Yes, You Need To Talk To Kids About Porn

By Madhvi Ramani

Modified from flickr
Erotic film director Erika Lust discusses her new project to help adults teach children about healthy (and unhealthy) sexuality.

Thirteen years ago, Erika Lust, a political science graduate who specialized in gender studies, decided to start making porn films. Frustrated by the tacky, chauvinistic content of mainstream porn, she wanted to see if it was possible to make a different kind of adult film — one that focused on story, characters, and the female gaze. Since then, she has since gone on to create over 100 highly crafted, ethically produced porn films, a host of which have won awards.

Her latest project is a continuation of her engagement with dominant porn culture — but from a decidedly different angle. Inspired by her role as a mother, and her desire to give something back in her area of expertise, she and her husband Pablo Dobner launched The Porn Conversation, a nonprofit initiative that aims to help parents talk to their children about porn. The website offers age-specific guides, starting with kids under 11 years old, that were put together in consultation with parents, sexologists, and psychologists, as well as other tools and resources for parents and educators.

I interviewed Erika in Berlin, where she recently spoke about The Porn Conversation at Tech Open Air, an interdisciplinary festival that brings together technology, arts, and culture.

Madhvi Ramani: Why is it important for parents to have “the porn conversation” with their children?

Erika Lust: Porn is part of the reality we live in. It has grown enormously in the last 10 years, because of the internet and the proliferation of porn tubes [free porn sites that do not require registration], which are the biggest part of pornography today. The kind of content available on these porn tubes is highly racist, misogynistic, and chauvinistic. It is something that parents can’t ignore because children, at a very early age, are coming across this content online. They are going to find it, and look at it, and it’s going to influence their perceptions about sexuality and gender roles. So, if parents talk to their children before or during this time of discovery, they can help them think more analytically and critically about the images they are seeing.

Madhvi: Do you think porn should be part of sex education in schools?

Erika: Yes. I think it’s absolutely necessary. I’m not saying that classes should watch porn and learn from porn. You would teach it in the same way you teach kids about alcohol without having them drinking it. We don’t have to delve into every single genre of porn. We just need to touch on the subject, acknowledge it exists, ask children if they have been watching it, and if they realize what kinds of structures and values there are in it.

It’s a basic fact that sex education in so many countries and so many schools does not go deep enough for most young people, so what kids do is go online, look at porn, and think they learned about sex. Porn has become today’s sex education. And unlike most adults, who have had actual sexual experiences, kids don’t realize that sex is not equal to porn. More and more, I am seeing people who have already watched hundreds of hours of pornography before they have their first sexual encounter. They think that having sex is doing the same things that the porn stars are doing so they get very frustrated, because they don’t really understand how normal sexual encounters work.

Madhvi: Describe what you think a typical classroom lesson on porn for, say, 9-year-olds would entail.

Erika: I would say the best age is fifth grade, 10-year-old boys and girls. I think that the talk should evolve around the internet, the good and the bad things. I’d tell them that those films and tubes are not intended for them, because they are minors. And I would encourage them to talk with an adult if they find explicit sexual content online. I would also warn them that what’s displayed on those tubes is not an accurate representation of human sexuality, which is richer and more complex.

Madhvi: Any other tips for teachers on approaching the topic in school?

Erika: Do not blame, do not shame. If you take the drama away from the talk, they will feel that porn is not such a big thing. At that age they trust adults, and if we explain things with patience and love, they will trust us in return with if and when they find porn online.

Madhvi: There seems to be a disconnect between the amount of violence we can legally expose young people to — in films and video games — and the amount of sexual content we are comfortable with in society, which could explain why so many young people turn to online porn. Do you think there is space for more sexually explicit content for teens or even a kind of porn for teens?

Erika: I think there could be a kind of erotic content for them, where they could see how people relate to each other sexually, which you can definitely do without showing any explicit sex. There might be a market for that kind of material, although it’s not what I’m doing.

It would be interesting to see more real situations portrayed between younger actors and actresses. I made a short film called Coming Of Age, with two performers who were 22. I normally work with older people, because I am interested in telling stories about people who have already had a sexual life. But this film was part of my XConfessions series, where people write to me with their fantasies and I make films out of them. One young girl wrote to me asking for something where young people were together in a natural way, because all she saw online was horrible teen porn, and younger girls with older men. It’s never teens with teens.

Erika Lust and Pablo Dobner

Madhvi: Talking about sex is an awkward conversation for many parents, let alone talking about porn. What are your tips for how to approach this conversation as a parent?

Erika: It’s important to remember that this is not just a five-minute talk. When we started this [Porn Conversation] project, we were going to call it The Porn Talk, but then we reconsidered, because it’s not a talk, it’s a conversation that has to happen over a longer period of time. You can find various ways to start it without making a big deal out of it. For example, depending on the age of your child, you could say, “Lately I’ve been getting some ugly pop-ups on the computer. Has this happened to you?” Or if you’re very afraid of doing it, you could get someone to help you out. Maybe invite a friend to dinner, and get them to start a conversation with your son or daughter.

Madhvi: You have two daughters. How is your conversation going with them?

Erika: Right now, they are very interested in feminism and are trying to figure out the difference between what is sexy and what is chauvinistic. It’s difficult as a mother to try to tell them about sex positiveness and that being sexy and feeling sexy is okay, but that objectifying women is not okay. It’s very complicated to see the boundaries between these things. My 9-year-old daughter is interested in video games, and she gets upset every time she sees a female heroine in bikini.

She always comes to me and says, “Why doesn’t she want to protect herself if she’s going into the jungle?” It doesn’t make sense to her. I taught her to think critically, and this is exactly what we need to do with younger generations. So I hope that by the time she gets to the point where she does come across porn, she will be intellectually prepared to judge the kind of images she finds for herself.

Madhvi: What kind of feedback have you had from parents who have used your site?

Erika: I have had many emails from parents saying, “Thank you so much for bringing my attention to this, because I felt I had to address it, but didn’t really know how, or when, or why — especially when.” Most parents think that this is probably a topic they should tackle when their children are 13 or 14, but then they realize that I am right when I say that children as young as 9 have access to technology where they can stumble upon pornographic content. They say, “Thanks for warning me, because I was not prepared for this. She was a baby and now she is looking at Harry Potter’s magic wand — and it’s not a wand.”

Parents appreciate the guidance. There are so many new subjects on the table when it comes to technology and sex. You need to inform children about grooming, about sexting, that the person contacting them on social media might not be who they say they are. The porn conversation is part of a very important internet conversation that parents should have with their children.

Madhvi: How did you come up with the guides for different age groups?

Erika: We collaborated with many people. We talked to a lot of parents with kids of different ages to get their experiences and find out what they thought, as well as a range of psychologists and sexologists. All the professionals today — sexologists, psychologists, etc. — say you should start talking to children about sex from a very early age. You cannot wait too long to talk about sex because then they get to the embarrassment age and they won’t want to discuss it. Most kids, even when they are 4 or 5, start touching themselves. In this situation, the most important thing is to not shame them. They do it naturally. So you just have to explain that maybe they should do it in their rooms, and not in front of everyone in the living room.

Madhvi: With the growth of online porn, and new technology, such as virtual reality, what do you think the future of sex entertainment is?

Erika: As a filmmaker, I feel like virtual reality is a totally different media. I work with framing and lighting and storytelling, whereas VR is a different experience.

As for the future of sex and porn, I hope for more awareness. I think the porn industry is going the same way as the food industry in that people are becoming more responsible consumers. I hope that people will start to ask who is behind the content they are consuming, how it’s produced, and whether it is pirated. I hope for more diversity, so that different people, with different sexualities and preferences, can see themselves represented in an honest and correct way without having to be fetishized as a group.

I am a cinema aficionado. I love to watch a movie that has been crafted with passion and thought, and I hope that in porn we can see other visual creators getting [involved]. And I believe in female participation. We’ve changed other areas — politics, advertising, etc. — so if we get more women into porn, I am confident that we can change [the porn industry], too. I think that if we raise awareness about porn, people will think about it, and make better choices.

Madhvi: What are your plans for the site?

Erika: Our original idea was just to put up an informative website. At first it was only available in Spanish and English, and now it’s in French, German, and Italian, too. We’ve talked about adding a part where people can share their experiences, and we are working on a section where you can find sexologists and other people in your area who can help you with this process.

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