Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Modern Day Sex Ed: Google

I have not written anything on my blog in a few months. Life has been extremely busy (and on the not-so-busy days, I have opted to just take my down time to rest up). Big changes are coming my way! I am starting a Masters in Public Health at UC Berkeley in about one week, as part of the "Health and Social Behavior" cohort. I am both excited and nervous as I prepare for this next journey! And I am ready to get back at it with the writing!

One topic I have had on my mind lately is internet boundaries for youth. I wrote a few posts that were somewhat tangential to this issue a while back, such as the one about cyber bullying and the one about limiting the content I access personally.

Recently, however, I feel like the topic of sexuality and sexual education via the internet has been swirling all around me. Just a few days ago, I read a very important blog post titled, "Three Things You Don't Know About Your Children and Sex," by Ann Marie Miller. (Note that this post is so popular that you may get an error if you are trying to access it at pique times.) The main point I gleaned from the article is that today, when kids don't know what a word means at school, they simply Google it. And guess what that exposes them to? Pornography. Maybe even pornography showing types of sex you and I have never heard of.

I remember being in 5th grade many years ago when my friends were cracking jokes about "sixty-nine-ing." I pretended like I knew what they were talking about and laughed along. Later, I privately asked a friend what it meant, and she just said, "Think about it. 69. Get it?" My guess is that she did not know either.

But it was not just among my friends where this sort of perplexing situation happened. In 7th grade health class, we were learning about sexually transmitted diseases and other topics of "safe sex." The teacher said in class that "one possible consequence of anal sex is a ripped anus." At that age, I was embarrassed that I did not know what an anus was (note for those wondering - it's your butt), and I never asked a soul. I just made something up in my mind about what it might be (incorrectly) and moved along. Somewhere between then and probably 9th grade, I heard the real meaning in passing, but I know I went quite a while not knowing.

Now imagine if this had happened to me today. Imagine that as a 5th grader I searched for the meanings of those words on the internet. What would almost certainly come up first would be pornography depicting these acts, and I would be exposed to graphic content by no intent of my own. Hopefully, you get the picture.

Am I saying that anal sex or the 69 sex position are inherently wrong or "dirty?" Absolutely not! I believe that in the context of a consensual adult relationship, two people can discuss between themselves what is safe, respectful, and pleasurable, and no two relationships will look exactly the same on that front. What I do think is wrong, however, is a child searching the internet with little other context in which to discuss or understand sex, and coming to believe that various sex acts or attitudes they encounter are the norm for all couples. Or a child becoming addicted to the online images they see, such that they become desensitized to real future partners. Especially during the extremely formative developmental years, children may come to believe that they should "expect" certain acts, responses, grooming habits, etc. from future partners, and that can be extremely damaging to real life relationships, where very rarely does a partner fulfill every imaginable fantasy on demand.

I want to preface the rest of this post by saying that I am aware that many of the opinions expressed in this post are informed by my faith as an evangelical Christian and by my identity as a woman, through which I have come to believe that pornography is damaging to the sexual and emotional health of any person, regardless of age. I am also aware that intelligent, loving people may disagree with me when it comes to adult consumption of adult content. However, I hope that we can put aside our differences about the more controversial topic of adult viewership and still agree that consumption of adult content by young children is of actual consequence to their social, emotional, sexual, mental, and physical well-being. Young brains and bodies are just not at the same stages of development as those of an adult.

Although any type of pornography can be scary, confusing, or damaging to a child, I think it is worthwhile to point out that pornography today may be different than what you thought of twenty years ago when you came across your friend's dad's magazine in his basement. Some of the main differences are (1) an endless and constantly available supply, (2) an ability to search for any type of pornography until a person finds exactly what he/she is looking for, (3) the anonymity of viewing internet pornography (versus purchasing it in a store), and (4) perhaps most importantly, the content available and popular today, which often includes violent or fetishist acts. Although there have not been many studies to date directly addressing childhood pornography viewing, many psychologists will talk about their own clinical experiences of the types of damage done to their young clients, as discussed in this article from ABCnews. Additional information can be found on this page by, this fact sheet by the Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, and many other informative sites that you will encounter with a simple Google search of "Damage of Pornography to Kids." Among the short-term and long-term concerns listed are impairment in developing real-life friendships and romantic relationships, unrealistic depictions of sex in a real relationship, unrealistic views of body image, violent images leading to violent in-person gender relations, a psychological separation of sex from emotional intimacy, expectations of fetishist acts from real life future partners, a sense of pressure to perform sexual acts that are uncomfortable or unwanted, addiction, acting out sexual acts on other children or generally engaging in sexualized behavior at a young age, normalizing sexually abusive scenarios, and normalizing adult/child sexual relations (if a child stumbles across pornography involving minors), among many other possible negative outcomes.

So how do we protect our children?

My mom did have a few sex talks with me, and my parents tried to be open and available for me when I needed them. I really believe that I grew up in a great household with wonderful, loving, supportive parents. But even so, my young mind thought I should be afraid to ask them what terms like "69" and "anal sex" meant (and maybe they would not have even known themselves about some of the terms I heard floating around the halls of school.) In her post, Ann Marie Miller talks about how children and parents need to have an ongoing dialogue about sex, not just a single moment of discussion. (Unfortunately, many parents do not even have that one talk.) There is no guarantee that your child will open up to you, of course, but starting those discussions early, as children become aware of their sexuality over time, raises the chances that if something does happen, be it around them, to them, or by them, they are more likely to feel safe confiding in you (or talking with another trusted adult), should they feel they need to.

Ann Marie Miller also points out that many parents think their child is the exception, but Miller says that parents just need to get that out of their heads. You may have great internet controls at home, and you may not provide internet access without parental involvement yourself, but chances are, some (maybe a large) proportion of your child's friends have smart phones, tablets, etc. that they carry around without those same protections. Even when I was growing up without any of that technology around, I had heard a surprisingly wide array of sexual information on the elementary playground, often completely unsolicited. Any child, of any age, of any race, of any socioeconomic background, of any religious upbringing can hear confusing words at school, can be exposed to pornography, can be molested by a trusted adult or stranger, can end up with deep sexual secrets that they are afraid to tell you or that may affect them for years to come.

A few months ago, I read a book about pornography addiction called, "The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography," by Larry and Wendy Maltz. The book is very educational and talks about the personal damage, relational havoc, professional embarrassment, and other trials that pornography can escort into our lives. It also talks about steps to seek help and to get out of the addiction. I wanted to read about the topic, because I personally know a LOT of people (mostly Christians who have confided in me), both male and female, who have struggled with secret pornography obsessions at one point or another. I myself had viewed it for a period of several months in college, at a time which I would describe as the last step in a series of escalating issues I was handling poorly. I would say my own experiences were addictive to some extent, as it is difficult not to get addicted to something that releases so many pleasurable hormones into your system. At the height of my viewership habit, I found myself actually getting annoyed with good friends when our social plans interfered with my desire to view pornography. As it turns out, this is a very common experience! Yet thankfully, I believe God intervened when I had a life-changing moment during which I decided to put it away forever and never turned back. Sometimes I wonder how deeply I would be entrenched today if that change never happened. In reading the Maltzs' book, I wanted to understand more about the psychological underpinnings of pornography addiction and the best ways to respond to and support the recovery of my friends who are in the middle of it right now.

Does everyone who views pornography get addicted? No. But it is still a very real concern. Consider this: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, of those who use heroine, it is estimated that 23% become dependent. That means 77% of people who try heroine have no problem with addiction, yet I would never recommend it to anyone I know. One might consider pornography in a similar light. The risk of addiction is real, and the relational risks, even apart from addiction, are also very real. Will everyone who looks at porn experience negative consequences? Maybe not. But do you want to leave that to chance with young children, who are particularly vulnerable? According to many surveys, children ages 11-17 are the biggest viewers of pornography, and about 70% of people say their pornography viewing is a secret. For more specific information about how pornography can actually be not just psychologically, but actually physiologically (body chemistry) addicting, check out this video series about the brain on pornography.

One of the most interesting (and scary) things I learned from "The Porn Trap" is that most people who do develop pornography addictions had their first exposure in elementary school, often times accidentally. And the exact age of first exposure is getting younger and younger with the widespread availability of internet access.

Couple this with the evidence presented in "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," by Peggy Orenstein, that we live in a culture which is sexualizing children in advertising all around us (for a recent example, read about the controversy over Victoria's Secret tween advertising), and you have a recipe for a generation of children experiencing sexuality in ways that you and I hardly had to worry about until our teen years or adulthood.

I highly recommend that you read Ann Marie Miller's entire post about the "Three Things You Don't Know About Your Children and Sex," as you may be surprised by what you read. Personally, I believe that even those of us without children need to be aware of what youth face today, as we may find ourselves mentoring youth who want to talk to us, or we may even know people in our adult lives who have had some of these experiences and need help to deal with them.

We definitely need to protect children from things that their young minds were not meant to process, so I am in no way saying that we should intentionally introduce our children to words or acts that are beyond their years. But no matter how hard we try, we simply cannot protect them from everything and everyone out there. They are highly susceptible to seeing, hearing, or personally experiencing something that you would never have wanted them to know at their age. The question is, to whom will they be ready to turn when this happens? Personally speaking, I would rather a child ask me what "anal sex" is than be so afraid of my reaction that they believe an internet search is their only option. For many children, if a loving and non-condemning adult does not listen and/or answer their questions, someone or something will, and it may be a frightening or inappropriate experience for them. In an age when more kids know how to use a smart phone than know how to tie their shoes, let's commit to being as educated and as open as possible, so that when youth do have questions or confusing experiences, they know that we (as parents, grandparents, friends, mentors, pastors, teachers, counselors, etc.) are there to listen and to help.


  1. Just thought I'd share this link on a similar topic, (parents and their childrens' sexuality) but with a different viewpoint:

  2. Oh, it didn't come out as a link, I guess you'll have to copy paste if you want to read it

  3. I have read that before, and I do not consider that a different viewpoint, actually. The author hopes their kids have great sex in future, and so do I, which is a major reasong why I think it is damaging for young children to look at pornography. I do not think sex is bad. I love sex! However, when a ten year old stumbles across images of children having sex with adults (which happens more than you think), I do not believe that is helping them develop a healthy sex life. In fact, it may normalize pedophilia for that child, thus making them more afraid to tell an adult if they are molested. Or when someone's first sexual experience is extremely disappointing, because their partner did not look a certain way and was uncomfortable acting out certain types of sex, that is not helping anyone have a better sex life. There is a growing body of research that when a child's developing brain is exposed to pornography, they get the wrong idea about what "good" sex means, and the real thing does not measure up for years after. I think there is a HUGE difference between not wanting our ten year olds to have sexual addictions and not wanting our kids to have sex in their entire lives, and I am talking about the former. This article from Psychology Today may be illuminating about how this pornography addictions, which often start in childhood, can affect adults negatively in real life sexual relationships, including not wanting to have sex with a real partner:

  4. p.s. Ignore bad grammar. Tired lady here. :-)

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