Help! My ten-year-old searched porn!

Dear WOM,

My ten-year-old got in trouble searching “porn” on a school computer. I’m not even sure he knows what porn is yet. How do I handle this?

Sincerely,
Perv’s Dad?

Dear Perv’s Dad?,

You are not the first one to ask me this. In fact, you’re the fourth friend/neighbor/random stranger to bring up this exact situation. (A job hazard—and side benefit—of working at Planned Parenthood, where we talk about vaginas and oral sex all day without HR needing to intervene, is that people bring me lots of questions about the sexy stuff.) Since this one has come up so often (because: internet), I’ve worked out the kinks in a decent response. Here’s something to try:

Step 1. Check your baggage. Porn is a topic rife with baggage. Mine is a mash-up of the Puritan-American nice-people-don’t-think-about-sex kind and the feminist-empowerment porn-is-exploitative type, sort of an evenly weighted saddle-bag that, when porn is mentioned, makes me want to scream, “NO! PORN IS BAD! STOP IT NOW!” But many people who I love deeply watch porn on a regular basis, and statistics say that my kids will watch it at some point too. (Skeptical? Researchers had to radically redesign a study on porn’s effects because they couldn’t find any young men who hadn’t watched it.) So my soliloquy on porn’s evils will make me sound like those parents in Peanuts cartoons: “Waaahh wah waaaah wah.” Instead, I have to set down my baggage and focus on my goal.

Step 2: Know your goal. Over-achieving parents may set a goal of ensuring their child never sees porn. This requires locking down the internet with foolproof parental controls, and keeping your child by your side forever so they don’t escape those parental controls. As World’s Okayest Mom, I (a) need my kids’ help to set up parental controls so I recognize their complete impotence, and (b) enjoy the times when my kids are not by my side. So I had to come up with another goal: porn-proofing my kids so when they do see porn (which they will), they view it skeptically and critically. (Also, so they think of me and are skeeved out and stop watching, but that’s my baggage talking.)

Step 3. Start with the basics. Ask, “Do you know what porn is?” Many kids—particularly those on the younger side—may have heard the word “porn” at school or in sports and picked up on the exciting taboo but have no idea what it is. Their porn search is actually an empowered, proactive way of getting information (so… hooray?).

If your child says yes, he knows what porn is, you might confirm by asking him to describe it; sometimes kids think they know but don’t. If he’s got the concept, it might be a good time to ask if he’s seen anything porn-like yet. Your purpose is not to dig for which little pervert of his friends showed him something so that you can ban that child from your son’s life and perhaps shame his parents for providing inadequate supervision. (There’s never a time for that.) Instead, the point is to hear what he’s seen and perhaps help him process it, particularly if it was something violent or scary that a friend shared just for its shock value.

If your child says no (or if his definition is wildly, perhaps hilariously, inaccurate), describe it: “Porn is pictures and videos of people having sex.” Your son, hearing this, might be horrified and want to end this conversation forever. You may want to as well, because very few of us really enjoy the tremendous awkwardness of talking about sex with our kids. But I urge you not to; this is a rare and easy opportunity to go a little further. Because even if your son is gagging at the idea of sex videos now, there will be a time when he isn’t, and you’d like him to traverse that time with as little shame and as much knowledge as possible, right?

Step 4. Say, “It is completely normal to be curious about sex and porn.” Normalize their curiosity upfront because it is normal. Boys on average see online porn at around age 13, girls at 14. If you want to be a source of information and meaningful conversations in the future — which you probably do, down deep underneath all your fear and loathing of the awkwardness and potential to scar them forever— make sure you’re not shaming that curiosity. But also tell them it’s perfectly normal not to want to see porn at this (or any) age.

Step 5. Explain why looking at porn might be a bad idea at this stage of his life. This is a super-tricky line to walk, because telling him “You’re not old enough,” is a double-dog dare: it’s likely to have the opposite effect. Your best hope is to delay his viewing, and to porn-proof him for when he does seek it.

Here’s a message to try: “Porn will give you an inaccurate view of what real sex is like. Porn is fiction and some of it is scary and violent. Once you see those images, you can’t un-see them and they become part of you. I want you to have a healthy ideas about sex and learn at a pace that’s right for you. So I think you would be happier if you didn’t look at porn yet.”

Many kids mistake porn for documentaries about sex. In fact, 53% of boys in one study considered porn sex to be “realistic.” I told my kids that learning about sex from porn was like learning about space from Star Wars — it’s made-up, unrealistic and inaccurate (sorry, Star Wars). But be specific about how porn isn’t like real sex:

  • Porn bodies don’t look like everyday bodies
  • Porn actors are paid to do these things
  • Porn is designed to look good to the viewer, not to feel good for the actors
  • Extreme sex acts are often presented as mainstream or common
  • Consent, communication, and tenderness are rare in porn but critical for healthy real sex
  • Safer sex practices like birth control and condoms often aren’t included in porn
  • Most importantly, “being a man” doesn’t mean acting like the men in porn

Share these so that when your son does view porn, he can see it for what it is: fantasy.

Step 6. Say, “If you have questions, I’m happy to try and answer them. I get that it might be super-awkward for both us, but it’s important to me that you get accurate information about sex. And I’m a better source than porn.” This likely sounds terrifying but awkwardness never killed anyone. However, inadequate education about sex and healthy relationships has. So be brave. And know when they ask something you have no idea how to answer, you can pull out The Best Okayest Parenting Hack Ever, or model how to find answers by googling together (assuming you know how to choose your search terms carefully to avoid a shitstorm of pop-ups and viruses…).

Step 7. Pat yourself on the back for (1) surviving and (2) helping your beloved offspring navigate this fraught topic so that that their baggage about sex later in life is merely fanny-pack sized and not one of those behemoths that require extra charges on JetBlue.

Bonus: If you have a daughter, talk with her about porn too. Girls are likely to see porn because they too are curious sexual beings. And because most porn is designed from the male point of view — treating women as passive objects and sometimes victims of violence — your daughter may find the images particularly disturbing, judging her body for not looking like a porn star’s and questioning whether she’s “normal” if she is not interested in many of the activities featured in porn. So do her the honor of porn-proofing her as well.

Want to learn more? Check out this truly enlightening (and at times terrifying) New York Times article about all the myths your kids may have about porn.

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