How to Break the Cycle and Raise a Self-Assured Daughter

What’s more important than preparing your daughter to be a good digital citizen is preparing your daughter to be a woman in this world.

Editor’s note: This is the third post in a four-part series about teens, sex, and social media. Read the entire series here


I made a somewhat shocking discovery in our storage room a few weeks ago.

I was looking through a pile of old photographs when – mixed in among the usual family holidays and memorable birthday parties – I found a set of six shots of me posing seductively in a series of sexy outfits. Me in a bikini. Me in a silky top. Me in a tight black skirt and vest with no bra.

I stared at these images with my jaw dropped, feeling as if I’d stumbled across a collection of photos taken without my knowledge. But no, I remember this… We were in my friend’s basement bedroom. Her parents were out. We were 14 years old.

In every one of the photos, I’m wearing a wooden cross necklace, clearly aware of the irony.

Fortunately for me, the internet wasn’t a thing in 1991 and we were taking pictures with a disposable camera, not a smart phone. Maybe I would have sent those photos to a boy I liked. I don’t know. But the fact remains that I had the inclination and curiosity to pose for them.

Take a moment, right now if you can, to recall what it was like to be a teenager discovering your own sexuality. Remember the questions you had, and the various methods you and your friends came up with for answering them. Think about how natural it is to wonder what your body looks like to other people. Isn’t a photograph the best way to find out?

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mother and daughter

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Discovering these photos changed the way I approached this piece. I was filled with compassion for teen girls, and filled with gratitude for my parents, who somehow guided teenage me to a place of relative confidence and fierceness.

Which reminded me – that’s what it’s all about. I was getting distracted as I researched the current technological landscape and how it affects the way our kids experience adolescence. There are some unique considerations because of the state of technology, but what’s more important than preparing your daughter to be a good digital citizen is preparing your daughter to be a woman in this world.

As I discussed in my post on talking to boys about sex, love, and relationships, having the “one big sex talk” doesn’t work. Your daughter won’t experience her sexuality in one fell swoop. It’s a process that begins way before puberty.

Help your daughter build a strong, confident foundation from which to navigate her budding sexuality by modeling these four behaviors.

1 | Positive body image

Studies have shown (over and over again) that a mother has an incredible amount of influence on her daughter’s body image.

One study at the University of Notre Dame found that “direct maternal encouragement of daughters to lose weight is linked to daughters’ development of bulimic symptoms.” To which you might say, “Obviously.” But the study’s abstract also states that “daughters whose mothers merely talk about dieting and body dissatisfaction are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.”

I would never presume to tell you that you need to be 100% happy with your body (I mean, that would be ideal, but I understand self-acceptance is an ever-evolving process). The point is, it’s on us to deal with our shit in private. Do not talk about calorie counting, dieting, or losing weight in front of, or with, your daughter. Period.

Instead, talk to your daughter about healthy eating choices and introduce her to a range of physical activities that might interest her. If you think that ship has sailed, it’s never too late to talk about loving yourself. Teach her what an amazing feat of science and magic her body is – that we are made of the same raw material as the stars.

You may laugh or tell me that I’m barking up the wrong new age tree, but I want to offer this thought anyway: teach your daughter that she is a goddess. Not a queen or a diva, but a beautiful, sensual goddess whose body is to be celebrated. While you’re at it, remind yourself that you’re a goddess, too.

There is equal onus on fathers to consciously avoid using language that objectifies women in front of your daughters (or how about all the time?), and to maintain a closeness with her, even as her body changes through puberty.

Laura Choate, author of “Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture,” says that, “if you have always been affectionate, this is not the time to stop hugging your daughter or to push her off your lap just because she has grown a little (or a lot).” That kind of rejection – no matter how unintentional – can leave a lasting imprint.

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2 | Strong, supportive female friendships

I was a mean girl in junior high. Heavily influenced by the movie “Heathers,” two friends and I called ourselves the Three Blonde Bitches (3BB for short). We weren’t overtly mean, but we certainly thought we were better than other girls and knew how to influence almost any social situation. At the time, it seemed like the best way to be a “strong girl.”

two women friends
Illustration: Katrina Weigand

I wish I had done it all differently. I wish my notion of a strong girl involved lifting other girls up, making friends feel good about themselves, and showing boys that I didn’t rely on their feedback to bolster my self-esteem.

Cattiness – the cornerstone of any mean girl squad – can be described as an evolutionary byproduct of the competition for sexual partners. In modern day terms, it’s just competition. Women and girls are uncomfortable with competition because it’s not something that we’re encouraged to feel or benefit from the way boys typically are. But we experience it anyway, and don’t really know what to do with it. So we snipe. We betray. We lie.

…Until we learn that there is a much better way to deal with our feelings of inadequacy. Once girls and women experience the brilliant force of female support, they will choose it over cattiness every time.

Female friends provide an outlet and a soundboard for those feelings that would otherwise manifest as passive aggression. Even better than that, the support of a close girlfriend has the ability to change the way we see ourselves. Your daughter will see the difference in you – before and after you spend time with your ladies – and understand on a profound level that girls are good for each other.

3 | Respect

How many times have you heard the phrase (dripping with judgment as it is), “No self-respecting girl would ever…”

I loathe the sentiment for all the ways that it’s been used to victim-blame and slut-shame. I also believe there’s a kernel of truth in there.

Modeling self-respect for your daughter is like teaching her about consent, integrity, and strength all at once. She will learn that she has value, that her words matter. Since the understanding that all people are born with inherent worth is a natural outgrowth of self-respect, your daughter will respect other people, too.

Be respectful of your partner, respectful of your own needs, and for the love of God, be respectful of your daughter. This includes respecting her privacy.

Amy Adele Hasinoff, Assistant Professor in the department of communication at the University of Colorado, Denver and author of “Sexting Panic,” explains that digital privacy is also an important consideration.

“Covert monitoring (of your daughter’s texts and social media) sets a really bad example that says, ‘You have no right to privacy. I don’t care about your personal space,’” she says. This is the opposite of respect.

And there’s a larger message coming through. Says Hasinoff, “You’re sending a very dangerous message that there is no privacy in digital information. I think we want to be modeling to kids that, just because something is digital and Facebook’s telling you to share it and Twitter’s telling you to share it, doesn’t mean you should. There’s still an ethical obligation to respect people’s privacy.”

In any area where your daughter may have a reasonable expectation of privacy – her phone, her email, even her bedroom at times – it’s incumbent upon you to provide that privacy.

4 | Advocacy

Advocacy can be an intimidating word. It sounds like something one does for a cause or a struggle; we advocate for things we believe in.

Well, I have no doubt that you believe in your daughter. You believe that she deserves respect just like her male counterparts. She should have the freedom to be herself without ridicule or bullying. She is your cause.

As much as I wish it wasn’t so, we still live in a misogynist culture – particularly when it comes to female sexuality. Girls are routinely given the message that they should be chaste and humble, but not too chaste and humble; that they can be one of two things – a prude or a slut.

If your teenage daughter is caught sexting, do not punish her. Have a conversation about it. Ask her why she did it and explain why it’s not a good idea. Help her find safe, healthy ways to explore her sexuality. That’s advocacy.

If your daughter is being slut-shamed for that sext, or for the way she dresses, something she said, or something that someone else invented about her – MAKE IT STOP! Her school may not intervene, her friends may do nothing, and – saddest of all – your daughter may feel powerless to fight it. It is up to you.

Furthermore, if your daughter is contributing to the slut-shaming of another girl, you need to become an advocate for that girl. There are too many examples (because even one is too many) of girls being relentlessly harassed by other girls – sometimes, tragically, to the point of committing suicide.

Hasinoff says, “It’s very easy for parents to think of their teenage girls as potential victims. They feel like their kids are vulnerable… I think the best thing parents could do is think of it as their job to make sure that their kids don’t perpetrate these horrible violations – that they don’t slut-shame their classmates.”

She goes on to say, “That’s the moral and ethical training that I think parents should be giving their kids, rather than, ‘Don’t sext.’… If all you tell them is ‘don’t sext,’ you’re setting them up for a lot of problems and you’re not solving any of the issues.”

There is a lot of messed up shit that happens when it comes to girls and sexuality. Tune your radar into this realm and be prepared to fight when you see the double standard in play. By advocating for your daughter now, you’re teaching her how to do it herself for the rest of her life.

You can change the world for your daughter 

Dr. Christiane Northrup, a world-renowned OB/GYN and author of “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom,” has said that, “every daughter contains her mother and all the women who came before her.”

I just love this powerful visual of my daughter embodying the grit, humor, sadness, and fear of every woman. To think that we have it all somewhere inside our cells and can access whatever emotion or experience we need to inform our reaction to any situation we find ourselves in – it feels good to me.

It’s also daunting as hell, isn’t it? Speaking as a mother who tends to get caught up in the details (Shit – did I remember to put her tap shoes in her backpack? What will we do if we don’t have her tap shoes? I’m the worst!), thinking about writing this piece has caused me to take several giant steps back and consider the whole picture.

When I judge myself, I judge my daughter. When I look at my belly, no longer the defined mid-section of a 25-year-old yoga instructor, and think, “Gross,” I lay that feeling at my daughter’s feet. When my sweet, wonderful mother calls herself stupid for forgetting to pack her toothbrush, my daughter feels the weight of those words.

It’s not fair. She didn’t do anything wrong. But you see, neither did I. All of this judgment and criticism is learned behavior. When I was a kid going to Catholic mass, I would keep my lips closed during the part of the service when the congregation speaks the phrase, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

But WHY am I not worthy?, seven-year-old me thought. What did I do wrong?

Nothing, sweetheart. You’ve done nothing wrong. It’s just a phrase from a book written by men who were trying to control a whole lot of people. People are easier to control when you convince them that they lack worth.

And that’s what our culture has done to generations of women. The words change slightly, we gain a little ground now and then, but the underlying (heteronormative) belief that women exist primarily to be tools for male sexual pleasure, and to reproduce and care for their offspring, persists.

But you can make a promise right now that it ends with you.

Boys Will Be the Boys We Teach Them to Be

Our culture consistently fails to give boys the credit they deserve when it comes to love, sex, and relationships.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series about teens, sex, and social media. Read the entire series here


When we say, “boys will be boys,” what are we actually talking about?

That phrase, repeated on the playground when your toddler throws sand in his buddy’s face, or when your tween son discovers online porn, is a lazy excuse. What’s more: it’s harmful. It reinforces a set of low-standard stereotypes that perpetuate dangerously misogynistic values and cause our sons to be ill-equipped for the full human experience.

The truth is, boys will be the boys we teach them to be. 

One of the most important challenges we face as parents is to dismantle traditional notions of masculinity. We need to encourage our sons to experience and express a broad range of emotions, and to seek out loving partners and close friends. 

And as it turns out, that’s what they want.

A 2009 survey conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 95% of respondents (1,200 boys, ages 15-22) would rather have sex with a girlfriend or someone he loves than with “a random girl.”

For the purposes of this discussion, can we just call that every boy? And can we let that sink in for a moment?

Your son would rather have sex with a girlfriend than with some random girl, which is the exact opposite of the common stereotype of teenage boys. Most sex ed curricula in the U.S. teach to the negative stereotype, talking to boys about erections and ejaculations instead of love and intimacy.

Our culture consistently fails to give boys the credit they deserve when it comes to love, sex, and relationships. We normalize behaviors and attitudes that are not, in fact, the norm. 

boyswillbetheboys
Illustration: Katrina Weigand

Stay Connected

If all these boys are longing for intimate relationships, why aren’t they talking about it? Why don’t we know about this?

The answer, says Amy Schalet, associate professor of sociology at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, may lie with our cultural tendency to “dichotomize… We put all the love side of things on the girls and the lust side on boys.” 

This, in turn, informs a lifetime of education — formal and informal, conscious and unconscious – that leads our boys to internalize a fairly specific set of expectations; expectations that I would argue are actually limitations, and can have a dramatic impact on how your son carries himself in relationships and online.

Schalet, whose book, “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex,” explores differences between American and Dutch attitudes towards adolescent sexuality, explains that American parents tend to let sex “become a wedge in (parent-child) relationships that are often quite close, up until puberty.”

Conversely, if you’re “able to maintain that connectedness with your child,” – by remaining open and compassionate – “through this phase, then you can also have more influence and more control, ultimately,” says Schalet.

Say This, Not That 

There are several things you can do to counteract this pervasive programming. After all, the ways in which our children will perceive the world begin at the very beginning – with what we present to them as truths.

To that end, here are three of the most glaringly harmful yet incredibly common ideas we pass on to our sons about sex, sexuality, and generally how to be a boy, followed by a healthier alternative to each.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, friends. So if you’re consciously implementing the healthier options and not seeing instant results (i.e. a son who wants to hear your thoughts on his latest girlfriend), have faith that your efforts will have an impact in the long run.

1 | Harmful: Be the aggressor.

This lesson is often delivered insidiously by way of these four words: “Act like a man.” Its analog stereotype would be the harmful message relayed to girls to be demure and submissive.

Professor Schalet says “there is research showing that men are more likely to embrace rigid stereotypes and masculinity beliefs,” and that boys who do buy into the rigid norms are affected negatively “in terms of their own sexual health.”

The notion that boys are supposed to be the dominant force in sexual situations is bolstered by the porn industry.

This matters because, as I wrote in my first piece in this series, boys are increasingly turning to porn as their de facto source of sex ed. The behaviors and attitudes learned in this sphere can eventually leak into decisions your son is making in his interpersonal relationships and, perhaps more easily with the option of anonymity, into his online behavior (pressuring girls for nude photos or sharing photos without consent, for example).

Helpful:  Be the lover.

somethatIlove
Illustration: Katrina Weigand

Boys are naturally loving, as humans are naturally loving. We’re born craving touch and intimacy. How terribly sad is it, then, that we teach against this instinct when we pressure boys to “toughen up.”

Teach your son (nephew/grandson/friend’s son) that it is okay to want love. Schalet discovered in her research that many boys don’t know that, like them, their peers are longing for intimate relationships, too. “This is true across socioeconomics, across racial differences. There is a relational interest. Yet, (boys) don’t realize this is normal. They don’t realize that other boys feel this way,” she says.

Let your son know from the earliest stage possible that all boys want to have close friends and, eventually, loving romantic partners. We have to get this message out to our sons, because it’s not the one they’re hearing from their peers, pop culture, mainstream media, or even their sex ed class at school.

And not for nothing, when it comes to sex, being a lover means paying attention to the needs of your partner. It means empathy.

Spell out, in no uncertain terms, that girls have physical desires and preferences, too. (Imagine if your son could be the partner who helps a young girl realize this?) Boys should be encouraged to ask questions and to explore the sexual realm with their partner, and to take responsibility for doing so with at least one contraceptive measure in place.

2 | Harmful: Anger is okay. Sadness is not.

Boys are told in a multitude of ways that certain emotions are coded as feminine or “girly” and should be avoided at all costs, lest your manliness be questioned. So when a relationship ends, or in the case of unrequited love, boys are compelled to express their sadness as anger or hatred. They might even be driven to extreme lengths, such as revenge porn.

None of these behaviors should be excused, but parents must work to understand that everything is connected. When you told your kid to “man up” on the football field, he internalized that and will apply the message to almost any situation that feels painful. Break-ups are painful. Rejection is painful.

Helpful: Love hurts.

Tell your son that loss is sometimes part of loving someone, says Schalet. “And that it’s also part of the human experience. You’re allowed to be sad when something ends that you wanted to have continue,” she offers.

This message is helpful on multiple fronts. First, it validates the feelings your son was experiencing to begin with – feelings of young love that adults are so quick to dismiss. Schalet found that Dutch parents are much more open to the idea that their teens have been or are in love with their respective partners.

“It’s not that (Dutch parents) believe that the feelings that a 12-year-old has are the same as the feelings that a 30-year-old has, but they still recognize that, even at very early ages, people can be deeply moved by other people and attracted to them and care about them.”

“What is to be gained by saying that’s not love?” Schalet questions.

What, indeed. Certainly not your child’s trust. People at every age, of every sex, just want their feelings to be validated.

Secondly, allowing your son to experience and express the full range of emotions when it comes to young love helps reinforce the idea that the girl is worthy of his sadness. This supports the notion that women are to be respected, even when things don’t turn out the way you hoped, and never violated.

3 | Harmful: Girls prefer the strong, silent type.

The strong, silent guy is just a boy who never learned how to communicate. And who can blame him? He was told early on, in one way or another, that boys don’t do the talking thing so much. Boys hang out in man caves and silently play video games. Boys grunt while girls chatter on endlessly about nothing at all.

“American parents normalize that boys don’t want to talk. That may or may not be true, but how do you respond to it?” asks Schalet.

Helpful: Let’s talk… often.

While it’s completely fair to expect that your son may not always want to chat with you about the events of his day or his current relationship status, you don’t have to accept it. Schalet spoke to one Dutch mom who sits down next to her teen son’s bed every evening and asks about his day. The conversation may be one-sided at times, but she follows through with the ritual regardless.

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Schalet suggests asking questions like these:

  • Is there anyone special in your life these days?
  • Are there examples of people you see dating where you really feel it’s working out?
  • What do you see as some of the problems couples are having?
  • Have you ever been in love?[/su_note]

Relating with your teen son on this level, about love and relationships instead of just the classic “Sex Talk,” provides him with a forum in which to practice his own communication skills. Schalet says research has shown that “girls get to practice being intimate very early because their friendships tend to take on a more talking, sharing quality.”

Most friendships between young boys, on the other hand, are centered around activities.

“What that means, and this is really fascinating, is that boys often enter into romantic relationships less skilled at doing the kinds of things that they are just as eager to do,” but haven’t had as much practice as their female counterparts, she explains.

You can be the best sex ed teacher

I believe that when we all decided to become parents, we entered into an implicit agreement that we would do our best to improve the world by raising good people.

Will changing the way you talk to your son about sex, love, and relationships actually change the world? I don’t know. But in a culture that is still heavily male-dominated, it’s a damn good place to start.

More importantly, your son needs this. He may not be able to express to you how badly he wants your guidance, but in that National Campaign survey, 61% of 15-18-year-old boys said that their parents had “a lot/some” influence regarding their decisions about sex.

Having the one Big Talk doesn’t work. Yes, you still need to tell him about birth control and sexually transmitted infections and why he gets a boner. You also need to talk to him about respecting people, opening himself to love, and being responsible in his online interactions. You should tell him that you understand the impulse behind sexting, but that it’s not the best, most legal way for him to explore those desires.

And all of this should be spread out over the course of your boy’s childhood and adolescence, not thrust upon him the day he announces he’s got a girlfriend.

If this feels like a big ask, I get it. But you’ve already got a lot of the information you need. You know about sex. If your own sexual health isn’t where you’d like it to be, all the better. Take this opportunity to educate yourself and your partner, then share your knowledge with your son when it’s appropriate.

It’ll be one of the best time investments you’ll ever make, and it will go a long way toward holding up your end of that parent agreement.

Why Your Kids Need You in the Age of Sexting, Porn, and Cyberbullying

Compassionate parents are a counterweight to the pressures of adolescence – including those around sex, porn, and social media.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series about teens, sex, and social media. Read the entire series here


Remember the thrill you felt when you passed a note in junior high math class?

The anticipation of getting a response to that note was almost too much to bear. Would the recipient of your rule-breaking correspondence reply positively? Or… oh no! What if he or she didn’t like you the way you liked him or her?

What if the person you thought you could trust with this most intimate glimpse into your heart’s desires took that carefully crafted note and taped it to the bathroom door – laying bare your soul for all the school to see. That would be the worst!

Yes, in 1989, that would be the worst. In 2016, that note would be a naked photo of you, snapped in a moment that felt brave and daring, and then sent with a light touch of a little circle on a screen.

And if things got really bad, that bathroom wall would be a Facebook wall, viewable by not only your entire school, but any of the three billion people worldwide with access to the internet.

Now that would be the worst.

[su_note note_color=”#E2DFE1″]According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 88% of teenagers in the U.S. have a cell phone, and 90% of them use their phone for texting.

Nearly three-quarters of teens (ages 13-17) visit various social media sites multiple times a day, and 33% use messaging apps like Kik, WhatsApp, or SnapChat.[/su_note]

This is all to say that a lot of your teen’s life happens through his or her phone. It’s very likely that most of what they’re writing, doing, and seeing on their phones is not concerning.

But it’s that relatively small percentage of highly inappropriate or downright scary-as-shit happenings – sexting rings, porn addiction, cyberbullying – that catch our attention and receive hours or pages of media coverage.

I’m generally of the mind that our fear-based mainstream media be taken with a hundred grains of salt or ignored altogether, but in the case of teens, sex, and social media, there’s a lot worth looking into.

Mainly because you – the parent – can help. The key is to approach these topics with an open mind and a little bit of context.

Sexting

A 2014 study out of Drexel University found that 28% of college students had sent a sext containing a nude or semi-nude photo before they were 18.

The same study also revealed that the average age of first sext was just under 16 years old, though some respondents were as young as 12 when they first sexted.

Kids who are busted for sending or receiving sexual or naked photos can face major criminal charges. Case law hasn’t caught up with this relatively new adolescent behavior, and so the criminal justice system does the best it can with the laws already on the books.

Some states rely on child pornography laws to prosecute such cases, which – in extreme examples – can lead to a 12-year-old being labeled a sex offender for the rest of his or her life.

Stephen LaTulippe is the director of the Community Justice Center in Williston, Vermont. He says Vermont tends to be more “forward-thinking” than some states, often referring first offenders to restorative justice programs like his.

But even in a more lenient state, the consensual sharing of nude photos is illegal for people under the age of majority.

If a minor receives a sext “and sends it on, without the sender’s consent, to a third party, it automatically becomes a felony,” explains LaTulippe. Sending that same image across state lines “really ups the ante. It becomes a federal issue: dissemination of pornographic material of an underage person across state lines. It becomes much more problematic,” he says.

teen in legal trouble from sexting
Illustration: Katrina Weigand

It’s easy to see how an unwitting teen could excitedly or nefariously blast a nude photo out to friends in other states or broadcast the prurient material on a social media site.

The potential legal ramifications of their actions are truly terrifying, but the likelihood that your child would face these dire consequences is quite slim.

Social repercussions, like shame and humiliation, are more common, as is a general feeling of regret. There’s also a high percentage chance that your teen will feel none of these things and fail to understand what the “big deal” is. (If this is the case, recall yourself as a teen and remember the things you did and said that your parents found shocking.)

Though it may sound crazy that almost a third of teenagers engage in sexting, psychologist Eileen Kennedy Moore points out in Psychology Today that this means more than 70 percent of teens DO NOT sext.

It’s not exactly the widespread phenomenon that many news outlets would have us believe, but it is absolutely a thing that sometimes happens among young people who may not fully comprehend what they’re doing, may be doing it for the wrong reasons, and have no idea of the potential long-range effects.

Porn

Speaking of long-range effects, Time magazine recently ran a cover story about young men who were teens just a few years ago, when online porn was so readily available to them that it turned out to be harmful.

There is now a (predictably debatable) condition called porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED) afflicting a subset of male 20-somethings who say that, due to the unchecked hours of time they spent watching online porn and then masturbating, they were only able to become aroused by porn. Real girls were not enough.

Researchers say this could be the result of unintentional conditioning. Cognitive neuroscientist Brian Anderson explains in the Time story that the visual nature of porn may make it particularly habit-forming. “There probably comes a point in time where you open up your browser and you just start thinking about porn,” says Anderson. 

The fact that viewers receive this form of stimulus through a computer, and that computers are essentially everywhere, compounds the problem yet again. 

Connect this neuroscience with the simple fact that the brain of a teenager is still deeply involved in the business of developing, and it’s easy to understand why some boys can’t stop watching porn, and then cannot achieve an erection without it.

violence against women in porn
Illustration: Katrina Weigand

Another important factor left out of the science is the fact that porn is overwhelmingly misogynistic. Peggy Orenstein, in her book “Girls and Sex,” refers to a study that found almost 90% of 304 randomly selected porn scenes “contained physical aggression toward women, who nearly always responded neutrally or with pleasure.” Orenstein goes on to say that some scenes also depicted women who beg “their partners to stop, then acquiesce and begin to enjoy the activity, regardless of how painful or debasing.”

While all this porn is doing some measure of damage to the brains of young men, it is simultaneously harming girls by presenting women as tools for male enjoyment versus wholly formed people with thoughts, standards, and desires of their own.

The subversive cruelty of porn is that it tricks both boys and girls (who aren’t legally meant to be viewing it anyway) into thinking that men are supposed to dominate, women are supposed to give in, and both parties should look a certain brand of ridiculous while doing it.

Okay, so, big picture, why is this an issue? Because in the absence of useful, honest, age-appropriate sex education in schools and homes, many teens turn to porn to learn about way more than the birds and the bees.

You cannot wait for institutionalized sex ed to step up and deliver the kind of knowledge your kids are looking for. It’s one of your responsibilities, as a parent, to teach your children about healthy relationships, open communication, and good sex.

Cyberbullying

While researching this story, the idea that struck me as most alarming is that any boy would think it’s okay to harass a girl for nude photos.

The slope from that point to rape seems far too steep. Research by the Urban Institute found that “96% of (dating) teens experiencing digital abuse and harassment also experience other forms of violence or abuse from their partners.”

Janine Zweig, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, explains that these other forms of abuse included psychological and physical abuse, as well as sexual coercion experiences. “The way we defined sexual coercion experience in this study was completed acts. So, not just the pressuring behaviors, but (teens) reporting that they were having sexual experiences that they didn’t want,” says Zwieg.

About one-third of teen victims of digital abuse reported being sexually coerced, a rate that is five times higher than dating teens who are not experiencing digital abuse.

This confirmed my fear that someone who feels okay about pressuring another person to send a nude photo or sharing that photo, without consent, might feel less inhibited when it comes to pressuring offline, too.

Information of this kind – the kind that feels scary and overwhelming at first – often presents a gift when you sit with it for a few minutes. The numbers and faces appearing in your mind’s eye will coalesce into a clear picture of empowerment. You have people to care for! And now you have a little more information to help you do just that!

Because you see, there are red flags, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll spot them. If your teen is on his or her phone late at night, behind a closed bedroom or bathroom door, she or he might be doing something unsafe. If their online behavior seems unsafe to you, there’s good reason for you to ask a few questions about their offline experiences.

While there’s no guarantee that your teen will immediately engage with you on the level you’re hoping for, a compassionate, curious, understanding approach will help make it clear that you’re available to them.

Put down your own phone, close the laptop, and reach out.

Our kids are not lost

The idea of speaking openly with your child about sexuality is scary to a lot of people. That’s okay.

Sex Education lacking in schools
Illustration: Katrina Weigand

There’s a very good chance that nobody covered the topic with you in a blunt and honest manner when you were a kid – especially if you live in the United States.

Our country came out of its great sexual revolution with very little lasting change to show for it. Conversely, the Netherlands experienced a similar renaissance in the 1960s and emerged with vastly different attitudes towards sex and sex ed.

PBS NewsHour reported last year that Dutch teen pregnancy rates are now five times lower than in the U.S., and rates of sexually transmitted infections are markedly lower, too.

Dutch schools utilize a comprehensive sexual education curriculum that begins in kindergarten; a program that’s supported in homes by parents who understand that their children are best served when sexuality is treated as the natural, normal, healthy part of living that it is.

And that’s the thing – your child will become a sexual being. It’s going to happen. It may be happening now. We went through it, as did every single generation of human beings before us. Curiosity led you to sneak a peak at your dad’s stack of Playboys hidden under the bed. Pubescent inklings led me to surreptitiously marvel at the illustrations in “The Joy of Sex.”

What’s different is that our kids have the internet, in all its stakes-raising glory. A whole lot of their life is lived inside the pages of that virtual world, so attempting to ban its use altogether, or to severely restrict their access, would be tone-deaf at best and destructive at worst.

This confluence of online access – to other people, to information and mis-information, to words and images that teen brains are not ready to adequately process – and a naturally budding sexuality creates the conditions under which sexting, youth porn addiction, and cyberbullying can prosper.

But the super important, often overlooked, third contributing factor is the dearth of actual human resources available to kids who genuinely want to talk about this stuff. That’s YOU.

You are the human resource your kid needs.

Compassionate parents provide a counterweight to the inherent pressures of adolescence. Our kids may not always feel the balancing power of our love on a conscious level, but maybe that’s the point. It’s just there – they don’t have to think about it.

By opening up to your children about sex, desire, relationships, and young love, you’re creating the space into which they will move when they need it most.

Teens, Sex, and Social Media: How Technology Can Help

4 apps and websites that can help teens avoid the worst of sexting, cyberbullying, and porn.

Editor’s note: This is the final post in a series about teens, sex, and social media. The first three posts were: The Urgent Role of Parents in the Age of Sexting and Cyberbullying, Boys Will Be the Boys We Teach Them to Be, and 4 Behaviors to Model That Make the World Better for Your Daughter.


It’s tempting to depict the internet as inherently evil.

We hear so much about the social ills to which it has been a party: sexting, porn addiction, bullying. But like any gigantic entity, the internet is all things at once, which is to say, it is also a force for good in our culture. Yes, even for adolescents.

A 2011 study in Pediatrics found that “22% of teens log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day.” As I mentioned in my first post in this series, the bulk of what your teenager is doing or seeing through the use of technology is likely innocuous.

What’s more, it’s important to understand that some of what your teen is doing on social media or through technology is actually good for them. The constant connection to friends and school may seem exhausting to us, but it can “also offer adolescents deeper benefits that extend into their view of self, community, and the world,” according to the study published in Pediatrics.

It stands to reason, then, that your teen (and you, for that matter) could turn to technology for a little help when navigating the sometime rough waters of teenage sexuality.

Here’s a shortlist of technology-based resources to share with your teen. * 

1 | Crisis Text Line

According to the Urban Institute, 1 in 10 high school students has been physically abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Only 9% of those students sought help, and “rarely from a parent or teacher.”

Would more kids seek help if they knew they could reach out anonymously and receive skilled, caring counsel via text message?

Since 2013, the Crisis Text Line has exchanged more than 17 million text messages with people in crisis. The non-profit’s founder and CEO, Nancy Lublin, says about 65% of texters to the crisis line are school age kids.

The idea of meeting kids where they are – on their phones texting – in order to help them, has proven to be highly effective.

“It’s really private,” says Lublin. “We actually tend to spike every day around lunchtime because (students) are sitting at the lunch table and people think that they’re texting somebody else in the cafeteria and they’re really texting us.”

On the day we spoke – around school lunch time – Lublin said there were 24 active conversations on the Crisis Text Line, and that six of them were flagged as suicidal. “So right now, in the middle of the school day, there are some pretty serious conversations going on,” she said.

It’s the kind of help that any person – teen or adult – can use in the heat of the moment in order to move to a better decision-making place.

The privacy and the immediacy of the Crisis Text Line are what make it such an effective tool. Texts are generally responded to in under five minutes, and if your first text is found to contain words suggesting imminent danger, the response will likely come in less than two minutes.

“And that means a human response,” Lublin said. “We think humans display empathy better than computers.”

There is no intake survey or personally identifying information required. When the call is over, texters can request that their conversation be “scrubbed” from the record by texting the safe word “loofah.”

To take privacy one step further, the Crisis Text Line has a deal with all major mobile carriers that messages to the CTL short code (741-741) are free of charge and will not appear on mobile phone bills. 

So what sort of things do the trained counselors say? “It’s not therapy,” said Lublin. “We’re really helping you help yourself. We’re asking you questions, validating your feelings, helping you shift to a calm place.”

Counselors might also provide practical information, like the nearest place to obtain a rape kit, or links to breathing exercises to help a person literally calm down. 

It’s the kind of help that any person – teen or adult – can use in the heat of the moment in order to move to a better decision-making place.

2 | Juicebox app

JuiceBox app

Who doesn’t want a sex ed app with the tagline, “Avoid all the Awkward?”

In an attempt to eschew the typical gym-teacher-as-sex-ed-teacher vibe, Brianna Rader, 24, developed an app that’s more akin to Tinder.

The beauty of this tool is its recognition of humor.

With a swipe to the left (“Snoop”) teens can ask a question that will then be answered by a sex ed professional. A swipe to the right (“Spill”) gives teens an opportunity to share their own stories, which can be up voted by users with a tap of condom icon.

The beauty of this tool is its obvious effort to recognize the humor that so many teens think is inherent to sex and questions about the topic, while still providing valid information from qualified individuals.

You want your kids to bring their questions to you first, but if it’s easier or more comfortable for them to turn to an app, Juicebox seems like a worthy parental stand-in.

3 | Amy Hasinoff’s website

Amy Hasinoff

While researching this series I came across a variety of proposed methods for the handling of teen sexting.

Hasinoff’s was, to my mind, the most comprehensive and compassionate. It also read as the most based in the reality of adolescent life today, rather than being based on a desire to scare kids straight, so to speak.

Her site contains detailed information for parents and educators about how to discuss sexting with teens, as well as resources and – importantly – understanding for teens who have been victims of a privacy violation.

4 | Advocates for Youth

youth advocate

Another site that I referenced often to keep my research grounded and unbiased was the Advocates for Youth website.

It is a seemingly endless treasure trove of everything from government facts and figures to full-on comprehensive sex ed curricula.

Their mission says it all:

“Advocates for Youth partners with youth leaders, adult allies, and youth-serving organizations to advocate for policies and champion programs that recognize young people’s rights to honest sexual health information; accessible, confidential, and affordable sexual health services; and the resources and opportunities necessary to create sexual health equity for all youth.”

If you’ve read the other posts in this series (and even if you haven’t) then thought to yourself, “Great, I’m ready to open the lines of communication with my teen. I want to talk about sex, love, and relationships!” but then realized, “I have no idea what to say…” then this is a wonderful first stop for you. Take some time to browse the site and educate yourself so that you feel empowered to approach the topic fearlessly.

Look, none of this is easy. But it doesn’t have to be hard. You have more information than you realize, and the parts that you do actually lack can be acquired. Just like we tell our kids, find an adult that you trust – your therapist, your best friend, your child’s school counselor – and have a conversation. Then figure out what you need to learn, and start learning it. You can do this. 

MORE IN THIS SERIES 

The Urgent Role of Parents in the Age of Sexting and CyberbullyingBoys Will Be the Boys We Teach Them to Be, and 4 Behaviors to Model That Make the World Better for Your Daughter.