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the right (and wrong) way to talk to your kids about porn

It’s very likely that teens today have seen humans doing things to each other that our grandparents never encountered in their stacks of Playboys.


With the rise of online porn, the question is no longer if kids see porn, it’s when. While the exact percentages change depending on the source, research shows the vast majority of kids encounter porn well before the age of 18, whether by choice or by accident.


When people think of porn, the free tube sites like Pornhub or XVideos often come to mind first, which makes sense. Pornhub’s 2018 Year in Numbers reported 33.5 billion visits to the site and more than 1 million hours of new content. According to the site: “If you were to start watching 2018’s videos after the Wright brother’s first flight in 1903, you would still be watching them today 115 years later!”


Another way to see it: In 2018, horny people around the globe watched 10,498 hours or 207,405 videos every minute. Every. Minute. Unfortunately, Pornhub doesn’t offer the same stats in their 2021 Insights.


While free tube sites are major players, it’s crucial to remember that ‘porn’ is a broad category. As with other types of media, it deserves a critical approach, one that avoids making grand truth statements about the industry being all one thing (a good educator, a bad educator, all sexist, all racist, only entertainment, only educational) and instead seeks to acknowledge nuances and encourage an ongoing discussion about porn as a lasting fixture in the culture of sex.


There is much more to porn than what lives on free sites like Pornhub. However, most of what is considered to be ethical or ethically produced exists behind a paywall, and the majority of kids don’t have access to a credit card. When kids access porn online, it’s generally via the continuous stream of unregulated content uploaded to the free tube sites.


Porn is not going to disappear, and we wouldn’t want it to. Rather than ignore or deny its existence, let’s teach kids porn literacy skills so they are able to contextualize what they are consuming.

Why should we be concerned about young people watching porn? What’s the big deal?


As a generally porn-positive person, I am wary of discussing porn in a way that could contribute more panic and further stigmatize the industry. But being porn-positive, in my opinion, means supporting the adult entertainment industry and encouraging literacy — tools to make sense of the industry, its messaging, and how it impacts its consumers.


Porn does not tell a whole story of sex. It does not guide an inexperienced person through the early stages of understanding their body, or their sexual desires and boundaries. Generally, porn does not help a person navigate awkward conversations about condoms or lube, or check in with a partner when trying new things. Porn is entertainment intended to turn us on and get us off. But for young and old people alike, porn can easily become de facto sex education, filling the gaps where actual comprehensive sex education should be.


What can we as adults do to help kids develop tools to think critically about what they see? I asked someone whose job it is to ponder these questions: Avril Louise Clarke, Barcelona-based sex therapist, Community Relations & Education Manager for Erika Lust Films, and in-house Clinical Sexologist for The Porn Conversation, a nonprofit organization aimed at helping families and educators talk to young people about porn.


The Porn Conversation was founded by porn director Erika Lust and her husband, Pablo, industry professionals and parents who feel concerned about the younger generation accessing porn and not having the tools to understand what they are being exposed to.




Here’s a snippet from my conversation with Avril:


Why do we need The Porn Conversation?


There is such a lack of sex education for not only families and parents, but also for kids themselves. We always hear, ‘porn is entertainment, it's not education, which is so true, and so important that we say that. But then the conversation would kind of stop. But now what? Like, what do you say? Many conversations around porn have been really shaming, and then the conversation kind of ends. So we thought, okay, we can go beyond that.


How do you suggest parents approach the conversation of porn with kids?


We suggest starting off by reinforcing that they're not in trouble for anything, whether you’ve seen something on a device or not, but rather that you want to have a conversation with them. “I want to talk about some content that you may be seeing.” Do it in a way where you're beginning a conversation, but again, you're not shutting them down.

We were really careful when putting together the resources to make it scripted. Here's what to ask, here's shaming language to avoid. For teachers too. They can literally hold it and read through it. We tell them, pause, stop here, ask these questions, and then continue.



What are examples of shaming language to avoid?


It's often like, “Who showed that to you? What are you doing? Why are you watching this? This is dirty, this is evil, this is bad.” Harsh, shaming language can make a person shut down. We are called The Porn Conversation, but the idea is you want to have more than one conversation, or just one experience. By avoiding these shaming lines, you can really open up for more conversations, and you may even have your kid or teen feel safe to come to you in the future.


Why do you personally feel connected to this work?


What I love about porn literacy, and media literacy in general, is that it asks you to examine how something might affect people from other communities or with different identities. It adds that empathetic context to where you can be like, Oh, I view this porn as something that makes me feel good. But then how might someone who is disabled view this part? Or someone with a different perspective on this. It’s a thought practice, and you can do this with all media, not just porn.



Porn is not going to disappear, and we wouldn’t want it to. Rather than ignore or deny its existence, let’s teach kids porn literacy skills so they are able to contextualize what they are consuming. A good place to start is with these questions:

  • What am I seeing?

  • What is it reinforcing about how bodies “should” look and act? Or about expectations around gender?

  • How might people with bodies/genders/sexual desires that differ from my own feel about this?

It’s not only kids who will benefit from practicing these questions. The Porn Conversation supports adults who aren’t sure how to address the topic of porn but who want to learn and, in the process, create safe spaces for young people to get curious, ask questions, and develop healthy ideas about sex and relationships.



All images from thepornconversation.org