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Is it wise to impart sex education using adult content?

Recently a mom-influencer was called out for encouraging a parent to ‘re-watch’ porn with her minor child. People are questioning the merits of using adult content as a resource for sex education

Sex education is imperative in these times but needs to be imparted under careful guidance. Photo: Unsplash

By Radhika Meganathan

LAST PUBLISHED 03.09.2023  |  01:00 PM IST

A mom-influencer, who owns a popular parenting channel on Instagram, was in the news recently. A YouTube video had surfaced, in which she was seen praising a mother’s decision to “re-watch" adult content with her eight-year-old child, after the latter was exposed to it accidentally. Apparently, the mom had arrived at this decision after being “inspired" by the mom-influencer’s reels. The video has now been deleted. However, the incident has sparked a raging debate.

Most of the initial reactions seem to be those of disbelief and confusion. “What if the content the child was exposed to was a horror movie? Will the parent show it again to an already-traumatised child to cure the kid’s fears or to prove that movies are not reality?" asks Amrita Dinesh, an engineer and a mom to a 10-year-old girl. She doesn’t follow the parenting channel in question but has several friends who do. “Also, porn is a gross misrepresentation of facts. Using it as an educational resource is like explaining science using a superhero movie."

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Vijayachakravarthy, an IT professional, who has recently discussed sex and sexuality with his 11-year-old boy, says: “I’ve been following the parenting channel for quite some time now, she’s a huge name in certain circles. I used to like her content but have been having increasing reservations about her aggressive marketing. Endorsing a parenting decision to rewatch adult content with a child as brilliant? A person claiming to be a sex educator, with nearly 500k followers, should know better than that."

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The other side of the mirror

Voices of dissent view this incident through a more nuanced lens as there are many unknown variables here. Some consider two men kissing as porn, so it can mean many things to different people. "In the screenshots being shared, the mom says I explained everything by rewatching it, but what exactly did she explain? It’s not clear, yet everyone is reacting based on their own interpretation. That poor mom was only trying to help her child understand what she had already been exposed to. The influencer (I have no idea who she is) was wrong, in making a private conversation public," says Madhumita Bhattacharya, a communications consultant-author and a mom to a 13-year-old girl.

Prague-based writer Ramya Mohanakrishnan, who has attended parenting workshops by the mom-influencer in question, agrees. “I read a study about most kids stumbling upon porn by the age of nine. With younger children, it’s just basic biology and body parts, but older kids need more nuanced dialogue." Mohanakrishnan hails the parenting channel for helping her navigate these conversations. She has no problems with the influencer’s branded content either. “Neither is the mom [who watched porn with her child] wrong---all she did was re-watch the scenes her child already seen for the sake of a healthy discussion. A child, knowing that she can have this level of conversation with her parent, can be liberating. The parent can also act as a fact-checker, given the half-baked information that floats around for kids to access, accidentally or deliberately," she adds.

What do the experts say?

Instead of judging the mother's actions, Dr Nithya Poornima, a Bengaluru-based clinical psychologist, and mother to a 13-year-old, focuses on whether they were helpful.

“Many modern-age parents are moving to a democratic, child-centric approach to parenting, a welcome change that comes with its own challenges. With widespread access to Internet-enabled gadgets and limited awareness of parental controls, children are prolifically exposed to inappropriate content at younger and younger ages," she elaborates. In Dr Poornima’s opinion, the mother might have had good intentions of undoing some negative consequences of the child having accidentally stumbled upon porn. “The child may have found it helpful that the mother was not harsh or critical. However, rewatching the adult content could have definitely been avoided, considering the child's age, related developmental capacities and associated behavioral risks," she adds.

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Supriya Aggarwal, a certified childhood trauma resolution expert, has similar thoughts. “At the age of eight, children can’t differentiate between right and wrong, as their prefrontal cortex, the brain’s seat of analysis and reasoning, is not fully developed," she says. Anything they consume at this time they believe it to be true, and form opinions based on that. Even if explained then or later about the true facts, it will take them both time and effort to remove that from their unconscious mind. “For this reason alone, I’d advise age-appropriate material to teach mature concepts to kids. Sex education is imperative in these times but needs to be imparted under careful guidance," adds Aggarwal.

But who is the right guide on sex education?

Parents, of course, offer the saftest space for mindful sex education to their own kids. However, for the public at large, there are no legally-approved qualifications for becoming a sexuality educator at present. “There are about a handful of courses offered mostly by nonprofits which are largely informed by international frameworks and lived experiences," says Niyati Sharma, founder of Pratisandhi, a sex ed platform that has recently launched the Sex Ed Library, a hub of over 500 vetted resources on sex and sexuality related topics for parents, educators, and individuals.

The lack of formal policy-approved guidelines is also a glaring factor. Parents have very little support at a governmental and community level to deal with these issues in an informed manner, which often results in actions that are reactive and not responsive. According to Anant Kumar Asthana, a Delhi-based child rights lawyer, while it is important for parents and schools to provide sex education to children, the content and manner should be age-appropriate.

“Being a parent or an influencer is certainly not sufficient to hold sex education workshops on a large scale. However, in specific circumstances, it should be okay to do so as long as one is extremely transparent about their qualifications so that no one is misled. And as long as the content has been designed with inputs from a multi-qualified expert panel, not just one person," says Sharma.

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A large number of parents indeed benefit from prolific social media influencers, whose content encourages child-centric parenting and often shatters old-fashioned or unscientific misconceptions. While that is great news, it is also true that influencers are a business with profit-driven goals; hence the onus is on the parent not to take important decisions based on one narrative alone.

Sex education is not about the physical act of procreation alone. It covers a wide umbrella, ranging from topics of body autonomy, sexual identity and health to hygiene, consent, and more. The aim is to make the children aware of their bodies and equipping them with knowledge to make the best of any situation that might arise in the future. An important objective is also that in case of any mishap, the child can trust the parents enough to approach them for support.

“Parents have a massive influence on a child's approach to and understanding of sexuality, much more than any sexuality educator could have," says Sharma. “Even when not talking about sex, parents are teaching their kids about attitudes towards sex. We can't expect all parents to become certified sex education teachers but open conversations and creating judgment-free zones is always a good thing."

Radhika Meganathan is an independent writer.