We should talk to kids frankly about porn

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Earlier this year, American journalist Peggy Orenstein published a book, Girls & Sex: Navigating The Complicated New Landscape, in which she interviewed more than 70 young women. Among her discoveries was that many of them said they used pornography for sexual education.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2016 (2215 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Earlier this year, American journalist Peggy Orenstein published a book, Girls & Sex: Navigating The Complicated New Landscape, in which she interviewed more than 70 young women. Among her discoveries was that many of them said they used pornography for sexual education.

That finding inspired several op-eds that raised an important question: If kids are turning to porn to learn about sex, shouldn’t we be teaching kids how to think critically about porn?

We know pornography is both ubiquitous and easy to access, and we know it’s shaping human sexual behaviour in ways that can be incredibly harmful. Doesn’t it make sense to provide some context and analysis so young people might be able to think critically about what they are seeing? And is there a way to be open and frank without making people feel ashamed?

Isaiah S Walter PHOTO Doug Braun-Harvey

The trouble is that our cultural attitude toward pornography seems to be, “It’s everywhere — never speak of it!” That’s why the title of a public forum tonight at 7 p.m. at the Norwood Hotel caught my eye: Porn Crisis? The Porn Dilemma in Today’s Culture. The forum is part of the larger Sex and Addictions Conference: Integrating a New Model for Understanding Addictions and Sexuality, which runs today until Thursday and is being hosted by St. Raphael Wellness Centre, a non-faith-based, non-profit, pre- and post-recovery centre for people dealing with addictions.

Presenting at the forum is San Diego, Calif.-based sexual health author and psychotherapist Douglas Braun-Harvey of the Harvey Institute. He tells me the porn discussion is important to have now because people are scared. Technology is changing the landscape faster than we can get a handle on it.

“We’re seeing a shift from the Internet to smartphones. Sexual imagery is now available literally 24 hours a day in people’s pockets,” he says over the phone from LAX, en route to Winnipeg. “And smartphones are products used by children. They’ve become a developmental milestone, like getting a car; ‘How old were you got your smartphone?’ There’s little to no education for parents on how to talk about this with young people in a way that’s healthy for their sexual development.”

Braun-Harvey refers to six principles of sexual health to lay the groundwork for such a conversation. The first three are that sex should always be consensual, non-exploitative and protected (from unplanned pregnancy and STIs). The last three are honesty, shared values and pleasure.

When it comes to sexual development, that last principle — that sex is supposed to feel good — is often left out of the conversation.

“One of the major reasons youth don’t talk with adults is because adults won’t talk with them about pleasure,” Braun-Harvey says. “They talk about how sexuality can be harmful, not about how it can be pleasurable, how it relates to relationships and falling in love. That’s what teenagers want to know about.”

In order to productively discuss pornography, we also need to talk about another largely taboo subject under the umbrella of pleasure.

“I don’t think we can have a reasonable conversation about sexual imagery until we can have one about masturbation,” Braun-Harvey says. “I think we’re avoiding the entire conversation about solo sex. People look at sexual imagery for pleasure. Most of the time it’s in conjunction with masturbation, which is normal, healthy and how they learn about their bodies.”

Dovetailing with smartphones and budding sexuality is the rise of sexting. Rather than shame young people for taking, say, a nude selfie, Braun-Harvey recommends that we talk about consequences. That means discussing the fact that even if images are taken and shared consensually, there’s still the risk someone else will use those images to humiliate and harm. It also means discussing the fact that depending on how old someone is in an explicit photo, it may be considered child pornography. Through those conversations, young people will be empowered to make informed decisions.

But it’s not just young people who benefit from frank, informed discussions about sexual health. These are conversations we all desperately need to be having. What do we do if someone’s porn-viewing habits are becoming a problem? How do we know if they are a problem? Pornography isn’t just an uncomfortable topic of conversation for many people; it’s also a polarizing one with lots to unpack, from the objectification of women to ethics (some believe, for example, that watching porn counts as cheating).

“The issue we’re going to talk about is that it’s impossible to be non-judgmental,” Braun-Harvey says. “We can’t make that the goal.”

Humans, as it turns out, are judgmental. But we can strive to be open-minded. And so, Braun-Harvey aims to give people the tools to suspend their judgment. “How do I set those judgments aside so I can better hear the concerns of another person?”

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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