Teen talking with two adults

Risky Click: Talking About Online Pornography

by Lori Boland

I first heard of Gale Dines when a friend sent me her TedXTalk, Growing Up in a Pornified Culture. According to Dines – a Professor of Sociology and anti-porn activist – this talk sums up her twenty-plus year career in fifteen minutes. Not enough to truly dive into the nuances of sexualization, feminism and pornography – but enough time to raise awareness and provoke your anxiety about the fairly new phenomenon of internet porn.

The topic of porn, including its accessibility, content and impact is one that surfaces frequently in YWCA’s Culture Shift project. Culture Shift is a three year, federally funded project that is taking action against the sexualization of women and hypermasculinization of men in contemporary media and no conversation about sexualization would be complete without also talking about online pornography.

Although difficult to get exact stats on porn, conservative studies suggest there are over 2 billion porn sites on the net and that they attract more visitors each month than Amazon, Netflix and Twitter combined. While these numbers are contested between the abolitionist (anti-porn) and sex-positive camps, I would be surprised to meet an internet user who hasn’t accessed a sexualized website either intentionally or accidentally. From streaming sites, to torrent sites, to YouTube – pornography websites are literally clogging up the internet.

In my own experience as a parent, there have been numerous occasions where I have moved with lightning fast reflexes to quickly close off an inappropriate site that has popped up while searching for the newest kid-friendly animated feature film. And as a professional who has spent countless hours researching and educating on the topic, I have been drawn to stories of the effects of (often hardcore and violent) pornography on young developing minds. When young people turn to online porn as a way to learn about sexuality and relationships, the outcomes can be alarming.

And unfortunately, in the absence of comprehensive sexual health education, online porn is becoming a primary education tool.

I appreciate the “sports reel” analogy. Think about the sports highlights that you can watch on any nightly news cast. One minute of all the action, wins, losses and adrenalin from all of the day’s sporting events. If you were to watch that and only that, your understanding of sports as a whole would undoubtedly– but wrongly– be that sports are always fast-paced and exciting. You’d miss the time-outs, bloopers, strategy and the mundane in-between times. So when young people watch short porn clips, without any critical information, they may think that intimacy in relationships is all about the action and excitement – with none of the awkward, funny, mundane in-betweens.

Learning about sexuality by watching porn online is like learning about sports by watching the sports highlights – it’s just that, the highlights. So what happens then when those same young people enter into relationships with real live people and their experiences don’t line up to what they’ve seen online?

It’s questions like this that we grapple with at the YWCA Metro Vancouver. The easy access to porn on the net via smart phones, tablets and computers, coupled with the fact that sexualization contributes to violence against women, further show that we need to shift the needle for a safer and more equitable society.

We’ve created a growing list of resources for parents to aid them in conversations with their children about topics like online pornography, media literacy and hypermasculinity. And, as I learned this week at the Gail Dines event, her organization Culture Reframed also provides a plethora of useful, free tools for talking to your kids about porn.

So whether you are in the fight to abolish all porn or you lean a little more left and desire more regulation on the industry, we can all agree we need to keep talking about it, including to our children in the hopes that we can cultivate more health, happiness and safety in their relationships and world.