We need to talk to our children about pornography – even if it makes us uncomfortable

Until we talk about how porn isn’t a balanced representation of how sex should be enjoyed, we’ll never change the culture that implies being sexually assaulted – and living in fear – is just part of being a woman

Written by Shaparak Khorsandi in The Independent 1 year ago (Friday, April 2nd, 2021)

We need to talk to our children about pornography. None of us want to, but we have to. And it can’t wait until they are 17 – that’s too late; not least because they are absolutely sure they know more than their parents about everything, long before this age.

Rampant “rape culture” in schools and higher education institutions has been uncovered via a website called Everyone’s Invited, which asks people to call out sexism in schools across the UK via anonymous submissions.

Anonymous testimonials share experiences of sexual abuse – and a quick look through it had me in tears. So many were schoolchildren, mostly girls, being abused by other pupils.

Now, I’m not saying online pornography is solely to blame; obviously sexual assault happened before the internet was invented.

But even adults who didn’t grow up with it can become obsessed and sucked into a world where sex is only gratifying if someone – usually a woman – looks like they are being forced, abused and in pain.

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Add to that hideous mix our societal norm of “boys will be boys”, and you get the attitude forming at a very tender age that sex is something boys want and girls have to give. It’s nothing new; parents need to talk to their children before they have a chance to go anywhere near porn. And they will watch it – we can’t protect them from it until they are 18, it’s impossible.

Until we properly open a conversation with our children about how pornography isn’t a balanced representation of how sex should be enjoyed, we will never change the culture that implies that occasionally being sexually assaulted – and living in fear – is just part of being a woman.

Equally, not being given space to talk about the emotions around sex can also lead to harm. “Enthusiastic consent” was a concept that was verbalised to me fairly recently, when I confided in a friend that I was upset because I’d had sex with a boyfriend when I really wasn’t in the mood – and only did it to stop him getting into a sulk about it.

I, a confident, grown woman, have found myself saying, “oh, for God’s sake, go on then”, and felt rotten about it afterwards, more times than I care to recall. You can know logically that sex isn’t anyone’s “right” to have, but still be guilt-tripped and pressurised into letting your body be used.

It’s down to parents to educate their children about all this – and you simply can’t without addressing porn.

In my day, being “kinky” meant you occasionally wore fishnet stockings and high heels during sex, and had a can of whipped cream to hand. These days, unless you are into whips, chains, hot wax, choking, slapping, spanking, scat (not the jazz kind) or dressing up, you’re “vanilla” – and there is an infinite amount of porn content made to sate your desires which go beyond your own imagination.

This word, “vanilla”, is used to diminish nice, sensual, gentle bonking with meaningful eye contact as “boring”. Who wants to be boring? A quick survey of my younger friends concluded that whipped cream is strictly for pancakes and hot chocolate – and you’d no more bring whipped cream into bed than you would a floret of broccoli.

Swathes of pornographic content feed rape fetishists. Tags of “forced”, “helpless” and “punished” pop up, uninvited. If you’re a young teen looking at it as your first exposure to sex – and your parents have not spoken to you about what’s out there – then it’s easy to think that’s what sex is, and that’s what everyone does.

Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with kinks between consenting adults. I’m in no position to judge anyone, believe me. But it is now utterly impossible to stop people seeing these images of women in porn being trussed up like turkeys, having a horrible time.

You can imagine how, if you don’t have anyone to talk to about what you’ve seen, you might think that’s the standard for everyone. When really, what we need to do is normalise talking about this stuff.

My son is almost 14, and I have talked to him about how in a lot of pornography, you stumble across things you can’t “unsee”. I’ve told him often the women are dehumanised and don’t look like they are having a good time; and if he ever sees porn like that, to understand its danger.

These aren’t long, earnest conversations. I try to be matter-of-fact and appropriate so as not to make him feel too awkward (but let’s face it: it’s going to be awkward; nobody wants to talk to their mum about porn – but that’s still no reason not to). They discuss consent at his school, and I have talked to him about “enthusiastic” consent. Obviously, I don’t want him watching porn; but he needs to know I am aware of it and what my values are around it.

Even if it’s a one night stand we should be able to say (before we get into bed) what we are into and what we are not. Opening up conversations at home about sex and porn will make it easier to communicate and put down boundaries when we choose sexual partners.

Children are swayed by their parents’ values above everything else. If your mum or dad call women “harlots” or “slutty” based on what they know, or think they know, about their individual sex lives then that’s going to affect how you shape your own attitudes.

It feels crucial to me that I never use language which judges people in this way. It’s important that neither of my children regard sex as something secret and “naughty”, to hold any shame around.

And, any time they want to ask anything, they can – and know I will answer in an age-appropriate way. The last thing we want is our children to learn about sex from Pornhub.

Filed Under: Column, The Independent, Writing