Talking to my 9 year old son about pornography has been one of the most wonderful and fulfilling parenting experiences I’ve had to date.
The conversations we’ve had have bonded us together deeply, generated a mutual respect and connected us both to our powerful inner voices that speak of justice. He has a lived experience of me talking about difficult things, being honest and brave, and that I am stepping up to my role as parent to keep him safe. I can see he feels proud of me. I feel proud of how I have protected him and his potential for happiness and healthy relationship.
The story behind all of this is a story of heartbreak and trauma.
When my son was a little baby, his father became violent towards me and we split up. After many years of single parenting, I met a wonderful man, fell in love, and in time he moved in and became my son’s much needed and adored step dad. They got on like a house on fire. We were all so happy. A year later I discovered he secretly used pornography. Arguments started, lies ensued, my heart slowly broke into pieces, his deep feelings of shame were activated and eventually it became apparent he was not prepared to address the issue and instead the problems in our relationship were blamed on me. It soon spiralled into a nightmare of gaslighting and verbal abuse as he tried to cover his tracks, minimise his problem and deflect responsibility. And meanwhile my little boy saw the father figure he adored slip away between his fingers. He walked out the day before my son’s 9th birthday, having been caught lying yet again about another mammoth porn session.
My little boy was devastated, confused and heartbroken. It was not long before he became angry with me, blaming me for the relationship breakdowns. He did not know about his father’s violence or his step father’s porn habit. All he could see was his mother emotionally smashed to pieces, with his fathers expertly feigning calm, kind gentlemanliness (something they had done their whole lives, creating a smokescreen for their abusive behaviours). The two fathers became friends, spending time together with my son, all three of them sharing in their experiences of me being an emotionally unstable woman (no doubt not discussing the porn or violence). I’m not quite sure how I survived the following months.
Discovering my ex partner’s porn habit catapulted me into a world that I knew nothing about. I began to educate myself on the effects porn has on users, partners, performers, families and society. I learned about the industry and how it is run. I learned about the brain and addiction. And I learned that a child is first exposed to pornography around the age of 10. In other words, it is not a matter of ‘if’ my son would be exposed to pornography, but ‘when’. And having witnessed the deeply destructive effects that porn has on users’ mental health and potential for healthy relationship, I felt a strong urge to protect him from the negative effects of his inevitable first exposure. The more I researched it, the more I realised I needed to have this conversation with him.
Somehow it doesn’t seem right to talk with such a young child about pornography. I wanted his first knowledge of sexual intimacy to not be pornography! But sadly, if we don’t have these conversations with children, we run a high chance of them being exposed without any tools to handle it. And the effects of that are nothing less than traumatising.
That first conversation, in the end, turned out to be surprisingly easy. I used a book called Good Pictures Bad Pictures which has been written especially for parents to read aloud to their children. I changed a few words as I went along, but the book basically did all the work for me. And it turns out that a child centred approach to discussing pornography involves informative and educative learning about the brain and how to protect it as it is growing and maturing. I realise now that it was good my son was so young, because he still wanted to ask me questions, have a conversation and engage on the subject. He was not too embarrassed.
Since then he notices images of women and girls being sexually objectified (they are everywhere) and he asks me if it is pornography. I have been able to explain that it isn’t, but that these women and girls are being turned into objects in the same way that it happens in porn. Now, when we see images of women and girls being objectified, we notice how it is impossible to know anything about who they are and we try to wonder about what hobbies she might have or what her favourite film might be. He commented once that it was like the images turn the woman/girl into a toy - whom you can discard easily.
My ex partner’s porn addiction has undone the desensitisation of sexual objectification I embodied from being bombarded with it everywhere in society. And my son now has also been protected from this desensitisation. He now, aged 10, calls out the objectification of women and girls whenever he sees or hears it. And sadly he hears it amongst his peers at school already. We know that those are the children who have not had the conversation and have not been protected.
I have heard it said many times that we need to teach our sons to respect women. But from my perspective my son doesn’t need these kind of lessons. He was born good and moral and with a strong sense of humanity and fairness and justice. The issue is not to teach him these things, but more to protect him from the people and parts of our society that lead him astray from this.
Discussing pornography with our children protects their inherent nature to be good. It is the job of parents and all grown ups to protect children. Pornography bonds a user to an image on a screen, connecting their brain and physiology to an object. It can bring about a loss of connection to our own natural libido, threatening our potential for connection, bonding and belonging with another human. All the evidence shows that using pornography causes fragmentation within individuals and damages bonding in relationship. So it is ironic that talking with my little boy about pornography has had the opposite effect. It has bonded my son and I together, giving us each a sense of belonging both internally and together. From terrible trauma has grown a sense of belonging.
For more support and information on how to address the issue of pornography with your child, tween or teen, please have a look at the Parents Program which is a free online course offered by Culture Reframed, or look up the book Good Pictures, Bad Pictures.
(And if you wonder why I have put this blog on my yoga website …. Yoga is to ‘yoke’, to connect. So talking with your child to protect them from pornography, to me, is yoga in action. And porn is the opposite of yoga.)
A deep yoga practice, in this current social and political climate, requires activism.
Almost every yoga lineage now has a senior teacher at its helm who has perpetrated abuse; mostly sexual violence, but also physical violence (see Matthew Remski’s list at the end of my Justice Manifesto for details). Many popular spiritual gurus and Buddhist organisations are also now being found to be rife with abuse.
I realise that most of us would rather get our mats out, close the doors and retreat into our practice. And there is so much value in that. But right now, this is not enough. Staying silent is not an option. Like the mother who turns a blind eye when the father abuses her child, she is then complicit in the abuse. She may not have physically committed the act, but she has enabled it. And to not stand up and speak out at this time is inadequate and negligent and goes against the underlying principle of yoga to do no harm (ahimsa).
And yet the responses we are witnessing from both the yoga/spiritual communities and the institutions employing the abusers are woefully inadequate, uninformed and deeply harmful. The responses from the yoga/spiritual community are suggestive of grooming; implying the abuse was in some way compassionate, or a way for the teacher to impart deep learning, or that the victim may be mistaken or lying, or by responding with “I was never abused and no one I know was abused”, or shifting the focus off the abuse and onto how wise the teacher is.
The responses from the institutions employing the abusers show that they have acted as nothing less than enablers; taking years for reports to be taken seriously meanwhile allowing the teacher to continue teaching and abusing, not acknowledging the abuse or validating the victim, shifting the focus away from the abuser once it does finally become public, not apologising, still employing them even after they have been found guilty or decertified. This makes a mockery of yoga.
From my personal experience of sexual violence (which was in a domestic setting), I know the response to abuse by the community can be more damaging than the actual abuse itself. And, in fact, what is happening in the yoga world is playing out exactly the same way as in a domestic abuse situation. The supporters of the abuser band together and speak badly of the whistleblowers. They shift the focus away from the violence perpetrated by the abuser and onto the victim's behaviour. They deny the abuse, propose alternative facts and distort the truth (gaslighting). They insist that there are two sides to every story as though the victim was in some way responsible, while complacently supporting the abuser.
A clear and insightful guide on how to respond competently, either as an individual, as part of a community or from within an organisation, has been written by Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke in their article for Yoga International, How to Respond to Sexual Abuse within a Yoga or Spiritual Community. I think the ideas and suggestions in this article need to be better understood by individuals and society as a whole, not just the yoga/spiritual community.
The word yoga means to ‘yoke’. To tie together. To connect. Yet this connection is worthless when it happens in isolation. Sitting alone in a cave in the mountains achieving enlightenment is of no value to us if the village in the valley is being ripped apart by war. There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together”. The yoga and spiritual world is full of people who have countless hours of self practice connecting deeply with themselves, but who can’t connect with someone when they speak of their pain.
Neurobiology demonstrates to us that integration and connection is a way towards wellbeing. Science shows us that our nervous systems are designed to communicate. The science of the brain, interpersonal neurobiology, developmental science and psychology all show us that how we relate to each other is intimately linked to the health of our social, political and environmental surrounds and individual happiness. It is my view that we all have an ethical duty to make an active stand against division to create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. Climate change itself has been created by individuals’ desire for money, power and acquisition. Personal advancement, even of the spiritual kind, is worthless when it excludes other people.
There is a mantra in yoga which translates as, “I am that” (So 'ham) meaning 'I identify myself with the universe'. And there is an African philosophy called Ubuntu which grounds this reality into the phrase “I am because we are” meaning we are all connected through our common humanity and an individual’s wellbeing is tied up in the wellbeing of others. We are social beings with social brains. If one of us is abused, we are all abused. If one of us is silenced, we are all silenced. If one of us is betrayed, we are all betrayed. As Louis Cozolino, a psychologist whose more recent writings focus on how the human brain has evolved into a social organ, said, “We are not survival of the fittest. We are survival of the nurtured.”
If we can begin to truly take care of each other on a soulful level, we begin to protect the happiness and health of all of us, beyond human beings and including all life forms, including the planet itself. In this current climate this is desperately needed.
And if we are to truly practice yoga, then we must live by its foundational principles of truth and ‘do no harm’ (Satya and Ahimsa) and apply them to the sexual violence that has arisen in our yoga shalas, studios and communities in order to end the division, fragmentation and disconnection that has come from the abusers’ unresolved shadows. Whilst we associate ourselves, our work and our practice with ‘gurus’ or lineages that have abused or enabled abuse, we are giving out the message that we will turn a blind eye to abuse within our work. It is wrong to remain silent on the abuse that our teachers have carried out, and to continue to work within their framework, quoting them and supporting them. We need to move away from being peacekeepers and instead become truth tellers. Sometimes the truth is heinous, uncomfortable and shocking. But naming it, to me, is more spiritual than avoidance, smokescreens, stonewalling and distorted dissociation.
Deep yoga requires activism.
“The real power belongs to the people.” Greta Thurnberg