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  • Leah Jewett

Candy shop, self-harm, easy, a void: how children see porn

Updated: Oct 15, 2019


We are, all of us, among the first generations to be vulnerable to and blindsided by an easy access to porn. In some American states pornography has, controversially, been labelled a public-health risk and even a public-health crisis.

It’s hard to contest the fact that porn is now a safeguarding issue and a mental-health issue because it invades – often uninvited – children’s developing minds, sexuality and identity.

One way to counter the normalisation of pornography is by making relationships and sex-education issues – such as body image, self-esteem, pleasure and consent – part of matter-of-fact, honest, everyday conversation at home. It’s a step in the direction of helping children to become critical thinkers.

If parents don’t put themselves forward as their children’s go-to resource for talking openly about sex-ed issues, they are relinquishing that responsibility to the media, social media, their children’s friends, to school lessons, to the internet, to porn.


The impact of porn on children and young people was the subject of an inventive musical put on by Tackroom Theatre in April and May at London’s Southwark Playhouse. Why Is The Sky Blue – by Abbey Wright, Shireen Mula and Matt Regan – took as its creative jumping-off point the results of interviews about pornography with some 10,000 children and young people in the UK conducted in conjunction with the children’s charity Barnardo’s. In the 1 May edition of Woman’s Hour, Wright explained that the verbatim-theatre production had no narrative – it was “snapshots of conversation that we hope can continue”. Fantastically brought to life by a company of six- to 22-year-olds, the show edited the sad, ironic, comical, heart-rending material into something entertaining and clearly relevant.

Through songs, improvisation and one-on-one discussion, Why Is The Sky Blue amplified children and young people’s experiences of porn in their own compelling words. They referred to porn as a “rite of passage”, “self-harm”, “easy”, “a void”, “junk food”, “a candy shop”. They reflected:

• “Watching porn was the best thing in my day”

• “Afterwards I felt so sad. There was no one to hold”

• “It’s like buying a whole cheesecake, and realising it’s not a good idea”

One dance number included the lines: “Straight porn, gay porn, trans porn: it’s for men. Lesbian porn: it’s tailored a lot to the heterosexual male gaze.”


Shining a spotlight on the impact of pornography couldn’t be more relevant given that the average age at which children see porn is 11, that 88% of popular porn scenes contain violence and that 95% of women in porn respond as if they like sexual violence. Fight The New Drug, an American anti-porn movement, cites a 2016 faith-based report in which 46% of 1,188 adults surveyed who consume porn thought “‘sexual acts that may be forced or painful’ are not ‘wrong’”, while 50% of the young people aged 13 to 25 surveyed found it “acceptable” to view such images.

Porn’s focus on sex as a mechanical act – and the way it objectifies and compartmentalises bodies and desensitises viewers to the degradation of women – is influencing young people’s behaviour and their attitudes not only towards other people but also towards themselves.

So how can children and young people learn to interrogate and interpret what they see in porn, develop an ability to self-regulate, shore up their resilience?

• What helps is parents and schools fostering media and digital literacy in children and young people so they become critical thinkers and question the gender stereotyping, violence, degradation and unrealistic expectations of sex and bodies portrayed in porn.

• What helps is children and young people feeling grounded and secure in the strong parent-child connection that comes from open communication at home.

• What helps is talking with children and young people about neuroscience theories so they become aware of the dopamine-hit reward that comes from the novelty of clicking among images; so they take into account the plasticity of the brain and how – just as any skill gets reinforced – watching porn forges neural pathways; so they consider that, as Gary Wilson of Your Brain On Porn puts it, “a critical period exists during an individual’s early sexual experience that creates a ‘love map’… associated with sexual reward”; so they understand the habituation that can lead to decreased sexual satisfaction and the need, over time, to escalate to watching harder, more extreme images for arousal.

• What helps is for children and young people to realise that watching porn isn’t really a good way to learn about having sex – just as watching intense, adrenaline-pumping action-movie car chases doesn’t really teach someone how to be a good driver.

At one point during Why Is The Sky Blue Ruby, age 22, offers parents so-called advice about talking with children about porn: 1) Don’t. 2) Leave it until after they’ve already been exposed to it. 3) Use the code word “inappropriate”.

The word “inappropriate” – which frequently came up during the interviews even with young children – evokes propriety, judgement, rule breaking. Less coded and evasive could be words like “disturbing”, “explicit”, “unhealthy”, “inaccurate”, “damaging”.

What isn’t inappropriate is children’s curiosity about sex, bodies and their own developing body. That natural curiosity can lead them to porn.

Porn is acknowledged as having become a default, though misleading, form of sex education – a sex manual. But what’s concerning is that through watching porn, children and young people often become schooled in bearing witness to performance – involving violence, power imbalances, dissociation, pain – before they’ve experienced or come to prize a physical and emotional sexual connection that’s healthy, intimate, mutual, caring.

Instead children and young people are being exposed to images that can make formative impressions on their developing minds, emotions, sexuality and identity – images that they can’t then unsee.

As maverick sex-advice columnist Dan Savage says: “You need to get in between the porn images your children are definitely going to encounter on the web and your children’s heads so that they are risk-aware, critical and thoughtful consumers. A lot of pornography is created for people who are angry, who at once desire and are furious with the women in those images. A lot of pornography is shot through with despair, sadness and rage.”


The evening I chaired a post-show discussion with two of the Why Is The Sky Blue theatre-makers and four teenage cast members, the switched-on kids ended up educating the audience. Jamal, who’s 16, said it would be great if parents were more understanding with their children about porn (“It can be complicated”) and if they put porn consumption in perspective (“It’s common”). Both Annie, age 17, and Harrison, 16, said that being in the show had made it easier for them to talk openly with their parents – it had changed his perceptions, Harrison added, and stripped porn of its power.

All of the teenagers agreed that shame is an obstacle in communicating openly at home and in school. Fear is another obstacle – schools are often reluctant to tackle sex-ed subjects out of deference to the vocal minority of parents who oppose sex education; teachers are often out of their depth with talking frankly about sex-ed subjects; parents often feel too scared, unconfident or awkward to look truthfully at themselves and surmount their own barriers in order to start conversation at home.

By contrast – and encouragingly – the thousands of children and young people Wright interviewed for Why Is The Sky Blue actively wanted to talk. They had lots to say but no outlet for discussion. They showed a fascinating level of self-awareness, saying things like:

• “I could feel porn eroding my mind”

• “I have been blessed to not have a crazy urge for porn. Just an urge”

• “Porn comes into your life and starts a relationship with you when you’re young”

• “You stand by the computer and cover your eyes”

Blazing through all of these ideas around darkness, hollowness and disconnection, however, came the power of the parent-child connection. Parents have the power to start the conversation. In talking about porn – particularly in the context of healthy relationships, sex positivity, reciprocity, caring and intimacy – they can model openness and give their children resilience and confidence. Running countercurrent to the impact of pornography on children is, wonderfully, the impact of love.

This piece was originally published on Medium


#pornography #relationshipsandsexeducationRSE #parents #parenting #sexeducation #children

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