Teaching Children about Pornography

“Mom, can we talk in The Bubble?” my son asked.

“Sure, what’s going on?” I replied calmly, despite my racing heart. “The Bubble” is the imaginary space where my kids confess their misbehaviors, ask serious questions or critique our parenting. It is a “safe” zone that we use to get our kids to open up to us without fear of punishment or judgment.

“Can you throw those magazines away in the bathroom, the ones that are under the sink? There are a lot of inappropriate pictures in there and it makes me feel tempted to look at them.”

When our oldest was eight years old we began talking to him about porn, as this is the average age that children are first exposed to online porn. We had been talking to him about good touch/bad touch and physical boundaries since he was two, and had taught him about sex the year before, so discussing pornography was an extension of an ongoing conversation. We let him know that 88% of the images found in online porn depict violence against women and explained the difference between sex and porn. We let him know that it is inevitable that he will see pornography and we wanted to help him deal with the constant barrage of sexual images that he will be exposed to.

We certainly don’t have it all figured out and we have a lot more to learn, I am sure, but here are a few strategies we use to help our children navigate a pornified world:

  • We name it when we see it. Pornography is mainstream in our culture. As a society we are so used to “soft porn” (sexual images that do not show actual penetration or genitalia) that we barely recognize it for what it is. When we are at the grocery store and see a magazine with a woman in very little clothing posing in a sexually provocative way we say, “That’s porn.” Usually they seem surprised. Naming it has power and opens opportunities for conversation.
  • We make a distinction between sex and porn and talk to our kids about the difference. Sex is fun, pleasurable and can bring you closer to someone. As we are practicing LDS, we also emphasize that we believe that God has asked that we reserve sex for marriage. Porn is based upon objectification and unrealistic (and often harmful) portrayals of sex.
  • We let them know that when they see porn it will feel good because their brain will have an instant increase in dopamine. They will probably feel curious and want to see more and they will need to use all their strength to turn away. When we tell kids that porn is bad they assume that when they see it they will feel bad. Physiologically this simply isn’t the case. We need to prepare them for how good it feels and warn them that not everything that feels good is actually good for us.
  • We tell them that when they see pornography they need to immediately turn off the computer from the power button because most porn sites use technology that makes leaving their sites difficult for the first 7-10 seconds, at which point the brain is flooded with dopamine.
  • When my older children have friends that come over who bring an electronic device we kindly explain that we have rules about electronic devices. We only use them in the open with an adult around and we don’t have technology in the bedrooms. We explain that these rules are to keep our kids safe from online porn.
  • We talk about boundaries a lot. We emphasize to our children that they are in charge of their bodies and no one is allowed to touch them without their permission. Not simply sexually, but in any way. We use the phrase “no means no” in our house all.the.time. When the older boys want to hug their toddler siblings and they say “no,” we reinforce this boundary. No one has to hug, kiss, touch, or in any way be subject to another person’s touch without giving explicit permission. Boundaries are big in our house.
  • We have an internet filter on our router and use the parental controls on Netflix, cable, apps, and anything else with access to online content. This is one of many strategies we use to keep our kids safe but there is no replacing the honest, open discussions about sex and porn (and the difference between the two) that will help children navigate our hyper-sexualized world.
  • We rely on a lot of resources, including websites, books and people we trust to help us when we get stuck. Educate Empower Kids (educateempowerkids.org) is an excellent site that has many helpful tips on teaching kids about healthy sexuality, online pornography and helping kids becoming stronger emotionally, physically and spiritually. We have used several of their publications, including 30 Days of Sex Talks for ages 8-11 and 30 Days to a Stronger Child. We have also used Good Pictures, Bad Pictures by Kristen A. Jenson and Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Maude Spelman. There are a lot of great resources to use, and these are just a few that we have tried and found helpful for our family.

If you haven’t started talking to your kids about pornography, start today. It may seem overwhelming at first but I promise that the more you talk about it the more organic it will feel. Eventually your children will talk more openly about it with you and you will be able to guide them towards healthy sexuality.

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16 Responses

  1. Andrew R. says:

    Super article. You have put a lot of thought in to this tricky area, your children will be well balanced, and understand things as they are, and as they should be.

  2. Caroline says:

    Thank you, Amy! I haven’t started talking to my kids at all about porn, and we really need to get this conversation started. Really nervous. But having your advice here helps a lot. I

  3. Brent says:

    I see things to applaud and things to worry about here.

    Telling your kids to avoid material depicting violence against women.
    Teaching them how to avoid material that could stimulate their brains in ways they’re not ready to deal with

    Using an extra-aggressive definition of pornography that includes grocery store magazine covers.

    If you tell your son that grocery store magazine covers or lingerie ads are pornography, and then church leaders tell him over and over again how filthy and degrading pornography is (when they mean much more sexually explicit material), I worry that he’ll feel constantly surrounded by filth and degradation, and ashamed of being aroused by it. This can be the start of a very destructive cycle of shame and self-hate.

    If he sees a woman at a beach wearing a bikini, is she pornography? Is she filthy and degraded?

    That doesn’t mean you have to be OK with nearly-nude magazine covers and lingerie ads, but I would call them something else and stick with a more mainstream definition of “pornography” to avoid causing unnecessary misunderstanding or shame later.

    • Amy Hoyt says:

      I agree, Brent, that it’s important that our children don’t feel shame for sexual arousal. In our family we talk a lot about sex in a healthy and humorous way and normalize being attracted and interested in other humans sexually. I typically try to strike a balance between discussing porn and discussing the beauty of the human body and all of the great things about sexuality and sex. I detest shame based teaching and feel that it is very damaging. It would be such a waste to “help” them avoid porn using shame, only to seriously injure them emotionally and sexually.

      While I am concerned about soft porn being sold in stores, another concern I have is that my children get their sexuality mapped in a way that is based on real people, not airbrushed and posed models on magazine covers. I can understand from my post that you may think I’ve used an “extra-aggressive definition of pornography” and I should choose a “more mainstream definition” of pornography but that is one of the points of my post- I believe that our culture has become more relaxed about the sexualization and objectification of women and girls. Sexual assault is on the rise, rape on college campuses is considered an epidemic and more and more females report that anal sex is part of their first sexual experience. To me, these trends seem linked to soft porn coming into the mainstream and opening a wider door to sexual novelty that is also becoming mainstream. I agree with Gail Dines that our culture is becoming pornified and that there are serious consequences for our society. I don’t want my children to accept a certain level of porn because it’s mainstream. I want them to develop sexually without the imprint of female exploitation for their pleasure. I know this is a long shot but I am a bit of a dreamer, I must say.

      A woman posed in a sexually open way, with little or no clothing on a magazine cover is what our society defined as porn (think Playboy early years) in the 1970’s. As porn has seeped into our mainstream culture, we don’t name it as porn. Now that Cosmo has the same type of covers that Playboy had 30 years ago, it’s not porn? I think it’s entirely possible to define and name porn and still encourage healthy sexual development by encouraging kids to be turned on by real humans.

      To your example of women on the beach- women and girls (in bikinis, jeans or burkas) are humans and should be treated as such- not objectified for someone’s pleasure and not critiqued for the level of “modesty” they display. Boys and men are in charge of their own thoughts. As such, as a mom, I need to teach my children to critically engage our sexualized culture so that they have a wider array of thoughts regarding sex and porn. I do not see any problem with naming porn, teaching kids not to objectify others for their own sexual gratification, affirming the humanity in people and teaching that sex is normal, amazing, fun and being aroused is one of the great parts of life. I just don’t see these ideas as mutually exclusive.

      It is my hope that I can stay attuned to each of my children, stay away from shame based language, so that we can navigate a world that is pornified in a healthy, humorous, open and loving way. This is my goal.

  4. Becca says:

    This is so timely for me. A (non LDS colleague) recently approached me for advice in talking to his 9 year old son about porn. He thought I would have some idea as I also have a 9 year old son. He and his wife recently discovered that their son has been accessing hard core porn online. Like a LOT. They can’t seem to break him of the habit and they are concerned not from a religious perspective but a sexual development perspective. I was like “9 year olds are accessing hard core porn?” The thought would have never crossed my mind. Apparently in talking to some of their son’s friends’ parents this is not unheard of in our (Midwestern) community. I had no resources to provide him with but said I would look into it. I also need to make this a priority for teaching my son in a healthy and positive way.

  5. nrc42 says:

    Some good stuff here. I have to echo a concern voiced by Brent here, though, which is that I have worries about stringent definitions of and reactions to pornography leading to the misconception that women’s bodies are inherently pornographic. In Young Women’s, I was taught that if I dressed immodestly I would become “walking pornography,” which really bothered me – and I’m sure you agree that that is a wrong way to approach it. I’m not saying that I think you are teaching your son that women are pornography, but it’s not an issue you addressed in this post. How do you draw that line in how one should approach pornography vs female dress? It seems like a complex subject and one I certainly don’t think I have a good answer to. Any ideas, anyone?

    • Amy Hoyt says:

      I detest the YW lessons that put the responsibility of male sexual thoughts and practices on young women and myopically focus on women’s bodies. We are so much more than bodies for male consumption! I think porn and obsessing over girl’s dress is part of the same problem. It’s the objectification of girls and women. Yes, there is female centered porn but the vast majority of the porn industry is run by males and men make up the majority of viewers (recent estimates of online porn put female viewership at 30% and climbing but it’s still very male driven). Similarly, the obsession over women and girl’s modesty is a way of removing their humanity; in this way they are objects for the male gaze and they are either compliant/non-compliant to the male definition of modesty (most religions are run by men and religions are the institutions that seem most obsessed by modesty). I teach my children that all people need to be modest in dress, words, attitude, etc. and that how people choose to live/act/dress is NONE OF OUR BUSINESS. For real. I have no interest in judging people- including people that love porn. I just want to let my kids little brains develop organically without addiction so they have the best shot at making actual choices and not behaving out of compulsion and obsession. 🙂 And I want them to love lots of people- those that are making similar choices and those that make different choices. I’m not sure if that answers your question but you are right- these are complex issues and we need more discussions for all of us trying to navigate them.

  6. EFH says:

    Great article. Thank you for sharing your experience in how you teach your children on pornography.

    I do share the concern about calling ‘porn’ the cover magazines. Although I agree completely with the author and her answer to the person that raised this concern before me, it seems to me that using one label – porn – for everything can mislead our children and instill in them self-hate and shame. These are real and very damaging feeling depending on the sensitivity of the nature of the child. My suggestion would be to explain the path that leads to porn and this path starts with magazine covers of women dressed in almost nothing – such pictures misrepresent people and objectify them but it is not porn…not yet. When this notion of people is used to sexually abuse, exploit and degrade others, then it becomes porn. Therefore, I do think that it is important for children to understand how the bombardment with bad images starts shaping the way they think of people and that in return influences their actions on themselves and others and what is ‘normal’. This is a physical, psychological, intellectual and emotional journey that affects our perception of the world, ourselves and others.

    As people we shape ourselves as we encounter the world therefore, it is important to understand our encounters with the world and choose to respond in a way that is compatible with our long term goals for our development and life in general. One step at a time, one encounter at a time.

    Thank you for this article.

    • Amy Hoyt says:

      I like the suggestion you give that it is important to nuance the conversation by talking about the path that leads to the objectification and eventual pornification (based on above factors) of people.

      As I’ve been thinking about it this week I’ve also realized that talking to kids about why humans seek things out in excess is important. What needs are not being met that propel us towards any type of addictive and compulsive behavior that can be damaging to us? I do feel that shame and secrecy are large factors in encouraging addiction, compulsion and other damaging responses to life. I think by bringing in the ways that we can keep ourselves emotionally healthy so that we don’t need to rely on these soothing mechanisms when we are emotionally triggered would add to the conversation. Thanks for the suggestion.

  7. Heather Mecham says:

    Great job. We cannot afford to be hesitant or afraid to talk to our kids about this. It’s disturbing how early they become exposed to it and how many parents don’t know their kids are looking at it online. Thanks for bringing some awareness to a tough topic that we need to face.

  8. EmilyC says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Amy. I want so much to talk about this issue with other parents, but my Mormon friends are uncomfortable by it and my non-Mormon friends view porn differently than I do.

  9. Jennifer says:

    I really appreciate this post. Thank you for the time and research you have put into this topic. We have used many of the same books you have and are in the early discussions with our children about boundaries and the importance of our bodies. We are on the brink of diving deeper in conversation with our oldest who is now 8. And the info in the article is timely and so helpful.
    I also want to add that I like that you name it, even in its smallest incidents. I don’t think if children are learning the difference between the body being beautiful and sacred and the body being objectified and used that naming pornography for what it is will ruin their own body image or make them feel shame. There has to be a constant discussion. Our younger son went through a book from the Lurve that we have and saw some nudity in sculptures and art. We are now currently discussing the difference between art and pornography and that at anytime either makes you feel uncomfortable you can look away, but also emphasizing the naked body is beautiful because the Lord created us in his image. This has now been an on going conversation. Again thanks for this article.

    • Michelle says:

      ” I don’t think if children are learning the difference between the body being beautiful and sacred and the body being objectified and used that naming pornography for what it is will ruin their own body image or make them feel shame. ”

      I agree with this. In fact, Amy, I think that you handled it beautifully by explaining that it’s completely natural to have a physical response to this kind of material, whether it is provocative magazine covers or hard-core stuff. *Provocative* the key word — this material is designed to elicit response and get attention. Using sex appeal to sell is one of the oldest tools in the book and kids can learn to recognize this early. It’s not just about prevention problems; it’s about media literacy, which is a powerful took for healthy body image and teaching what objectification looks and feels like, both on the giving and the receiving end. A young boy who can recognize his natural response and talk himself through it (rather than shame himself about it and shut down, which this boy did not do!), is a boy who can grow up respecting women and understanding his own body better. Young men who are taught not to feed this natural response deliberately can learn the difference between lust and love. Powerful stuff! Kudos to you. I’ve shared this article with people in the sexual exploitation prevention realm, which includes some of the people whose resources you have used.

  10. Rachel says:

    This is remarkably helpful. Thank you.

  11. Lucy says:

    I have tried to talk to my kids like the author does–name it when you see it, turn from it, sex is good and porn is bad. We have had countless lessons on objectification, shame, and the pain of addiction, particularly porn.

    Why have we been so proactive? Because when my husband was 11 years old he discovered 1-800 sex numbers through a neighbor. It felt good to hear those messages to his young adolescent brain. Thus began his addiction with lust. Like all addictions, porn/lust became his coping mechanism. Lust is the real culprit, porn is just one of the branches on the lust tree. For the next several decades my husband struggled with an addiction to porn/lust. I never knew it. I wish my story was uncommon but it is VERY common. Adults become addicted as children, not as adults.

    When young children are exposed it changes their view of sexuality but it also changes their emotional development. It stunts it. My husband is a brilliant man with several college degrees and a highly successful career. But he has the emotional IQ of that 11-yr old boy. It is highly accepted among sex addiction therapists that the age at which children become addicted to porn is the age at which they stop maturing emotionally. My husband is getting professional help; for the first time in his life he is learning what it means to be emotionally healthy and emotionally connected. It is a long and difficult road. WE CAN’T TALK ABOUT THIS ENOUGH with our little ones. I have hope that I can spare my children the sad tale of their father. Bravo Amy Hoyt!

  12. Michelle says:

    Here’s another simple but great example of how to talk to even young children. (Her son at the time of this talk was only four. I personally think children younger than 8 can be taught some of these things. Stories of those who have struggled with addiction, at least in my observation, have included people whose life-altering first exposure was at the young age of six.

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