Let’s talk about sex, baby… Well, with preteens, anyway

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
The Ethics Centre /
March 11, 2015 /

Original Unavailable /

I was a guest on a radio show recently to discuss the twenty-fifth anniversary of Photoshop. Midway through musings on image manipulation, beauty ideals and the difficulty of gauging the impact of early exposure, a mum phoned in.

Her approach to all this awfulness was to shield her eight-year-old from it. From magazines with their airbrushed-within-an-inch-of-their-life models. From social media. From films. So firm was her belief that such material ruins childhood and sends girls hurtling towards anorexia, that prohibition was her only option.

I sat behind my microphone, brows knitted. I was picturing the Jennifer Garner character from last year’s Men, Women & Children who manically monitored her daughter’s every keystroke. And we all know how well that turned out.

Whenever I dared rumple my forehead at any of my ex-boyfriend’s parenting methods, he was prone to ask, “so how many children do you have, Lauren?” As a non-parent I’m not supposed to dare touch the untouchable.

My anti-authoritarian streak, alas, is a little too strong.

Turfing out the TV with the hard rubbish and installing the world’s toughest Internet filter grants a parent the delusion of control, of feeling like they are doing the “right” thing in this world of content overload and fallen-angel Disney stars. Such an approach, however, creates both an artificial bubble of protection, overplays the influence of any one element in upbringing and overlooks that such material will be seen sooner rather than later.

That deferring exposure and preparedness has been gussied up as “care” in contemporary parenting is thoroughly mind-boggling.

A film or television show needn’t be seen first hand for us to become exposed to it. Friends and family and culture at large each work as conduits for the kinds of messages that some parents are diligently censoring. The Fifty Shades of Grey juggernaut illustrates this perfectly; it’s been on our radar for years regardless of how keenly we may have dodged actually reading the book or watching the movie.

Equally, a film or television show needn’t be seen for it to ignite curiosity. While it might feel uncomfortable thinking of young children as harbouring rampant sexual inquisitiveness, I still remember the debauched conversations I was having in primary school. Pretending otherwise is wishful thinking that rose-tints childhood while neglecting a sad reality of schoolyard (mis)information exchange.

While the cause-and-effect thesis levelled by the mum who phoned in has been debunked by every piece of serious media research, her comments nonetheless energised me about an under-discussed topic only ever whispered on the periphery of conversations about effects, most commonly in the context of porn. What is the reality of early exposure to this kind of content?

My first exposure to Internet porn was a printout of a bestiality scene handed to me in an English class by a classmate. I didn’t download it myself and yet, surprise, surprise exposure still happened. That was the mid-1990s. Flash forward 20 years and a child’s first online encounter isn’t going to be black and white, it’s not going to be static and it certainly won’t be the last a child sees until her parents finally buy her a modem.

Research estimates that a child’s first exposure to porn today will come at around ten-years-old. Ten years old puts a child in primary school. Ten-years-old means porn will invariably come before school-based sex education and likely well before a parent realises that creating an environment where it’s safe to ask them is every bit as important as conjuring answers.

So, if parents aren’t tackling the difficult questions about sex education – and if kids don’t know how to ask them – how do kids make sense of today’s deluge of sexualised media content? At present, the best a kid can get is whatever’s doing the rounds behind the teacher’s back in English class or porn itself.

Rather than obsessing about preventing such material – a fraught task anyway – might energies be better spent on education? Education about sex, sure, but more generally about media literacy; about tooling-up children to manage the torrent of information flooding at them.

The golden rule used to be: if a child is old enough to ask a question then they’re old enough for an age-appropriate answer. The Internet completely changes this. I’d argue that if they’re old enough to be exposed to media content, then they’re old enough for age-appropriate information about consuming it.

Rather than parents being frightened by media, I’d rather look at this as an opportunity. My approach to university teaching is, in fact, the method I see in the best students, the best thinkers and the best parents: critical thinking. I see the role of educators – be they those behind a lectern or raising children in the home – as creating an environment where the value of open communication about even the most uncomfortable topics is encouraged. Critical thinking is a life-long coping skill that needs to be fostered sooner rather than later.

Media has changed, both in regards to content but also in delivery. This is a reality that is ignored at our peril. Airbrushing and porn and a thin/young/white media landscape won’t go away anytime soon. Curiosity, sexual desire and Googling won’t either. Parents can’t stop their children from growing up and they can’t stop the increasingly sexualised nature of our popular culture. Early sex education and critical thinking about this content, however, is the proportionate response to a changing world. Bubbles and bans and heads in the sand come at the unreasonable cost of undereducated young people navigating this material completely ill-prepared.

© Lauren Rosewarne