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The Porn Talk

Posted on 30 April 2020 by Kate

Pornhub recently released figures showing numbers spiking as more people turn to its services to wile away the hours during their Covid-19 lockdown. It’s natural that news like that made some parents and whānau worry about what their rangatahi might be watching.

The reality is, lockdown is challenging and being online can be a lifesaver. We can work, connect, watch shows and entertain the kids. But some parents might feel concerned about the extra time their children, especially their teens, are spending in front of screens, and the nature of the content that they’re viewing.

Sometimes that results in conversations that don’t go well and spiral into arguments. And right now, confrontation in a confined space is the last thing we need! Parents can feel ill equipped to have difficult conversations and one of the most difficult conversations is about online porn.

It’s true that people are watching more sites like Pornhub. In theory this site is for adults, but the fact is young people are seeing it. Classification Office research in 2018 showed that by the age of 17, 75% of young people have seen porn, and one in four have seen it by age 12. 

Despite those stats our research also showed that the likelihood of a young person having had a conversation with an adult about pornography is extremely low. This makes sense, as we can feel awkward talking about sex, let alone porn, and often open, honest conversations were not something that was modelled to us by our own parents and whānau.

So what can we do? This week the Classification Office released the final part of the youth-focussed research series into pornography. We talked with over 50 young people across the country about their views on porn, and what they need from adults in order to have healthy constructive conversations.

The majority hadn’t talked to an adult about porn before and we were impressed with how clear and thoughtful they were about what would help them. The key lesson was that we need to talk. Young people see porn as a normal part of growing up and even if they don’t watch it themselves, they expect that others their age do, or have at the very least seen it. And yet no one is talking about it. If they are, it’s as a joke with their mates not a conversation guided by the trusted adults in their lives.

It’s not an easy conversation to have and it needs trust on both sides. Be honest about how embarrassed you are. Young people get it, they feel it too. It shows you’re human and that you care enough to have the difficult conversations even if they make you uncomfortable.

And when we do start talking, we need to change how we talk about it. Saying “Don’t watch porn, it’s bad” or “If you watch porn you will start to act out what you see and harm someone else,” doesn’t really help. While this framing might come from a place of care and concern it is likely to kill the conversation. It can also make young people feel guilty or ashamed.

What they really need us to do is to navigate the conversation in an open and balanced way that shows we respect their opinions and in turn attempts to remove the stigma and taboo around talking about sex.

Remember watching porn doesn’t mean that all their prior learning about sex, relationships and how we should treat each other goes out the window. The overwhelming majority of the young people interviewed, knew that ‘porn sex’ was different to real sex; that these were actors; and that porn didn’t model safe sex or consent.

Asking a young person what they think not only shows that you value their opinions but it also enables them to think critically about the messages that exist in porn. While some young people see porn as a way to learn about their sexuality or think it’s simply a good masturbation aid, this new research shows that they generally share the same concerns that many of us do about pornography. They see its harms and are worried about other young people who might use it to learn about sex.

Young people also felt that the gendered way porn is talked about needed to change. Research shows that while boys are more likely to watch porn, girls and boys watch it for the same reasons. Girls felt frustrated by the gendered double-standard that exists that expects boys to look at porn and girls not to, supporting the narrative that its ok for boys to be sexual but not for girls. It is important that this double-standard isn’t reflected in the conversations that we have in relation to porn. We need to talk with our kids about how porn makes them feel, the expectation it creates around body image and consent regardless of gender.

There is no one size fits all approach, but we should listen to the young people in our lives, avoid judgements and keep our assumptions in check. This doesn’t mean that you have to change your values but instead, explain why they are important to you in an empathetic and caring way.

This isn’t a one off conversation and there’s always tomorrow to give it another try if you don’t get it quite right. When asked how they wanted adults to respond when talking about pornography one young person simply said “With compassion, understanding and a source of information” I think this is a great place to start.

To help we have created resources including videos and guides. Find them here.

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