How can we talk to children about pornography in a way that is a blessing to them, bringing them closer to Christ, and enabling them to navigate the dangers of our society with confidence?
The idea that we need to talk to our children about pornography is not an appealing one. As a parent, I really don’t want to think that it is necessary, nor do I want to expose my children to this dark underside of our culture. And yet it is clear that the ubiquity of the internet and the easy access to pornographic imagery it provides, not to speak of the increasing sexualization of everyday culture, means that we need to consider how to prepare our children to live in this culture and how to face the experiences they will encounter and the imagery that will be put at some point before their eyes.
So let’s look at some reasons…
Why we need to talk about pornography to children
A few weeks ago, in the episode “Pornography and Society”, I talked about some of the data we have about the prevalence of pornography use and the difficulty of avoiding exposure to porn, meaning that one study found that even among 12-13 year olds, 10% are afraid they may have a porn addiction, and a full 92% of boys will have been exposed to pornography one way or another by the age of 16.
The ubiquity and pervasiveness of the internet means that in the modern day, many children use it for their sex education… and because of the high proportion of internet traffic that is made up of pornography — 12% of websites, and some have estimated up to 30% of internet traffic as a whole — when they look for answers to questions about intimacy, relationships and sexuality, what they will find is porn sites, most of which include content so hard-core that it was simply not available at all to previous generations.
We can see that we do need to make our children aware of what they will face and what the dangers are. So…Many children use the internet for their own sex education Click To Tweet
When do we talk?
How old should a child be before we start talking about this? Some studies have estimated that the average age of exposure to pornography is 11. Which means that for many children, 11 will be too late. It’s actually possible to talk about the subject with children of any age, as long as we do it in a way appropriate for the child. We don’t need to cite statistics and talk about sex explicitly in order to begin warning children of the dangers and preparing them with strategies to deal with what they will face.
Even for quite young children, especially if they use the internet at all, it’s good to have a brief conversation along the lines of “if you see something that worries you or feels wrong, ask me about it right away” — and setting this foundation leads to an ongoing and developing discussion in which the child is engaged and which will hopefully continue whenever it becomes a live issue.
What’s a good time to have such a conversation? Well, it shouldn’t just be a one-off conversation… it should be an ongoing dialogue and discussion. Ideally such conversations will take place when you can be relaxed and there is no time pressure or scheduled event to cut off the discussion. But we should be prepared to deal with questions and reflections on the topic whenever they come up, knowing that we can always return to the subject at a more convenient time to follow up on what has been said.
Rather than planning for a conversation, it’s better to take the opportunity when related issues come up, and when our child asks questions. We can ask questions back to help understand what kinds of things we need to talk about: “Why are you asking about this?” “What happened?” “What do you think about it?” The purpose of the conversation is not to scare the child! It’s to prepare them to deal with what they will have to face, and to be ready to face it with confidence, not fear, being equipped to deal with the experience and aware enough so that others can’t easily convince them that it is all right to have a look.
The background to the talk
… is the culture of the family. Hopefully we have a culture in the family where such things can be discussed safely and without shame; where there is an existing expectation of what sorts of things are appropriate and what are not (for example the child knows that there are limits on the kind of internet sites that are appropriate, and so on). As Orthodox, we are learning to live in such a way that we know what beauty is, what holy images are, how we think about people and images of people; we are working to establish patterns of veneration, respect and love.
So given that this is the background in which we are prepared to speak…
How do we talk about it?
Ideally, we as parents are taking the initiative, and beginning gently to address these questions appropriately in everyday conversation, but before the issue is directly activated by the child’s exposure to pornography. Everyday conversation with a child will provide these opportunities… questions about the use of people in advertising, in the media, scenes in films — even in animated films, and appropriate and inappropriate ways of behaving in public… all of these are related to the broader question of pornography and provide a strong basis for the child’s instinctive understanding that there is something wrong with pornographic imagery.
If the child is asking because they have already been exposed in some way, then we especially take care with our emotional reaction, as we don’t want to push the child away, but to encourage them to come back and continue the discussion. The attitude and emotion we demonstrate in such a conversation will have at least as big an impact as the words we say.
If we have the opportunity, it’s good to intentionally prepare for such a conversation, and ask for help if necessary — discuss it with your spiritual father, your priest, other parents, and so on. And it should be a conversation, not a monologue… we want to be attentive to where the child is and what questions he or she has, since this will guide us as to what are the things the child needs to hear. The conversation will be different with every child, depending on their needs: it is likely to be different for boys and girls, and will be different according to the age and experience of the child, as well as their specific personality.The explicit way we talk would be shocking to most of our ancestors Click To Tweet
When we are talking about the subject of pornography, what kind of language do we use? This is not an easy question. The level of public discourse today and the explicit way we talk about things is something that would be highly shocking to most of our ancestors. We don’t want to encourage this trend, but rather to critique it. [cf. John Climacus not mentioning masturbation so as not to make those aware of it who weren’t?]. We need to form a careful balance between moderating explicit language and expression and the need for clarity.
In many cases, and especially with younger children, we should take our lead from child. We talk on their terms, we don’t introduce more explicit language than they need… and if their language is inappropriate, we can explain why and moderate it. And we do not have to let pornography set our agenda, we can frame our conversation not in the language of sex and physical acts, but in the language of love and union, of marriage and family, and of the way our physical bodies are icons of our souls, made for union with God.
Each child is different, and every conversation will be different. Particularly, the way we talk to children who have not been exposed to pornography will be different from how we talk to those who who have just accidentally been exposed for the first time, which will be different again from how we talk to those who have already gone back of their own choice to see more.
So we’re having the conversation…
What do we say?
The first thing we need to be clear about is what pornography is. If our child has come to us with a question about something they have seen or heard other children talking about, then we can start there.
What is porn? Pornography consists of pictures and videos of things that we shouldn’t be looking at; things that are at least private and often also abusive. Pornography is the opposite of iconography. Porn is an anti-icon. Whereas icons invite us into love and communion with those whose real presence is with us even though we can’t see it physically, porn breaks love and communion by abusing the image of those pictured, by making their physical bodies out to be the only thing that matters, by ignoring the real person and their own hurts, and loves, and all the things about a person we can’t see just in a picture; by using their bodies, which are made to be temples of the Holy Spirit, as playthings for other people’s amusement.The internet is not a suitable teacher for issues of relationships and sexuality Click To Tweet
It is important to make it clear that the internet is not a suitable teacher for issues of relationships and sexuality. There are many things that we look up on the internet to find information about, but the internet is more or less reliable for different things, and different sources on the internet are more or less reliable than others.
Pornography sites are the least reliable if we are looking for information about relationships and sexuality since that is not at all what they exist for: it is not their purpose. In fact, these sites are not only not going to deliver useful or true answers, but they are actually going to corrupt the possibility of your finding useful or true answers. They are a suitable teacher for how to end up lonely and outside intimate relationships, since not only are they the place people turn when they are lonely and outside intimate relationships, they are also a place people turn to unintentionally to destroy the intimate relationships they do have.
We can also warn about the dangers of addiction. Everybody, including children, knows about temptation and how it can be difficult to resist. We can explain the basics of how addiction works on a physical level, harnessing the reward pathways of the brain — the things I talked about in the episode “Transforming Desires 2: Overcoming Addiction”. And how this is reflected in the mind and in the soul, because as whole persons, the body, mind and soul all affect each other all the time. We can talk about the process of temptation, how the thought (or logismos) appears in the mind like an aeroplane, as Elder St Paisios said, and the key thing is not to let the aeroplane land.
And the pornography sites on the internet can be highly addictive, supplying an easy fix for those feelings of loneliness or inadequacy or other difficulties in our life which we want to find relief from, and which are what makes these temptations so difficult to resist.
These sites do this by presenting the worst sort of fantasy… with an ever-decreasing relationship to reality, and a tendency to cut the user off from reality: from those who love them, from God, and even from their own true selves, the person God created them to be. What does a true relationship look like? Nothing like what you see in porn.
It’s important, then, to be able to offer an alternative to the internet for such questions… and an alternative that is palatable to the child. There are available resources that are suitable and helpful, and the most useful and personal of all are other people. People who we know already care about us as people, people with whom we already have an existing relationship: these are the people we can trust.
One of the reasons pornography is so untrustworthy and such a bad teacher is that it does not care about such relationships… sometimes it even hates them. It separates sex from relationship. We know that sex is an icon of union, which is why it is a proper part of marriage and not of other kinds of relationships. None of us wants to be excluded from relationship, and yet that is what pornography teaches us how to do… more than teaches: it is propaganda for that false teaching; it’s like an infection that gets inside you and rewires the connection between sex and relationship in your own body and soul. A characteristic of pornography is to dehumanize sex — we need to re-humanize it and put it in its proper context.Pornography teaches us how to be excluded from relationship. Click To Tweet
So we make this the frame of any discussion… real people, real relationships. How we treat people and their image is how we would like to be treated. We know that we should treat others the way we want them to treat us (Matt. 7:12).
And it’s important to remember that those people we see on the computer screen, or the tablet screen, or the phone screen… they are real people. To go on the internet is to go out into a public place. If you see people doing something there that you wouldn’t expect to see them doing in public, it’s an issue and should be discussed. Think about the implications of everything you see… those are real people in the image of God as are you.
And even in public, you see things that aren’t appropriate… you don’t have to do what other people do, you don’t have to give in to peer pressure. We are working towards a greater beauty, and it is one we have glimpsed in church when we sing with the cherubim, and when we stand before the icons in the presence of the saints.
We can see that there is a continuum in beauty… we can see those people and those relationships that really mediate God’s love to us. We can see the growth of love and the context for sex in those who gave us life and who continue to love us through good times and bad for our whole lives. So we don’t separate this discussion on pornography from everything else. We can integrate our awareness of more or less inappropriate material in the media in general, and how porn is even more extreme and even more damaging than the worst of this. To do this also allows us to naturally return to and reinforce the point as everyday images and experiences are discussed.
Part of our everyday experience is venerating the holy icons. We can talk about the difference between venerating an icon and the way we feel when exposed to pornographic imagery, and how in standing before an icon we are opening ourselves to the vision of the saint portrayed, whereas when exposing ourselves to pornographic imagery, we are exposing ourselves to something which is the opposite of love, the opposite of goodness… something which connects us to the darkest passions of the human soul.
And when we expose ourselves to those darkest passions, we activate them, and we give them control over our minds and bodies. That’s the danger of addiction to pornography. Porn changes you… We already know it affects your soul, and scientists now also know that it affects your brain, especially when you’re young, when the brain is in a more intense stage of development.
We know that everything we do builds us a person, and this life is given to us to cultivate repentance, growing in love with others and with God. But to expose ourselves to this kind of imagery also changes us. It affects our souls and bodies. Does my son know how he should view the girls he knows and relates to? How should he be? Respectful, loving, gentle? Or manipulative, harsh and rough? Does my daughter know what to expect from the man she might one day marry? What we see with our eyes affects our brain, and what we dwell on in our heart affects our soul. And what is in our brain and our soul is what we will express in our lives. St Paul’s advice is to dwell on what is lovely (Phil. 4:8). This way of life will build us in the best way.