When Should Parents Talk To Kids About Porn? That's the question an interviewer asked me today.
The answer is: now. Especially if you haven't talked to your kids about porn lately. Just like a single conversation isn't enough to cover everything a kid needs to know about nutrition or bike safety as he or she grows, it isn't enough to cover the subject of porn. Or the even more complex subject of sexuality.
Here are some key points of the interview.
* There is no "The Sex Talk" with kids. Rather, there's a conversation that lasts 15 or 20 years—or longer, if you're fortunate enough to have a relationship with your young adult kids.
* You don't want porn to be the topic of the first talk you have with your kids about sex. Therefore, go talk with them about sex now, preparing the vocabulary and concepts for upcoming conversations about porn.
* Porn is part of the larger, long-term series of conversations about sex we have with our kids. Those talks involve how bodies work, what to expect from puberty, how to tell someone you like them, how to make good decisions (and how alcohol makes that difficult), why different people have sex, what to do if you feel pressured, and more.
* Porn isn't made for kids, and we don't want them watching it. Nevertheless, they need preparation for the watching that they're going to do, whether it's intentional or not. This is NOT a double message: we want them to bike safely, but require they wear a helmet; we want them to drive safely, but require them to wear a seat belt.
* When we talk to kids about porn, here are some subjects we need to cover:
~ Porn isn't made for you;
~ Real sex doesn't feel like porn looks;
~ Porn involves unusual bodies in unusual circumstances doing unusual things;
~ Adults sometimes play sex games that can be confusing for a kid to understand;
~ There's a lot of preparation off-camera that we don't see—the script, the planning, the use of products like lube and Viagra and contraception;
~ While many adults are OK about porn (for other adults), some adults totally object to anyone watching it;
~ You might think sexting is harmless, but it is really, really against the law, and if you do it you can really, really get in trouble with the police. If you get a sexy picture you didn't ask for, please come and see me—I promise I won't punish you.
* If you're embarrassed to talk to your kids about sex or porn, say "I'm embarrassed." Then talk anyway.
For more about enhancing porn literacy in young people (and reducing marital conflict about porn), see my new book or blog.
I've just returned from Phoenix, where I gave a 10-hour seminar to therapists on supporting healthy childhood and adolescent sexuality.
Arizona has the fourth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the US. Nevertheless, school districts are NOT required to provide sex education. If a school does include a sex education curriculum, a parent has to give affirmative consent for their kid to go to class. Parents don't opt their kids OUT of sex ed class; they have to opt their kids IN, or they can't go.
And while the Arizona legislature leaves it to individual school districts to decide whether to offer sex ed class, it does dictate what those classes must emphasize: abstinence from sex. And heterosexuality: they are not allowed to mention homosexuality as a "viable lifestyle option."
If that's what sex ed is in Arizona, your kid might be better off if you DIDN'T send him/her to class. At least they wouldn't be told by teachers and curricula that non-marital sex leads to physical and mental problems, and that male lust must be controlled by females, who are supposedly unburdened by erotic feelings.
Arizona was recently in the news for something even worse than that. The legislature passed a law criminalizing ANY intentional adult touching of the genitalia, anus, or female breast of anyone 15 and younger. That's right—changing a baby's diaper; examining your kid's rash or sports injury; helping your daughter fit a bra or bathing suit—all were criminalized in Arizona.
The purported goal: protecting children, of course. From molestation or abuse.
And yet the legislature didn't specify that these behaviors were illegal only when done with sexual intent. And so people were arrested and prosecuted.
A swim coach was arrested. A grandfather was arrested. When these cases went to jury, the defendants wanted the State to prove that their offense had had sexual intent, but the State pointed to the statute, which specifically left that out.
After conviction, one of these cases went to the Arizona Supreme Court. It could have fixed the law by requiring the State to prove sexual intent. But in a bitterly split decision, it upheld the conviction. The Court said the defendant had to prove his behavior had no sexual intent, which of course is impossible. And, one, would think, an unconstitutional (not to mention unreasonable and bizarre) burden on anyone who is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.
Ten years in prison. Supervised probation and registered sex offender after that.
Finally, this month federal judge Neil Wake ruled the law an unconstitutional violation of our 14th Amendment due process rights, as well as an unacceptable intrusion on parents' rights to care for their children. It's one of the grandest principles of American law: if you're accused of a crime, the government has to prove you guilty, rather than you having to prove your innocence. The Arizona law had turned that sacred principle upside down.
Why would a legislature, a prosecutor, and even a state supreme court throw away this astonishing protection, which most people in the history of the world have not had?
To protect the children, of course.
Is there no limit to American society's obsession with adult-child sexual exploitation? How many innocent people is this country willing to harass, jail, and ruin in the quest to prove our disgust, to express our fear, to demand our revenge—and to talk endlessly about the subject?
Science has proven that extreme measures like these do NOT increase protection for children. Chatroom stings; Megan's law; forcing sex offenders to live under freeway overpasses—these simply don't protect anyone except those whose jobs depend on the continuing flood of federal money.
American society is committed to remaining ignorant about what really protects kids from sexual exploitation. And so is the field of psychotherapy and marriage counseling.
In our training programs, what do we learn about healthy childhood sexuality? Virtually nothing (give major credit to the Arizona Association of Marriage & Family Therapists, who brought me in to talk about this). Professional articles about it? Rare. Use of major fact-based resources like SIECUS, the Guttmacher Institute, or Planned Parenthood? Rare. No, clinical discussions of childhood sexuality are almost exclusively about damage, coercion, and their consequences.
Programs for parents on healthy childhood sexuality? Rare
And where are the voices of minor-attracted adults who never touch a child? Who are they, and what techniques do they use to stay "sober?" Why is the recidivism rate for sex offenders lower than for most other felonies? We could learn a lot from a better understanding of this.
And where is the professional dialog about the ethics of "treating" sex offenders with coercive (often religious) programs that, Catch-22 style, insist that inmates who maintain their innocence are showing they are failing at rehabilitation?
Criminalizing diaper-changing and swim lessons (e.g., Stephen May's conviction and his 75-year prison sentence was just overturned) don't protect children in Arizona or anywhere else. But they make good sound bites during elections, they make legislators feel effective, and they reassure parents that they're doing SOMETHING. Whether the something that's being done is good for kids or bad for everyone, almost no one seems to be care.
Just in time for my visit this week, the English government has issued a recommendation via its National Health Service website encouraging parents to use the right words for genitalia with their young children.
According the NHS, "Parents have told us they are keen to back up the learning that children get in school" about "growing up, puberty, sexual health and relationships," but aren't sure what to say. Apparently parents are afraid that words like 'penis' and 'vulva' are "sexual" and therefore off-putting to kids, but the NHS assures them that kids can learn that they're as normal as 'hand' or 'leg.'
Great. Imagine our government encouraging parents to say 'penis' or 'vulva' instead of pee-pee, woo-woo, or vijayjay.
I'm reminded of the time ten years ago when Bill O'Reilly attacked the Reverend Debra Haffner on his show for suggesting that kids could handle the word 'uterus.' Clearly angry and upset, prissy little Bill said that the magic word "robbed children of their innocence." Well, Bill is gone, and my friend Debra leads a UU congregation in Reston, Virginia.
I confess to learning something in reading the NHS article this morning on the train from Canterbury to Oxford (ahem). It listed 'front bottom' as one of the euphemisms parents didn't need to use. Never having heard of it, I went to Urban Dictionary, which informed me it was slang for vagina. I really must get out more.
As an interesting aside, there's an American band with the trademarked name The Front Bottoms. Given the government's ability (actually responsibility) to refuse to trademark names that are offensive, lascivious, etc., one wonders if the government knew what the word meant when the trademarked it for the band.
This gives new resonance to that old saying about England and the U.S.—two countries divided by a common language.
* * *