Talking with Kids about Sex and the Internet

Dr. Corinne Masur
This post is not pro-porn.
It is also not anti-porn.
It’s about porn and your kids.
In an earlier post we talked about the likelihood that if you have a child who’s computer literate, he or she has probably either stumbled across porn online or watched it purposefully.
A recent study found that 80% of American teenagers aged 14 – 18 have watched porn. Little is known about how many younger children have watched, but as was mentioned last time, many 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds have also been curious enough to find some porn on the internet.
This leads to the unfortunate reality that we parents should talk to our children about porn. And one of the first questions we need to ask ourselves is, what message is porn sending our children?  Of course this is part of a much larger question about what messages our children are receiving from media in general.  But we’ll leave that question for another post.
What messages do our children get from porn about what a healthy body looks like?
What messages do our children get from porn about what sex is?
What messages do our children get from porn about what relationships are like?
And then we must ask ourselves, what messages would we like them to receive?  It’s our job to start providing those messages in ways that they can hear.

In a recent interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, a man told the story of his introduction to the female body. He said that at age 13 his mother told him that she was giving him a subscription to Playboy Magazine (this was pre-internet of course) and that he was welcome to read it, to share it with his friends, etc.  “BUT,” she said, “just remember, real women do not look like this.  Real women look like me and your sisters and your aunts.  This is not reality and don’t expect to see these bodies in real life”.
For the 1960’s, that mother was on the ball!
We need to let our children know the same thing.  Porn is not reality and the bodies they see in mainstream, commercial porn are not the bodies of everyday people.  And even more importantly, the sexual parts of the bodies portrayed in porn are not the size and shape of those of everyday people.
Kids will compare their bodies to the bodies they see in porn and feel that they come up short.  They need to know that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
Watching porn can also give our children unrealistic expectations abut sex and relationships.
When you think it’s appropriate (e.g., when your child reaches puberty or perhaps a year or two before or after) you may want to have a talk about sex that includes a discussion about how pornography often doesn’t portray reality when it comes to both sex and romantic relationships.
You may want to talk about the fact that most relationships start slowly, and encourage discussion about what it means to be ready to engage in a relationship and/or have sex. Porn may make it appear as though everyone is having sex all the time, whether there are feelings between the people involved or not. Readiness for sex depends on quite a few things and, depending on your own values as a parent, it will be important to talk to your child about what you think those things are.
Readiness for sex includes the emotional maturity needed to handle the intense emotions that can accompany sexual activity. Readiness will also include feeling safe with the other person and discussions about affirmative consent.  You’ll want to talk about the possibility of feeling vulnerable at times, and the importance of feeling safe with a partner both physically and emotionally. Readiness also depends on whether their relationship is at a stage where sex is an appropriate addition.  And, of course, readiness includes the question of whether they are ready to take responsibility for healthy sexual experiences and practices that prevent STIs and pregnancy.
These are difficult topics to talk about, but remember: It’s always better to avoid having one big talk.  Conversations work best when your children know that you’re able to talk about these issues a little at a time, when they come up in either person’s mind. These subjects can be broached early and talked about in a way that’s appropriate for your child’s age– what you say to an 8-year-old will be much more basic than what you say to a 15-year-old. But just don’t be afraid to talk. Porn is a reality– and for kids of all ages, parents can help them feel secure about their bodies, safe in their relationships, and clear about the misleading images and narratives that pornography can present.

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