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  • Vanessa Kellam, Parent Engagement Coordinator

Do I really need to talk to my child about porn?

Adults are standing in two groups, each one at opposite sides of the room. Some stand confidently, with their “game face” on. Some shift from foot to foot, trying to avoid eye contact with myself and with one another, clearly uncomfortable with the exercise.

I’m facilitating an activity requiring parents to respond to a series of ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ statements according to their own opinions on certain aspects of sexual health education. ‘Maybe’ or ‘sitting on the fence’ are not options in this game. It’s an intentionally polarizing activity designed to help parents and guardians clarify their own values around sexuality, so they in turn can discuss those values in an intentional way with their children - in this case, 5th and 6th graders.

Occasionally, as a parent myself, I feel unkind forcing other parents, after a hard day at work, to engage in something so uncomfortable and judgment-prone. I even shelved the activity for a while. But the educator in me missed the collaborative learning that always resulted, so it’s back. As the activity progresses, the statements incrementally become more challenging. We only ever have time for three “Agree or Disagree” statements, which is frustrating given how enthusiastic everyone is by number two. But, the cost of discomfort is frequently compensated by the benefits of the collective wisdom yielded.

The final statement I read is, “Age appropriate education about pornography should be included in elementary sexual health education”. The notion of ‘age appropriate’ is subjective; of this, I am well aware. Almost unanimously, parents I work with say they want our programs to include content on thinking critically about pornography. However, when it comes to determining at what age these conversations should start, parents are often divided.

The absence of ‘maybe’ forces people to make a choice. I watch as a group of adults wrestles internally with questions like, “what makes content age appropriate anyway?” and “how young is too young?” until each lands on the side that they suppose is ‘right.’ As I call on raised hands, eager to share why they agree or disagree, all answers are valid and thoughtful. All are rooted in a vested concern for the children in their care, and for society as a whole. Some parents cross the room, switching from the agree side to the disagree side, or vice versa, swayed by the rationale of others. It’s a playful acknowledgment that it’s not an easy choice. One thing is always consistent - parents are never all on the ‘agree’ side. Opinions are always mixed. If there were a ‘maybe’, perhaps they would all be in the middle.

Health Connected’s programs, whether youth or parent-focused, are never static. We stay accurate and relevant by listening very carefully to our advisors – parents and youth themselves. Governments and medical experts may inform our curricula, but the individuals who participate and engage in our programs are the ones who help us to stay impactful, pertinent, and helpful. When parents engage in discussions and activities, like the one described above, they provide valuable insights into what is on their mind. Pornography is on their minds. And not in a good way!

Parents are fearful about easy availability and access, and feel powerless to prevent the intrusion. They are worried about pornography’s impact on their child’s relationships. They are petrified of the addictive nature of porn, and the physiological implications. They have concerns about the relationship between mental illness and pornography. Parents hope their child hasn’t viewed pornography yet, but most acknowledge the reality is that they have. Yet, and this is the interesting thing, when I ask who in the group has had an intentional conversation with their child about porn, only a fraction of the group responds.

So, in the interest of proactively engaging in an unpopular dinner table topic, over the next several weeks we are going to be exploring the issue of pornography – as part of a blog series - and how your family can intentionally respond, rather than react, to it. Because the truth is, today by age 18, roughly 90 percent of teen boys and 60 percent of teen girls have been exposed to pornography and it’s having an impact. An unpopular topic? Maybe. A necessary one? Absolutely!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our 3-part blog series when parent-child communication expert, Vanessa Kellam, tackles the question “How young is too young to start discussing explicit images with my child?”

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Health Connected equips young people with information, skills, and support to make thoughtful choices about their relationships and sexual health throughout their lives.