1. Get informed. Do some of your own research first. Porn is not the same as it used to be. I’m sure people have been saying that for decades, but seriously, it's not. There is quite a bit of evidence that porn has changed more in the last 10 years (since the advent of high-speed internet), than it has in the last 100 years (1, 2, 3). And before photography? Forget about it! It was incredibly rare to see erotica as it was mostly for nobility and rarely replicated (4). Once we began photographing and taping nudity and people having sex, it was very rare to see that as well. One had to go to a viewing parlor and later, a sex store...which were only located in large cities. It wasn’t until pornography was distributed via the mail that it became a common part of life for some men. And it wasn't until porn was distributed via the internet, that it became a common part of life for men, women, and kids.
The internet has changed the way people use pornography in 3 ways. The internet makes pornography available, because nearly everyone has internet access; the use of pornography has become anonymous, because one can access pornography without anyone else knowing about it; and the internet makes pornography affordable, because one no longer has to spend upwards of 60 dollars on a VHS or DVD as the majority of internet pornography is free (5). This “triple-A engine” is thought to explain why internet pornography use is more prevalent than pornography use through other media in the last decades.
The internet has created easier access to violent and aggressive pornography. Popular porn is no longer the depiction of people having sex on a blanket in the woods, who are roughly the same age, perhaps in their 30s or 40s, full on pubic hair, some belly rolls, floppy breasts. Now, that is called “vintage porn.” Yep. Porn from the 80's and 90’s is vintage! Content analyses (studies where scientists use coders to track frequencies of behaviors displayed in a sample of videos) have revealed that popular pornography has become increasingly more aggressive and violent in the last 20 years (6, 7). The most popular pornography today can be found on the top 5 most frequented porn sites are called “tube sites”. Appropriately named, because they operate just like YouTube. On these sites, everything is all mixed together, threesomes, BDSM, gang bangs, fake rape, bukkae, double penetration, ATM, etc. When pornography was distributed through VHS and DVD, it was difficult to track down anything beyond oral, vaginal, or anal sex. It was even more difficult to find aggressive material and it was very expensive to purchase (8). Now you have to go out of your way to find non-aggressive material.
Stats on kid’s exposure to pornography vary immensely and many studies are quite vague as to what the content of exposure actually is. A nationally representative study reports 40% of teens reported exposure to sexually-explicit content (9), whereas other reports indicate up to 70% of adolescents have been unintentionally exposed to sexually-explicit content (10, 11). Yet a non peer-reviewed source, the Internet Filter Review (2010), reports 90% of 8-10 year olds have seen pornography online.
2. Acknowledge what your relationship to and experience with porn is. It is likely that your introduction to and experience with porn is very different than what your child has or will experience. How old were you? Were you aroused? Did you get “caught”? Did you feel shame for being aroused? I encourage you to get to a comfortable and emotionally neutral place before talking with your child. Regardless of your own perspective on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of porn, if you are intensely emotional, it can create/increase shame. Shame and sex are a toxic combo that too many know all too well. We aren’t shamed into better behaviors. We just become better at keeping those behaviors a secret. It's important for you to get a handle on your own emotions, and put your own experiences in perspective to your kid's before you start talking with him/her about porn.
3. Acknowledge what your relationship to and experience with sex is. Whether you are aware of it or not, your children listen very closely to the messages you send about sexuality (even if those messages are non-verbal). What do you want those messages to be? Do you yourself enjoy sex? At what age did you
begin to enjoy sex? Were you shamed for your sexuality when you were a kid? What would you have wanted your parents to do or say to make you feel comfortable about your sexuality as a kid? Bottom line, be conscious of what you’ve said to your child or what your child has perceived. Talking about sex and
distinguishing sex from porn is crucial for preparing your child for a sexually satisfying future. Parental messages about sex, matter (12). Your emotional reaction to knowledge of their sexual behavior (masturbation or otherwise) could affect the way your child views him/herself as a sexual person. Here is a resource to learn more about talking with kids about sex from me, and another from Advocates for Youth. It's important to be conscious of what you've already said or done that may have created some sexual shame in your children before you talk with them.
4. Assess the level of a child’s porn use the best you can. Depending on how internet savvy you are, you can see what they’ve been up to online, or you can always hire a professional. You can also just ask, but kids and adults are rarely honest about their porn use. It can be alarming to discover your child has been looking at porn, especially if you know the type or extent of their porn use. Yet, it is important for you to remember that their curiosity is normal and this is not necessarily a sign of ‘problem’. It is a sign that your child has sexual desires and interests and deserves to know how to manage the reality of sexual experiences. It is your responsibility to give the right information and emotional support to your children so they can handle sexual experiences with ease and a sense of self-worth. Here are some general “levels” of porn use:
Curiosity. The majority of children access pornography on the internet out of curiosity (10, 11). When they are younger, they may want to know what boys and girls look like naked, or what sex looks like. After puberty, they might be more aroused sexually and develop exploration of how their body reacts and gets turned on.
Masturbation facilitation. At this level, your child has seen porn more than a few times and is intentionally using it to facilitate masturbation. This usually doesn’t happen in younger children, but I’ve talked with parents who have experienced this level of use with their 8-year old.
Risky Use. At this level, your child is seeking out porn despite negative consequences. They may be looking at porn on their phone in risky settings like school, at home with a sibling, on a parent’s tablet, on a friend’s home computer, etc. Or they might be watching porn when they are supposed to be doing homework or sleeping. At this level, the secrecy builds and the fear of “getting caught” adds to the thrill of the experience.
Problematic Use. At this level, your child is using pornography to regulate emotions or has adapted his/her sexual response cycle to porn (13). Some symptoms of this would be having difficulty reaching orgasm without looking at porn, using porn to fall asleep, feeling worse after using porn, thinking about porn when having sex with a romantic partner, and/or getting irritable without using porn for a period of time.
5. Practice discussing your concerns and perspectives. After you’ve become informed, analyzed your own perspective, and have a sense of what your child has already seen, you should practice discussing porn. If you think it is difficult to discuss where babies come from, it will be down-right painful discussing porn. So, it’s best to practice first.
Talk about what you do know to a partner, friend, or relative. Listen to each other’s perspectives and get some advice from people who know your specific situation. You want to wait until you are comfortable enough that you have a positive and caring tone. When discussing sexuality with your children, tone is often more important than content. Practice having a warm and non-judgmental tone. If you go at him/her guns blazing, you can almost guarantee there will be no future conversations.
If you are lucky, your child will ask you about your experiences with pornography and sex and what your perspective is on these topics, so you need to be prepared to answer those questions.
Stay tuned for part 2, where I will provide you with a whole lot of talking points and pointers, so you can have multiple conversations with your child or a child client if you are a practitioner. After that, part 3 will show you steps parents should take to change the tech environment in a household. If you don’t want to miss out: Sign up for my mailing list, follow me on Twitter, or like me on Facebook.
(1) Cooper, A. (1998). Sexuality and the Internet: Surfing into the new millennium. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 1, 187-193.
(2) Hyde, H. M. (1965). A History of Pornography. London, UK: Heinemann.
(3) Reist, M. T., & Bray, A. (Eds.). (2011). Big porn inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
(4) Marcus, S. (1974). The other Victorians: A study of sexuality and pornography in mid-nineteenth-century England. Transaction Publishers.
(5) Cooper, A., Delmonico, D. L., & Burg, R. (2000). Cybersex users, abusers, and compulsives: New findings and implications. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 7, 5-29.
(6) Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C., & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: A content analysis update. Violence Against Women, 16, 1065-1085.
(7) Brosius, H., Weaver, J., Staab, J. (1993). Exploring the social and sexual “reality” of contemporary pornography. The Journal of Sex Research, 30, 161-17
(8) Sunstein, C. R. (1986). Pornography and the First Amendment. Duke Law Journal, 589-627.
(9) Ybarra M.L., Finkelhor D., Mitchell K.J., & Wolak J. (2009). Associations between blocking, monitoring, and filtering software on the home computer and youth-reported unwanted expose to sexual material online. Child Abuse & Neglect, 33, 857-869.
(10) Brown J. D., & L'Engle K. L. (2009). X-rated: Sexual attitudes and behaviors associated with US early adolescents' exposure to sexually explicit media. Communication Research, 36, 129-138.
(11) Delmonico D., & Griffin E. (2008). Cybersex and the e-teen: What marriage and family therapists should know. Journal off Marital and Family Therapy, 34, 431-444.
(12) Darling, C. A., & Hicks, M. W. (1982). Parental influence on adolescent sexuality: Implications for parents as educators. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 11, 231-245.
(13) Young, K. S. (2008). Internet sex addiction risk factors, stages of development, and treatment. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 21-37.
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