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Your children are watching porn

What is porn? The answer you give to that question will undoubtedly be based on your own experiences with pornographic content. 

If you’re over a certain age (and for the sake of kindness, I won’t specify what age that might be) then you may define ‘porn’ as still images of naked women: images found in magazines smuggled behind the bike sheds. For others it might include ‘dirty videos’ hired from the video rental shop (remember when you could rent videos?). For those who have viewed online pornography recently, their answer will be somewhat different.

Unfettered access to smart phones, tablets and laptops has created a generation of digital natives whose knowledge is equal only to the ignorance of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations: adults who don’t understand how technology work give children unlimited access to devices; often only talking about technology when asking their children to instruct them on using a new phone. Younger and younger children are gaining access to the digital space, many expertly able to navigate an iPad before they can write their name, or in some cases, before they can walk. For children’s workers or parents of young children, pornography has been something we’ve been able to ignore and put off until the inevitable teenage wobble. But young children are stumbling across porn at an earlier and earlier age as they become more digitally competent and independent.

According to pornography website Pornhub, the 2015 top online search terms were ‘lesbian’, ‘teen’ and ‘step mom’. Typing any of these into Pornhub’s search browser will give access to pages of videos showing women being sexually degraded, punished, ‘hammered’ and hurt. Links offer access to ‘exxxtra small teens’, ‘18 and abused’, ‘very very young girl’, and ‘mom and daughter lesbian’. There are seemingly endless videos with high-quality camera angles zooming in on hairless genitals, violent penetration and ejaculation (usually on women’s faces). Videos without women (gay porn) claim to have straight men crying while being penetrated. This is what young people define as porn. It’s a far cry from smuggled magazines behind the bike sheds.

As adults, we may be able to choose to avoid pornography, but the children in our lives cannot

Whether or not this is your first introduction to the reality of pornography, it is deeply distressing. We can feel frozen by the horror of it and left ill-equipped or ignorant. Perhaps you’re tempted to stop reading and turn the page to a less offensive topic. Please don’t. This content is inevitably making its way into the lives of children (and adults) we care about; we need to be aware and equipped to respond well.

Children and pornography: The stats

  • 28 per cent of 11-to-12-year-olds report seeing pornography and by 15, children were more likely than not to have seen online pornography with 65 per cent of 15-to-16-year-olds reporting seeing pornography.
  • Children were as likely to stumble across pornography as to search for it deliberately.
  • A minority of respondents reported sexual arousal on first viewing pornography (17 per cent), rising to 49 per cent at current viewing.
  • Although 27 per cent of children felt shocked when they first viewed pornography, that decreased to only eight per cent in relation to their current viewing of it.
  • 31 per cent of the boys and 15 per cent of the girls reported that they continue to see pornography after first viewing it.
  • Once a child has encountered pornography, the likelihood increases of encountering it again, even unintentionally.
  • For those who continue to view it, young people become less negative and generally less anxious or disgusted by pornography.
  • Most children first saw online pornography on a portable laptop (38 per cent), although mobile phone access was also relatively common (33 per cent) and just under one-quarter first saw online pornography on a desktop computer (24 per cent).

Taken from NSPCC research: “I wasn’t sure it was normal to watch it” (2016).

Sexualisation

Although schools, parents and other significant adults are gradually becoming aware of the dangers of digital culture, there remains a huge cultural divide between those who think porn is sexy naked images and those for whom porn is millions of hours of content where men degrade and sexually abuse women in increasingly graphic and disgusting ways.

Within Christian culture this divide deepens into a huge chasm as ‘abstinence only’ teaching leaves children and young people ill-equipped to have healthy relationships with their own bodies or sexuality, and vulnerable to sexual violence, normalised by the pornography that few adults in their lives have either warned them about or given them strategies to deal with.

Before being exposed to online pornography, the sexualisation of women and girls is the wallpaper of children’s lives. Music videos, adultified children’s clothing, gender stereotyping and adverts teach children that women are sexual objects. Men are powerful and have agency while women’s power is found solely in revealing more skin. These narratives about gender and power shape children’s perceptions, so by the time they watch online pornography they are primed to accept the narrative of woman as powerless object and man as powerful and in control.

Within Christianity, we may assume that our culture is different because we teach that sex should be saved for marriage. However, very often leaders are male, while women’s bodies are represented as tempting to men, continuing the narrative that it is men’s agency that matters when it comes to sex (and the rest of life). Rarely is it assumed that girls and women have a sexuality, with sexual temptation issues being focused on men and boys (the pseudo-science of ‘men are visual beings’ is not scientifically accurate).

In my work with young people and adults, those who began watching online pornography as children say that nobody had given them a framework for what they were exposed to. The only resources they had were their peers, the physical responses of their body and the wider lessons they had been taught (or not taught) about sex. For some, that initial exposure grows into compulsive masturbation and consumption of graphic sexually violent films and images.

Beyond sin

Currently, for many in church, there is an ambivalence about pornography. If it is mentioned at all, it will be within the context of adult men struggling with ‘sexual sin’. Yet, 30 years ago, the only way children would have been exposed to the graphic content in online pornography would have been if adults were sexually abusing them. For children, being exposed to pornography is a form of sexual abuse in the digital age. Sexual abuse is not solely categorised by whether an individual or group intend to abuse, it is also relevant what the impact of the abuse is. Regardless of whether there is an adult perpetrator involved, children’s sexuality is abused when they are exposed to pornography. We are dealing with an epidemic of child sexual abuse that most adults don’t even recognise as a serious risk to children.

Alongside the complexities of this being a form of sexual abuse without an arrestable perpetrator, the implications for brain development are significant. Our first sexual interactions influence so much of our sexuality, while the pleasure centres of the brain triggered through sexual activity can cause some to compulsively watch pornography and masturbate. However, we must be careful not to overstate the risks of addiction; most people who watch pornography are not addicted to it.

It is difficult to ascertain the full consequences of children’s and young people’s exposure to pornography, although recent NSPCC research suggests it could normalise unhealthy sexual attitudes and cause girls to feel more conscious about their bodies and how they don’t measure up to ‘porn star’ standards. This is borne out in increasing numbers of teenage girls seeking genital cosmetic surgery.

It is common for millennial men (the first with ongoing high-speed internet access) to have ‘porn expectations’ of women. Many women testify to having been subjected to varying degrees of sexual violence that has been normalised by both men’s and women’s consumption of pornography. Those working with children and young people testify to increasing levels of sexualisation and the normalisation of sexually degrading language.

“Put your seatbelts on”

Each technological development in society has required shifts in how we parent and work with children and young people. It took many car accidents for road and seatbelt safety to become compulsory topics of education in schools and for parents. In the same way we understand that it doesn’t destroy children’s innocence to be told that cars can kill people, we need to begin recognising that proactively talking to children about the types of content they may come across online is a protective measure. We still have a way to go with ensuring children are taught that certain parts of their body are private, but we are beginning to recognise that giving children proactive information about abuse is the best way to protect them.

Once we begin to accept that it is inevitable that children are going to be exposed to online pornography, our approach can shift from one of denial to proactivity. We can start by enabling toddlers and smaller children to understand that their bodies are brilliant, that God made some parts of their bodies to be special and that those parts are private. We wear underwear to help those bits to stay private. Research has found that teaching young children the correct words for genitals (vulva, vagina, penis, testicles) is important in enabling them to feel comfortable with their own bodies and protecting them from being sexually abused.

As children grow we can begin conversations about dangerous things they might find online; there’s lots of fun and interesting things on the internet, but there’s also lots of unsafe stuff as well. We can explain that some of it includes grown-ups being naked and doing stuff that looks unkind, hurtful or confusing. Young children don’t need to know what sex is for them to be prepared if they see pornographic content. They just need to know that it is unsafe and that they should tell a grown up. It may be helpful to label this stuff ‘porn’ or, as we call it within the DAY Programme: ‘creepy naked stuff’. If we give children a framework to make sense of what they are going to see, they are more likely to make good choices when they see sexual content online. We do this with road safety, fires, toxic substances and other physical dangers in our homes and the world.

Recent NSPCC research suggests pornography could normalise unhealthy sexual attitudes

We may feel uncomfortable with drawing children’s attention to sexual content too early. It can feel that we are destroying their innocence. However, innocence is not the same as ignorance. We preserve their innocence by giving them a framework and narrative for the sexual violence they are going to be exposed to online. We can shape it in light of the gospel rather than having it moulded by the ignorance of their peers or through the motives of pornographers.

As uncomfortable as it is, we need to shine a light on pornographic content. As adults, we may be able to choose to avoid pornography, but the children in our life cannot. It’s only as we come to terms with the reality of it and choose to respond proactively that we will start to see fewer children and young people accidentally stumbling into damaging sexualities, potential addiction and dangerously misinformed views of sex and relationships. If we want to honour sex as an awesome gift from God, proactively equipping children to deal with pornography is imperative on us all, as parents, youth workers, church leaders and as Christians.

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