How To Talk To Your Kids About Porn

If you think your kids aren't getting any kind of sex education, you're wrong: They're getting plenty of it - from pornography. Doesn't that sound horrifying?

Photo: Alicia Frost/Getty Images

In the New York Times Magazine cover story "What Teenagers Are Learning from Online Porn", Maggie Jones writes that boys on average first view pornography at age 13; girls are around 14. (Author Peggy Orenstein puts the first viewing at age 11 in this Wired interview.) Most of them aren't yet having sex, but the images and "storylines" have a profound effect on how boys and girls view their nascent sex lives. Jones quotes Q., a 15-year-old boy, who says, "The guys are built and dominant and have a big penis, and they last a long time." Another boy named Drew added that if you don't do it like the guys in porn, "you fear she's not going to like you". The girls wonder if enduring sex acts they don't enjoy - such as having a partner ejaculate on their face or going along with anal sex - is just the price you pay for a boyfriend.

Fortunately, sex educators are on the case, and parents can take a page from their book in teaching kids about the effects of ubiquitous porn. It is possible to have frank conversations about the expectations that porn sets up - both in what partners are willing to do and feel obligated to do, and in what will bring a partner pleasure (spoiler: A lot of what porn implies will get a woman off really won't get her off).

Start Strong, a peer-leadership program run by Boston's public health agency, has initiated a course called "The Truth About Pornography: A Pornography-Literacy Curriculum for High School Students Designed to Reduce Sexual and Dating Violence", which has a component known as "porn literacy". Jones writes that it "aims to make [students] savvier, more critical consumers of porn by examining how gender, sexuality, aggression, consent, race, queer sex, relationships and body images are portrayed (or, in the case of consent, not portrayed) in porn".

For the parent who wants to have frank talks with their kid about sex and what they may already think they know, porn literacy should be a front and centre conversation, and I highly recommend reading the full New York Times Magazine story. Below, a few tips from the article on how to have a productive talk about porn.

Be Realistic About Whether They have Already Seen Porn

Kids are seeing porn, either by accident (mistyping a URL, a friend shows them a clip) or deliberately, even if parents think they aren't: Jones cites an Indiana University study that found that half of parents who have kids watching porn think they aren't. She writes: "And depending on the sex act, parents underestimated what their kids saw by as much as 10 times."

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Grit Your Teeth and Ask Them What Sex Acts They have Seen

This will likely be excruciating and make the reticent parent wish for a good porn literacy program in the local high school. But kids are seeing things such as aggressive "pounding" images of intercourse, "facials" (when a man ejaculates on a woman's face), group sex, BDSM, and double penetration. It's worth talking to your kids about whether they think future partners will necessarily like these kinds of manoeuvres in real life, and if they feel obligated to pull out the porn moves on new partners even if they themselves don't want to. Porn often depicts men as ultra-aggressive and women as liking it, which is not always the case in real life. Stressing ongoing communication is key.

Outline What 'Affirmative Consent' Looks Like

When I was a teen and a university student, the campus mantra was "no means no". Things have changed in the intervening years, and the new rules are "affirmative consent", otherwise known as "yes means yes". Despite what contrarians say affirmative consent means - that you absolutely have to get verbal consent, or if you're especially paranoid, written agreement - the concept merely refers to looking for enthusiasm in a partner. (If you or your kids aren't clear on what enthusiasm looks like in a sex partner, then yes, I suppose you should ask for verbal permission.) Now this can be tricky because everyone in porn sure looks enthusiastic, even with the most improbable acts, which brings us to our next topic, which is ...

Have a Frank Discussion About Anatomy and Sexual Pleasure, Especially Female Sexual Pleasure

Jones reports that at one point an instructor in the Porn Literacy course drew a picture of a vulva and gave the students a brief lesson in female anatomy, including the clitoris and its function as the centre of female pleasure. Now this was a bit out of their wheelhouse - the instructors were not supposed to teaching kids how to have sex or offering "tips", but it nonetheless is valuable information for students who've only seen female sexual pleasure in porn. Your boys should leave the discussion understanding that a lot of what appears to get women off in porn won't work with a real female partner; your girls should understand that they very well might not enjoy whatever female porn actors are appearing to enjoy. Which brings us to our next topic...

Talk About the Labour Standards and Pay Rates in the Porn Industry

It's depressing, and it should be. The instructors of Porn Literacy outline exactly what performers get paid for performing degrading acts, using information culled from the documentary The Price of Pleasure: $US1300 ($1651) for a "gang bang", with $US100 ($127) for each additional partner, for example. Performers don't have a lot of protection, and the lasting effects of being a porn star include post-traumatic stress disorder.

Optional: Introduce the Idea of 'Ethical Porn' and Explicit Sex-ed Videos

I'm not sure how old a kid would have to be for me to feel comfortable talking about this - I'm thinking fully grown, if they will even tolerate a conversation on the topic at that point. But it's worth mentioning that there is porn made by women that is produced under fair labour standards that include a variety of body types, as well as instructional videos for adults made by feminists that tackle the "how to" questions without all the problematic messaging that goes along with mainstream porn. Erica Lust, a feminist porn producer, has launched a web site called The Porn Conversation, aimed at helping parents help their kids navigate the ugly messages propagated by typical porn.

Jones does note that no one thinks that porn education is coming to high schools any time soon - and yet porn is everywhere. But so is a lot of unhealthy information about relationships, body image, consent, masculinity and femininity. As Orenstein says, "You should have already spoken to your kids about relationships and human behaviour and sexuality. So that when you get to the porn conversation, you have a foundation. Porn shouldn't be where you start."


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