X-rated exposure

DYLAN WALLS from Aviva Youth Services tackles the tough topic of early exposure to pornography, and offers valuable advice for parents.

Pornography is sexually explicit media primarily intended to sexually arouse the viewer, ranging from erotica to snuff movies, with many harmful genres in between. What is deeply alarming is that so many of our young people have accessed or are accessing pornography – so much so that it is referred to as one of the main ‘educators’ of sex.

International statistics tell us that initial exposure is often accidental, and that the average age globally is 11. We know anecdotally from the families and young people we support at Aviva that exposure can happen as young as six or seven years old.

Porn demonstrates what is physically possible in a sexual relationship, but lacks context: it rarely demonstrates consent, misrepresents what is pleasurable, and portrays fantasy as reality. Regardless of gender or sexual orientation, pornography demonstrates unhealthy power and control from one or many partners over someone who is reduced to being an object.

This normalisation of painful, harmful and degrading acts promotes the belief in some of our young people that they are entitled to and can expect their partners to perform the same acts they have observed on screen. For some, the social pressure to meet those expectations can be huge because ‘it is normal’; this is what they should be doing if they want to initiate or maintain a relationship with someone. Pornography also sets up unrealistic expectations of what the body and its intimate parts ‘should’ look like, and this discord between expectations and reality can lead to unhealthy situations and traumatic sexual experiences for young people.

WHAT CAN PARENTS DO? 
As parents, invite and involve young people in conversations around being responsible about their use of the internet and media, and about safeguarding themselves from online risk, as early as you can. Be realistic: you do not need to talk explicitly about pornography with your eight-year-old in order to have a conversation about being self-aware and responsible. If we engage in open, respectful conversations with our children early, it is easier to have harder conversations later on.

To limit possible exposure at home, set expectations for responsible use of devices, such as screen access times and where they can be used – not in the bedroom, for instance. Talk about the consequences that will follow irresponsible use so everyone in the family knows what comes next. Make sure you listen to young people’s views, and try to reach an agreement in which they take an active role in being responsible for their own online actions.

Utilise Netsafe NZ and your internet service providers for advice and support, and use filters to block unwanted material. SafeSurfer NZ has a lifeguard device that can do a lot of these things for you. And remember: be responsible for your own actions online. If parents view porn on a device, it makes it far more likely that their kids will get a pop-up when doing their homework.

As parents, we need to be really reflective and honest by looking at how our own behaviour reinforces (or conflicts with) the messages we are delivering. We want our young people to be able to resolve conflict in healthy, respectful ways, recognise their own limits and seek support when they need to. If we can do this for ourselves, we are enabling our youth to do the same.

If we can raise young people who like the person they are and who are comfortable to be themselves, they are far less likely to become people who will seek to coerce or harm others, or accept such treatment themselves. They are far more likely to respect others’ choices and opinions, to stand up for what they believe in, and help others to find a way through the hard times.

As part of the Aviva Youth Team Dylan Walls works with young people (aged 12-25) who have experienced family or inter-relationship violence, supporting them to create and maintain healthier relationships.