this year, but it spanned all of a day, and as far as I know, didn’t cover porn or a lot of other topics I want him to know about like consent and body diversity. By coming to me with his sex questions instead of the internet or his friends, he gets the accurate information he needs to stay safe, and hopefully, grow into a healthy adult sexuality.

The casualness with which we discuss sex topics also means that it’s not limited to some big “sex talk,” but an ongoing series of talks we are having organically.

Like at a restaurant dinner the next week, when he announced, “I can’t stop thinking about oral sex.” (Lord, help me.)

“OK, what questions do you have?” I asked him. So many, it turns out. (Lord, also help any fellow diners who were within earshot of our conversation.)

But his questions led to a deeper talk about how porn is often presenting a male fantasy of what sex should be like, and does not always take the woman’s pleasure into account. (Of course, there are women who enjoy all different kinds of sex, but you rarely see a focus in heterosexual porn on, for instance, a woman’s orgasm. Further, plenty of sex acts that consenting adult women might enjoy play out in porn as reality instead of complicated, nuanced fantasy, and aren’t necessarily the acts I want forming my son’s nascent arousal templates.)

To that point, I told him porn serves a purpose and a lot of adults do watch it sometimes, but that I don’t want him learning about sex by watching it now, when he is still developing and forming impressions of what sex may be like.

There’s a lot of noise when it comes to how kids are affected by viewing porn, and a lot of bunk “research” being presented by religious groups who are also anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice, etc. As Smith points out, no one has actually studied the effects of porn on kids because it would be illegal to show kids pornography. Instead, researchers rely on self-reported experiences from adults. But at least one study found ties between the age of porn viewership and views about sex roles, including wanting power over women.

Sex Positive Families also provides a list of ways to help children think critically about sexualized media, including: “Porn does not provide an accurate representation of bodies, sex, consent, or relationships” and ”Porn often does not show safer sex practices like condoms, barrier methods, contraception, or discussions between partners about these.”

“I get it,” my own little critical thinker told me at the end of our conversation. “It isn’t real.”

Our conversation was a little easier since he hadn’t sought out the porn in the first place, and didn’t particularly want to watch more of it. (Not like my friend’s daughter, whose mom checked her browser history to find out she’d been watching videos of various animals “humping” like it was her job.) My kid has a pretty good sense of what’s not appropriate for him, and a strong inner voice about what makes him uncomfortable, and for now, porn is on that list.

I don’t know how long I may have before my kid shuts himself in his bedroom and starts communicating in grunts. But I’ve done my best to let him know he can always come to me with any question or problem, and I will never judge or shame him.

As Smith points out, all the parental controls in the world are not as effective as having a relationship in which your kids know they can come to you with their sex questions.

“Sometimes parents will install software or limit their kid’s access to the internet in other ways ― this is all up to the individual parent,” she says. “But the truth is, it’s super easy to access porn no matter what, and the best thing you can do as a parent is keep communication open.”

Emily McCombs is the deputy editor of HuffPost Personal. She writes and edits first-person essays on all topic areas including identity (race, gender, sexuality, etc.), love and relationships, sex, parenting and family, addiction and mental health, and body politics.

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