One mother delves into the phone activity of her teenage son and is reeling as a result of what she has found. How do you talk to your child about pornography, especially after breeching their privacy? And how much is too much when it comes to porn in this hypersexualised age?
I have a 15 year old son and a few weeks ago I secretly checked his phone. I rarely do this as I know it’s not on but in the last 6 months or so he’s become so private I have no clue what’s going on with him and I worry. I didn’t expect to find a never-ending list of porn video links on his search history. We’re open-minded people and have always talked openly about sex but I have no idea how to talk to him about porn and whether or not he should be watching it. I can’t tell him I’ve seen his phone either so whatever I say will be completely out of the blue. I don’t want him to feel embarrassed but at the same time I want to confiscate his phone, lock up his laptop and get him back on the family computer. I know porn is everywhere and it’s not going away but I’m also wondering if he might have the beginnings of an addiction? How much is too much? Should I ban it completely? He also has a girlfriend and I worry about her and how my son’s porn obsession might affect a fairly innocent relationship. The advice I’m getting is so conflicting and my husband just thinks ‘boys will be boys’. Help! Limerick.
This is a tangled issue and one that most parents are guaranteed to face as porn seems to proliferate everything. Back in the 80’s, we were lucky to get our hands on a vintage catalogue of anatomical anomalies showcasing women with six breasts and men with nipples on their back. Just me? Any banjaxed copies of Reader’s Wives we did manage to pilfer seemed relatively true to life – the images were badly lit, the narrative arc inspired by Brookside (the Liverpool-based soap) and body hair was gloriously unkempt.
Now, kids as young as 8 are accidentally stumbling across explicit gifs or images online, left scared and confused by what they have seen and unlikely to share their discovery with an adult for fear of getting in trouble or having their tablet confiscated. Recent Australian research indicates that the average age children first see porn is 11, while the average age they actively seek it out is 14.
The ‘pornification’ of pop culture has influenced how we live and what we wear, desensitising us to strong sexual imagery and themes. Full pubic hair removal, boob jobs and labial surgery were popularised by mainstream porn stars; semi naked women in the throes of an orgasmic fit are often used to sell fragrances or hosiery or ham burgers, and most of us barely notice. You might be belting out Rihanna’s: “Come here rude boy/ Boy can you get it up/ Come here rude boy/ Boy is you big enough” on the school run and not even checking yourself. Porn is everywhere.
And your gorgeous boy is stepping it up a level, trying to find his way via the tsunami of information at his fingertips, while wrestling hormonal anarchy. The fact that he is regularly accessing porn is the new norm; the challenge is to contextualise the porn he’s watching and limit the frequency, if his search history is indicative of his average daily consumption (which it may not be). The fear is that our senses become so overloaded that we develop psychopathic levels of indifference to sex in real life, with a real partner. This in turn can lead to depression and social isolation, as with any digital or virtual addiction. Not to mention sexual impotency.
The core problem is, as a society, we don’t talk about sex enough. The Relationships & Sexuality Education Programme (RSE) in Irish schools, which is a sex positive directive, unfortunately seems to be haphazardly adhered to on a school-by-school basis. Many parents don’t feel comfortable, confident or informed enough to arm their kids with the relevant intel but it’s essential that sex education starts at home, at an early age, to create an open, judgment-free space where you can continue to keep the dialogue going throughout their teens. It sounds like you’ve already laid the foundation, which is a great start.
The porn your son is watching is most probably what is deemed ‘mainstream’ porn. It’s free, easily accessible and endless. It is also often centred on male gratification and female submission; it can be aggressive, perpetuate racial stereotypes and roundly ignore the concept of ‘consent.’ There is little body diversity, meaning women are classic size tens with big boobs and bald vaginas, while men have eight-packs, gargantuan penises and perma-erections. Anal sex, ‘facials’ (where men ejaculate on women’s faces), choking and man-handling (aggressively flipping women on to their stomachs and ramming them against walls) are standard issue.
Due to the lack of information available and the taboo that still clings to sex talk, teenagers are turning to porn sites for sex education. Journalist Maggie Jones wrote a brilliant piece for the New York Times on a pilot, after-school scheme in Boston known as Porn Literacy class, which aimed to demystify the porn industry and break down the many sex myths it promotes. Dozens of the teenagers Jones interviewed admitted to being confused about their role in a sexual relationship and how their partner expected them to behave. The boys often presumed that girls wanted macho, aggressive men who took control, while the girls felt obliged to perform acts they didn’t enjoy.
But porn itself is not the enemy, lack of education and guidance is. Like movies or music or anything else teenagers are likely to have strong opinions on, they need to be viewing porn via a critical lens. Mainstream porn videos are fantasy, not documentary; the lack of foreplay and almost instant penetration will rarely lead to a real life female orgasm; female (and some male) actors are often exploited, under-paid, drug-addicted and too commonly, trafficked; Viagra is responsible for the rod; hardly any real life men have penises that size; most women are unlikely to enjoy ‘facials’; all women are into consent.
There’s also ‘ethical porn,’ - where fair working conditions are guaranteed, loving relationships are depicted and male and female desires are equally represented; feminist porn, with a focus again on equal, loving relationships and intimacy beyond penetration; and LGBTQ porn, which is often attributed to the sanity of isolated teens and not their unravelling. Most of this more ‘niche’ porn is behind a pay wall however and possibly less teen friendly but is worth you researching so that you can reference the different genres when you chat to your son.
And, so to the chat. As your husband seems unconcerned it is probably best that you lead the charge here. Your son will, under no circumstances, want to discuss porn with you so your initial talk will be brief. You could start by referencing the Maggie Jones piece, on the presumption that he is accessing porn as you know most teens are. Maybe kick this convo off in the car, when you’re travelling fast enough so he can’t drop and roll out of there. Be breezy, open and completely non-judgemental. Pick one point to make – the sense of inadequacy felt by teens watching porn or the fact that mainstream porn has normalised female submission or standard body types etc – and say that both you and your husband are there to discuss anything he might be grappling with. Mention that just like social media or video games, watching porn is compulsive, potentially addictive and subsequently desensitising (he’ll be covering his ears and howling by that point).
Follow up by sharing the Maggie Jones piece with him via email and open the conversation that way, so that you can send him interesting features or expert talks as they arise. Rashida Jones’ 4-part docu-series Hot Girls Wanted on Netflix is a must-watch, exploring the harsh realities of working in the porn industry. I would also have been tempted to download some decent ethical porn vids and share the links with him to highlight the difference in quality but it’s illegal to share porn with a minor, obviously, so don’t do that.
Meanwhile, enforce a digital black-out from 9 or 10 pm every evening. All phones and tablets must be handed over and stored in a bowl in your bedroom. Despite the nightly outrage, his brain will welcome the rest.
Rhona McAuliffe might not be a trained therapist but she does have very big ears, quite a long nose and a gaping heart. If you have a problem that won’t just go away, she’d love to hear it. Write to Rhona at [email protected]