Talking to teens about porn

Porn is not easy to discuss in a family forum. A quick poll among fellow parents reveals that most of them have left the topic in the too-hard basket, relying either on internet controls or their children’s common sense to be the regulator. Which is ironic if you think about it: we teach them about road safety, stranger danger and walking away from a fight, yet we shy away from guiding them across the treacherous landscape of internet pitfalls.

 

So what exactly is wrong with photos of naked ladies, you may – reasonably – ask. In a nutshell: nothing much, if it’s an artistic photo, particularly if the cellulite is not airbrushed. Every parent has different levels of pornography tolerance, so while your household’s values may frown upon even “vanilla” photos of naked ladies, let’s be very clear that the harmful porn mentioned in this article is a lot more hard-core. We’re talking about images that may make the viewer feel physically unwell, and even cause longer-term disturbances of their mental and emotional health.

 

Many articles about this topic suggest starting the conversation by asking your teen whether they know what porn is, whether they know anyone who’s seen it, whether they themselves have come into contact with it. Problem is, that sounds like an interrogation, and it may make your child think they’re in trouble even if they’re not guilty. Another way of introducing the topic, the Internet says, is to warn the child that you need to discuss something awkward. My test panel (of two teenagers) disagrees: “Mum, sexuality shouldn’t be viewed as awkward.” Point taken.

 

Straightforward is best, I’m told. “No, actually not discussing it at all is best, Mum, but if you absolutely have to, just say: ‘here is what I need you to know about things you may see online.’”

 

Right. So here’s what I need my teens to know about things they may see online (you’re welcome to adapt it to suit your family):

  • There’s a difference between sex and porn. Sex is natural and normal. Porn is something different altogether.
  • Porn is neither real nor realistic, and it can create impossible expectations. The plumber doesn’t ring the doorbell five minutes after you called him… sorry, bad joke, but you get the sentiment. The action in the videos is usually scripted and edited, while the bodies are digitally or surgically altered to look super-human. In short, porn is an artificial product, a fantasy.
  • Except that porn is not just harmless fantasy. Sometimes porn depicts cruelty, violence, humiliation and unsafe (sometimes illegal) behaviour. It has nothing to do with human sexuality, intimacy, or love. It’s not a good template for relationships or even one-night encounters.
  • Most actors get paid to take part, and it’s sad that they need to earn money in this way, but what’s even sadder is that occasionally they get exploited or cheated out of their financial share.
  • Because of hormones and our biological makeup, sometimes our bodies can get aroused by images that our minds find distasteful and disturbing. One excellent reason for not watching porn is so that you don’t feel bad about your body reacting to something you know is wrong.
  • It’s a good idea to plan now what to do if you accidentally click on a link to pornography, or if a friend shows you such contents. (A comment from the test panel: “Mum, nobody shows you pornography. It’s not something you do together.”)
  • Sexuality as such is not shameful. Nudity is not shameful. What’s shameful is to objectify, to take advantage of and to abuse human beings. To quote from The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality Behind the Fantasy of Pornography by Matt Fradd: “Anytime we capture the image of another—be it for artistic purposes or for entertainment—the display of that image should lead others to celebrate the mystery and the depth of humanity, not encourage them to treat the person as a cheap assembly of body parts.”

 

My 16-year old has kindly asked a few of her friends what they would want their parents to tell them about porn, or what they’d tell a younger sibling. Here are some of their responses:

  • “That it’s fake.”
  • “Kids shouldn’t be influenced by it.”
  • “I don't think parents should do things like try to block websites or restrict access to devices. They should talk about the dangers, such as porn’s addictive qualities and malicious viruses you can get by clicking on ads displayed on most porn sites.”
  • “Understand that there is some disturbing sh*t out there, and if you are easily disturbed, resist the temptation to click. Also, that people shouldn’t be ‘ashamed’ or conflicted as to what their preferences are, because it’s often outside your control.”
  • “I would want them to say that it’s not anything like real life. And that it can ruin you. But I would also like them to distinguish between masturbation and pornography. Masturbation is a normal healthy thing. Pornography is not good for you in any way.”

 

I’m always pleasantly surprised by how much our teenagers know already.

 

The takeaway messages for the teens

  • Being a teen is difficult enough. Don’t let porn mess up your emotional health or put your relationships at risk.
  • It's okay to be curious, and to be really embarrassed about asking questions.
  • If you're worried about knowing "what to do", porn isn't the best source of information.
  • If your parents aren't comfortable answering your questions, ask your school healthcare worker or your doctor, or find a reputable book on sex techniques and sexual fulfilment.

 

The takeaway message for the parents

By all means, have the discussion and make sure your teen knows you are always on their side. But while it’s tempting to micromanage our children’s activities, remember the big picture. If your teen has a good circle of friends, spends chunks of free time away from electronics, talks to you about things other than what’s for dinner, as well as maintains a healthy balance between school work, sports and other extracurricular activities, they’re probably going to turn out all right.

 

By Yvonne Walus
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