*Take care when reading – this is adult content. Please do seek appropriate help if any content in this article is triggering.

With the Billie Eilish porn disclosure top of the news cycle, there are lots of opinions, warnings and ‘I told you so’s” being thrown about. And it’s made me wonder why parents have such a hard time talking to their young people about sex in all its forms – from beautiful intimately and lovingly connected moments right through to the other end of the spectrum where sex is about violence, control and misogyny.

For most adults, sex is a part of life – an important part of life. It’s not something we talk about much – not intimately because it’s a bit, well, cringy. I was walking out of an event last night talking to a friend talking about it being end of school term and having one more night for noisy sex before children were up a bit later. We chatted easily about sex – healthy sex in a relationship in a comfortable way just as part of a very normal conversation. It was as natural, authentic and normal as every other part of our conversation.

Why am I telling you about my sex life?

Mostly, because we simply have to normalise that sex is a part of life and at some point in the journey from childhood to adulthood, every child will naturally grow into their sexual self. That’s hard right – looking at your young person and acknowledging that their pubescent development is far more than physical change. As our little people grow into bigger people, Mother Nature flicks the switch to ‘Ready’ for the next stage of development. Early fierce toddler independence is nudged out by 3 and 4 year old, “But I don’t want to” absolute resistance. When starting school, learning to tell lies takes centre stage, followed by a growing awareness, in Years 2, 3 and 4 of social status and position. The era of the BFF and deliciously disclosed intimacies, followed by betrayals, break ups and make ups takes centre stage in late primary school.

And, every single one of these developmental stages has its own vital purpose, informing and maturing a child’s life readiness. We’re all pretty comfortable recognising and talking about those developmental stages. Yet, when the ‘Ready’ switch is flicked for the development of the sexually aware being, it is often lack of parental readiness that gets in the way of natural, authentic and normal conversations in families.

The awakening of the sexual being

Towards the end of primary school, most children will start to feel the first stirrings of intimate feelings – having a crush or feeling a little titillated at content that would have gone unnoticed in that way even weeks earlier. It’s normal – but NOT so normal for a parent to make the mental switch in their mind from ‘Daddy’s little girl’ to curious, sexually aware young person.

And this, right here is where we can run into the first hint of trouble when parents don’t want to acknowledge the developmental normality of sexual awakening of a young person. If I had a dollar for every parent of a tween who said to me, “He’s just not interested in any of that stuff yet…” I would be a very rich woman indeed! Instead, I am a woman rich in eye rolls.

Back when I was a gal, those first sexual flutters could be exacerbated by a naughty bit in a young teen novel or seeing a wild ‘pash’ in a movie. It was relatively innocent, and my sexual development was allowed to follow a natural rhythm because my exposure to anything more exotic was contained by growing up in the device-free 80’s. Even if I had managed to get my hands on a pronographic magazine (stand down mother-dear – I didn’t), it would still have been a bunch of static images – far, far from the hideously graphic video and streamed content available to our young people now.

What can we learn from Billie’s story?

Our children are growing up in a high exposure world – they’re exposed to pictures of perfect bodies, sexually provocative moves, sexually explicit lyrics and a great deal of sexually explicit content well beyond their young years. And if you’re thinking to yourself that your young person is sheltered from all of that because they don’t yet have access to social media, think again. Playground education is alive and well – so directly or indirectly, you can be sure that by the end of primary school your child will have been involved in at least one challenging and inappropriate conversation about sex.

Now, if we remember our own curiosity at that age about this emerging part of self, looking for ways to explore it wasn’t uncommon. Either in conversations with friends or accessing content that got the bits in the pants fluttering in delight, it was undoubtedly a part of all of our progression through the tween and teen years. That was then.

Now, when pornographic content is part of the first exposure of the emerging sexual being, nothing good can follow – nothing. What has been produced for adult entertainment now becomes a child’s education. Billie Eilish identified that early exposure to porn psychologically damaged and traumatised her brain. And she’s right, the delicate and emerging sexual being is simply not ready for the trauma inflicted by exposure to far too much, far too soon. I have worked alongside many, many young people in their mid-teens who have perpetrated a violent sexual act, unable to get or sustain an erection unless it involved all levels of horrifying sexual content being viewed and enacted because of their early exposure to porn. An avoidable tragedy.

Here in Australia, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner is working hard to make access to pornographic content much more difficult for our young people. However, if 2020’s figures are anything to go by – 13 pornographic videos uploaded per minute – and we’re talking everything from real person to VR porn content – we’re facing an uphill battle.

What can we do?

Head out the sand. We all made the journey from innocent child to sexually aware being – and our children will too. While for most of us over-exposure to highly sexualised, deviant and violent sexual content was low – for our children it isn’t. It’s on tap and readily available. What we’re talking about here is the conversations that normalise the feelings of the young person emerging into their sexual being. There is another space to talk about consent and all the protective behaviours attached to that. These are simply a collection of ways to connect, educate and safeguard our young people around their delicate emerging sexuality in the age of porn:

  1. Talk early and talk often – whatever you do, don’t talk about your own sex life to your child – no one needs that in their life at any age! But do have regular casual conversations about what you might see on TV that looks like it’s grossing your child out (“That sort of kissing looks messy huh, but lots of adults like to kiss each other like that.”), who likes who at school (“Having a special friend or interest in someone is really normal at your age”), and don’t shy away from talking about sex and pornography when the time is right. If this freaks you out, have a look at Michelle Mitchell’s and Kayelene Kerr’s (eSafe Kids) awesome resources.
  2. Choose your tool, choose your time. You might have one of those children who discloses more when you’re not face to face – or even physically together. Driving, walking, lying side-by-side on the bed in the dark, or messaging – sometimes a little bit of space helps to bypass the awkwardness of sitting looking at each other and that really is quite OK. In fact, I have had the best chats with my lads over text where there’s been a deeper level of disclosure and shared vulnerability. Do what works for your child even if your best mate seems to have this amazing relationship with their child where, over a cup of hot chocolate they bond, disclose and grow. That’s the stuff of magazines, TV shows and the very rare family.
  3. If you suspect your child might have gone looking, been accidentally exposed to, or been porn ‘educated’ by a peer, get right in there and start the work of setting that little head straight. You might find that your child is going to take a while to talk about what they might have seen – don’t push them, just listen carefully and acknowledge the feelings without blaming and shaming. Then, quietly check histories, conversations and searches to find out where your child has been and their level of exposure. Holly-ann at Safe 4 Kids has awesome resources that build protective behaviours.
  4. Educate before the need arises. That’s what we’re all about at DiGii Social – immersive, age-appropriate education that helps a child to avoid, to identify, to respond, and to report. Follow us on our socials for weekly resources and tips that help you to get conversations happening in your home – and of course, tell your school about us too!

Unfortunately, for most of us it’s not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ our children are exposed to inappropriate sexual content. It’s on tap online. So, learn from the Billie Eilish story. Growing into sexual maturity has earlier beginnings than most of us want to accept – but we simply have to if we’re going to protect our children from the harm done by exposure to pornographic content.

We need to get comfortable with  conversations about what is healthy, consensual and developmentally appropriate in the way that our child learns best. It is in those casual conversations with trusted friends where we can talk about healthy sex that we should draw our inspiration from in educating our own children. It doesn’t have to be cringe. It doesn’t have to get down to the nitty-gritty details. It just has to be something that’s a natural part of family life, with a deep acceptance of the developmentally normal emergence of our sexually aware young ones.

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