Roundtable Discussion on Issues Related to Sexuality by Art Bramford (Fuller Youth Ministry – 4 Different Discussions)
Via Media X2: Responding to Pornography
Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this first installment of our roundtable, we’ll be discussing how to help parents and leaders address the issue of online pornography.
Fuller Youth Institute (FYI): In dealing with the issue of porn, a lot of the advice given to parents seems to lean towards either total prohibition (e.g. how to get your child to never view porn), or the need to accept it as inevitable—young men are doing this so we need to emphasize restricting their viewing as much as possible. We’re wondering how you negotiate between those two perspectives, and what advice you might share?
Mike Park: Part of the reality of having an adolescent is that it’s almost impossible to regulate all the content they might be viewing, particularly outside the home. Even if they don’t have access to porn at home, that doesn’t mean they’ll never be exposed to it. I encourage parents to create safeguards and boundaries inside the home (keep the computer in an open area, utilize Internet security software, etc.) but also to help their son or daughter to make good choices when (and not if) they get confronted with porn or anything else that is harmful or destructive.
Billy Jack Blankenship: Most of my interactions are with older teens and emerging adults on college campuses. I will say that the ease and multiple ways students can access pornography is simply overwhelming. We need to stop pretending that parental control is a true option—if a student wants to view porn, they can.
I think it is valid to acknowledge that it is a normal, natural thing to be drawn to such overt sexual content. But that being said, settling for “well, it is inevitable” is also falling short of our responsibility of raising healthy adults in this area of their lives. While teens have such easy and multifaceted ways to access porn, it doesn’t mean they have to look, or fixate on it, or even have to want to look.
Adam McLane: I wouldn’t say I fall in the inevitability category, but I do fall in the grace category. Even a casual user of the Internet is going to stumble upon (accidentally or purposefully) porn. In our house the rule is simple: no one, parents included, may use an Internet-connected device in a private space of the house.
Brad Howell: I like to suggest a different model of thinking along the lines of what Adam has described—that the Internet is public space. By embracing this mental model, connected devices do not belong in private spaces, such as bedrooms.
Of course this doesn’t solve everything, but the benefit to kids is that it helps them learn how to navigate in a world that desperately wants porn to be normative.
I think the claims of universal porn use among young men (and its growing acceptance and use among young women) primarily serves porn producers who want to normalize it, and organizations that profit from scaring parents. Neither serve our youth.
FYI: Regarding the ubiquitous nature of X-rated content, one of the popular solutions we hear about are content filters and blockers. The effectiveness of these is debatable and they can raise trust issues between parents and teens. Weigh the pros and cons for us based on your experience with teens and parents.
Matt: I think you could say that much of the role for parents is knowing how, what, and when to “filter” and “content block” the world on behalf of our children. I’m not sure why doing this electronically would be a different issue. However, if buying a filter is a way for parents to feel like they’ve addressed a problem while avoiding actually talking about sex and sexuality with their children, then filters and blockers are much less helpful.
Adam: Filters are useful for one thing and one thing only: accidentally stumbling upon porn. That being said, we don’t use them in our house and I discourage others to because when a person buys a tool to parent for them or instead of them, it never works. If your teenager (or an adult) wants to look at porn, a filter isn’t going to stop them.
Mike: Like most preventative measures, filters and blockers work best when introduced early so that they become a regular part of a child’s Internet experience at home. Young people are naturally going to be curious and resist boundaries and guardrails, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in place. If Internet filters create a tension due to lack of trust, it may be symptomatic of a deeper issue that goes beyond just Internet use. But a filter can’t be seen as the end-all-be-all solution. It’s a safeguard, but it can only do so much.
Brad: As awkward as it is, families need to talk through what protections make sense for your household. Unilaterally slapping teens with blockers frustrates teens and reduces family solidarity.
FYI: Good point. We assume that young people are happy to stumble upon some of this content, but researchers have found that many do not like it at all. It makes them extremely uncomfortable.
Brad: It is easy for adults to fail to realize how many Internet-enabled devices young people actually own. As kids get older, the importance of negotiating any filters and devices increases for all of us.
Stay tuned for our next post in which our guests will talk specifically about how to include young women when we talk as families and ministries about porn and how it affects the Body of Christ.
Via Media X3: Talking about pornography with young women
Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this second installment of our roundtable, we’ll be discussing how to help parents and leaders interact with young women about pornography.
Fuller Youth Institute: We were surprised to find that most religiously affiliated young women interviewed by researchers about porn spoke very negatively about it, but not as morally or religiously offensive. They described it strictly in terms of being degrading towards women. In your experience, would you say that churches typically exclude young women from discussions about porn? How do you approach the fact that it affects both genders, even if the majority of women do not view porn?
Annie Neufeld: Most of the time when we talk about pornography in middle or high school ministry we separate girls and boys. In our effort to make an awkward conversation a little less awkward, we separate genders. I think this is appropriate in middle school, but we could perhaps push the “awkward threshold” a bit in high school, and certainly in college.
Adam McLane: I think the days of separating male and females to talk about sex and/or porn is quickly fading. I’ve found both sexes are equally open to talking about it, it just takes the adult to break the ice. Teenagers totally grasp that it is worth talking and thinking about how porn is degrading to women, and also that it is a social justice issue, since a lot of porn is sexually exploitative.
Annie: I also feel that our young women approach it as something incredibly perverse, disgusting, and “other”—which sets them up not to have much grace for their male counterparts. When we talk about porn, I want the males to hear how their viewing of porn affects women; how it is demeaning towards women. However, I don’t know if our young women know why it is demeaning to them—they don’t usually stick around in the “awkwardness” of the conversation to get to why it hurts so much. We should reframe this biblically: porn is offensive because it takes image bearers and makes them objects. That is true for both young men and young women who are looking at porn.
Billy Jack Blankenship: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that. This past school year we had two college-aged Christian women share their stories, and talk openly about their addictions to porn. It was refreshing to hear their honesty and authenticity, and it was very eye opening that this is not just a male issue. Churches do typically exclude women from these discussions, and when they are included it is to talk about “how they are viewed/portrayed.” There is a very real issue of degrading women, but porn is degrading of everyone!
Annie: Exactly, I want the males and females in the community to hear how their viewing of porn affects the whole. They are members of the Body of Christ, what they do affects the whole community. When one part suffers, we all suffer. Sexuality is meant to be personal but not private—our sexual lives affect everyone else in our community. It’s not just up to “me and Jesus.”
Brad Howell: This reminds of how, in the Victorian era, brothels existed because sex was considered moral only for procreation, and there was a prevailing misconception that men just couldn’t handle themselves. So brothels were viewed with distaste, but tolerated. I think we’re doing a similar thing with porn in our culture today—disdain but toleration.
FYI: When sex is a private issue, it is easy to have disdain for certain things but still tolerate them since they don’t seem to involve us personally. When it is a community issue, we all get more invested.
Billy Jack: I think porn, and our culture more broadly, can easily train us to look at others as objects to be used for our own personal gain of pleasure or power—without thinking about what it means to be in true, committed, loving relationships. It is not about creating rules that dictate whether or not to look at something, but rather thinking about who we are in our relationships.
Matt Laidlaw: But I have to say, it is probably difficult for youth pastors to know how to address the ways porn impacts both genders because the majority of youth pastors are men. Only one side of the experience and conversation is represented by the person leading the conversation, which can also feel degrading towards women in a number of ways if that speaker is always a man.
Mike Park: There is a significant amount of shame associated with viewing porn for both young men and women, but I would venture to guess the shame factor is higher for young women because they are supposed to be offended by it. We are finding that more and more young women in college are open about talking about it, and a truly safe environment is essential to allow those conversations to happen.
Via Media X4: When teenagers think porn teaches them about real sex
Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this third installment of our roundtable, we’ll be discussing how to address the false belief among young people that pornography is real sex education.
Fuller Youth Institute: Researchers have found that a lot of young men see viewing pornography “as education about proper sexual technique” despite the fact that what is depicted in porn is not realistic, normal, or healthy. Ironically, a recent study found that porn, in effect, ruins a couple’s sex life—a higher frequency of porn use among young men was “related to greater gender role conflict, more avoidant and anxious attachment styles, poorer relationship quality, and less sexual satisfaction.”
Fuller Youth Institute: Do you think it is possible to tactfully address or combat this misperception that porn is somehow educational during adolescence rather than waiting until adulthood, when it is more appropriate to talk about, but the damage may have already been done?
Adam McLane: We’ve talked about this in my small group with high school guys. The sad reality is that porn is about the closest thing they’ve had to sex education—schools have outdated and uncomfortable sex ed and their parents are absolutely not talking about it. So my small group is about ten guys including two married adult men, and we have “myth-busting” moments for sure! More than once my co-leader or I have said, “Um, if you really tried that you would either hurt yourself, or your girlfriend would kill you for trying it.” It is worth noting that the young guys in my life have absolutely no problem talking about what they’ve seen in porn or their own sexuality, which can be shocking.
Billy Jack Blankenship: Yeah, I’ve had some of the most honest conversations ever with early college students. I think the only way to enlighten older teens about how ridiculous porn is, is to talk with openness, with clarity, and talking specifics. In the many conversations I’ve had, I have never had a student, male or groups of females, tell me I am being too honest or candid. My best piece of advice would be to locate a trusted adult outside of the family that a teen knows, loves, and respects, and ask that adult to journey with teens on these issues—and that is applicable to lots of tough issues, not just porn. This is where the value of intergenerational relationships is so vital. Find people who can open the door to talk about and laugh about the pure awkwardness and messiness of sex, and point out how unrealistic and downright fake porn really is.
Annie Neufeld: I feel that in adolescence we can dismantle the mentality that “sex is a craft I can learn how to do independently of a loving relationship.” Watching porn to learn how to “do it” creates rote, detached, impersonal sex—and this is both unfulfilling and not how we were created to live. I think it is appropriate to set a high standard for sex and talk about this with adolescents by talking about how God created sex to be good by creating intimacy, connection, wonder, and commitment. Watching porn to “improve your skills” doesn’t belong in the category of Christian sex because Christian sex always involves honoring another person in marriage rather than simply “doing it right.”
Mike Park: I think it’s absolutely necessary to talk about this misperception during adolescence. Helping young men and women understand sex in the context of a committed and mutually-giving relationship between a husband and wife is vital. A lot of the young men that I talk to understand that sex is more than just a physical act but don’t yet fully understand the emotional and spiritual implications. Helping young men to understand these aspects of a sexual relationship gives them the chance to see sex beyond the faulty façade of pornography.
Brad Howell: I also want to underscore that we are talking about spiritual disciplines here. When I was a teen, and during the early years of my youth ministry, the message to teens was typically an in your face: “Don’t do it! Promise us! Here, sign this card to show us you mean it!” Spiritual disciplines are about training, and practicing responses that demonstrate trust in God and not ourselves so that when we face the real thing our instincts are rooted in trusting God. There is this common myth about the young man’s awkward first sexual experience that seems to warrant this excuse of wanting to educate yourself in sexual technique with porn. That is really steeped in a ‘trusting yourself’ versus a ‘trusting God’ mentality. Parents and leaders need to be very strategic about helping young people to develop spiritual practices that train for the kind of committed, mutually respectful relationships that we hope for them to experience.
FYI: Before we move on to discuss sexting in our next post, we want to note two things researchers have found that effectively reduce the likelihood or frequency with which a young person will view porn: religiosity and good self-esteem. When young people are part of a network of folks who challenge them to higher standards of behavior while also encouraging and affirming them, they are less likely to be drawn to porn. Digital technology has led to a proliferation of porn in recent years, but it is important to remember that parents and adult leaders can and do have a positive impact on the young people in their lives!
Via Media X5: Sexting
Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this installment we’ll explore the conversations these leaders have had with parents and young people about the more recent phenomenon known as sexting.
Fuller Youth Institute: There is a lot of parental concern about sexting, but recent research suggests that the percentage of young people who have appeared in, created, or received sexually suggestive images is about 10%; and for explicit messages around 1%. Then again, as we explained in an earlier post [link to the mini-series intro], it is tricky to discern how much confidence to put into research on sensitive topics like this.
What has been your experience with sexting, both in terms of it happening among young people you know and also in the perceptions of how pervasive it is?
Mike Park: Most of the young people that I talk to (and this could confirm the premise of the question) say that sexting does happen but that they don’t do it themselves.
Matt Laidlaw: Similarly, in my conversations with students, all of them are “aware” of sexting but most haven’t participated in it. That said, I have talked to a number of young women who have experienced sexting and bullying simultaneously—male students were manipulating their friendships with these girls in order to receive inappropriate pictures from them. For these girls, this bullying impacted how they viewed themselves for a long time. They hated that these guys talked to them like that, and hated that they “gave in” and sent the boys what they wanted. If we want to talk about sexting, we need to keep talking more broadly about identity, forgiveness, and healthy relationships with our young men and women.
FYI: You’re right about the premise of the question; people tend to read statements like “10% of teens” as one in every ten teens, but phenomena like this happen more or less in different contexts. So one school might have 0% of students sexting whereas another could have 30%. It varies quite a bit.
Brad Howell: The perception of sexting’s pervasiveness is much higher than it actually is, and some adults talk as if apps like Snapchat exist only so teens can share naked pictures of themselves without getting caught. That being said, this 1% stat seems low to me. It may be true if it includes a wider age range of adolescents, as sexting is more of a high school issue. It gets going around 15 years old, and the rates increase until about age 17, where it seems to stabilize and remains consistent into adulthood. Either way, mid-adolescents understand that they have the ability to affect others, but do not have the life experience to understand the ripple effects (or relational consequences) of those actions.
Adam McLane: I think it is important to frame sexting by looking back at history and recognizing that there have always been versions of this type of adolescent behavior. Yes, a percentage of teenagers share sexually explicit stuff. But not all of them do—the perception seems to be that if you leave a teenager alone with their phone they will pull down their pants and snap a photo! While I don’t think sexting is a good thing, I tend to see it as “normal, deviant behavior.” In other words, the same kids who are exchanging sexually explicit images today are the exact same characters who tried to get a girl to take her top off at a high school party in the 1990s. That said, I think there needs to be a line of delineation between self-created explicit images versus finding explicit images online and sharing them. The latter seems more common than the former, much more common than 10% in my opinion.
FYI: Here are a few additional insights on sexting:
- Since 2009, a number of state governments have passed laws that address sexting. These laws are aimed primarily at child pornography, but most do not allow for two minors to voluntarily share explicit images. Parents and leaders should inquire as to what the law is in their state and make sure young people are aware.
- As we have said often throughout this series: online behavior tends to be very consistent with offline behavior. Parents should gauge their concern about sexting according to their concern about how sexually active their son or daughter is offline.