I was recently invited to facilitate a discussion about pornography and sexuality with a classroom full of 7th grade boys. With this being such an important and rarely-addressed topic for boys at this formative age, I was happy to say yes.
Research shows that 73 percent of youth (93% of boys and 62% of girls) have seen online pornography before age 18*. More than one-half of male youth Internet users ages 14 to 15 have been exposed to online pornography in the past year, as have more than two-thirds of those 16 to 17** (see sources below). Many boys discover internet porn when they are 10-12 years old, and sometimes even younger.
Pornography in our culture is often either normalized and dismissed or relegated to the shadows of secrecy, sin and shame. Both extremes only perpetuate the harmful addictive cycles that so often underpin porn usage.
This is why I believe it is vital that we talk about pornography and sexuality in a way that is accepting and compassionate, rather than moralistic, dismissive or shaming.
My goal with the class was to create space for open and honest dialogue around these taboo topics, so the boys could learn to relate to – and express – their sexuality in healthy, consenting and authentic ways. And so they could choose if/how they wanted to relate to pornography, from a place of empowered self-awareness.
Sharing My Story
As they slowly flooded into the tiny classroom, glancing curiously at me, I could feel my heart racing with nervousness. Sitting in one big circle, I welcomed them and began sharing my story of struggling with porn addiction. Soon, I could feel the restless energy in the room begin to ground into a place of genuine curiosity and depth.
I told them how I got hooked on porn when I was 17, leading to a decade of compulsive porn use – and how I’d first discovered porn much earlier than that. I shared how I had started feeling physically ill – nauseous – while watching increasingly hardcore content in an attempt to feel the dopamine ‘rush’ that I had become addicted to.
I shared how I was so sick of feeling trapped – turning to porn in an attempt to feel alive and escape stress, only to experience a painful emptiness afterwards. And how I began to believe the stories they told me: that I was lacking – too small, too skinny, not ‘masculine’ enough, unlovable. Pornography fueled my own insecurity and, in turn, negatively impacted my relationships with romantic partners.
I talked about how I was disgusted and disheartened by the way that most porn distorted true intimacy by portraying women as mere sexual objects in my fantasies. And how it kept me feeling distant and guarded, afraid to step into the vulnerability of real connection. So I decided to quit.
I illuminated how, for several years before and after quitting, I struggled with porn-induced erectile disfunction, low labido, premature ejaculation, and general numbness and desensitization. Like living in a haze, my compulsive porn use dulled my senses and kept me distracted from the sensuality and joy of everyday existence.
I told them that they had a powerful choice to make about if/how they chose to interact with pornography. I invited them to bring their full consciousness to the choices they make, rather than letting themselves get swept up in compulsive behaviors.
I encouraged them to get curious about how pornography, video games, and other isolating activities can often become coping mechanisms for our insecurities as well as our unmet emotional and relational needs (I know this, first-hand). And how we can learn to work through our insecurities, and meet our needs in healthier and more successful ways.
Most importantly, I didn’t shame them for any of their actions or choices, and I didn’t pretend that I had The Right Answer – I simply invited them to bring greater awareness to their lives.
Our Group Discussion
Looking up at the faces staring back at me, I could feel the power of the space we’d created together. The vulnerability that I’d modeled seemed to give them permission to speak openly, too. And many did.
They shared stories of unwanted exposure to porn online, painful feelings of shame and isolation around their sexuality, and confusion and sadness about how girls and women are treated in porn videos.
Many were curious about how porn sex related to actual sex in reality. Did girls really expect them to perform sexual acts like the ones in the videos? Is that really what they wanted?
We looked at how porn sex is about performance, while real sex is about intimacy. And discussed how porn often conflates sex and violence, with scenarios depicting aggressive and demeaning treatment of women – and the impacts of this culture of sexualized violence in our communities.
One boy – distraught and almost in tears – said he was afraid that he’d spend his entire life alone and never find a romantic partner. His classmates immediately jumped in to tell him to stop beating himself up and have more self-compassion.
Why was he so anxious about romantic connection at such a young age? Why did he think there was something wrong with him?
What We Learned
It was powerful and beautiful to witness boys relating with one another in caring and non-shaming ways, as they began their journeys through the treacherous terrain of male sexual development.
We talked about getting support when we need it, cultivating self-love and self-acceptance, and establishing choice and consent – both within ourselves and with others.
We discussed the multi-billion-dollar porn industry and how it is a profit-driven corporate trap that targets and hooks us when we’re young, feeds off of our insecurities, and degrades the full beauty and power of our authentic sexuality.
And we affirmed the power we each have to step outside of that trap, when we are committed to cultivating real intimacy and loving ourselves well, through all of our imperfections.
We acknowledged the reality that the world of porn won’t be going away anytime soon, and that not all porn is created equal. While you can find videos depicting rape scenarios, you can also find ones that show loving acts of intimacy, and everything in-between.
We talked about how these ‘softcore’ videos can be a place to discover what sexuality can actually look like – since sex education in our country is often painfully misguided and incomprehensive. And the slippery slope of softcore often leading to more hardcore porn use.
At the end of the hour-long session, I asked them to reflect on what the key learning was for them from our time together.
One boy shared about how he learned that watching porn was not inherently bad or shameful, and yet that it’s important to be aware of how it impacts your life – and the lives of those around you.
Another boy shared about the importance of cultivating self-love in order to know how to love others, and talked about how shame often gets in the way of love.
As class ended and everyone funneled out into the daylight, I felt a mixture of joy and fear moving through my body. Taking a deep breath, I finally stood up and walked out.
I’ll probably never know whether this conversation made a positive impact on these kid’s lives, but I know without a doubt that my time sitting in circle with this group of middle school boys has changed my life forever.
Where We Go From Here
One thing is for sure: We need to have more open and honest conversations about pornography, consent and healthy sexuality with pre-teens and teenagers in this country. Because, if we don’t teach them about sex, internet porn will.
One of the challenges of discussing this topic with teens is that it forces us to confront our own shame around sexuality and, for many, porn use. It’s hard to preach what we, ourselves, do not practice. Teens are very perceptive and often far more aware about these issues than we may realize, and they see right through our half-truths and double standards.
This is why it’s so important to get real with each other by first getting real with ourselves.
Teen porn use in this country is an epidemic, with far-reaching consequences for the health, wellbeing, and relational skills of the upcoming generation. We have an opportunity to help teens change this trajectory and build healthier lives by having real conversations with them about sex. Now is the time to begin that dialogue.
With fierce loving compassion,
Resources for Teens about Pornography and Healthy Sexuality:
- Fight the New Drug: http://fightthenewdrug.org
- Your Brain on Porn: http://yourbrainonporn.com/adolescent-brain-meets-highspeed-internet-porn
- Sex, Etc: http://sexetc.org
- Scarleteen: http://www.scarleteen.com
- Sexplainer: http://www.sexplainer.com
- Planned Parenthood: https://www.plannedparenthood.org/teens/sex
Sources / Credits:
*Chiara Sabina, Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, “The Nature and Dynamics of Internet Pornography Exposure for Youth,” CyberPsychology & Behavior. December 2008, 11(6): 691-693.
**Janis Wolak, Kimberly Mitchell, and David Finkelhor, “Unwanted and Wanted Exposure to Online Pornography in a National Sample of Youth Internet Users,” PEDIATRICS, February 2007
Title Image Credit: Getty Images