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04 Jul 2022

How to talk to your kids about real sex and porn, as Emma Thompson says the expectations of youth can be ‘disturbing’

How to talk to your kids about real sex and porn, as Emma Thompson says the expectations of youth can be ‘disturbing’

Dame Emma Thompson has said young people’s expectations of sex “can be very disturbing indeed”.

The actress, 63, has spoken out about the “easy access” to pornography and the pressure on young girls, ahead of the release of her new film Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, about a widow hiring a young sex worker.

Speaking to Sky News about attitudes towards sex in her daughter’s generation, Thompson said: “I think some things are worse, when I hear stories in schools about boys and what they expect from girls…

“If you talk to young people about their sexual knowledge and what they expect, and what they think sex is, it can be very disturbing indeed, and I think can interfere with their sexual development.”

In a study conducted by the NSPCC, nearly half (48%) of 11-16-year-olds surveyed had seen online porn.

And American organisation Youth First suggests the average age a child first sees online porn is 11 years old.

Over the past year or so, conversations about sexual harassment and assault in schools have opened up – particularly thanks to Everyone’s Invited (everyonesinvited.uk), a place for survivors of sexual assault to share their stories – showing how widespread the issue was in schools and universities.

So, how can parents and carers educate children on what a healthy relationship looks like, what consent really means, and the realities of pornography?

Put consent and pleasure at the forefront

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According to GP and sexual function expert Dr Anand Patel, who works with Lovehoney (lovehoney.co.uk), “There is a misconception that if you start talking to kids about sex too young, they will want it. Actually, whether parents want their children to access it or not, they will find that information. It is never too young to start talking to children about consent.”

Sex educator and coach Ruth Ramsay (ruthramsay.com) agrees, saying: “Consent and boundaries are vital life skills children should be learning. By the time kids are ready for early sex education, it should then simply be a case of applying these lessons to sex.

“The same goes for pleasure; from their earliest days, children should develop an understanding that their bodies are something that gives them pleasure, and it’s a safe place to explore.

“As a sex educator and coach, I see way too often in my work with adults, how damaging it is to leave pleasure out of sex education. If we don’t understand sex is meant to feel good to us, as well as our partners, we’ll put up with negative experiences and behaviours.”

Talk to them about the realities of porn

In 2021, singer Billie Eilish spoke out about how watching violent pornography at a young age “destroyed her brain”, and affected her first sexual experiences.

Speaking on SiriusXM, she said: “As a woman, I think porn is a disgrace. I started watching porn when I was like 11, and I didn’t understand why it was a bad thing. I thought that was how you learned to have sex.”

Ramsay shares that “porn is not intended to be sex education, but it’s the primary source of information for children and teens who are not receiving this information anywhere else.

“A metaphor which I find works for both kids and adults is: you wouldn’t expect to learn to drive by watching The Fast And The Furious, and in the same way we can’t learn how to ‘do’ sex by watching porn. Let them know its not ‘real’.”

There has been a push in recent years for more ethical, feminist porn, from creators such as Erika Lust, revolutionising the way porn is consumed and made.

Tailor conversations about sex to your child’s age – but be frank

There are different conversations about sex to have with your child at different ages, but Ramsay suggests honesty is the best policy – and to keep an open dialogue.

“There’s no one ‘conversation about sex’ to have with kids at one age. It’s a topic that builds. For example, as babies are growing into toddlers and learning about their bodies and names for body parts, correct names for genital anatomy should be included in a matter of fact way.

“When the child is older, if they don’t know the right names for their body parts, or feel their bodies aren’t a source of pleasure, they cannot practise informed empowered consent.”

Encourage question asking

Ramsay wants to see kids feeling more comfortable asking questions, particularly about something they may have heard at school, or seen in porn.

“Making sex a shame-free topic creates the space for kids to ask questions naturally,” she says. “However, they may be picking up shame messages from society and from other children, so reminding them, ‘Any time you want to ask me anything about sex, feel free’ is important. If they ask something you don’t know the answer to, don’t be embarrassed – say you’re not sure of the answer to that, and suggest you look it up together.”

Open communication will empower you both, and will hopefully stop your child turning to porn for their sex education.

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