When I was growing up it was common for boys like myself to seek out and share sexually-themed pictures. It usually took some effort to find them. The easiest sources were National Geographic and the undergarment section of the Sears and JC Penny catalogs. Occasionally, we’d find an old Playboy or Penthouse magazine in the trash or under an older brother’s mattress. We might take turns bringing them home, being sure they were well hidden from our mothers. By today’s standards these pictures would barely register as sexually explicit. The world has changed quite a bit. Hardcore pornography is widely and instantly accessible. The explicit, intense, and varied images available today seem miles away from the air-brushed imagery of pre-Internet days.
Most teens have viewed online pornography at some time. One recent study, found that 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls had viewed some type of pornography during their teen years. Even when it isn’t actively sought out, other forms of sexually-charged content is ever-present in movies, TV, magazines and advertising. Consequently, if you discover that your child has been viewing pornography, don’t jump to the conclusion that they’re morally depraved or a sexual pervert. They’re probably just a normal teen.
Most teens view pornography out of curiosity and for “educational” purposes, exploring their naturally growing interest in their sexuality and intimate relationships. They are interested in learning more about sexual behavior and the range of sexual possibilities.
Unfortunately, much of what teens see is far from normal and it can provide an unrealistic, loveless and sometimes disturbing portrayal of what is desired and actually experienced in fulfilling, healthy adult sexual relationships. In addition, when taken to an extreme, preoccupation with sexual content can become a compulsion that interferes with other interests, healthier coping strategies and real-life intimate relationships.
How to approach your teen
The most obvious strategy is to try to block pornographic websites on your home computer. This might work for younger children, but most teens are sophisticated enough to override parental controls. And given the pervasiveness of both porn and digital devices, they will almost certainly find other ways to access it. The only truly effective long-term way to address the topic of online pornography is to raise it directly with your teen.
For most parents there are few topics that are more uncomfortable and embarrassing than talking with a teen about pornography. Given this reality, one way to get the conversation started is to simply acknowledge this fact: “I know this is an embarrassing topic for both of us, but it is something that is important for us to talk about….” If you suspect that they’ve been going online to view porn, you might mention this (“I’ve noticed that the computer browser shows someone has been looking at pornography….” or “I’ve overheard you and your friends talking about some pictures you were looking at…”).
It is usually better to tackle difficult topics like this one by maintaining your cool and approaching it calmly. If you’re feeling like you’re going to explode in anger or be flustered by embarrassment, consider waiting until you’re more composed and can address the topic calmly and reasonably. And as with most difficult tasks, the more prepared you are with what you want to discuss, the better the conversation is likely to go. What to say and how to direct the conversation will depend on you and your family’s values and beliefs. If you think it’s wrong for them to look at porn, it’s okay to say so. However, backing it up with some good reasons is important if it’s going to truly have an influence.
As with most things, it’s better to ask questions and see what your teen thinks rather than lecturing. Really listening and being open to your child’s responses is key to their willingness to participate. Below are some of the concepts you may want to talk about – but remember, it’s impossible to cover all of them in one conversation.
- What’s portrayed in pornography is not real life. Talk about the fact that most porn does not reflect normal, healthy sexual behavior and relationships. This includes what real sex between two loving adults actually looks like.
- Porn sex happens in a loveless vacuum. In most porn sex the people involved do not have a loving or ongoing intimate relationship nor are they married. Most adults know—even if we experimented in our youth—that the most meaningful and pleasurable sex happens when we’re in loving, intimate relationships. Moreover, hook-ups with people who we barely know — like those in most porn videos—can result in STDs, victimization and regrets.
- Pornography is often exploitive of women and others who perform in it. You might talk about how many of the performers in pornography find it degrading but do it because they have few other choices. Watching other people degrade themselves is wrong and that’s not something we should encourage. In addition, a lot of pornography exploits women by showing them as submissive to men or as victims of aggression and violence. This is a distorted/false view of how most women want to be treated and conveys a way of relating that you think is wrong.
- Let them know they may see things that can make them feel uncomfortable and aroused at the same time. Lisa Damour in her Motherlode parenting blog in the NY Times talks about how one troubling aspect of pornography is that even disturbing, distasteful portrayals of sex can still be sexually arousing. This can lead kids feel confused and guilty as their body reacts “to something that your head knows is wrong.”
- Interest in sexuality and sexual behavior is normal but some young people can become obsessed with porn and it can get in the way of their healthy functioning. For instance, excessive viewing of pornography and masturbation can become an unhealthy way to cope with stress and other life problems. In addition, frequent exposure to highly explicit and unrealistic sexual content can raise the bar of what it takes to become sexually aroused, affecting future romantic relationships.
- Downloading pictures and videos from porn websites can be dangerous. Downloads from porn sites have a greater likelihood of containing viruses and malware and can infect your computer. In addition, other members of the family—like your little sister—are at risk of finding them. Even more worrisome is that pornography that contains images of people under the age of 18 is considered child porn which is illegal and carries significant legal consequences.
You might end your conversation by asking your teen if they have any questions or concerns and letting them know that you want them to be comfortable coming to you if they do. Don’t be surprised if your teen doesn’t ask much, but keeping the door open so that they will feel comfortable coming to you when they do, is important. Finally, if you still feel uncomfortable talking about pornography, consider printing out this article and leaving it by their computer.
Steve Small is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension. He and his wife have been married for 33 years. They are the parents of 3 former teenagers and grandparents to a year old granddaughter.