Beginning Conversations with Children about Pornography

I didn’t think about pornography much as a teenager or young adult. It was difficult to find when I was growing up. Internet browsers weren’t around (really) when I living in my parents’ home, and I liked to keep rules…no way I was going to look at someone’s yucky magazines.

I was well into my 20’s at my first exposure to pornography. The more I talk to others, the more I realize how rare that is. An innocent search of the comic book characters, X-Men, can shock a poor 10-year-old, and the misspelling of “boobs,” may be all that protects a curious 7-year-old. (“We just couldn’t figure out why there were like 10 entries in the search engine for “big bob.” Who is Big Bob?!)

So, I’ve had hard time figuring out where and when I start to teach my children about avoiding pornography and what to do when they see it. But, more importantly, how do I help them not feel shame, thus making it more likely for them to hide it?

I’m not good at this whole thing…I think about how to approach my kids a lot, I try to separate my own feelings of shame, guilt, revulsion, and complicated internalized lessons about sexuality and desire that I grew up with, but I’m no expert. Just a parent trying to muddle through. But, I’ve found that every time I talk about pornography with someone else, I feel a little more empowered and prepared.

The first resource I ever found that really helped me understand pornography—what an addiction looked like (and what it didn’t) was the Winter 2008 issue of Exponent II. I saw for the first time that the addiction was just as real as one involving alcohol or drugs. I saw women and men writing candidly about what both addiction and casual use looked like, facts about both, and how couples overcame (usually) the husband’s addiction. I’ve given the link above to just about every bishop I’ve had since that issue first came out. It was an amazing piece of work for its time (and is still useful almost a decade later).

We have so many more resources these days to protect young people from pornography, but it is also so much more pervasive. I see my kids with their access to the internet in our house, and I know no many how many filters I throw at them, they’ll find a way around them. As the Church instructs, clear, candid and consistent conversations with my  kids seems to be the best way that I can ensure that they grow up with a healthy sexual identity, good boundaries, and have the skills to see the damage that pornography can do.

My children are 10, 8 and 4. Here are some of the things I have done that I’ve found useful.

In 2011, the Friend published the story, “Crash and Tell,” where a young boy accidentally sees something on the computer. He turns off the computer immediately and tells his mom. I feel like the Friend did a great job approaching this subject in a way that I felt I could handle with my young kids. I’ve read each of them this story when my kids were between the ages of 3 and 5, and this story did a great job of helping us broach the subject.

My spouse and I talk to our boys (8 and 10) about pornography every 6 months or so (we don’t have it scheduled or anything), and one of us generally leads the conversation with the other one chiming in.

I found Gary Wilson’s “The Great Porn Experiment,” a TED talk, really helpful for me to start the conversation with my oldest a couple years ago (I watched it and relayed the info…I don’t think it’s appropriate for my kids at their current age). FYI, my husband felt it was too shaming. (We have very different ideas about how to teach our kids on this subject. I think ultimately that is for our kids’ benefit, but it does lead to some not-so-fun conversations.)

I also think this new video done by the Church is a good one with some additional commentary from me as the parent. (We haven’t shown it to our kids yet because we just had a FHE on this about a month ago…unless it comes up naturally in a conversation soon, I’m not planning on showing it for a bit.)

I’ve been thinking about this a little more than usual lately because I’ve been taking Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife’s course, “How to Talk to your (LDS) Kids About Sex: Fostering Healthy Development in a Sex-Saturated Age.” This course asks thoughtful questions in the homework assignments and provides additional resources for me and my kids.

Frankly, I worry (a lot) about teaching our kids shame and thus exacerbating current pornography use. I hear so many talks in Church about the evils of pornography. They make me feel rotten. Are we using scare tactics to keep us all safe? Is that effective? Is pornography use so black and white? Is it dangerous enough that we can justify using shame and scare tactics?

What are your thoughts about teaching kids (your own, your relatives, or children under your care) about the dangers of pornography? What resources do you like? What resources do you find harmful? Have you taken a look at the new Church website, overcomingpornography.org?

But, most importantly, how can we, as a community, have the frank conversations necessary to make us all safer?

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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8 Responses

  1. Hilary says:

    I think the best way to avoid shame about porn is to teach positive, healthy sexuality. We need to be a safe place for our kids where they come to expect accurate, honest, open answers to all their questions, about porn, sex, and anything else. There’s a great free downloadable two page handout called “Straight Talk about Pornography” that talks about how sex and porn isn’t about one big ‘the talk’ but an ongoing, safe discussion about healthy sexuality, relationships, body image, and media. It’s listed first here: bit.ly/WimoXF

    You asked “Is it dangerous enough that we can justify using shame and scare tactics?” I don’t think anything is worth using shame and scare tactics, because they’re frankly ineffective — is it dangerous enough though? I feel like this is an issue we as a society actually don’t look at seriously enough. And not from an individual standpoint even, but from a cultural one — I look at the numbers of sex trafficking victims, rapes on campuses, the complete destruction of the concept of consent in teens and college age students, and I think porn is a big player in each of these issues. It’s misogynistic and objectifying and it teaches those things to those who view it — and I think it’s screwing with relationships between men and women, and more importantly it’s messing with an entire upcoming generation’s views of what healthy intimacy and relationships look like, sometimes before they’ve even had their first crush. Having just attended the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s recent Summit, it was very eye opening to hear from researchers studying prostitution, sex crimes, trafficking, and other forms of sexual exploitation, and hearing their findings of how pornography is hugely influencing these other issues. So, long story short (too late), I feel like the issue is a big one, because it is so wide spread in our society and it is affecting sexuality in our culture in some pretty disheartening and disturbing ways. Having worked with women whose marriages have been greatly affected by compulsive porn use (leading a variety of places, including dishonesty, disconnection, job loss, infidelity, divorce, etc.) I also think there is a very personal and individual side to these issues too, obviously.
    So, should we teach it with shame — nah, that never works. But what I love about this post is that we DO need to be talking about it — we can’t just avoid it because we don’t want to come across as ‘prudes’ or for anyone to mistake us for not being ‘sex positive’ or something like that. And when we are able to discuss it from multiple points of view, and not just “It’s evil, bad, and wrong, don’t do it,” then we can actually start to figure out better ways to have this conversation in our homes and communities, and start to undo some of the crappy side effects of raising families in a fairly pornified society.

    • Hilary says:

      Oh, I forgot to mention — I really love the approach educateempowerkids.org and their books ’30 Days of Sex Talks’ — it addresses sex and intimacy from the ground up, and is completely non shaming.

  2. Emmalee says:

    We decided to aproach it with our kids like we have with the subject of sex. It’s something we talk about here and there, but we have more focused talks about once a year. A great book that we used to get started was “good pictures, bad pictures”. I think the church’s new video took a lot from that book, though it’s not a religious book. It’s mentioned at the end in the credits. It’s great for any age.

  3. Anon says:

    I grew up in a home with a semi-active dad who looked at pornography. And I know that at least two of my siblings have struggles with it–well, one isn’t active in the church so he probably doesn’t ‘struggle’, but he was leaving hard-core magazines in the bathroom I shared with him while living at home after my mission. I also am divorced from someone who, among other issues, used pornography in a way that could be considered addiction. I have mixed feelings about Ensign articles and about Elder Oaks, but he actually has a useful article in this month’s Ensign about pornography and how there are gradations of use, and while all use is harmful, not all use is addiction. I think this is helpful because shame and guilt only fuel more pornography use, and I also know too many people who freak out when they find out that someone they know is using pornography and immediately jump right to “this person is an addict!” To be clear, I think pornography is completely terrible for many reasons (and I also know a lot of Mormons who really have no idea of what is pornography–Victorias Secret catalogs are sexual, but they are not as bad as porn, trust me)

    Like others have mentioned, I like the approach of the video and the book that I’m fairly certain its based on called Good Pictures, Bad Pictures. My kids are similar ages to yours and I have used concepts from the book to fuel discussions about pornography–I generally tie it into the context of self-regulation in general as well as discussions about dealing with your emotions, etc. I come from a long family history of mental illness and addiction, so I’m really working with my kids to have good, frank discussions about these kinds of topics. Also, like other commenters have mentioned, we have an atmosphere of healthy, open discussion about our bodies in general and our sexuality. I’ve always used correct terms for body parts with my kids, and have had many discussions about personal space and touching. If one sibling wants to hug another who is unwilling, I emphasize that the person who is saying ‘no’ has a right to their own body (this goes for grandparents, friends, etc). If my kids ask questions about sex or other body functions, we talk about those things, even at the dinner table.

    It’s been kind of funny to talk to my kids about pornography because so far their reaction has mainly been “ew, why would anyone want to look at pictures of naked people?” I’m thankful that so far they don’t seem to have been exposed to much, but I keep checking in. I really wish my parents had checked in with me (i’m not surprised they didn’t, due to the level of dysfunction), because seeing sexual images when you are young can be very confusing and frightening for a lot of reasons.

  4. Violadiva says:

    My kids are 4 years, 2 years and 3 months. My strategy so far has been exposing them to beautiful, non-sexualized art and sculpture depicting nudity. My 4 year old son is curious about naked bodies and we talk about the correct terms for body parts. We take him to art museums and rather than shield our eyes and hurry past a sculpture of a nude person, we stop and talk about how the artist was trying to capture the beauty and majesty of God’s creation by making this art. And we don’t just comment about breasts and genitals, we talk about muscles, bones, shapes, and so on. I think this is a helpful way for them to grow up seeing nude bodies without it being shameful or stimulating. (They might have interests in studying art, medicine, physical therapy, or what have you…..)
    My original thinking about this strategy was that it would take the curiosity piece out of the pornography puzzle; they’ll already know what naked people look like. And while I know there is a fine line between art and porn, I’m hoping my children grow up with an understanding and appreciation for art before they ever learn what porn is.
    As far as taking the next steps when they’re a little older to talk the details of human reproduction vs. sexualized depictions of such, that’s future Violadiva’s problem. 🙂 But I’m hoping the conversation will benefit from a childhood without body shaming conversations.

  5. Caroline says:

    I have a nine year old boy and I have not once addressed this subject. Yikes. I have work to do. Thanks to you Emily, for showing me how to get started. And thanks to commenters for great ideas too.

  6. Jenny says:

    Great post Emily! I love the conversation that has ensued in the comments too. So many great resources. I have been thinking about this too as my kids are getting to an age where I think we should be discussing these things. We’ve talked about sex purely in the biological sense, but I’ve been at a loss as to how to talk about arousal,attraction, pornography, etc. in a healthy, non shaming way. My own sex education was extremely sparse and full of shame and fear, so this conversation is very helpful to me.

  7. I enjoyed the video you posted. I liked how it encouraged kids to talk to their parents (instead of hiding what happened in shame) and how it included both boys and girls, instead of making this just a boys thing. I also liked that it emphasized that these feelings aren’t bad, but meant to be shared by real people, not directed at bad pictures.

    Another thing I would add to the conversation is a bigger picture about why these pictures are bad. I really like this point made at a post at rational faiths:

    The real evil of porn is in the objectification and victimization of human beings, primarily women. Pornography is one of the principle drivers of human trafficking and slavery and pornographers are among the chief perpetrators of these crimes. Consuming porn in a completely responsible way is almost impossible. When you watch porn, it is easy to believe that the people involved are willing and eager participants. But you have virtually no way of knowing whether that assumption is true.

    http://rationalfaiths.com/of-prophets-and-porn/

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