A publication from Harvest USA. (www.harvestusa.org)
Living in a “porn is the norm” culture
The title of this article presupposes two things: first, your teens are being exposed to pornography, and second, you are already responding—even if you are doing nothing. Maybe you are tempted to toss this article aside with a shrug, “Well, my kids haven’t been exposed and I am careful to protect them. I don’t need to read this.” But, watch an hour of prime-time television and you have seen pornography. Drive past any number of billboards while on a trip and you have seen pornography. Look at the fashion posters in the clothing stores at the mall and you have seen it—in some form.
Part of our problem is that we have either no clear definition, or a very limited definition, of pornography. Most of us think of it as something you find in some rundown bookstore, or maybe in a convenience store. Most of us realize the Internet has a reputation of being filled with it. But do we realize we are surrounded by it, like a hapless adventurer sinking in quicksand?
We live in a pornographic culture. While dictionaries might define pornography as pictorial or literary renderings of obscene material related to the sex act, it is much broader than that. Pornography is anything the heart uses to find sexual expression outside of God’s intended design for relational intimacy. It is anything that tempts and corrupts the human heart into desiring sensual pleasure in sinful ways.
The extent of this in our society is overwhelming. Beer and soap commercials, as well as underwear ads, all use the human body in provocative ways to catch the attention of the audience. It is not so much that sex is used to sell products, but that products are being used to sell sex. A woman groaning erotically while having her hair washed in a TV ad is not encouraging us to think about clean hair, but about having a sexual encounter.
The culture is attempting to feed our hearts. It wants to instruct us theologically. The world’s solution to the feeling that we are incomplete—or that our life has no meaning—is to tell us that sex will satisfy us. Our longing for a better place, or a better relationship, is the result of living in a fallen world. The culture says we just are not having enough sex or have not found the right person.
Why does overt pornography—the stuff that really is quite graphic and hides nothing—have such power in our society? How is it possible that the American Library Association can file suit against the Federal government over a law that requires filters on public Internet access so that young children cannot look at pornography? How can we get to the point where we debate issues of free speech instead of the harm done to a 10-year-old seeing images of bestiality?
It is because pornography is not the REAL issue. Pornography is but the end result of the “porn is norm” culture we live in. We are taught that the inner hunger we have can best be filled by sensual pleasure. We have learned that the void in our heart can be filled by human relationship—there is a prince out there ready to rescue every damsel. We have bought into a way of thinking that predisposes us to think pornographically. (This article is not saying the bedtime story of Sleeping Beauty is pornography, but that the mindset that sees male and female relationships as the goal of life—as the solution to our problems—creates in us a “porn is norm” way of thinking.)
This is why this article asks, “How are you responding—present tense—to your teen’s exposure —also present tense—to pornography?” As a parent or youth worker you need to be alert to the nearly omnipresent pornography around us, encouraging us to use anything to find sexual expression outside of God’s will. You need to be ready and alert. You need to know that your teens are being brainwashed into thinking they need to have a sexual relationship to be happy and fulfilled. You need to address the over-arching problem before your teens become addicted to pornography.
Create a nurturing environment
The first thing parents need to do is create a home environment where it is safe to talk about sexual things. Many parents think they are protecting their children by not talking about sex, but in reality they are creating an environment where their children will develop a sense that sex is a taboo subject. A teen’s reasoning may go something like this: “We can talk about a lot of things, but we can’t talk about sex. If it is taboo, then it must be ‘bad.’ If it is ‘bad’ then maybe I am ‘bad’ because I find myself having sexual desires and urges. Maybe I can find a way to appear ‘good’ yet enjoy this.”
As a parent, what is your view of sexuality? The Bible is very free in discussing sexuality. In Genesis 2:25 we read that Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. The Bible is telling us that there is nothing wrong with the human body and sexuality—it is the sin of Adam and Eve that caused sexuality to be distorted. It is only after they rebelled against God by eating the forbidden fruit that suddenly, they put clothes on. In Proverbs 5:15-19 husbands are encouraged to rejoice in their wives—to enjoy their wives’ breasts and to be drunk with their love making. In the Song of Solomon we have vivid descriptions of the joys of sexuality in the context of marriage. So, as a parent, what message do you give your children? Do they see sex as a beautiful gift from God to be enjoyed within the context of marriage, or do they see it as something embarrassing that cannot be discussed? Do they get the impression that sexual expression is something shameful?
Parents can create a climate of shame that actually encourages their children to pursue illicit sexuality. If a child or teen is not able to discuss his or her questions regarding sexuality in an age-appropriate way, then the child or teen will be left with a vast vacuum of biblical data. What will fill this vacuum? Something or someone will—TV, movies, schools, peers, etc. Pornography will rush in and tell your children what to believe about sexuality. Since they already sense it is a shameful thing because their parents will not talk about it, it is no surprise to them when they are fed information through a secretive conduit.
But maybe this is the case at home: you do speak with your children about sexuality. You do explain the biblical view to them. You do show appropriate levels of affection in front of them. However, if dad has a stash of pornography in the closet, or on the home computer, what does this communicate? What happens when a child finds the stash or walks in on dad as he is quickly shutting down the Internet?
The parent’s view of sexuality sets the stage for the children’s view. The Bible speaks clearly, “The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations” (Numbers 14:18, NASB). This is not saying that God punishes the children, but that the iniquity—the sin itself—visits them. There is a clear causal effect when parents sin—the atmosphere in the home impacts the children and induces them to sin in similar fashion.
So ask yourself the following questions, “What is my attitude toward sexuality? Do I have a biblical understanding of it? Am I communicating freely with my children the biblical view? What messages are my children getting from me? Is there sinful sexual behavior going on in my life or the life of my spouse?”
Address the deeper longings
Talking about the physical aspects of sex with our children is not enough. There is more to sexuality than Biology 101. But even talking about the emotional aspects of sex is not enough. Yes, our children need to know how engaging in sexual ways with other people opens them up for huge emotional damage, but there is more to it than that.
The beginning of this article focused on the fact that our culture uses a “porn is norm” approach to answering the question as to why we have deep inner longings that never seem to be adequately met. Until our children understand why they can feel lonely in a crowded room … until our children understand why they wish life had a happy ending like the movies … until our children understand why they can be sad while opening Christmas gifts … until they understand the core longing that is always there inside of them, they will never know how to defend against the pull of pornography.
We all have this deep inner longing and nothing in this universe can soothe it. We live in a world that was not meant to be this way. We live in a fallen world! Deep in our souls we know that things are not the way they are supposed to be. We know that death is an intrusion and an obscene affront to life. We know there is more to life than this—whatever this is.
Humans are created for eternal relationship with God. We need to consistently communicate to our children that they have these inner longings that cannot be fulfilled in this life. This is not to create despair, but hope—the hope in knowing that these longings verify the reality of the Gospel. Knowing things are broken encourages us to trust in the one faith that tells us how God has fixed it. We can encourage our children to place their hope in Jesus and the coming eternal Kingdom of God. We can encourage our children not to be fooled by the lies of the world, but place their longings into Jesus’ hands. There will be a time when all these longings will be fulfilled. Know what you are longing for and you will not be tricked to fill it with pornography.
Knowing this fact can help our children identify their longings and not try to meet them in false ways. Knowing why we are prone to the “porn is norm” approach to life is the chief defensive weapon we have against pornography. Knowing why we have these longings is one of the best pieces of wisdom a parent can impart to a child. It will give the child a way to process all sorts of temptations.
Initiate an open policy
So how do you get started? How do you create the proper environment? How do you address these inner longings? Start like Jesus started—ask questions.
In the Bible there are many remarkable accounts of Jesus getting into individuals’ hearts by means of asking questions. The first recorded words of Jesus in the Gospel of John are a question, “What do you seek?” (John 1:38). All throughout the Gospels, Jesus litters the landscape with probing questions—sometimes in response to questions asked of Him, sometimes to deepen the discussion, sometimes to confound His enemies. The point is that Jesus did not limit Himself to declarative statements, but engaged people through questions. One striking example is how He heals the man at the Pool of Bethesda. Jesus initiates a conversation with a sick man in John 5:6 by asking, “Do you wish to get well?” The question seems absurd. Of course the man wants to be healed! But Jesus uses the obvious to get to deeper issues.
So how do you start to deal with pornography in your child’s life? Begin by asking questions. As you do so, however, be alert to how you ask. Questions can be asked and phrased in a way that seeks to expose someone for judgment. Are you seeking information so you can lower the ax? Are you trying to uncover behavior so that you can punish or “ground” your child? The wrong kind of questions will drive a child deeper into seclusion and secrecy—the very place sin thrives.
Instead, ask questions that invite the heart to show itself. Ask questions that have the purpose of allowing you to know the heart of your child—not just what he or she is doing. These kinds of questions tend to not focus so much on behavior, but the reasons for the behavior. For example: “You tend to spend a long time in the chat rooms online. What is it about them that you enjoy?” (Instead of asking, “Are you talking about sex?” which would close down the discussion quickly, you are asking what your child’s heart is getting out of the conversations. Is he or she finding a kind of false intimacy that addresses his or her sense of rejection by peers?)
The right kind of questions will affirm the child as being a person of value (created in the image of God) and someone you love and care about. The right kind of questions will allow the child to express his or her hurts and pains. The right kind of questions will uncover the deeper longings we discussed earlier, and allow you the opportunity to share Gospel truths. Constantly ask yourself when talking with your child, “Is this question going after behavior or is it trying to reveal the heart? Am I seeking to expose for judgment or am I seeking to know the soul?”
Second, as you ask your questions, be careful to genuinely listen and not react. Often our children will share something they have done, or a fantasy they may have, and we will react in a knee-jerk way. Let’s say your son says he has same-sex attractions and has been considering going to a gay bar to see what it is all about. Your instinct might be to lock him in his room for life. Your instinct might be to shout, “What?!” At that very moment, when he has risked vulnerability, your reaction will tell him that you cannot and will not love him on that level. He may very well choose—sinfully—to reject any remaining parental respect he has for you. Staying calm and saying that this is very deep and important and you need time to figure out how best to help him, allows him to feel that your love is as real as you claim it is.
It is never wrong to tell your child that you do not want to make any decisions or give any advice in haste. You have a spiritual privilege and obligation to take things to the Lord in prayer. It is critical that you have time to work through your own sinful motives and behaviors before you attempt to help your child (Matthew 7:5 and Galatians 6:1). We all know we have said things in haste that we have regretted. The Bible is clear that the tongue can do much evil, but self-restraint is a blessing (James 3:5; Proverbs 12:18 and 21:23).
Third, take the time to learn what your child is up against. Enter his or her world. This may mean that you have to do some research. You may have to educate yourself about what his or her peers believe. For example: Did you know that many teens think they can have oral sex with numerous partners and still be a virgin? Also remember that old terms have new meanings. Just as our generation redefined terms, so our children’s generation has redefined terms. What code words are your teens using? Are you missing the clues because you do not know the slang?
Part of taking the time to learn is also determining the extent of the problem your child might be facing. You need to know the dangers out there and also what your child has gotten into. So if your son is surfing adult sites on the Internet, find out—in a non-threatening manner—how often he does this. What kinds of sites (bikini, heterosexual, homosexual, streaming videos, etc.) is he visiting?
Such a string of questions might sound like the Spanish Inquisition. It is critical that you seek to discern the extent of the behavior, constantly reaffirming that you are not doing this so you can punish, but to figure out how best to help. Do not let a witch-hunt mentality develop. Instead hold on to the idea that you are like a surgeon trying to determine the extent of the cancer so that you can appropriately treat the patient. Look for patterns in the behaviors that might reveal the deeper heart issues.
Remember your primary goal in all of this is to look for the motives of the heart that might lead your son or daughter into dangerous territory. Keep circling back in your mind to the fact that everyone’s sinful behaviors come out of sinful decisions made to address the core issues of the heart. Your goal is to help your child see the dynamics underlying his or her actions.
Lead by example
It should be obvious that the course of action described above cannot occur in one conversation. It is a life-long process. Just as you need to focus on setting the proper environment for your children to deal with these issues, you need to continue to lead and build that environment. You should display a proper understanding of sexuality with your spouse before your children. You should take every opportunity to discuss good sexuality and affirm it with your children. You should take every opportunity to present Gospel truth in the midst of sin struggles.
When taking specific steps to protect your children from overt pornography—be it Internet filters, limitations on where they can go and who they can see, etc.—make sure it is being done out of love. It should not be conveyed as a pre-emptive strike against the terror of sex, but as a loving attempt to protect. “I care about you and want to defend you against those who would try to hurt you. I want to develop in you tools that you can use as you mature to fight the battle against sin.”
Part of building defenses is to acknowledge that you cannot make decisions for your teens. They are growing and learning how to make choices. This can terrify parents. You need to give them a way of thinking that will enable them to make the right choices. This is why you need to see the heart issues and help your child deal with them.
Revisit the war zone
If you have set up controls or structures to help your child deal with temptation, be sure to come back and re-evaluate them. Your goal is to teach responsibility. An Internet filter may control some access, but if your child has not dealt with his or her heart issues he or she may find ways around the filter. The heart is an ingenious thing and we must acknowledge the ongoing power of sin in our society and our hearts’ inclinations to respond.
There is no one-time solution to the “porn is norm” heart struggle. We need to see that the basic issue is the heart’s rebellion against God. You might be able to change a particular sinful behavior in your child—by threat of consequences, severe controls, etc.—but if you do not continue to work with his or her heart, your child will find other idols. For example, maybe your daughter no longer dresses seductively, but instead seeks after good grades with a passion that leaves no time for developing her relationship with God. If she is worshipping what people think of her—what was once centered on her appearance is now centered on her performance. She may be doing well for the wrong reasons.
We need to also realize that the heart of a person can be compared to the proverbial onion. As you peel back one layer you discover another underneath. We need to be prepared to go ever deeper into our own hearts and help our children begin and continue this exploration into their own hearts. Reaffirm that the real issues are heart issues and that these heart issues need to be brought to God.
As our children move through adolescence and the trying teenage years, we have less and less control over them. There will come a day when—no matter what we have done or not done—they will be on their own in the world. Our goal needs to be that of equipping them to make choices in Godly ways. We can only do this by giving them the heart consciousness to do it relying on God’s grace.
A final word
We began with the scary concept that we live in a pornographic society and that we are being trained to think, “porn is norm.” We stressed that the world wants to fill our inner longings with the false goddess of sensuality. This is a pretty grim picture and might encourage you to panic and exclaim, “How are my children going to survive?”
The good news is that the first followers of Jesus Christ found themselves in a culture just as deeply sexualized as our own. The Greek and Roman pantheon thrived on sexual debauchery. The early church was filled with people who were coming out of lifestyles of immorality (I Corinthians 6:9-11). Yet the truth of the Gospel overcame that culture. People by the millions saw their only hope in Jesus and turned from the emptiness of “porn is norm.” The Gospel still speaks to these issues. You can have the faith that as you share this same Gospel with your children, they will experience hope and change.
Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. Our hope does not falter.