6 years old. That’s when her secret life began. When she lived in the perfect middle-class cul-de-sac. Low traffic. Kids of all ages playing together. Friendly neighbors with wholesome values. Some might say she was living the American Dream.
One day, Mae (not her real name) was playing in the home of her friend, an 11-year-old girl who had a computer in her bedroom. This friend showed Mae an explicit video of a college party scene. There wasn’t any sex, but there were students who would flash their naked bodies at the camera. For Mae, it was captivating.
Still, she sensed something might be “wrong” about watching. Mae was always careful to follow rules and she was worried about getting in trouble. Her 11-year-old friend assured Mae that she knew how to delete the history on the computer; Mae didn’t need to worry because parents would never know.
Were there more secret videos?
For many months after watching that first mesmerizing video, Mae would think about the experience. The images, still vivid in her mind, continued to demand her attention. Eventually, Mae found the courage to ask her neighbor friend what she wanted to know:
“Were there more videos like this? What else could she see?” Having been assured that parents couldn’t find out about this secret life, Mae followed her desire to see more videos of naked people.
That’s when her “friend” started showing her hardcore pornography. Then, she taught Mae how to masturbate.
When Mae was 7, she wanted to show her cousins this new way to feel good so she taught them. This led to further sexual experimentation. Mae only saw her cousins once a year, but this went on for a few years before they were caught. Though Mae had initiated this child-on-child sexual behavior, she was clearly a victim. She was only 10 years old!
Where was the perpetrator?
With great despair, Mae’s parents took their daughter to a counselor. Certain that Mae must have been touched sexually by another person, the counselor showed Mae a diagram of a girl’s body. While pointing to private body parts on the drawing, the counselor asked Mae if anyone had ever touched her “here”. Mae answered truthfully: no.
Mae’s parents and the counselor were baffled. How could this young girl have initiated overtly sexual acts with other children without anyone sexually touching her first?
A counselor overlooks a predator
This counselor didn’t realize that a predatory sexual experience was not the only precursor to sexually deviant behavior in kids. Overt sexual exposure can also lead a child to act out sexually. Sexual exposure can come from directly witnessing sexual acts (like a child being in the same room as people having sex) or by witnessing sexual acts through another venue (such as television or online.)
What this counselor overlooked is the greatest serial sexual abuser of children on the planet: pornography. Whether a child is shown pornography or stumbles across it accidentally, pornography itself can function like a perpetrator, prematurely awakening sexual feelings within that child. Mae’s counselor never asked Mae if anyone had ever shown her pictures or videos of naked people.
Of course, Mae was too young to make the connection between the videos she watched and her own sexual behavior towards her cousins. Mae didn’t even know the word pornography! Mae’s parents were left confused, hoping this issue would simply disappear. It didn’t.
Filters were a sign
By 6th grade, Mae started finding pornography on her own. She was always worried her parents would find out about her secret life. When her parents first installed filters on their home computer, Mae was sure they must have done this because they knew she had been looking at porn.
Mae believed that her mom and dad would rather put filters on the computer than confront her. Filters on the computer were a signal to Mae that her parents could not handle talking about pornography; filters were a sign she must protect them from her “shameful” self.
Mae quickly found a way to work around the filters and she kept her tracks well-covered. Not only did she want to avoid getting in trouble, she wanted to allow her parents to live in the comfortable illusion that the filters they installed were preventing access to porn. It was better for everyone if her parents didn’t know the truth. Or so she thought.
Shame and secrecy hinder relationships
Living this secret life impacted every aspect of Mae’s adolescence. Feelings of shame were common in all of her daily activities. Always on guard, Mae lived in fear that her friends would be able to see deep inside her. She was careful not to let them get too close.
Often, Mae felt as though she were two people, part good and part bad, living in the same body. She felt alone. Confused. Trapped. For many years, Mae carried the secret completely alone. When she was 14, she confided in a counselor and her journey towards healing began. Still, she did not feel safe confiding in anyone she loved or felt close to. It was not until she became a young adult that Mae found the strength to tell a college friend about her secret life, her addiction to pornography and how it started. That is a long time to carry the burden of a secret life.
Unfortunately, Mae’s story is not rare! Many children have been abused by pornography and then silenced by shame. Many child victims have imitated what they have seen in pornography, acting out on other children.
What can parents do?
You can spread awareness that pornography exposure can function like a predator. Children with repeated exposure to hardcore pornography may need treatment from a sexual abuse counselor.
You can also teach these ideas to your kids:
- Looking at pornography can be harmful to a child’s growing brain. Kids should look away if they see pornography and tell a trusted adult (Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids can help).
- NO ONE — Not a relative, not a friend, not an adult, not a kid, not a teacher, not a doctor — NO ONE SHOULD EVER SHOW PORNOGRAPHY TO A CHILD.
- If anyone shows a kid pornography, it is a Big Red Flag; children need to tell a trusted adult immediately. No one should ever try to scare a child into keeping a secret.
Finally, you can establish a home environment where your kids feel comfortable talking to you about anything, including pornography. When parents talk openly, they give kids permission to do the same.
Do you want to start talking with your kids, but just don’t know how to get this conversation going? Don’t worry! With some help from our allies in the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation, we have compiled a FREE cheat sheet for you, our Top 10 EASIEST Ways to Start Conversations About Pornography. Click on the box below: