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My son, who is eight and a half years old, has begun asking about sex more frequently in recent months. His questions are less about the reproductive aspect of human sexuality (which he understands, because it is explained in verbal and visual detail in many children's books and documentary films, both on human reproduction and animal life) and more about the basic procedure of human intercourse as well as about what adults would call lust and eroticism.

Being familiar with his own penis and the flaccid penis of his father as well as the outward form of female genitalia, my son seems to find it hard to imagine that a penis can be inserted in a vagina and what needs to be done to produce those enigmatic spermiums that he as yet has never seen and probably cannot conceive of ejaculating from his own member.

He also does not yet have any romantic, much less sexual, feelings about girls (or boys), and the only difference he sees between the genders are differences in the media they prefer. Otherwise girls are just as much fun to play with, and he does not quite understand why any person might want to kiss or caress someone except for familial affection.

In other words, he is still (sexually) an "innocent" child, but he recognizes signs of romantic and sexual activity in the adults, teens and other children around him (and in the media), and he is curious about what it all means (and, possibly, what is coming up for him).

I have begun to go through the books that are advertised as explaining the topic of human sexuality to children, but I have found them to almost completely omit the reproductive act itself as well as everything that has to do with sexual lust. They do mention love (albeit usually between married parents), but they do not help a child prepare for a teens feelings of horniness. They do explain (often in boring detail) the development of the fetus and the hormones of the female cycle, but they do not even mention wet dreams or intercourse.

When my son asks me, I try to answer as truthfully as possible, but I often find it hard to explain some aspects without visual reference.

When a child asks you about how something is done or what a certain thing looks like, you will find it easiest to give a comprehensive answer by showing him the activity yourself or a movie that shows it. For example, when you try to teach your child to swim, you wouldn't expect him or her to understand what you are talking about without ever having seen another person in the water. In fact you will perform the movements and ask your child to mimick your behavior.

For that reason, I have wondered wether or not my son might find it helpful, if I allowed him to view some (carefully preselected) pornographic images or (preferably) a pornographic movie. There are a few videos and photos on the web that to me show what I think of as tender, loving sex and that include only what I perceive to be normal, healthy sexual behavior.

But apart from worrying about my son telling his friends, and them telling their parents, I also wonder if this (one time!) exposure would either shock him or influence his own sexual development unfavourably. I think, neither, but what do you think? Or what alternative do you recommend?


Some general comments to the comments and answers:

  • I have seen some pornographic movies that portray realistic, loving sex. I don't want to link it, but please believe me, that it exists.

  • The book Show me! by Will McBride features explicit photographs of people (including children) being sexually active. It was published in Germany (where I live), won prices (incuding prices by church organisations) and withstood several court cases here and in the US. You can find some of the images through Google. I would have bought the book, but it is quite expensive today.

  • I own a teen sex ed book, Make Love, also published in Germany, which features explicit photographs of adults having sex. It has been highly praised in the media here, and is legally available in book stores. Some of the images can be seen in this review in censored versions.

Specific comments under the respective answers.

  • I've found that usually books that delve into lust, hormones, wet dreams, or menarche are geared more towards older kids (around 10-12). – Acire Jan 20 '16 at 14:32
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    Using pornography, would only lead to deception. It's unrealistic. They most certainly do not display 'tender' love. What happens if he asks you, "why are they filming these people having sex"? – user19679 Jan 20 '16 at 15:46
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    Millions of suitable diagrams are available on the Web. – user19679 Jan 20 '16 at 15:47
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    @user19679 has a really good point. (Most) "pornography" is far removed from reality which is also an important lesson for a child to learn (at some point, not necessarily at 8) so introducing it now may only lead to conflicting messages later on. – DA01 Jan 21 '16 at 4:21
  • @Erica Yes. As I said in my edit, I own one such book, but the text is to "heavy" and advanced for my son. – user4758 Jan 21 '16 at 10:33
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Being familiar with his own penis and the flaccid penis of his father, ...my son seems to find it hard to imagine that a penis can be inserted in a vagina and what needs to be done...

That's really OK. There are lots of things about which he has no understanding and he can live a good life without knowing this minute. Unless he's asking you every day how it happens, it's really ok to explain to the best of your ability that his body will be able to do things it can't now - like lift (just guessing) 160 pounds - because bodies change as they grow.

If he's asking incessantly, tell him the truth. Explain (with a good anatomy text and maybe some simple items) that his penile shaft is composed of 3 spongy erectile columns (the 2 corpora cavernosa and the corpus spongiosum), the enveloping fascial layers, nerves, lymphatics, and blood vessels, which he can't see because it's all covered by skin. With maturity and sufficient testosterone, and under the proper stimulation, the nervous system will cause the erectile columns to fill with blood from the arteries (like a sponge soaked in water), causing an erection. Etc. Etc.

If that sounds like too much, then it is too much; the child probably doesn't really need all that information. Most likely, all he needs is a reassurance not to worry, he'll find out that this is all true in a few years (if he doesn't already experience nocturnal erections.)

But the use of pornography to teach your child is so fraught with potential damage to the psyche of the child that, should authorities find out you've exposed your child to it, you could face loss of your child and prison time.

...the only difference he sees between the genders are differences in the media they prefer. Otherwise girls are just as much fun to play with, and he does not quite understand why any person might want to kiss or caress someone except for familial affection.

That's lovely. Please leave him his innocence for a while longer, as it is appropriate and healthy. Be open to answering his questions, but answer from his ability to understand, not yours.

For example, when you try to teach your child to swim, you wouldn't expect him or her to understand what you are talking about without ever having seen another person in the water. In fact you will perform the movements and ask your child to mimick your behavior.

By this reasoning, you can easily teach your son about sex by inviting him to watch a session of sex between yourself and his mother. But if that sounds outrageous, it is equally outrageous to teach him by showing strangers having sex. Context matters. There is no dispute in the scientific literature that adolescents experience negative outcomes from exposure to pornography. The literature for preadolescents is much scarcer, and usually a result of criminal activity.

Psychologists spend many years trying to undo the damage done by pornography on the young (and I'm assuming here, they found the pornography themselves.) There is opportunity enough for your son to watch porn later on. It won't be so beneficial then, either, but for you to introduce him to pornography now - even as a teaching tool - is like asking him to play Russian roulette.

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    I love this answer. Thank you. This will be handy for me in a few years. – Ida Jan 20 '16 at 23:23
  • Thank you. I think that waiting for your child to ask "incessantly" may mean that you raise a hurdle that is too high for many kids. Many children find it difficult to ask their parents about sex, and if they get over their shame and do ask you should answer, instead of refusing them on the grounds that they don't yet ask often enough. -- I like the idea of allowing him his innocence. Maybe it is not yet time. -- For millions of years kids grew up witnessing copulating animals and humans. I don't think our forfathers were all traumatized by this. But in our culture this is not a possibility. – user4758 Jan 21 '16 at 10:39
  • I'm not advocating shame and ignorance. I'm advocating looking at this from the viewpoint of a child, not an adult. – anongoodnurse Jan 21 '16 at 19:30
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    "By this reasoning, you can easily teach your son about sex by inviting him to watch a session of sex between yourself and his mother." This reminds me of that scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Mar 5 '18 at 7:29
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    @AnneDaunted - I remember seeibg that in the theater and feeling incredibly uncomfortable! – anongoodnurse Mar 5 '18 at 15:34
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It's unlikely pornography will be a valuable aid in sex education and it might cause psychological damage.

You mention that books tend to not illustrate the act of intercourse itself. My guess is that the reason for this hinges on the purpose of sex education. According to a meta-analysis of sex education programs in schools:

In the past decades many school-based programs have been designed for the sole purpose of delaying the initiation of sexual activity. There seems to be a growing consensus that schools can play an important role in providing youth with a knowledge base which may allow them to make informed decisions and help them shape a healthy lifestyle (St Leger, 1999).

So the two main reasons for teaching children about sexuality, encouraging youth to wait and helping them be healthy, do not require more than a description of vaginal intercourse. For abstinence programs, such illustrations are likely counter-productive.

Now I understand your purpose is to satisfy his curiosity. But in my experience as an adolescent boy, it's likely that curiosity will remain unsatisfied. Certainly, I accidently discovered pronography at a (far too) young age, so I knew how the parts fit together, so to speak. That did not address some more important questions that arose in the subsequent years:

  • What did I find attractive about girls?
  • Would they find me attractive?
  • Did I really want to have sex? Maybe I'm gay?
  • How would sex feel?

When I finally did have my first intercourse experience during our honeymoon, it turns out my knowledge was of no use. What I really needed to learn, and could not have discovered beforehand, was what my wife enjoyed. (And it turns out only some of what she wanted was physical.) What helped immeasurably more was the sex education my parents actually provided which included respecting women as people.

There's growing scientific interest the possibility of pronography addiction. An article published by the NIH notes:

Dr. Nora Volkow, Head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and one of the most published and respected scientists in the field of addiction is, in recognition of the change in the understanding of natural addiction, advocating changing the name of the NIDA to the National Institute on Diseases of Addiction, as quoted in the journal Science: “NIDA Director Nora Volkow also felt that her institute’s name should encompass addictions such as pornography, gambling, and food, says NIDA adviser Glen Hanson. ‘She would like to send the message that [we should] look at the whole field.’” (emphasis added).

The proposed mechanism for these natural addictions is neuroplasticity. It seems likely that exposure to pornography is most risky for developing brains. Later on, the NIH paper asserts:

If pornography addiction is viewed objectively, evidence indicates that it does indeed cause harm in humans with regard to pair-bonding. The correlation (85%) between viewing child pornography and participating in actual sexual relations with children was demonstrated by Bourke and Hernandez. The difficulty in objective peer-reviewed discussion of this topic is again illustrated by the attempted suppression of this data on social grounds. The recent meta-analysis by Hald et al. strongly supports and clarifies previous data demonstrating correlation with regard to pornography inducing violence attitudes against women.

The science is far from settled, but it doesn't feel like this is an experiment worth trying.

  • Jon, thank you for your helpful feedback. The heads up about pornography addiction, which is in tune with Mark's answer, is really important. I do believe that pornography can be quite harmful if consumed regularly, and I don't want to initiate my son into such a problematic "substance". -- I think that the delaying of sexual activity is specific to certain cultures (e.g. the US). In Germany, where I live, the focus is on enabling children and adolescents to fend off molestation and to have sex without dangers to your mental and physical health. Officials here do not try to delay sex. – user4758 Jan 21 '16 at 10:49
  • @what: Yes, those are the goals for many programs in the US too. Fewer and fewer push abstinence if only for practical reasons: teenagers are likely to ignore that advice. Be sure you have those goals in mind with your 8-year-old. Introducing a child to sexual acts (even if only as an observer) before they have developed mentally really seems abusive to me. In my opinion, mutual discovery is one of the most exciting parts of a sexual relationship. At that age, the best defense against molestation is likely to explain the importance of personal space and telling adults "no" when they invade it. – Jon Ericson Jan 21 '16 at 17:09
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Pornography is not designed to be teaching material. I personally wouldn't use it as such because there's a rather high chance that (even carefully selected) material will teach your kid the wrong kind of things and it's very hard to find out what he's learning.

Rather, if you say that the books you found "omit the act of reproduction", find some better books. At the risk of being a bit offensive, go look for one that has absolutely no religious bias. The ones I got when I was a kid were completely open about the "act of reproduction", the feeling of being horny, lust, masturbation, and everything else that a kid should be taught.

Unfortunately those books are also in Dutch and probably of no use to you, but I'm sure they exist in your area as well.

Ultimately, these books are much better for learning because they actually explain; porn shows you how it works but it doesn't explain why and usually doesn't explain much about feelings either. Good books (or videos) do explain these things.

  • Thank you. Well, as with the swimming example, I would do the explaining to go with the images myself. I wouldn't just put my kid in front of the tv and let him watch on his own and then not talk to him about it. Rather I would watch with him and talk while we view. I also wouldn't simply play a movie as I found it, but maybe cut scenes or paste together what I found useful. – user4758 Jan 20 '16 at 12:18
  • In many jurisdictions showing pornography to children is considered to be a form of child abuse. Of course that's because its often part of "grooming", which is not your intention. But you need to check your local laws. – Paul Johnson Jan 20 '16 at 20:36
  • @PaulJohnson That is something to consider. – user4758 Jan 21 '16 at 10:39
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Pornography is a substance almost, but not quite, entirely unlike sex. If you want to show the mechanics of inserting "tab A" into "slot B", then sure, a brief clip might work. For any other purpose, it's useless at best and highly misleading at worst.

  • That's a brilliant observation, Mark. The depiction of sex is not sex. Actors are not real people. I am sure my son is aware of the difference (since he is familiar with movies and moviemaking), so while I try to explain sex to him I might be sending the message that this kind of media exists and that it is "okay" to consume it. – user4758 Jan 21 '16 at 10:42

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