Talking to Teenagers about Sex and Pornography

I am a parent of a fifteen-year-old and an eleven-year-old. A couple of years ago I realized I’d better get in shape [condition] to deal with issues of sex and pornography so I could be a resource for my children.

I counseled systematically on the topic for two years and became clearer about the conversations I wanted to have with my sons. I wanted to convey that being sexual with someone could be wonderful and that the point was to explore closeness in a way that was satisfying to both people. I also wanted them to know that we could talk about anything (more than once!), that I was willing and able to be a resource for them, and that I didn’t need to, and couldn’t, warn them off all the negative things males had done to me as a female. My goal couldn’t be to control what they did or didn’t do, and it certainly couldn’t be to scare, shame, or threaten them into “correct” behavior. I didn’t want my message to be moralistic or laden with guilt.

My boys might one day be addicted to pornography (it’s hard not to be in this day and age). But they will have some information: The sex industry makes money off of people’s hurts and patterns. Using pornography might have negative effects on them and their ability to be close to someone. Hurts about closeness and sex are why so many people are drawn to pornography (it is not their fault). And it’s possible to find realistic information about sex.

They will also know that I am available to talk to about porno-graphy; that I am working on my restimulation about it; that I aim to respect them always, no matter what; and that I can help them discharge and quit using it, if they choose to use it.

For a year I counseled on all of my experiences with sex and sexuality. I began by telling and retelling my story of anything related. I started early and went on through high school and into the present. All sorts of distresses and oppressions were wrapped up in it—shame, embarrassment, young people’s oppression and internalized oppression, lack of information and of knowledgeable people to talk to, LGBQT oppression, sexism, and male domination. It became easier and easier to tell the story and to talk about “embarrassing things” without embarrassment.

Then I spent another year thinking about what I wanted to communicate to my sons. I also thought about the advice (and rules!) I desperately “wanted” to give them but wouldn’t: “Don’t you dare ever—, or I’ll—.” Basically, don’t you dare ever do to someone else what was done to me (I being a female; my children being male).

I read books on the topic. Two useful ones were Girls & Sex, by Peggy Orenstein, and For Goodness Sex, by Al Vernacchio. I talked with a few close non-RC friends about all this—to get their thinking, to bounce my ideas off them, and to practice talking about sex! I discharged about pornography—my earliest memories of it; my feelings about how porn-like advertising, music videos, and so on, have become normalized and unavoidable in everyone’s life, including children’s; my feelings about my sons’ possibly using pornography and even becoming addicted to it.

Then I started talking with my older son. Conversations were best while we were riding our bikes side by side. I’ve heard that car rides are good, too. Any activity that has a time limit and “captive” participants who are side by side but not necessarily looking at each other seems to make it less awkward for teens and their parents.

I picked one message every week or two. I’d share a bit of theory about men’s oppression and its relationship to sex. I’d mention how watching pornography puts images in one’s head that may interfere with the ability to connect and be present with someone else. I’d share an interesting idea from a book I’d read and ask what my son thought about it. I’d tell a story from my history (keeping it light and age-appropriate). I’d ask questions about his and his peers’ experiences with being sexual in any way, about dating, about sexual identity, and so on. (I have consciously chosen to use gender-neutral language when speaking about anyone my son has been or might one day be sexual and/or romantic with.)

With my younger son, I focused on puberty, sex, and sexuality education. We discussed topics in books geared to his age group. Mostly I wanted both of us to be comfortable talking about bodies and bodily changes, genitals, masturbating, and so on—to pave the way for future conversations. Only now are we broaching the topics of consent, of pornography and other inappropriate sexual content he might stumble across on the Internet or in advertising, of the sexism and internalized sexism in many movies.

With both sons, I use current news events, books they’re reading, movies they’ve seen, and so on, to spark a conversation. Lately there have been many opportunities to talk about sexual harassment, consent, and uneven power dynamics, and what they might look like in a teenager’s life.

I still initiate the topic. My sons haven’t yet started a conversation about anything related to sex.



Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of parents

(Present Time 190, January 2018)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00