Twisted meanings don’t help us understand the reality

This news story I read today is a great example of how the media misuses research findings to increase fear/produce sensationalism. It’s about the association between youth exposure to online pornography and risky sexual behaviors.

The article references some research that finds that young people who see online pornography are also more likely to have higher numbers of sexual partners, to have participated in a wider array of sexual practices, and to drink and take drugs in association with sex. While this may indeed be true, by no means does it mean that viewing online pornography CAUSES a young person to do these other sexual things. It could just as easily be true that a young person with those sexual experiences is more likely to be drawn to online pornography.

While the article does mention that the direction of the association is unclear, it’s tone implies pornography is the cause for the rest of the behaviors. The quote presented from the research editorial is all-telling:

”There are … genuine questions about the potential for exposure to pornography at a young age to bring forward the onset of sexual activity,”

The word “potential” is key here, and I hope that readers understand that we simply do not know what the effects of pornography viewing are in the general population. In the meantime, let’s present things in a balanced way to decrease the chances of jumping to conclusions.

Having “the Talk” gets more complicated — but not impossible

A great article in the New York Times discusses what to do if your child views online pornography — either intentionally or not. At this point, seeing online pornography, as quoted in the article, is practically “inevitable.” No amount of filters, Net Nannies, or other software is going to prevent at least some sexually explicit images from finding their way to the front of a young person’s gaze. And since schools aren’t going to introduce this topic into their sex ed anytime soon, it’s up to parents and other adults to be the educators here.

So, what to do? The first thing (and probably the hardest!) is to act calmly. Freaking out doesn’t help in most circumstances, and rarely in this one. Sexual curiosity is natural. Remember when you were younger and flipped through a Playboy or even a National Geographic in hopes of seeing nude images? What’s very different today is that more “hard core” stuff is more readily available and it’s more likely that a young person — even if he or she is purposefully looking for sexual content — is going to get more than they bargained for when clicking on some links. So, when you learn that your child does see something explicit, take a deep breath, know it was bound to happen, and be grateful that you have the chance to debrief them on what they saw. Really.

Other things to discuss? It’s important to discuss the business and biases of pornography. Porn is not real sex, and the people in it are not real (in that the images have been very altered if not the bodies of the models), and the messages about sex and sexual desire are not real…you get the idea. Porn is fantasy, not reality, and when a young person is exploring sexuality, it is very important to get that message across.

Marty Klein, esteemed sexuality educator, offered the following key points to consider in a blog post on Net Family News:

  • “It’s fiction, not a documentary”
  • Those are “atypical bodies” and “atypical activities”
  • “It’s edited” or “photoshopped”
  • “Adults play sex games”
  • “Different people relate to porn differently – how does it affect you?”

Ideally, you will have a few casual conversations about pornography before being faced with a need to immediately address the issue. But even if you have your first conversation in a “intervention” moment, try to embrace the chance to talk to your child about how healthy sex and sexual expression are not what they just witnessed. They’ll probably be relieved to hear it.