Talking about pornography with young women
Photo by Susan Sermoneta.
This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.
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.