How do I talk to my teenage sons about pornography?
I don’t want to ignore the issue but I’ve no idea how I’m supposed to raise the topic
Having these conversations with your children isn’t going to just teach them about pornography; they’re going to teach your children how to be mindful, critically engaged, empathetic, and self-aware. Photograph: Getty Images
I’m the mother of two boys, ages 13 and 15. I’m constantly reading and hearing about how young men are exposed to pornography at a young age, and how it causes issues regarding how they view sex and women. I don’t want to ignore the issue but I have no idea how I’m supposed to raise the topic with my sons, or what indeed I should say. Do you have any advice on how to tackle this?
You’re right to want to address pornography with your sons. Too many parents are aware of the potentially damaging messages that young people can receive from pornography, but refuse to open up a dialogue with their children about it. It’s vital to teach your children that sex and sexuality aren’t shameful and – like anything else – they are allowed ask questions about it, in order to learn.
Of course, sometimes you won’t have all the answers, but it’s then that you can turn to trusted educational resources – together. Being part of your children’s education process around sex means that not only are you aware of what they’re learning, you’re also showing them that in your home, education and information are empowering forces.
By remaining silent and refusing to acknowledge the existence of pornography, you’d be teaching them not to talk about sex, not to ask questions, not to communicate about it. You’d be teaching them that your embarrassment is more important than their education and empowerment. You’d be teaching them that sex is uncomfortable, and that that discomfort trumps everything else, including their wellbeing.
It doesn’t. So of course you’re going to talk to them.
And soon, preferably. Because of children’s access to the internet, they are accessing pornography at a young age. Scholars such as Kimberley Mitchell of the Crimes Against Children Research Centre at the University of New Hampshire have analysed the behaviour of children between the age of 10 and 17. While Mitchell noted that some children have accidentally or unintentionally seen pornographic images by age 11, they discovered that children usually start actively seeking out pornography at age 14, when they’re “age-appropriately curious about sex”.
The issue is, of course, that pornography can greatly influence young people’s ideas about sex. That’s why it’s vital that children receive age-appropriate information about sex all throughout their lives, so that by the time they are old enough to seek out pornography, they are armed with enough information about sex and porn to understand what they’re seeing – and to understand the difference between what they’re seeing and reality.
This means including pornography in a number of different conversations. Because porn isn’t just about sex. It’s also about media, fantasy, context, consent, pleasure, misogyny, capitalism, ethical consumerism and a myriad other things. Raising the subject of pornography in ongoing conversations with your children means you will address this range and nuance of issues. It also means that your children will understand that pornography, like any other media, needs to be viewed critically.
For example, when talking about consent, talk about the vast chasms that exist between consent in the real world, and consent in popular media – porn included. You could mention that, just as rom-coms that show men stalking women under the guise of “romance” aren’t demonstrating healthy consent patterns and are merely fantasy-fuelled scripts, porn too is a fantasy that rarely models consent in a healthy way, and so they shouldn’t view it as an ideal, or try to copy it. Discuss how much of pop culture only represents one ideal of attractiveness and body type and why that’s a problem, and note how often pop culture delights in depicting women in degrading ways, so that they also recognise these common tropes of pornography.
When talking about fantasy and reality, teach your children that just as action films and video games offer up one kind of fantasy wish-fulfilment that isn’t to be found in the real world, porn also acts as a heightened representation of particular sexual fantasies that rarely aligns with reality.
Teach them that just as their favourite actors are real people separate from their characters, professional porn performers too are real people, not merely objects, who are paid to play characters and to act like they’re enjoying acts that in real life, they (and many others) do not. And just as there is exploitation in many industries, there is exploitation in pornography, and so they should be wary of watching or sharing pornographic images when they’re not sure the actors involved are consenting, of-age professionals.
Having these conversations with your children isn’t going to just teach them about pornography; they’re going to teach your children how to be mindful, critically engaged, empathetic, and self-aware little humans. And surely that’s worth any amount of chats.
Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright Scholar with an MA in Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State University. She’s currently undertaking a PhD in Gendered and Sexual Citizenship at the Open University and Oxford.
If you have a problem or query you would like Roe to answer, you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe