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Online Sex Education Parents' Porn Fears Exaggerated, Experts Say

Access to online pornography is changing the way young people learn about sex, a trend that has many parents worried. But German experts believe many of their fears are unfounded. Instead of trying to prevent porn consumption, parents should focus on teaching healthy sexual values, they say.

Carl was 13 the first time he watched porn. His best friend showed him a video on the website Youporn that showed a woman being penetrated inside a tent. The boys giggled a bit, finding the situation embarrassing.

A couple weeks later, Carl decided he needed his own Internet connection. Until then, he'd only been allowed to surf the Web in his mother's study, where anyone could interrupt him at any time. So he got hold of a WiFi stick and started watching porn several times a week. The videos he watched taught him that women moan like crazy and are always aroused, and he found them very beautiful. Carl himself had not yet kissed a girl.

These days, it's almost impossible for parents to prevent their children from learning about sex long before they have their own sexual experiences. Ninety-eight percent of adolescents have Internet access. They have profiles on Facebook, they flirt in chat rooms, and they watch porn. Nearly half of all 13-year-olds have seen a pornographic video; for 14- to 17-year-olds, it's almost 80 percent.

The World Wide Web has transformed teenage culture, and it defines the topics parents need to talk with their children about. And we're not just talking about the birds and the bees anymore; we're talking about frank discussions of sex in general, including pornography.

Separating Fact from Fiction

Corinna Rückert, Carl's mother, takes a laid-back attitude. "It used to be that boys would sneak forbidden magazines out from under dad's bed," she says. "Now they get the material online."

Rückert, a 46-year-old from the northwestern German city of Lüneburg, holds a PhD in cultural studies. She has done research on pornography herself and now writes erotic novels. One of her works is called "Lustschreie" ("Screams of Passion"). When she read a magazine article about teenagers' experiences with pornography, she simply raised the topic with her son.

"I watch some," Carl admitted. Having that particular conversation with his mother was certainly a little uncomfortable, but then he learned some interesting things. "My mother told me that the positions they do are all just for show," he says. Rückert explained to her son that he shouldn't worry if his first girlfriend didn't moan loudly during sex and that the actors in porn movies use lots of lubrication.

"It's important to make clear to kids that porn is fiction and real-life sex is completely different," Rückert says. She sees this as part of the media literacy all parents should teach their children. "Of course, a lot of people find it difficult to talk about sex," she says. But she believes it essential to teach children, at the very least, to think critically about what they see in the media, and that this should be done before they reach puberty. "This is a responsibility you shouldn't shirk," she adds.

The greatest challenge, Rückert says, is not to lose contact with children as they go through puberty. "Maybe I annoy Carl sometimes with my discussions," she says. "When he says, Mom, I've talked enough, then I leave him alone." She knows that defining an identity separate from one's parents is an important part of healthy development and that Carl has a right to privacy.

Misplaced Parental Fears

Rückert didn't fly off the handle when she found out her son was secretly surfing the Internet in his bedroom. "Carl explained to me why it was so important to him," she says, "and, in the end, we agreed on certain times of day. If he doesn't stick to the agreement, I turn the router off."

Corinna Rückert is part of the generation of parents who grew up in the 1970s "with drugs and hippie music," as she says. She lived in a commune in the countryside before moving into a row house with a garden in Lüneburg.

Rückert sometimes finds parent-teacher conferences "hair-raising." There are mothers and fathers there, she says, who want to prevent their children from coming in contact with pornography at any cost, demanding safeguards and bans. "That's like abolishing forks and knives just because we can't teach our children table manners," Rückert says. "I have to wonder if these parents have forgotten their own adolescence."

Pornography can even have an educational function, she says, in that parents don't "have to explain the technical side of how sex works to kids now." In the digital age, Rückert explains, it's less about the traditional explanation of sex and more about "imparting sexual values" in terms of how people interact in relationships.

Many parents, she says, have absolutely no idea what their children are doing online and "that creates vague anxieties." It only adds to these fears when the media talk about "Generation Porn," "sexual depravity" and "vulgarization."

Not the Cause of Bad Behavior

Hamburg-based sex researcher Gunter Schmidt calls such diagnoses "phantasms of the old" and "moralistic fear-mongering." It's absolutely normal, he says, for adolescents to be interested in everything related to sex, including porn. What love is and how relationships work, on the other hand, are things they learn by example from their environment. The decisive factor, Schmidt asserts, is the parents' example, how they treat themselves and their bodies and how they interact as a couple.

"There certainly are also adolescents who have an unhealthy relationship to sex," Rückert says, "but the main problem isn't porn, but social difficulties."

When adolescents are incapable of establishing a real relationship or only know how to gain acceptance through sex, Rückert says, then something went wrong before they even reached puberty. "They were neglected as children and have low self-esteem," she suggests, adding that, in cases like these, porn might actually reinforce inaccurate ideas about reality. "For socially isolated men, pornography might serve as a trigger to violent behavior," Rückert says, "but it's never the cause."

Early Determined 'Love Maps'

Most sex researchers now agree that the structure of sexual desire develops earlier, during childhood and the prepubescent years. Experiences in nonsexual areas also have an effect -- the development of early relationships, the way parents handle children's needs, and the attitude children learn toward their own bodies. Even in childhood, individual "love maps" form, which inform what kind of people we later fall in love with and what sexual practices we prefer.

"A teenager watching porn isn't a blank slate to be engraved with some typical porn script," sex researcher Schmidt explains. Rather, he says, teenagers are drawn mostly to the types of pornography that speak to preferences they have already developed. If adolescents see videos that show sexual violence, it doesn't mean they themselves will become sadomasochists or rapists. Most of them are disgusted by such depictions.

That was Carl's experience when curiosity led him to click on a video that showed several men violently forcing a woman to have sex. "It was totally disgusting how they treated the woman," he says. "I turned it off right away."

Does Porn Really Hurt Development?

Still, there has been little research into how watching porn at a young age actually affects adolescents' sexuality, ideas and fantasies. One Croatian study found that consumption of explicit videos in puberty disturbed neither later sexual satisfaction nor the ability to be close to a partner. Dutch research, on the other hand, found a connection between adolescent porn consumption and seeing women as sex objects.

Here, too, Corinna Rückert considers real-life role models more important. As a mother, she strives to provide her son with a positive image of women. "I show him that women are tough and by no means inferior to men," she says.

Rückert herself once directed a porn movie, one meant to appeal especially to women, and she says the image of women presented in mainstream porn actually concerns her less than that the image of men. "The woman is shown as a whole person, even if it's as an exaggerated, play-acted representation of lust," she says. Men, on the other hand, are often only depicted as pure sex objects, reduced to nothing more than their genitals.

Ignorance, Confusion and Curiosity

In German classrooms, at least, social workers have generally been finding more confusion in recent years than vulgarization. It's a sunny Tuesday in the southwestern city of Freiburg and the team from ProFamilia, a nonprofit organization dealing with sexual issues, is on its way to an appointment with Class 7b at the Droste-Hülshoff-Gymnasium, a university track high school. The ProFamilia car reads "safe in traffic" -- with the German word for "traffic" also meaning "intercourse" -- and the bag of its team's supplies includes a stuffed model known as the "velvet vagina."

The girls in Class 7b wear hot pants and have braces. The boys look nervous. When the social worker announces an "opening exercise," the whole class bursts out laughing. Was puberty ever any different?

Later, the students are divided into discussion groups by gender. One 13-year-old girl wants to know how to act during sex. Another asks if it's necessary to shave beforehand. "Shaving pubic hair is a big topic," says Kristina Staufert from ProFamilia's Stuttgart branch. "Once a girl came to me very upset because she'd found a hair growing in her armpit," she continues. "She'd never seen a woman with body hair and thought it meant she was turning into a man."

Girls watch porn more sporadically and, in general, out of curiosity. "Many of them are fascinated and disgusted at the same time," Staufert says, "and the images make them feel insecure." Then they want to know which sexual practices are normal and if they really have to do everything they see. But when she has a boyfriend, one girl says, he shouldn't watch porn.

"For girls, social networks and chat rooms are more interesting than pornography," says Andreas Ritter, another ProFamilia social worker in the southern city of Augsburg. "They want to try things out, test their feminine appeal and meet boys." Online, they can make initial forays into these activities without the risk of getting hurt.

The Danger of the Forbidden

Another 13-year-old -- let's call her "Nina" -- also likes to visit chat rooms. She's the tallest girl in 7b. She has a model-like figure, wears a short top and has long, blonde hair. She's noticed that men, even older men, look at her differently than they did before. She was recently at the computer with her friends and logged in to Chatroulette, a flirting platform open to the public. She turned on the webcam so the man they were chatting with could see them. First, he wanted to see their feet. Then he wanted the girls to kiss each other. That's when they ended the chat session.

Nina says she would never meet up with someone she only knew online. She's also taken the pictures of herself in a bikini off Facebook because she was getting too many messages from strangers.

"The allure of doing something forbidden is considerable," Ritter says. "Girls want to please. They get that recognition online, and they don't want to lose it." According to a 2005 study, nearly 40 percent of all adolescents in chat rooms are asked sexual questions at some point and, again and again, girls give out their telephone numbers. "Girls need to learn to say no," the social worker adds.

Waiting for Sex

There's one point on which all the girls in 7b agree: They want to wait to have sex, and they want the first time to be with a steady boyfriend. Trust is especially important to them.

That puts these girls squarely in line with the statistics, both in terms of the values they espouse and the age at which they want to have sex. A study published by Germany's Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA) in September 2010 showed that young people were becoming sexually active later than they were just a few years earlier. Most adolescents had sex for the first time between their 16th and 17th birthdays, while a third did so even later.

Although many of them regularly masturbate while watching porn, the same holds true for boys. "The boys are under a lot of pressure to perform," Ritter says. They want to know how big their penises should be since the actors they see in porn movies are considerably more endowed than most 13-year-olds. Likewise, anal sex is almost always a topic for the boys ProFamilia works with, since it's part of the standard porn repertoire.

Fantasy Meets Reality

Still, Ritter says, the boys' most pressing concern hasn't changed in years: How can they satisfy a woman?

"I learned some things from porn," Carl says, "like licking, for example." But he says he's also found out that not all girls like it.

Carl is now 17, a tall boy with an Ashton Kutcher look and a mop of brown hair. He also had sex for the first time at 16, putting him right in line with the average.

Nowadays, Carl says, he doesn't watch porn very often. "It just got boring." He finds sex in real life far more exciting, if sometimes confusing.

"I knew doggy style from the Internet and I really wanted to try it," he says. "In movies, you see the woman from the front, and it's pretty hot. But in real life, you just kind of have this back in front of you."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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