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Advice Sexual Health

How to Talk to Your Kids About Porn

Cassandra Corrado

“Curiosity is a normal and great thing,” said sex educator Melissa Pintor Carnagey, “and through curiosity is an opportunity to learn and connect.”

For more sex education resources during the COVID-19 outbreak, check out our Better Sex Ed guide.  

When you’re raising a child, you’ll have conversations that you don’t know quite how to navigate.

Even parents and caretakers who feel well-prepared to talk with their kids about sex may struggle when it comes to one important area: porn.

Kids start developing curiosity about their bodies and topics relating to sex and gender as early as 3 years old. With some kids having access to cell phones, iPads, and other technology from a very young age, they also have access to all types of media (including sexual media). Children might stumble upon porn or intentionally seek it out as a way to learn about their bodies or about sex. While this behavior shouldn’t be shamed—it’s a side effect of curiosity—it does mean that caretakers should be having conversations about media literacy, anatomy, and consent early and often.

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If you’re wondering how you even go about starting these conversations, you’re not alone.

Melissa Pintor Carnagey founded Sex Positive Families in 2017 to help families develop the skills needed to have conversations about sex in productive, empowering ways. When it comes to porn, the two questions Pintor Carnagey gets asked the most are “When should I have these conversations?” and “What should I say?”

“Conversations about porn and sex should really center media literacy to prepare young people so that they understand things they might hear, see, or otherwise encounter,” Pintor Carnagey said. “It’s also about creating a home culture where young people feel safe to ask questions without feeling fear of shame or embarrassment, where they can get answers without compromising their safety.”

Because every child and family is different, I want to remind you that at-home sexuality education is reflexive, adapting to your family’s context and your kids’ environment inside and outside of the home. With families spending more time together right now, questions about porn and sexuality may come up. Here are some tips to help you navigate those conversations and other taboo topics with ease.

Let curiosity thrive

Sometimes, when kids ask about sex, our instinct is to tell them they’re not old enough to know about it or overlook the question entirely. But that avoidance can unintentionally teach shame, making young people less likely to go to a trusted adult with questions in the future.

“Curiosity is a normal and great thing,” Pintor Carnagey said, “and through curiosity is an opportunity to learn and connect.”

Whether you’re talking about what purposes different body parts serve or how caterpillars turn into butterflies, give curiosity space to flourish. It helps create more interested and empathetic children (and future adults) and also teaches them that it’s OK to ask questions and look for the answers in a safe space at home.

Build on existing conversations

There are many other conversations to have around sexuality, so porn is probably not going to be the first topic that comes up for you and your child. “The conversations that can connect to porn revolve around bodies, sex, relationships, boundaries, and consent,” Pintor Carnagey said. “What has your at-home sex ed journey looked like up to this point?”

Pintor Carnagey recommends thinking through questions like, “Is your child’s interest in porn brought on by their own curiosities? Something at school? Something they found in someone’s browser history?”

There’s no perfect “next step” that will fit every family, so instead, focus on finding the next step that fits for your family, context, and sex ed journey.

Acknowledge your discomfort

Think about how topics related to sexuality were handled when you were a child. Were they pushed to the side or tackled head-on? Did they happen early, often, rarely, late, or never? Did shame have a seat at the table, or was curiosity invited in?

Your own experiences with sex and sex ed inform how you approach these topics today—you carry them with you. You don’t need to drop that baggage at the door, but you should acknowledge it’s there with you. Plus, as Pintor Carnagey noted, young people are always keeping an eye on the adults in their lives, so they’ll notice if your body language shifts or if you suddenly tense up.

If a young person asks you something that throws you for a loop or makes you uncomfortable, acknowledge it.

Pintor Carnagey suggests responding with something like, “We never talked about this when I was young, and I actually don’t know the answer,” can have powerful effects. Showing that you don’t have all of the answers builds trust between you and your young person.

Turn to trusted resources

You don’t need to have the answers to every question that your kid has about math, science, and history—and yes, even sex. There’s no shame in not knowing, and that’s where you can turn to trusted resources.

If you find yourself struggling to talk about porn or any other topic, you and your child can research the question together, or you can commit to looking up the topic on your own and getting back to them. If you choose the latter, make sure to hold yourself accountable to a timeline for when you’ll get back to them. “Saying you’ll find the answer and then never actually getting back to them with the answer can inadvertently tell young people that their questions aren’t important,” Pintor Carnagey said.

Pintor Carnagey teamed up with AMAZE, an online sex education tool, to create a guide for parents to talk to youth about porn. Additional resources include Scarleteen, a digital sex ed platform for adolescents and young adults; Every Body Curious, a YouTube channel providing sex ed lessons for youth ages 9 to 12; and the Six Minute Sex Ed podcast, which provides family-friendly, bite-size sex ed lessons. Rewire.News also has an archive of sex ed-related content.

Pair facts with narrative

Having information at your fingertips is just one part of the puzzle. “Young people see themselves in their caregivers, so using your story can create an opportunity for connection,” Pintor Carnagey said.

Use your judgment to determine what you’re comfortable sharing (and what your young person might be ready to learn), but know that sharing your history isn’t a threat to your status as a caregiver—it can be an asset when done well. “At the heart of this worry there’s fear, and that’s usually a fear of failure,” Pintor Carnagey said. “If we’re clear with ourselves that we can only influence—not control—other people’s outcomes, we can see the opportunities to mentor and draw connections about things they see along their path.”

Don’t be afraid of letting go of your “perfect parent” status. It’s important for kids and teens to know that you have struggled through your own uncertain journey because it shows them that they are also allowed to do the same and be vulnerable.

Remember there’s nothing wrong with your kid (or you)

If your kid is asking you about porn, you might feel like you’ve done something wrong or missed an earlier opportunity. It’s normal for your kid to be curious about porn, and it’s normal for you to not have all the answers.

“If your child is curious about porn, is seeking out porn, or has stumbled upon it, that’s no indicator that you’ve failed or that there’s something wrong with your child. Their curiosities are completely normal,” Pintor Carnagey said. “This is an opportunity for you all to deepen your conversations and understanding about bodies, sex, relationships, and consent.”

They also want you to remember that these opportunities aren’t being graded as a pass or a fail. “If it’s rooted in a shame-free approach that celebrates curiosity and fosters safety, then parents can breathe a big sigh of relief, and instead focus on the opportunity to prepare and influence the young people in their lives for what they might encounter,” Pintor Carnagey said.

So take a deep breath. You’ve got this.

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