Ten year-old Jacob never meant to see porn on his family computer.
In fact, his mom was just ten feet away, making dinner in the kitchen. But while researching weather patterns for a school assignment, an innocent keystroke error flooded the screen with graphic sexual images. Embarrassed and ashamed, Jacob frantically began closing pop-up windows to undo the mistake. But Jacob was unable to forget the powerful images.
A week later, when his mom dashed out to pick up Jacob’s older sister at school, Jacob searched online for more images, typing in the few crude words he knew for body parts, and several clinically correct ones. When he heard the minivan rumble into their gravel driveway, Jacob erased all traces of his exploration.
Jacob’s introduction to pornography—a word he’d never even heard or used before—is fairly typical for children and teens today. No longer does a boy have to gather the courage to lay down a magazine with a paper-wrapped cover in front of a curious drug store cashier. When a girl finds a magazine in the bushes on the way home from school, she doesn’t need to squirrel it away under a mattress.
Times Have Changed
Many, like Jacob, stumble upon porn inadvertently. Others, naturally curious, seek it out. Today access to online porn is as convenient as a middle school student pulling a smartphone out of her backpack. And this change in how pornography is accessed—on laptop and desktop computers, tablets and phones—has changed who is viewing porn and what they’re seeing.
When Jacob’s parents discovered what quickly became addictive behavior, they acted swiftly, consistently engaging with Jacob and seeking out professional help to begin a journey toward freedom. Unlike Jacob’s parents, though, some parents (and even youth pastors) who’ve accepted the twisty logic that “boys will be boys” will simply look the other way. The danger of this laissez faire approach is the parents’ refusal to acknowledge that it’s no longer 1950.
For starters, it’s not just boys. By the time girls reach eighteen, 62 percent have viewed online pornography—with 23 percent viewing for more than 30 minutes on at least one occasion. Dannah Gresh, author, speaker, and founder of Pure Freedom, notes that the entry point for girls is often erotica literature that can then lead to viewing pornographic images. She explains, “Pornographers have discovered that the way to a woman’s brain is through storylines, so porn is taking on a new form: erotica. The most known example of it is Fifty Shades of Grey, which features violence against women in the form of bondage, dominance, masochism, and sadism.”
Secondly, the images teens are viewing are no longer anonymous. When teens “sext”—sending and receiving nude photographs or sexually suggestive text messages—they’re viewing and sharing pictures of their boyfriends, girlfriends, and classmates. Though statistics vary, the epidemic is changing the way that teens view one another.
The third, and most damning, fallacy of the wily “boys will be boys” attitude is the implicit denial that the nature of porn has changed. Kids today aren’t simply looking at pictures of “nudity.” Eighty-three percent of boys and 57 percent of girls have seen group sex online. More than half have viewed videos of same-sex intercourse. One quarter of them have seen bestiality, and almost one-third have seen sex acts including bondage.
This is not their parents’ teen experience of porn.
Boston-based sex therapist Dr. Aline Zoldbrod wants parents who may have dabbled in porn as teens—and feel unharmed—to know that times have changed. She warns, “I see a sexual and relational train wreck happening, and I need to speak out. Parents and policymakers, beware: something very bad is happening out there with teenagers and pornography. Internet porn has the potential to change some adolescents’ sexual development in a very damaging way. It can ruin or hinder their ability to form sexual relationships.”
Fight the New Drug, one organization raising awareness to counter the prevalent message that porn is harmless, also underscores the way porn impacts the developing brain: “This isn’t about religion or politics or anything else. It’s about science.” In a piece for The Wall Street Journal, Holly Finn concurs, “Repetitive viewing of pornography resets neural pathways, creating the need for a type and level of stimulation not satiable in real life. The user is thrilled, then doomed.”
So is “doomed” the final word? Finn, and others, say no.
Something Needs to Change
Christians must say no. Followers of Jesus, who believe that we were made to give and receive love, trust in a God who redeems. Sherman Bucher is the Boys Counselor at Daystar Counseling Ministries, in Nashville, Tennessee. He offers, “Pornography is powerful, dangerous, and sexually damaging to the human mind. But I have seen families and individuals overcome it.” He adds, “Watching the transformation of a young person who chooses to change and own his or her story is powerful and beautiful.”
And though change is possible, the burden doesn’t fall on youth alone. If we are to serve the children we love, families and churches must change as well. The first thing we need to do is to face reality. Not talking about sex in church—the evangelical church’s strategy for decades—hasn’t worked. Nor has avoiding the topic at home. The sinister lie we’ve believed is that if we don’t talk about it, it won’t be a problem. But our youth deserve so much more.
1. Parents, Talk About It at Home
Deuteronomy 11:19 instructs parents to share God’s commands with their children: “Teach them to your children, talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.”
The same could, and must, be said of pornography.
Talk to your children about porn. Talk about it in the non-anxious tone you’d use to discuss baseball or fruit smoothies. Begin at age nine or ten. You love and serve your kids well by opening up this conversation. Dannah Gresh underscores, “It is the silence that is so deafening. I just completed a series of focus groups with the mothers of tween girls who often expressed the lie that ‘if I don’t talk about _______, she won’t struggle with it.’ That’s simply not true.”
Sherman Bucher adds, “Parents have to use their voice. They have get in the fight with their children. Children know and are impacted by their parents’ presence and voice. More than we think at times.”
2. Parents, Be Savvy
Believe that you can make a difference. Bucher explains, “Children need parents to lay down firm and consistent boundaries and consequences when boundaries are crossed. Parents also need to be students of the Internet, of the websites their children are on, and of the latest research regarding children and technology recommendations.”
You might also consider an 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. docking curfew for phones, laptops, and tablets. And if your teen moans, “But I use it for music and an alarm clock,” buy them a $10 clock radio—a great investment.
3. Congregations, Talk About it At Church
Steven Luff is the author of Pure Eyes: A Man’s Guide to Sexual Integrity and sexual addiction recoveries with XXXchurch. He suggests that one of the most important things churches can do is to teach on the dangers of pornography use. Luff also encourages congregations to offer support groups, connect with quality licensed therapists in their communities, and model and promote truth-telling and vulnerability in safe environments.
Youth Pastor Josh Yates, of Gingellville Community Church concurs, “We try a lot to open up lines of communication as much as possible. We consistently talk about it.” Discussing pornography should not be a one-time youth group topic. It’s a conversation that needs to happen intermittently throughout middle school and high school, as well as being a churchwide conversation. As churches make room for honest conversations, we create room for tweens and teens to be honest and vulnerable with those who care most about them.
4. Teens, Go Cold Turkey
When writer Holly Finn talked to teens, they told her that the only thing that actually worked to set them free was to stop completely. (It’s not like dieting, when cutting calories helps. It’s more like crystal meth addiction. Just say no.)
If you don’t want to change your habits, you won’t. But if you want to stop, more and more research is showing that cold turkey is the way. And here’s what’s cool: although you do alter your brain when you look at pornography, God gave us amazing brains that can heal.
Not For Anyone
Here’s the real lunacy behind the “boys will be boys” mentality: pornography is not, nor has it ever been, for children. Fight the New Drug, and others, are revealing that it’s actually not for anybody.
So if we really want boys to be boys, and girls to be girls, we’ll start talking—somewhat counterintuitively—about porn.
Margot Starbuck is a writer, speaker, TCW regular contributor, and author of several books, including her most recent, Not Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God (Baker Books). Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or at MargotStarbuck.com.
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