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16 December 2021

Sophie McBain

Teaching your 10-year-old about porn isn’t as awkward as them learning about it from someone else

We’re kidding ourselves if we pretend porn isn’t shaping young people’s sexual scripts. So talk to them about it.

In keeping with national stereotypes, the first person to give me a real chat about sex – by which I mean the kind of conversation where no question is off-limits – was my Dutch grandma. I must have been 10 or 11. If she felt awkward fielding so many intimate questions, she never showed it. I imagine she was pragmatic enough to have calculated that if I were seeking this kind of information, she’d rather be involved in providing it. Which is one of the biggest arguments in favour of speaking to your young children about sex, sexual harassment and porn. Who else would you prefer they hear it from? 

I grew up before social media; these conversations are now more urgent. Teenagers and even primary-age children are routinely exposed to online porn and subjected to sexual harassment, often via social media and messaging apps. Studies suggest that half of under-11s have seen pornography. A recent Ofsted report found that sexual harassment in schools occurs so frequently that “it has become commonplace”. 

Many parents were raised on the idea that it is weird to talk to children about sex, and that these conversations will be excruciating. The awfulness of parental sex talks is a long-running joke. Consider that wince-inducing father-son chat in the 1999 film American Pie: “Oh, I almost forgot! I bought some magazines. Want to just flick to the centre section?”

But one of the reasons these conversations are so painful is because they happen too late. It’s not going to work if you spend 18 years never speaking to your child about sex and then sidle into their room, clear your throat and say something unavoidably irrelevant and inappropriate such as (and this is an example drawn from real life): “son, you’re getting to the age when… don’t party without your party hat, if you know what I mean.”

Contrary to cultural stereotypes, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Rachel de Souza said yesterday that young people actually want their parents to broach difficult topics such as sexual harassment and porn, and they want to have these conversations when they are aged nine or 10, before they are given social media accounts or smart phones. Her office has produced a guide, in consultation with young people, to help parents do so.

In September 2020, relationship and sex education became a statutory requirement for schools, but as I have reported for the New Statesman, many teachers do not feel comfortable delivering the curriculum. The risk is that if parents don’t have these conversations early, children will absorb ideas about sex and consent from other sources, such as from online pornography. 

This is dangerous, because researchers know that porn shapes young people’s sexual scripts in ways that are often harmful to women and contribute to sexual violence. Watching porn has been shown to perpetuate sexist attitudes and sexual aggression among men, and feed into self-objectification and submission among women. More positively, there are ways to protect young people from these effects: a Dutch longitudinal study demonstrated that when children are taught about porn in schools, they are less likely to see women as sex objects.

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I don’t deny these kinds of conversations might feel awkward. But the reality is that regardless of a chat with their parents, most kids will encounter porn at some point. Perhaps parents should consider whose awkwardness they would prefer to tolerate. Their own, or that of their child, left to navigate the confusing, sometimes harmful, landscape of sex and consent with little guidance or support.

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