The Information Void: Boys, Parents and Porn

In order to make sure boys aren't relying on pornography to develop their sexual values, we all need to shift from "The Talk."
11/26/2012 11:27 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

Boys want to know about sex and sexuality. Although we often act as if boys already know it all, they are not born with extensive knowledge of sex or sexuality. Research tells us that nearly all teenage boys (and most teenage girls) have seen online pornography. The first viewings are often accidental, but about half of boys say that learning about sex was one of the reasons they started to watch intentionally. Television, music videos and movies are only suggestive. If you want to see sex and not just people under bed sheets, pornography is your only option.

Pornography probably is not the root of all evil currently afflicting teenage boys, but I do think repeated early exposure prevents boys from developing a healthy sexuality. Among other things, porn subtly teaches its viewers that appearance is more important than personality, only some types of bodies are attractive and relationships are unimportant.

One way to help boys develop a healthy sexuality is to start talking to them before they start looking for the information. These early conversations can be about relationships without necessarily addressing sex. The key components of a dating relationship -- honesty, trust, sharing, loyalty and connection -- also appear in other relationships: friends, family, sports teams, employment and many other areas of life. Conversations about the symbolic meaning of early sexual behaviors such as kissing or holding hands are also appropriate at this time, especially during those first glimmers of crushes and "dating" that occur around 5th grade.

We expect boys to learn about sex from their parents and most make the effort; about seventy-five to ninety percent of parents say they've talked to their teenagers about sex. However, not quite half of teenage boys say they've had The Talk with their parents. At the simplest level, this means there are a lot of no-impact conversations.

Among the boys who remember having The Talk, detailed analyses paint a pretty grim picture. Most boys get the "three don'ts": don't have sex, don't get anyone pregnant and don't get a disease. These conversations are short -- typically less than ten minutes. Sexual ethics, sexual decision making, contraception and disease prevention are rarely addressed.

Parents don't typically talk to boys about dating or relationships, so boys don't hear about topics like how to tell if someone likes you or what to do when that relationship encounters difficulties. Nor do parents talk to their sons about the connections between sexual behavior and relationships, even though most boys have most of their sexual activity within relationships.

The result is that most boys' parents leave them in an informational void. Schools typically reinforce this void; only about half of schools even offer sexual education and those that do tend to offer a limited curriculum. They provide teens with (mostly) accurate biological knowledge and information on contraceptive failure rates. This is important, but it doesn't really help kids understand what sex means or how it works.

The void leaves boys with lots of questions and few answers. Unlike other conversations parents have with boys -- about values, educational and career goals and general well-being -- parents usually leave it to boys to respond with questions after "The Talk," giving boys primary responsibility for their sexual development. So if you're a teenage boy and you want to know about sex, where do you turn? Boys understand their parents and their schools aren't sources of help, and online porn is harder to avoid than find. They know their friends are working from the same lack of knowledge. Besides, a guy who tells his buddies that he doesn't know about sex is likely to be teased by his friends, and most teenage boys won't risk that.

Parents are supposed to be their children's first and primary educators, followed by schools. Boys are clear that content is more important than comfort, embarrassment or the gender of a parent, and they want the content. A little embarrassment is one thing, a little "bundle of joy" is quite another.

In order to make sure boys aren't relying on pornography to develop their sexual values, we all need to shift from "The Talk" to facilitating boys' sexual development. We need to start talking to boys about sexuality broadly, discussing relationships and hookups as well as behaviors like kissing and fondling that often precede first sex by a year or two. And we need to start having these conversations before boys begin dating and having their first sexual experiences.