Two years ago, I heard this snippet of a conversation between my son, Jamin, and his fourth-grade buddy in the backseat of my car.
“. . . then he went on (porn website) dot com,” the child whispered and giggled.
After dropping off his friend, I asked my son casually, “So I heard Mark mention a website that I’m not familiar with? What do you know about that website?”
“A kid in my class — I won’t say his name — went on that site before his parents got home and told us lots of naked people were doing sick stuff. I never did though. You know that,” my son explained.
He was eleven. The walls of his room were covered with Burlington Northern train posters, National Geographic pull-outs, and the Official Calendar of Trout Unlimited.
Later that week, Jamin’s teacher, also a friend, relayed a story of how one of his students approached him and asked, “Mr. P., do you like eating bananas?”
When he replied, “Sure I do,” the student passed a message around the room that Mr. P. gave blow jobs. He’d seen it in his brother’s stack of magazines.
My initial reaction was to have my husband deal with it. After all, I’d never been exposed to pornography as a kid and frankly could not find the section in “What to Expect” on how to prevent eleven-year-olds from seeing explicit images of blow jobs or hearing about them. Then, I stumbled across an article that was emphatic about the importance of mother-son and father-daughter discussions around sex. Being the researcher that I am, I looked for guides to talk to kids about pornography. There weren’t many. The million links I found to talk to my kids about alcohol and drugs became my primer. Pornography, I have learned, distorts, numbs, and drugs like any other substance that can be huffed, injected, or served with an olive. The guidelines were simple: listen, encourage other choices, provide age-appropriate information, establish your family values, be a good example, and build esteem.
I read further research about pornography that cited evidence that males under age fourteen exposed to erotic material were more likely to be sexually active earlier and exhibited more sexual risk-taking behaviors. With a causal chain like that, I was motivated to say something — say anything — to get the topic out there, even if it was awkward at first. In my decade of parenting, I’ve found success discussing issues in a relaxed manner before they become issues.
A few nights later as my husband and I were tucking Jamin in, I asked him, “What kind of naked, in your opinion, is OK?”
My son regarded me and said slowly, “Well, Roman statues and naked Egyptian Pharaohs are artistic. And babies and little kids are OK.”
“And what kind,” I said, “is not OK?”
He thought longer this time. “Millions of people running around naked doing stuff would not be.” Then he narrowed his eyes. “Why?”
“It’s a conversation I wanted to start with you. I want to share my thoughts on ‘naked people doing stuff.'”
“Is this because I’m going to go through puberty?” he asked. He had some fairly high anxiety about the changes his body will undergo. Like a textbook first child, he doesn’t want anything to happen if he’s not in complete control.
“Sort of,” I said. “I think it’s a good time to start talking.”
Leaving it alone for a week, I began talking to other moms. One told me that her son had started spending more time in her husband’s bathroom looking at motorcycle magazines with pictures of naked women atop crotch rockets.
“And that’s OK with you?” I asked. “He’s seven.”
“Sure,” she waved her hand. “Boys will be boys. It’s harmless.”
Another mom said, “I’m sure my son is hiding them somewhere. I just don’t want to know about it.”
I chewed on that and kept reading: the effects of pornography are progressive and addictive for many people.
Harmless in the dictionary does not have progressive and addictive as synonyms. In my search I stumbled across Dr. Mary Anne Layden’s remarks for the Senate. She opened with this statement, “Pornography, by its very nature, is an equal-opportunity toxin. It damages the viewer, the performer, and the spouses and children of the viewers and performers. It is toxic mis-education about sex and relationships. It is more toxic the more you consume, the ‘harder’ the variety you consume, and the younger and more vulnerable the consumer.”
The term toxic mis-education resonated with me and I jotted down my thoughts on pornography and my wishes for a healthy sexual future for Jamin. I wanted him to be aware without being scared or shamed.
Later, when we were alone in the car together I restarted the conversation. “Remember when we were talking about different kinds of naked and what is OK and not?” I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw him take his eyes off Calvin and Hobbes. He shrugged and nodded.
“I think naked bodies are beautiful and sex is something that will be very special for you someday. There is something called pornography or porn sometimes and it comes in certain magazines or movies or on the computer. It is pictures of people engaging in sexual activities.”
“Like that website that Mark was talking about?”
“Probably. It’s something that isn’t healthy for some people, but especially kids. A lot of kids are curious about it, which is normal, but the pictures can change the way people think about their bodies and sex and I don’t want you to see it. I want you to have a healthy view of yourself as a sexual person as you grow up. And I want you to know we can talk about it.”
“Mom, you know I don’t want to see that stuff,” he said.
“I know that’s true now, but at some point you may have kids tease you if you don’t want to look at a magazine or website. You’ll decide what to say and do, but I think you can simply say, ‘No thanks.'”
And then I stopped. It already was more lecture-like than I was aiming for, but I’m certain there will be another opening. I still have so many questions. Right now Calvin and Hobbes is much more interesting than porn and I delight in that reality.
Dr. Mary Ann Layden believes that we should not be silent about this issue; she makes a point that encourages me to keep talking to Jamin. She writes “If pornography made us healthy, we would be healthy by now.” Talking about porn requires normalization. As I read parts of this column to my now almost thirteen-year-old son picking the food out of his braces, he said, “I totally forgot we even had that conversation.” At first I was discouraged about that, but then I realized he’d say the same thing about remembering to pick up his socks.
“Does it bother you that I’m writing about our talk about pornography?” I asked, suddenly worried that I may have to scrap all my work if he feels violated.
“Nah,” he shrugs, “it doesn’t bother me.”
“Perfectly normal” is the refrain I use to help my children know that what they are experiencing is part of a healthy maturation, but I need to give myself permission too. It’s perfectly normal that I won’t have the right words to say, so I need to plod on imperfectly with the goal of keeping our connection, knowing there are more wild websites and bananas ahead.