10-year-old daughter had a sleepover with 3 friends. It turns out that one of the girls brought a smartphone and pulled up some porn. My daughter is still quite traumatized by what she saw, and my husband and I are trying to figure out how to counsel her. The girls saw three explicitly pornographic videos, which she described to me in detail. What can do to support her? What implications might these images have on our young daughter’s developing views of sexuality?
–Culture Shocked in New Delhi, India
A: Dear Culture Shocked,
It’s tricky when kids who are forming their sense of themselves as sexual beings are exposed to portrayals of sex in the media, which are often unrealistic and dehumanizing. It can certainly affect their understanding of how sex and relationships work. To address that challenge, first help your daughter make sense of what she saw. Nurture her and share her discomfort, asking empathetically about her feelings, and, most importantly, listen to her without judgment. Let her talk as long as she needs to, and ask questions when it feels right.
Then take some time to put what she saw in context. Explain that, just like her favorite movies, pornography is a manufactured fiction that exaggerates, sensationalizes, and makes superficial something that can be a very special experience of intimacy and trust. What she saw was made-up stories and the people in them are actors who were paid for what they did. Talk with her about what I call “the five C’s” of healthy sexual behavior:
These are rarely present in media portrayals of sex but are extremely important in real life. Spend some time with her looking for positive representations of relationships and intimacy that include those 5 C’s. Direct her to resources you trust for healthful, accurate, age-appropriate information on sex and sexuality.
To help her manage future situations like this, let her know that she doesn’t have to stay in a situation that makes her uncomfortable. Encourage her to say that she doesn’t want to watch those videos, or if she doesn’t feel comfortable doing that, to make up a reason to leave the room. Let her know she can always call you to come pick her up, and that she can always talk to you.
Finally, use this as an opportunity to discuss internet safety more broadly. Let your daughter know that while the internet can be a wonderful tool, you can’t take everything you find at face value—there are people who are trying to sell items or ideas, and they don’t always have your daughter’s best interests at heart. Giving your daughter the skills to navigate the internet and offering yourself as a resource when she needs help will equip her to trust her own instincts in the future if she is exposed to something she finds confusing or upsetting.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,