I was discussing this blog with a friend and she asked for my opinion on pornography – do I think it should be banned? I would like to clarify that an adult has the right to choose what they access. However, I believe that an child without any conceptions of healthy relationships can have their experiences of sexuality permanently damaged by accessing pornography. We know that children and teenagers are being exposed to pornography through their devices and social groups. They are at a higher risk of being affected by this content if their time online is not supervised and if they have not been educated about healthy forms of sexuality. This situation is very different to watching sexual material as an adult with formed views. Even in an adult context, there are always caveats.
We as educators, parents and adults have a responsibility to inform our children and teenagers about the risks involved and in the formative years of sexual development, it is up to us to educate ourselves on the consequences of allowing children to access pornography through lack of supervision.
Here are three key considerations:
- Accessing pornography in childhood can lead to inappropriate sexual behaviours or peer-to-peer sexual abuse.
Sexual acts perpetrated by young people (aged 10 and 19) increased by 36% between 2012 and 2014. The only way a young child can know about sexual acts is if they are told, if it is forced upon them, or if they view these acts in pornographic images, which as we know can be innocently accessed via platforms such as Instagram and YouTube in content suggestions. Even children’s games (such as Minecraft) have videos created by users that portray sexual scenes using the game’s characters. These videos appear on the side without a child needing to search for them.
If a child sees these acts portrayed without explanation, they become normalised and they may try to imitate some of what they’ve seen on their peers. This is not a sign that the child is a deviant, they are merely copying what they have been exposed to. Although none of us set out to allow our children to access this material, all it takes is five minutes without supervision. Close supervision can curtail this exposure, but if a child has seen this material by accident or through a peer, it is important to reinforce with them that these are private acts that occur between adults, and a child’s private parts are subject to very important rules:
- No one can touch my private parts (except for medical reasons, with consent), and you are not allowed to touch other people’s private parts
- No one is allowed to show you private pictures or movies
- No one is allowed to take private photos of you
- You are not allowed to take private pictures of yourself
I found these rules inside a useful resource that explores this topic, which is called Gary Just Didn’t Know the Rules. It is really important to understand that a child who sees pornography and then emulates it usually doesn’t know any better. These children need support and education, not condemnation.
- Accessing pornography in the years of early sexual development can lead to the formation of inappropriate expectations, issues with instant gratification, and pornography addiction.
Although some pornography portrays positive, consensual experiences between adults, there is also a significant amount of material (particularly online) that portrays sex with multiple people, anal sex without appropriate protection, ejaculating in a person’s face, sex acts involving bondage/injury, or other sexual acts that may be out of the comfort zone of an inexperienced teenager.
Young people exposed to these ideas may feel pressure to try them, even if they do not feel comfortable, as they are often portrayed as being what a stereotypical male/female should do. Further, if a teenager becomes used to being aroused by these forms of pornography, they may be dissatisfied with their first sexual experiences or disappointed when their partner declines to try what they’ve seen. Over time, repeated exposure to these images can cause addiction and issues with instant gratification, which can cause a person to struggle to enjoy sex or reach climax under regular conditions with a sexual partner. It is difficult for a teenager to understand these consequences because logical thoughts can be overridden by the instant pleasure that pornography can bring. We need to have conversations about these consequences with our children in the same way we would about the risks involved with alcohol and drugs.
- Some pornography shows violent or dominant acts that degrade the participants and demonstrate unhealthy relationships.
Although the causal link between high consumption of pornography and sexual violence has not been 100% established, some evidence demonstrates that there is a link between certain forms of pornography and the formation of negative sexual attitudes, particularly towards women. Many of the acts depicted in online pornography are not standard fare and can influence a young person’s view of what sex should be. Some videos also don’t make consent obvious, and certain acts are portrayed as non-reciprocal (e.g – a man in pornography may receive oral sex, but won’t give it to his female partner).
Some teenagers report changes in attitude after viewing pornography that aren’t necessarily problematic – for instance, that it is okay to enjoy sex or to have casual encounters in the right context – but many of the most commonly accessed forms of pornography put forward the view that men cannot control themselves once aroused, that women or men can be sex objects, that women need love to have sex, that women say no when they mean yes or that the way a woman dresses can invite consent. These messages can blur the lines of what constitutes a respectful, equitable, and healthy relationship for a teenager who doesn’t have a great deal of life experience.
Awareness by parents of what children are doing online decreases with age but their time online tends to increase. As children enter this developmental space, any generational gaps in digital literacy and awareness about the impacts of content available online need to be addressed with greater understanding of the Web 2.0 platforms and how they can be used safely. For children and teenagers, it is really for the best if they are not consumers of this material. Because we know they will likely be exposed to it at some stage, using these three key considerations is helpful in shaping our conversations around this topic.
Australian Institute of Family Studies