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.

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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."

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