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How to talk to kids about porn (before the pornographers do)

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A free programme helps parents tackle the ‘public health crisis of the digital age’ without appearing judgmental or moralistic.

‘Large groups of young children are just a click or two away from free hardcore porn.’ Photo: Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images/Blend Images

Want to talk to your eight-year-old child about pornography and have no idea how to start? Worried that your 10-year-old might be sexting? Concerned that the only sex education your 12-year-old has access to consists of images of sexual degradation?

Freely accessible porn is driving sexually aggressive behaviour against women and girls. Nearly 90% of the most-watched porn scenes contain violence against women, according to a widely cited study. This is why parents need to talk to their kids about porn, before the pornographers do. But how? A new and unique programme aimed at parents of tweens (between the ages of eight and 12) who want to have the “porn conversation” may help.

The programme, run by a new US-based NGO called Culture Reframed, founded by the academic and anti-porn activist Gail Dines, is the first to approach this complex issue from a feminist perspective. It aims to teach parents how to have conversations with their children, and was created by experts in public health, adolescent psychology, sexual health education, neuroscience and technology.

Free to parents, it claims to tackle what Dines calls the “public health crisis of the digital age”. She backs up her claims with hard facts and figures. For a start, a third of all young people under the age of 12 have seen pornography; about 20% of sexts are photos of girls under the age of 15; and 35% of all internet downloads are porn. Also, children have access to a mobile phone at earlier ages than they did five years ago. Today, an estimated 25% of six-year-olds in the UK use a mobile phone, and the average age in the US is 10. This means that large groups of young children are just a click or two away from free hardcore porn.

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‘Today, there is no such thing as “soft” porn … it has become brutal and misogynistic.’ Photo: Martyn Vickery/Alamy

There is plenty in the programme for parents who wish to learn how to have compassionate talks with their child, and to help them to understand healthy sexuality. They will be offered guidance to help their children analyse and understand the implications of sexist and degrading media images. Such conversations with young people are needed more than ever. Research shows that the earlier a boy accesses porn, the more likely he is to be sexually aggressive towards girls and women, to bully girls into sexting naked images, to develop erectile dysfunction and to struggle with depression and anxiety.

In the early 1980s, anti-porn feminists, myself included, would travel the country with the “porn slideshow”, which consisted of images going from “soft” porn to “hardcore”. We were keen for other women to learn the truth about porn: that it is misogynistic propaganda, which can and does incite horrendous sexual violence towards women. But today there is no such thing as “soft” porn, unless you count music videos on MTV. Porn has become increasingly brutal and misogynistic.

Other available educational courses, according to Dines, are based either on religious moralism, or the notion that there is “good porn” and “bad porn”, such as programmes run by the pornographer Erika Lust. This approach, says Dines, lacks any feminist or critical analysis of porn, and fails to explore the social, emotional and cognitive impact of porn on children. “Lust describes herself as an ‘ethical pornographer’”, says Dines. “But there can be no ethical way to sell women’s bodies.”

Dines, who travels the world at the invitation of governments, child support agencies and feminist groups to share her extensive knowledge of the pornography industry, tells me that the parents she meets during her work are “in a state of panic” and don’t know how to broach the subject without appearing judgmental and moralistic.

“Digital safety” classes, which are available for children in schools in the UK and a number of states in the US, either ignore porn altogether or hardly mention it, leaving kids to try to deal with porn culture on their own .

NSPCC and Middlesex University research from 2016 on the effects of porn on children in the UK found that over three-quarters of the children surveyed felt pornography failed to help them understand sexual consent. More than half of the boys and more than a third of girls saw porn as a realistic depiction of sex. In an age where porn is becoming a substitute for sex education, it is high time a decent alternative was on offer.


  • Julie Bindel is a freelance journalist and political activist, and a founder of Justice for Women

Cover photo: ‘Large groups of young children are just a click or two away from free hardcore porn.’ Photograph: Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images/Blend Images

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