The first sexual revolution was soft porn – Playboy magazine being an excellent example. The second sexual revolution was created in part by the explosion of commercial pornography and it’s availability on the worldwide web. I believe we are in the midst of a third sexual revolution with the rise of ‘selfies’, soft porn photos, sexting and amateur video cam pornography. Software developers are creating apps that allow users to share photos that are designed to vanish within several seconds so people can take sexually explicit ‘selfies’ – deluding themselves into thinking they can escape creating what I have named a ‘virtual tattoo’ in web space.
Parents of tweens (10-13 year olds) are not ignorant or naïve, with most having knowledge or curiosity about porn, or having themselves engaged in sexual experimentation. I have been told by many tweens that they circumvent parental imposed internet restrictions to filter porn and go straight to their father’s computer and into his history to watch what he’s been watching. Many curious tweens have helped themselves to their mother’s erotica – 50 Shades of confronting anyone?
I don’t believe we can prevent our digital natives from accessing porn or creating their own ‘virtual tattoos’, and history proves prohibition has a dismal failure rate. The good news is that my research for the ‘Parents, tweens and sex’ app (PTSapp), shows that tweens want their parents to be the ‘go to person’ who can provide safe spaces to ask questions about, and discuss their experiences with sexual imagery and managing technology and social media.
Worryingly, research is showing our kids are entering puberty earlier (precocious puberty) with many girls starting to menstruate from the age of eight, and boys are also developing earlier. We don’t have the luxury of ‘protecting our children’s innocence’ if they are being sexualized at an earlier age with hormonal surges and societal influences. There is evidence to show that violent and sadistic imagery is readily available to very young children, even if they do not go searching for it. My client ‘Jenny’ discovered this when her six year old son innocently downloaded violent pornography on his prized possession – his iPod. She had no idea this was possible. He then did what any normal six year old would do and shared ‘the naughty pictures’ with all his friends at school.
The scary mix of exposure to sexually explicit material at a young age, and an earlier onset of puberty mean we no longer have the luxury of deluding ourselves into believing we can delay discussions about these issues. If parents don’t start having the conversations with their tweens, by the time they reach adolescence, their peers take over as the greater influence in decision making.
Being sexually curious is not a new phenomenon. Tweens need their parents to help them process the choices they make so they can choose respectful relationships and are able to engage in safe behaviours. Today’s parents are aware technology is moving too quickly so they can’t have all the answers, but they can take the journey together to explore information with their tweens. Parents tell me they want resources to support their tweens to develop the kind of values and ethics to help them make informed choices to have healthy relationships.
Research supports the premise that this growing exposure to pornography via the internet can be damaging to our kids. Recently, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England commissioned a report as part of its national inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. The report “called for urgent action to develop children’s resilience to pornography”, after finding that a significant number of children access pornography; it influences their attitudes towards relationships and sex; it is linked to risky behaviour such as having sex at a younger age; and there is a correlation between holding violent attitudes and accessing more violent media”.
Furthermore, results from this inquiry found that there was evidence that young perpetrators of sexual abuse describe their activity as ‘like having been in a porn film.’ Findings from this inquiry provide support for the existence of a high correlation between exposure to pornography and children’s behaviour, attitudes, and vulnerability to risky behaviours.
Interestingly, there are gender differences in exposure and access to pornography with boys more likely to be exposed to, and deliberately access or use pornography than girls. However, it is my experience that girls are vicariously affected when boys expect girls to respond to their sexual experimentation in the same way porn stars do. Girls are also very attracted to the perceived fame and approval associated with sexting and other ‘virtual tattoo’ activities. Another trend that sex therapists have observed is an increase in ‘small penis syndrome’ where boys compare themselves unfavourably to porn studs.
A new Australian documentary co-directed by Maree Crabbe and David Corlette, Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography, describes the negative exposure of porn on young people, supporting the idea that the “porn script” is being used by boys to pressure girls to perform like the porn stars. It reflects the UK research that shows children who regularly viewed pornography were more likely to develop “casual and hedonistic” attitudes and poor quality relationships.
When pornography is discussed, it is often between groups of people with polarised moral views on the subject. The issue for parents is not whether they approve or disapprove of pornography; it’s about stepping up to protect their tweens’ best interests. Using evidence based research to have discussions with tweens rather than adopting a particular ideological stance will allow parents to have more credibility to help their tweens make informed choices.
The critical issue is conformity. Tweens crave peer approval and are tempted to engage in risky behaviour or become outcasts. To stop leaving parents feeling ineffective and powerless we can respond positively in a way which is not patronizing, predictable, controlling and boring to our tweens. We can create credibility by providing a safe place to have the necessary conversations using resources specifically designed for this purpose, like Parents, Tweens & Sex app.