When I was a kid, exposure to pornography consisted of a sneaky peak at the magazine stash I found under my older brother’s bed, and scanning my big sister’s romance novels for sex scenes. It wasn’t so much arousing as the intrigue and taboo was exciting, but how I loved to stare at the bodies of those daring ladies with their come hither eyes, bare breasts and full bushes; womanly things that were some time off for me. The closest I came to seeing sex on a screen was when Dad occasionally fell asleep in front of a late night movie or wasn’t quite quick enough with his plug-in remote to change the channel from awkward, but even then there was really nothing much to see.
Several decades on and kids today have 24/7 access to pornography at their fingertips, or at least those of their friends. Statistics suggest that by the age of twelve, inadvertently or otherwise they’ll view online porn. For most of us who grew up in a fairly porn-free culture by today’s standards, conversations with our kids about porn can feel a little more than foreign, but as parents and carers we have a duty of care to help them navigate the online world.
Excessive porn consumption has been identified as the villain in many sexual assault cases and by conservative groups with an anti-sex industry agenda. While it’s important to recognise there are some people working in the sex industry who are harmed by it, and that some young people consuming porn are developing unrealistic ideas about sex and sexuality, the deciding factor as to whether or not someone is likely to abuse another is their sense of entitlement and negative attitudes towards others. Those abusers who consume copious amounts of porn are likely to be raised in environments where women are viewed and treated as objects. A person encouraged to value equality, practice empathy, comprehend consent, and to be a discerning consumer of media is most likely to reject scenes that appear disrespectful to others and/or non-consensual, online and off. You don’t get addicted to something you don’t like.
If your basic concern is that your child will see people having sex, know that this in itself isn’t necessarily harmful to them. What is potentially harmful is never having conversations about sex, pornography and relationships at all, especially when a lot of what they’re exposed to delivers problematic narratives about sexual relationships and expectations. If you’ve never broached the subject and your child is in adolescence, now is the time. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Acknowledge that it’s completely normal and natural for people to be curious about sex and sexuality and that sex scenes can be fun and enjoyable to watch (they will probably already know this!) It’s important to foster healthy attitudes so be sure to not inadvertently paint sex or nudity as shameful or wrong.
- Be sure your child knows there won’t be any negative repercussions for speaking openly and honestly with you. Kids won’t talk to their parents if they’re afraid their devices will be taken away. Way to go if you don’t ever want them to talk to you again!
- Be prepared to be shocked. You may be surprised at what your innocent darling may have been exposed to, but they will be gauging your every reaction. Remember to stay calm, breathe, and offer support not judgement or shame. (See dot point 2)
- If it was ‘free hard-core porn’ they’ve been exposed to, it’s likely some scenes and acts didn’t appear consensual. Ask them how they felt about what they saw. Talk about the importance of enthusiastic consent and how the relationships between the actors in porn are very different to real-life relationships. Help them realise this by asking them to consider whether the production was ethical; ie. Do you think the performers were treated with respect on camera and off? Do you think the performers and production team were properly paid? How were they paid if you got to watch it for free*? Did the actors appear to be comfortable and consenting? Do you think they discussed what was going to happen before they started filming?
*(Most ‘free’ porn is a teaser to encourage paid subscription.)
- The reality is you can’t always be there to protect them, but you can arm and empower them by helping them recognise the importance of making conscious decisions about what they choose to expose themselves to. Short of being legally able to direct them to examples of educative, ethical sexual content, be open about the choices and responsibilities internet access brings and suggest they always ask themselves ‘Do I really want to see this?’ The same applies for any online content, not just porn; scary stuff, videos of horrific scenes, and other things that may cause trauma and distress. If they are disturbed by something they’ve seen, make sure they know they can always talk to you about it no matter what.
The internet is here to stay, the good the bad and the ugly. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand or delude ourselves that filters will protect them from exposure. If you want your kids to engage in healthy and respectful relationships, don’t leave the conversation too late.
Catherine Manning is the CEO & Program Director for SEED Workshops www.seedworkshops.com.au delivering in-school wellbeing programs and parent seminars.
Follow Twitter: @cathmanning or Facebook www.facebook.com/catherinemanningau