How to Talk to Kids About Pornography

As I mentioned in my post on how to help boys build better relationships, when I queried for top concerns about raising boys, there were lots of sex-related questions. I told you then that I wanted to get your questions answered, and I'm thrilled that former regular contributor Amy Cody (Parent Education Manager at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts) is generously returning to answer several of your questions over the coming months.

The first question is about pornography, obviously an issue given access (intentional or accidental) in this digital age. Below is the original question, followed by Amy's 6 key pieces of advice for talking to kids about pornography.

QUESTION: How do I handle porn, the constant viewing of which can lead to less respect for women as well as less skills with relating to women intimately?

ANSWER: Often in our Let’s Be Honest: Communication in Families That Keeps Kids Healthy parent education workshops, parents ask how they should respond when they discover that their adolescent has visited a pornography website. Gone are the days when kids waited for National Geographic to arrive in the mail to catch a glimpse of women's breasts or a man's penis! These days, sexual and erotic media messages flood our daily lives -- from late-night cable programming to x-rated sites and pop-up ads online to lingerie display windows at the mall to adult magazine covers at the newsstand. By middle school, many kids have either heard the words related to pornography, listened to the whispers of friends, or been exposed to a variety of images. For impressionable youth, pornography can complicate their often imperfect sexuality education.

So, how can we as parents handle our child's normal and age-appropriate curiosity in a safe way while sharing facts and our values around this topic? Here are 6 tips:

1. Remember that curiosity is normal. For many youth, an interest in sexually explicit magazines and websites reflects both their curiosity and a desire to do something "grown up." In addition, adolescents want to know what is normal, and they want to know if they are normal.

2. Avoid a shaming response. If you find your adolescent's magazine under the bed or find them hunched over the computer screen in the dark, take a deep breath! Try not to make your child feel guilty or ashamed of their curiosity, which may hinder communication. 

3. View the situation as an opportunity to review your values. Though challenging, this is a great opportunity to review your values about sexually explicit material. Reflect on questions such as:

  • What do we think about erotica or pornography, and what messages are we comfortable giving our adolescent children about these materials?
  • How do we feel about the portrayal of women, or the portrayal of men in these publications?
  • Would we prefer to first explain this topic with our own values or wait until the alternative of having other adolescents introduce our child to sexually explicit materials?
  • Do the pictures and messages reflect the values we want to pass on to our child about intimate relationships?

4. Practice articulating your values. Once you’ve put words to your values, attitudes, feelings, and beliefs, communicate them to your kids. Practicing some wording can help! For example, your conversation might start with parts or all of something like: "I understand that you are curious about sex, bodies, love, and relationships. That's normal at your age. However, I find that these magazines and websites show unrealistic sexual behaviors and relationships. I feel that sex is an important part of a mature, intimate relationship. It is precious and should be valued, cared for, and acted on in a way that is respectful to yourself and the one you love. I think these images are often sexist and degrading to women as well as men. In real life, women and men do not have these types of perfect bodies.” You might want to add, “Not every person participates in these particular sexual acts, and I believe that safer sex, which is not usually present in these images, is a necessity. I'd be happy to share with you some books and information that I think will answer your questions."

5. Offer real alternatives. Encourage your kids to explore real portrayals of different shapes and sizes of male and female bodies through such books as The Joy of Sex, Our Bodies Ourselves, It's Perfectly Normal, or a human sexuality textbook, as well as photography or art works of natural, nude bodies. 

6. Be open. As adults, we may have our own uncomfortable feelings about pornography. However, forbidding these materials doesn't mean your adolescent won't see them. They may turn to friends, an older friend, or the Internet to get the information they are curious about. The important thing is to keep the communication lines open and to use this opportunity to share facts as well as express your values about sex and sexuality. Keep in mind that you are talking to your children because you care about their happiness and well-being!

Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and expertise, Amy! If you want to learn more about how to make sexuality education easy, consider hosting a home talk as part of Planned Parenthood's Let’s Be Honest: Communication in Families That Keeps Kids Healthy parent education program. Contact or call 617-616-1658 for more information. I have attended one of these home talks and it was fantastic!