Verity Johnson: Parents, for God's sake don't talk to your kids about sex

Verity Johnson: "Young people are dealing with things that, trust me, you don't want to think about."
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Verity Johnson: "Young people are dealing with things that, trust me, you don't want to think about."

OPINION: Someone asked me the other day what it's like being part of "the porn generation". They make it sound as though I'm walking around with fake nails, fake boobs and constantly making fake orgasm noises that sound somewhere between a pneumatic drill and a midnight fight between the neighbour's tom cats.

But I get what they're asking.

As a child of the mid-90s, I and my fellow nippers came of age in the age of meltdown Britney, high-riding your thong over low-rise jeans, and free, omnipresent online porn. By 14, I knew exactly what used to be illegal in New Zealand and, by 16, I knew several girls who lost their virginity that way. And by 20 I'd started having sympathetic conversations with girlfriends whose partners physically couldn't have sex because of the medical implications of porn addiction.

I'd also seen the (slowly) rising tide of concern in the press about young people my age who'd grown up watching porn. And now parents have started tentatively asking me, "Should I be worried…?"

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Yes, you should be. Just look at the statistics. Not only is there the fact that anyone with a phone can see porn, there's a problem with age of access. Over half of under-14s in New Zealand have watched porn, and reports are consistently showing those as young as 11 seeking help for addiction.

However, what concerned parents should not do is take the No 1 piece of advice out there and "talk to your kids about sex".

Look, I get why we say that parents should shoulder the sticky mantle of talking to their kids about birds, bees and why your 16-year-old really needs to go hospital to treat the injuries she's sustained from sex even though she's too embarrassed to tell you. (Yes, this is a thing. Ask a GP.)

Parents supposedly love their kids, have strong relationships with them and are ideally placed to have tough but necessary conversations. Well, no. Even if you have a strong connection with loving parents, which is much rarer than you think, that does not mean parents are good at talking about sex.

Just because someone has sex, doesn't mean they have the eloquence, confidence and empathy to talk about it to another person with any degree of insight or usefulness. They're two completely separate sets of skills.

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Never mind choosing to talk about a subject matter so inherently difficult as sex.

Yes, there are some super-hip parents out there who are like, totally, like down with talking about sex with their kids, man. And there are also a lot of lovely, caring parents out there who are utterly embarrassed about the subject. Perhaps they were never talked to about sex, perhaps they were never taught any emotional vocabulary to express these complex matters, or perhaps they are just squeamish.

I would certainly rather burn in hell and be reincarnated as a headless gummy bear before saying the words "premature erectile dysfunction" to my mum.

So honestly, it's highly unrealistic. Besides, even if we were going to do this, then this strategy is about 15 years out of date. The thing that I've realised after extensive chats with parents is that their knowledge and expectations of what sex involves are wildly different to young people's experiences of it.

Young people are dealing with things that, trust me, you don't want to think about. When it comes to the things we're dealing with, they're utterly foreign to parents because most parents would never want to do such things to someone they love. So they've never even thought about them, let alone done them themselves. And even if parents did want to know, so much of it is so intimidatingly awful to talk about that they wouldn't even know where to start the conversation.

I mean that in the least patronising way possible, parents, but you never had to deal with this type of sex centred around violence, aggression, public humiliation and rape. The most "out there" stuff Playboy or even Hustler mags did was maybe sticking a candle in a surprising location. But now, 88 per cent of the "most popular" porn on the internet involves acts of violence such as slapping, hitting, choking, beating etc, of which 94 per cent is performed on women.

And that's the normal stuff. Not the "out there" stuff.

What parents actually need to do is call in the experts. We're no longer in an era for enthusiastic amateur, "just respect yourself and it'll be fine" advice. We need people who understand the dark and the freaky. And the upside of the porn era is that a lot of eloquent, empathetic sex professionals have started talking about exactly that.

So parents, find columnists like Dan Savage, podcasts like RNZ's Bang! or even helpful millennials like me who'll point you in the right direction. Find the professionals, read the professionals, and then leave copies of their books/articles/podcast series in strategically easy to discover places around the house. Trust me, your kids will find them.

And then will your kids be OK? Well, it's the best option you've got.

 - Stuff

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