Talking to Kids About O

I teach sex ed. In light of a recent report on exploitation of children on the site Pornhub, I have some talking points for parents.

By Derek Abella

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s recent report on videos of child sexual abuse on the website Pornhub may have parents wondering if their own children are watching Pornhub, or other porn websites. Others may be appalled by the possibility that their child may view videos of assault and rape, or ask for or send sexually explicit selfies that could end up on social media or a porn site.

All kinds of kids come across porn, and some routinely seek it out, younger than parents might expect. Beware of thinking “not my child.” In my experience as a sex education teacher and national consultant on relationships and consent, I talk about sex with lots of kids. It’s a rare teen who hasn’t seen sexually explicit media — for some, even before having a first kiss.

Here are some talking points and guidelines to consider.

Before you start the discussion with your children, consider what you might want them to think, learn and know about sexuality and intimacy.

Think about whether the messages you give are about porn or about sex. As Mr. Kristof wrote, “It should be possible to be sex positive and Pornhub negative.”

For younger children, under 10, “If we want children’s understanding of sexuality to be connected to human intimacy, we must talk about how physical and emotional intimacy are related to each other,” said Deborah Roffman, author of “Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ ‘Go-To’ Person About Sex.”

She suggested talking with your child about “cuddling and the amazing feelings it evokes — help them name feeling safe, loved and protected. That physical contact within the context of pornography is the opposite of that.”

It is also important to have parental controls in place on digital devices, to help protect kids from accidentally seeing something disturbing.

For kids in middle school, I provide concrete metaphors to make the point that porn isn’t an accurate portrayal of sex and certainly not of sexual intimacy. I tell my students, “Sometimes people look at porn because they want to learn about sex, but that’s like watching ‘The Fast and the Furious to learn how to drive.” Then we watch the trailer for “The Fast and the Furious” and discuss questions like, who was impacted by the driving? What were the consequences? What makes it entertaining to watch? How is it different from real life?

These conversations help my students understand that porn creates highly dramatized, even caricatured images of sex, just as the film does with driving, and that real-life experiences may look very different.

Try to talk with your teenager openly and honestly, and without judgment, shaming or ultimatums. Choose a time that is private and somewhat casual, like a car ride (which can feel less intensely intimate because eyes are focused ahead and not on each other) or a walk or hike (because an activity and movement serves the same purpose) or late at night after a family movie (kids are smart, they know adults tend to be tired around this time and will talk less and listen more).

This should be the start of a series of conversations, not a one-time lecture. Stick with open-ended “how” and “what” questions, like “What do you think teenagers use pornography for?” Or, “How do you think porn impacts people’s real-life relationships?” Let them be the experts of their own experience and start with what they observe and think about the topic rather than pushing them to tell you about their porn experiences.

Your teenager is likely to resist any conversation with you about porn — and about any topic related to sex. Still, it’s important for you to raise the issue and make sure your child has the important information they need, even if they don’t seem to want to hear it.

The absence of a response does not necessarily mean that your child is not listening. You can say, for example, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about porn, but the opportunity hasn’t really come up yet, so I’m just going to share some of the information I think is important.” If you meet resistance, you might continue with, “I know this is awkward and difficult. It is for me, too. I also realize this may or may not be relevant to you, but it’s pervasive in our culture, so I want to make sure you have some important information about porn and healthy relationships.”

As part of your conversations, even if they are one-sided, it’s important to include the following messages:

Porn is someone else’s fantasy that doesn’t come from your own imagination and is not reflective of most people’s sexual realities and safe sexuality practices.

Porn is entertainment, and is largely driven by making what sells and what will make a profit.

Performers’ bodies are typically altered and enhanced to curate a specific look.

The models are hired to perform, so it is possible that it’s contractual, not consensual.

There’s nothing private about it. Privacy is a healthy component of a sexual relationship.

What you’re seeing is not realistic on many levels. For example, a 10-minute sex scene may take hours to make. Actors often use erectile enhancers to maintain arousal. If a scene doesn’t come out the way they want it, they just reshoot it. Editing after the fact creates a specific representation.

It is relatively common for children under 18 to ask for, take, send and receive nudes, but doing so can carry real consequences. The federal government considers it trafficking in child pornography, even if you are taking and sending pictures of yourself. Educate yourself on federal laws regarding pornography and your state’s teen sexting laws.

If your child tells you about sending a nude, do your best to stay composed and resist any temptation to interrogate, shame or victim-blame. You may say, “I’m glad that you’ve come to me to tell me.” Focus on the person who has broken trust with your child and is sharing or posting the pictures.

When people’s nude images are posted online without their consent, they may experience the violation as if it had happened in person. It can be devastating. Ask what your child would like to share. Remember that abuse is a disempowering experience; we want survivors to feel they can have autonomy as they navigate their process. Use open-ended questions and their comfort level to guide the conversation. Empower them to make their own choices by offering options and resources like therapeutic counseling or reporting to law enforcement.

As a parent, you have been teaching your children values in all aspects of their lives. Talk about what mutual respect looks, sounds and feels like within a sexual context. It’s important to emphasize that sexual relationships can include both emotional and physical intimacy; the connection usually includes romantic interest and sexual attraction.

Without guidance from the adults in their lives about how pleasurable sexual experiences should look, sound, and feel, kids are working from the representations they see on screens. Make sure to provide age appropriate, medically accurate information about sexuality as well as guidance on how to apply that information to their intimate relationships. Encourage your kids to define gender for themselves, to avoid letting stereotypes shape their actions, and to be sober and brave in social and sexual situations.

Remind them that sexual discovery should be good, exciting and fun for both partners. Most of all, emphasize that sex is not a performance, but a felt experience.

Shafia Zaloom is the author of “Sex, Teens and Everything in Between.”

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