Robust sexuality education for kids is essential. A phrase that I (Liz Walker) use frequently is: “eight is too late”. The reality is, if you haven’t spoken to your child about sex by the age of eight, their peers or internet porn will likely be educating them on your behalf.

How do we know this? Some “difficult to digest” statistics were published this year (2019), indicating that by the age of 12 years, 65.5% of boys and 30% of girls have seen pornography. This same research found that whilst only 4% of 6-9-year-olds had seen porn, by the ages of 10-13-years, 27.2% were masturbating to online sexual content.

With over one-quarter of 10-13-year-olds masturbating to online, mostly hardcore pornography (as this is the easiest to access)—and almost 90% of pornography showing some form of physical or verbal aggression (mainly aimed at women)—we must start sexuality and pornography education much earlier than most adults would like to acknowledge.

The implications of kids and youth accessing pornography are considerable, and whilst some kids will seem to bounce along just fine, others will have to deal with some pretty heavy consequences. According to the eChildhood Statement of Research (authored by myself and endorsed by over fifty academics, child youth advocates and anti-violence workers), areas of pornography’s impact on children and young people include poor mental health, holding attitudes of sexism and objectification, sexual aggression and violence, child-on-child sexual abuse, and shaping sexual behaviours.

The good news is that parents can offer a significant buffer to these impacts, providing they talk to their kids regularly and with an open approach.

This is a huge topic and there’s way too much ground to cover in one article, so at the end you will find a list of places to find more information. The Not for Kids! and Hamish and the Shadow Secret children’s books are excellent tools to practically leverage essential conversations. However, it’s important to have a grounded framework as you prepare yourself to raise sexually intelligent kids, so here are some crucial things to consider.

1. Know that porn is not going away.

Even when the internet and technology companies are legislated to reduce minors’ access to harmful access wherever possible, porn will still have a major influence on culture and therefore, the world that your kids grow up in. As it currently stands, key porn themes include abuse and incest, and regularly depict choking, hair pulling, slapping, anal sex, group sex and many other acts that the vast majority of parents (and researchers) agree are harmful for kids.

Parents can (and should) be diligent with filtering their kids devices, but unfortunately, this doesn’t prevent them being shown porn by other children, youth or adults—or having behaviours hurtle towards them that they don’t have a grid to understand. Without the provision of proactive and alternative messages to porn and giving them skills to know how to respond, kids’ online and offline safety and overall wellbeing can be diminished. Therefore, this fact alone should be the biggest motivating factor for parents and carers to face any fears or personal hang-ups, get informed, and speak with your kids as early and as often as possible.

2. Foster positive sexual development within the home.

Key sexual developmental milestones are best met for kids within an environment of family love and boundaries. According to Dr. Aline Zoldbrod, these Milestones in Sexual Development begin at birth, and progress throughout the growing years. Milestones include learning about:

    • Being loved
    • Being touched both lovingly and playfully
    • Receiving empathy
    • Learning to trust
    • Learning how to relax and be soothed by the person you trust
    • Feeling safe in your own body
    • Developing a good body image
    • Becoming comfortable in your gender identity
    • Feeling that you can trust people of your gender and those of the opposite gender
    • Developing self-esteem
    • Feeling good about the way your parents handled their power over you and over each other
    • Feeling that you own your own body
    • Having permission to explore yourself, your body and your sexual feelings
    • Learning how to develop social skills and make friends

Progressing to adolescent issues:

  • Integrating masturbation or sexual fantasy into your life in a healthy way
  • Separating from your parents emotionally
  • Being able to be in a loving, sexual relationship with another person

These milestones build upon one another and are contextualised within the family’s own values. When these are disrupted, Dr. Zoldbrod explains that they can cause “individual” sexual problems and dysfunctions.

Parents have the opportunity to positively cultivate these milestones, with many of them relating to personal values and positive character traits. For instance, if we teach kids respect and empathy and how to manage power well, today’s “buzzword” of consent is a natural outworking of this. If we teach kids positive social skills and help them to feel safe in their own body, they will have a mindset that expects consent would be a given outcome. If we teach kids to have a sense of owning ‘self’ – taking responsibility for their emotions, behaviours, thoughts, feelings and boundaries – their actions towards others will come from a place of positive self-esteem and confidence.

Missing these milestones may mean that individuals end up with low emotional intelligence, exerting power and control over others, looking to others to develop a sense of value, or constantly feeling negative about body image. With the cultural messages of hypersexualisation bombarding kids, porn becomes a “gap-filler” for knowledge, social and relational cues, which can result in some pretty messy and dysfunctional outcomes.

3. Know that takes a village to raise a child – so who is in your village?

The reality is, many families struggle to negotiate day-to-day life, toxic stressors, and the compounding effects of modern life; therefore, parents may feel ill-equipped or be unaware of how to cultivate a positive environment for kids’ sexual development to thrive. For this reason, families – and kids – need support. This support will come in the form of extended family and friends, community groups and services, sporting groups, church groups and schools. With the power of choice, parents are often in the position to influence the village around themselves and their kids.

The “village effect” is one of the reasons why holistic sexuality education grounded in protective behaviours is so essential in schools and other forums – without it, many kids have limited or no sex ed input from anywhere else other than online.

Holistic sexuality education takes into consideration the internal and external forces that shape personal identity and equips young people with accurate information to make proactive and healthy choices that enhance their physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, sexual & relational wellbeing. Key messages of Protective behaviours teach kids that we all have the right to feel safe all the time, and uses the language of “safe and unsafe” rather than “good and bad” – essential skills to help kids maintain a feeling of safety online and off. If this is something that you want to see in your kids’ school to create a safer village, visit IQ PROGRAMS and ask how.

4. Be as explicit as you can.

This will obviously be related to the age of your child, but there are ample opportunities to work out what they do and don’t know and equip them to be critical of the messages they subconsciously absorb.

For instance, rather than pretend your child doesn’t see the mannequins in the Honey Birdette or Victoria Secret lingerie stores as you walk through the shopping mall, have a conversation with them about why it’s problematic. No matter your child’s age, it’s an opportunity to ask them how those images make them feel – in their own words. Most often, younger kids will let you know that it makes them feel weird. Help them to understand why – that these companies display women like they are sex objects – and that all of us deserve to be valued for our intelligence, talents and character qualities. As they get older, help them unpack how these companies aren’t interested in anything except making a profit from exploiting women’s (and men’s) body parts. Some people choose to be proactive for cultural change and set an example for their child by issuing complaints to shopping malls and advertisers, letting them know what impact it has on kids and asking them to exercise corporate social responsibility.

Similar conversations can be built upon with music videos, movies, billboards, advertisements – rather than pretending that our kids don’t absorb this messaging and thinking we can protect our children’s innocence from the mass hypersexualised environment they face every day, we can teach them to be savvy, critical thinkers and proactive change agents. These conversations around hypersexualisation can build resilience in kids to pornography—meaning that well beyond the age that parents can manage their access to porn by using a filter, kids will be supported to develop their own internal filter.

If you are looking for topic areas to draw from to increase the scope of your conversations, consider a Critical Porn Analysis approach.

5. Teach kids about their brain.

What we put into our brain – everything we learn and absorb – helps shape who we become. The brain is a powerful organ that can be shaped to its environment. This is where teaching our kids self-control comes into the equation. Whether it’s mastering the desire to watch too much T.V, eat that extra cookie, play the next level of the Roblox, or put down what they are doing and come to dinner, training our kids to not give into every desire is an essential character quality that results in healthier brains. If they can understand how their brains are shaped by their choices and their environment, it’s not much of a stretch to discuss the neuroscience of porn. This below video by Gabe Deem offers further insight into this area.

6. Focus on the positive.

By using age-targeted language and building upon conversations as you go, the following types of conversations use the affirmative outcome to counter the negative alternative (expanded upon and available as a PDF download):

    • Keep your brain healthy
    • Develop your own view of sex
    • Avoid addiction
    • Feel good about yourself
    • Increase your desirability
    • Function well as a sex partner
    • Maintain your sexual health
    • Prevent sexual abuse
    • Outsmart the trickery
    • Develop your sexuality in positive ways
7. Know where you are going.

Have a clear idea of where you want your child to end up. Take a look at the Maltz Hierarchy of Sexual Interaction. According to Wendy Maltz, sexual energy is either negative or positive. Negative sexual energy includes emotional isolation, risk and danger, dishonesty and shame, impulsive/compulsive, betrayal of trust, imbalance of power, coercion and fear, dislike of partner, silencing of inner reality, pain and injury, limited options, disintegration of relationship, and destruction of body and soul. Notice how many of these negative factors share the same traits as pornography.

On the flip side, positive sexual energy includes qualities of caring, safety, consent, sense of equality, trust, mutual respect, open communication, enhanced self-esteem, emotional intimacy, creative expression, connectedness, healthy bonding and life-affirming celebration.

If we want our kids to be relationally and sexually intelligent, being aware of the difference between negative and positive qualities will assist us in developing a road map for the types of conversations we need to have in order to help them to get there.

These seven factors are guiding ideas to help you “skill up” to assist your kids to counter porn’s influence and develop a positive approach to sexuality. Like it or not, without the input of parents and carers, porn becomes the main form of sex ed for kids.

For practical tools to facilitate these conversations and keep kids safe online and off, we invite you utilise the Not for Kids! and Hamish and the Shadow Secret children’s books. Additional resources include:

Liz Walker

Author Liz Walker

Liz Walker is an accredited sexuality educator, speaker and author, dedicated to culture-shifting initiatives that respond to pornography harms on children & young people. To learn more about Liz, visit lizwalkerpresents.com. To access educational resources and support for schools visit youthwellbeingproject.com.au.

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