Parents should talk to their tweens about the risks of porn

Most parents are unaware just how easily available "hardcore" porn has become

Published February 22, 2018 4:00AM (EST)


This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Editor’s note: This article includes references to graphic sexual content that may be inappropriate for some readers.

Today teenagers are viewing far more pornography than their parents realize. And the porn they’re watching is much more “hardcore” than moms and dads could possibly imagine.

These were the main messages of “What Teenagers are Learning From Online Porn,” a recent New York Times story by Maggie Jones. It quickly became one of the most read and shared articles.

While this may be a surprise to many American parents who perhaps imagine porn as merely a naked centerfold, it wasn’t to scholars like me who immerse ourselves in the world of mainstream porn. We know how widespread violent, degrading and misogynistic pornography has become, as well as the implications for the emotional, physical and mental health of young people.

In an effort to better understand the problem from a “front-line” perspective, feminist activist Samantha Wechsler and I have been traveling the world talking to parents about the issue. The question we’re asked most often is: “What can we do about it?”

‘Hardcore’ porn is everywhere

Surveys and our own experiences show that parents are deeply concerned about the easy access their kids now have to porn via mobile devices.

The statistics paint a dismal picture. A recent U.K. study found that 65 percent of 15- to 16-year-olds had viewed pornography, the vast majority of whom reported seeing it by age 14. This is especially problematic given the findings of another study that found a correlation between early exposure to pornography and an expressed desire to exert power over women.

Yet for all this concern, they know surprisingly little about what mainstream porn looks like, how much their kids are accessing and how it affects them. The Times article, however, cited a 2016 survey that suggested most parents are totally unaware of their kids’ porn experiences. Jones called this the “parental naivete gap.”

This matches our own experiences. In the presentations we do at high schools, we ask parents to describe what they think of when they hear the word “porn.” They invariably describe a naked young woman with a coy smile, the kind of image many remember from Playboy centerfolds.

They are shocked when they learn that the images from today’s busiest free porn sites, like Pornhub, depict acts such as women being gagged with a penis or multiple men penetrating every orifice of a woman and then ejaculating on her face. When we tell parents this, the change in the atmosphere of the room is palpable. There is often a collective gasp.

It bears repeating that these are the most visited porn sites — which get more visitors every month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined. Pornhub alone received 21.2 billion visits in 2015. We are not talking about images on the fringe.

Ana Bridges, a psychologist at the University of Arkansas, and her team found that 88 percent of scenes from 50 of the top-rented porn movies contained physical aggression against the female performers — such as spanking, slapping and gagging — while 48 percent included verbal abuse — like calling women names such as “bitch” or “slut.”

Bad for your health

More than 40 years of research from different disciplines has demonstrated that viewing pornography — regardless of age — is associated with harmful outcomes. And studies show that the younger the age of exposure, the more significant the impact in terms of shaping boys’ sexual templates, behaviors and attitudes.

A 2011 study of U.S. college men found that 83 percent reported seeing mainstream pornography in the past 12 months and that those who did were more likely to say they would commit rape or sexual assault (if they knew they wouldn’t be caught) than men who said they had not seen porn.

Another study of young teens found that early porn exposure was correlated with perpetration of sexual harassment two years later.

One of the most cited analyses of 22 studies concluded that pornography consumption is associated with an increased likelihood of committing acts of verbal or physical sexual aggression. And a study of college-aged women found that young women whose male partners used porn experienced lower self-esteem, diminished relationship quality and lower sexual satisfaction.

It begins with parents

Fearing for their children’s well-being, parents at our presentations, whether in Los Angeles, Oslo or Warsaw, want to run home in a panic to have the “porn talk” with their kids.

But in reality, they often have no idea what to say, how to say it, or how to deal with a kid who would rather be anywhere else in the world than sitting across from their parents talking about porn. At the same time, public health research shows that parents are the first line of prevention in dealing with any major social problem that affects their kids.

So what can be done?

Most current efforts focus on teens themselves and educating them about sex and the perils of porn. Although it is crucial to have high-quality programs for teens who have already been exposed, the fact is that this is cleaning up after the fact rather than preventing the mess in the first place.

So a team of academics, public health experts, educators, pediatricians and developmental psychologists — including us — spent two years pooling research to create a program to help parents become that vital first line of defense.

That’s why the nonprofit we set up — Culture Reframed — initially focused on parents of tweens, addressing a key question: How do we prevent kids from being exposed to images of sexual abuse and degradation at that critical stage when they are forming their sexual identities?

What took shape was a 12-module program that introduces parents sequentially to the developmental changes — emotional, cognitive and physical — that tweens undergo and the hypersexualized pop culture that shapes those changes and is the wallpaper of tween lives.

For example, boys learn from music videos, violent video games, mainstream media and porn that “real men” are aggressive and lack empathy, that sex equals conquest, and that to avoid being bullied, they have to wear the mask of masculinity. Girls, on the other hand, learn that they have to look “hot” to be visible, be as passive as a cartoon princess and internalize the male gaze, leading them to self-objectify at an early age.

Navigating the porn minefield

Helping parents grasp the degree to which hypersexualized images shape their tweens encourages them to understand, rather than judge, why their girl wants to look like one of the Kardashians, or why their boy, hazed into hypermasculinity, is at risk of losing his capacity for empathy and connection. This helps parents approach their kids with compassion rather than with frustration and anger that can undermine the parent-child relationship.

Navigating all the minefields of living in today’s toxic porn culture — from sexting and poor self esteem to porn and peer pressure — is very tricky terrain, and parents need all the help they can get.

But ultimately, the Culture Reframed project is about so much more than providing parents with newfound confidence and skills. It’s about taking power back from the porn industry, which is out to hijack the sexuality and humanity of kids in the name of profit, and giving it back to parents.

Samantha Wechsler, interim executive director of Culture Reframed, co-authored this article.

Gail Dines, Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies, Wheelock College

By Gail Dines

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