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Home Articles Children and Teens Teaching Kids About Healthy Sex in a Porn-Saturated Culture

Teaching Kids About Healthy Sex in a Porn-Saturated Culture

Porn can negatively skew kids’ views on intimacy, but talking to them early about healthy sex can change that

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Teens viewing porn to learn about sex

If you were a kid of the ’80s or earlier, when you reached an age where you had questions about sex, you probably inquired with friends (who likely didn’t know much more than you). Maybe an older sibling offered up a [highly embellished] story about their illicit experiences with intimacy. Maybe you found a contraband Playboy magazine and got a very skewed idea of what a woman’s body was supposed to look like. And it’s likely that sex ed class offered little more than confusing anatomical drawings and warnings of disease and teen pregnancy.

Then something happened in the 90s that changed this: the internet. All of a sudden, any question you had about the mysteries of sex could be answered by Google. On top of that, internet porn became readily accessible to any age at any time. All of a sudden, youth were given a very different type of sex education, and it wasn’t necessarily for the better. 

Surveys have found that the average age children first see porn is 11, and that watching porn in adolescence is “significantly associated” with gender-stereotypical sexual beliefs, increased casual sex behavior and increased sexual aggression, either as a perpetrator or victim, according to one 2016 study

So how does this change the conversations we need to be having?

Porn Is Like Fast and the Furious

Shafia Zaloom, health educator and author of Sex, Teens, & Everything In Between says it’s normal for kids to be curious about porn because it’s normal for them to be curious about sex. Especially kids who identify as LGBTQ+ — while Zaloom says those in this demographic agree that porn isn’t showing healthy examples, there simply aren’t a lot of sex-positive examples of queer teens elsewhere, so porn can be affirming. 

Which raises an important question—is porn empowering or damaging? 

“When it comes to porn and kids who are watching it, it’s really kind of irrelevant if you’re pro-or anti-porn. Whenever we talk to kids, we want to be for things rather than against them. You’re building credibility to become the askable parent.” 

She says to avoid shame at all costs when talking to kids about porn. While they may have seen porn before, or could in the future, the important thing to emphasize is that it’s not going to be an accurate representation of what most people’s healthy sexuality practices and relationships are like. 

“Learning about sex by watching porn is like watching The Fast and the Furious to learn how to drive. Show them the trailer for the original Fast and the Furious and ask questions – if you drive like this in real life, what’s the impact? Could anyone be hurt by this?”

Zaloom says instead of rooting conversations with kids in what sex isn’t, root them in what sex can be. 

“Healthy sexuality is a balance of responsibility and pleasure grounded in mutual respect,” she advises. In her opinion, the majority of free, accessible porn is “misogyny veiled in exaggerated response.” In other words, men are often domineering and controlling without their partner’s consent.

There is often aggression, degradation and violence and rarely is enthusiastic consent a part of the performed dynamic. Performers aren’t asking each other, “Is this ok with you?”

Porn doesn’t show consent, and we need to have the consent talk, says Zaloom. Every step of intimacy should be mutually agreed upon, and young people should be aware that they can rescind that consent at any time

Does Porn Increase Risk of Sexual Violence?

Studies have looked into a link between porn and an increase in sexual violence, and many have concluded that porn doesn’t cause sexual violence, though it can perpetuate sexually violent behaviors in men already prone to such choices. 

Likewise, a 2015 study from researchers at Indiana University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa reported that “consumption of pornography was associated with an increased likelihood of committing actual acts of sexual aggression.”

In other words, life is imitating [violent] art.  

Professor Dr. Emily Rothman, ScD, co-creator of “The Truth About Pornography: A Pornography-Literacy Curriculum for High School Students Designed to Reduce Sexual and Dating Violence,” said in her TED Talk that “Most people would agree that we have a serious problem with misogyny, sexual violence and rape in this country and pornography probably isn’t helping with any of that.”

Yet porn, she says, is not solely to blame. 

“Adolescents are more likely to see sexualized images in other kinds of media besides porn.” A steady stream of sexualized images and misogynistic stereotypes can be seen in television shows, video games, social media—even the news. And when one considers we’re consuming media at nearly all waking hours of the day, it can add up.

“By focusing on porn alone, we may be missing root causes of dating or sexual violence,” says Rothman. 

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Teens Want to Talk About Sex

“Adolescents are turning to porn for education and information about sex that’s because they can’t find reliable and accurate information elsewhere,” Rothman says in her TED Talk, citing that less than 50 percent of states offer sex education in schools. And less than half of those states require that the information presented be medically accurate.  

While launching into a talk about porn with your kids might seem a little cringey, Zaloom recommends opening up the conversation by talking about sexuality in general. 

It might help to bring it up while you’re watching a TV show or movie together—what examples of sex are being shown and are they accurate? Respectful? Showing consent? 

Then, you can get into the nitty-gritty. And it’s OK to talk positively about sex and include pleasure as an important part of the conversation. Scaring kids away from the act isn’t the best bet. 

“Kids are smart — they know there’s something good about it,” says Zaloom. And when the time is right and they’re ready, it’s important kids know that sex can be something “beautiful… amazing, wonderful and pleasurable. And that it’s OK to use your imagination and have your own fantasies, as long as you don’t act upon them without consent,” she says.

And if they go running and screaming from this talk?

“It’s just your opportunity to say, ‘Sometimes, the hardest conversations are the most important to have.’”

And when should you start broaching these topics? Well, as far as consent and boundaries go, you can start as soon as they begin to understand you. See, “Turns Out, 3 Isn’t Too Early to Talk Boundaries.” And since they may see porn by 11, getting in front of that by setting yourself up as a safe space to ask questions about sex might not be a bad idea. It may also work to try and reach them through a book—Zaloom has a good one, Girl Up lays out pretty clearly, and then there’s also these 5 YA Adults About Dating Violence that could make starting that conversation about healthy relationships a little easier.