With two kids entering their teen years, my wife and I are wrestling with how to deal with pornographic images they will encounter on the Web and how it will shape their expectations about relationships, particularly sexual relationships.
We don't think you can't not tell them they will see a cartoon vision of real sexuality they should not try to emulate. No matter what we do to "protect" our kids, images and ideas are going to bombard them as they use the Web, read email and chat, so the only reasonable option is to tell them they should be ready for the unrealistic, not images of the adult world into which they are growing.
It's not a new problem. As the 1786 print, A Modern Venus, or a Lady of the Present Fashion in the State of Nature (seen above) shows, the cork padding and bust-lifting corsets of women's clothes in the 18th century created bizarre expectations of what they'd look like naked. These kinds of prints were satirical rather than solely sexual, Sex on the Web makes sex as it actually happens look like touch football in the backyard compared to watching NFL football.but they were widely circulated at the time, so all ages were presented images of sexuality then, too. As historian Vic Gatrell explains in his City of Laughter, Sex and Satire In Eighteenth-Century London, the sudden accessibility of images because of "mass" production create epochs when mores and limits are redefined. Prints were made in the hundreds before the plates wore out, but in London at the time, it was the equivalent of a media revolution. The Internet blows the phenomenon into a global, rather than city-wide, event.
What a kid will see on the Web makes sex as it actually happens look like touch football in the backyard compared to watching NFL football, it's all show and athleticism and extremes. The exemplar of sexuality presented in pornography is unachievable even if it is just plain old straight heterosexual sex. If a kid is impressionable, they are going to think their own performance should match those images, just as they might think they want to be as good as a pro athlete. What they do in their relationships is purely a matter of individual preference and ability, and pornography can create an unrealistic—probably twisted—expectation for themselves and their sexual partner.
That he shouldn't mimic what he sees is what we've told our 13-year-old son and will tell our daughter someday, when the time is right.
Creating barriers with technology is only a partial solution and may leave kids unprepared for the ferocious force of images and messages they'll encounter as young adults. There is anecdotal evidence in works, such as Larry Clark's Impaled, that suggest boys today are modeling their sexuality after the performance of male porn stars while girls have adopted the hyper-sexualized postures of porn stars and models in their MySpace pages. Media is shaping kids' ideals, so let's try to prepare them to think about the images they see critically and skeptically.
I'm not arguing for any prohibitions on content or practices, rather that parents need to prepare their kids for making their own choices based on realistic expectations about sexuality, even if the individual's preferences are or will be out of the ordinary. Teaching our kids to think is more important than keeping them away from the ideas they are bound to confront and decide for themselves about.
There are certainly people out there who think they can isolate and insulate their children and are offended by the idea of a frank discussion of the subject with the kids. But I'd reply that leaves the kids without the arsenal of their parents' experience. If the parents believe their children should never have sex until they are married, they should still be prepared to discuss the fact that media images of sex are blown out of proportion to reality so that the kids have a foundation for judging whether what tempts them is in fact realistic.
Here's how I found out there was a larger horizon to sex than procreation: While walking in the woods with friends as a kid, we found one of those 1960s sex "manuals" lying on the ground that dealt with the possibilities beyond the missionary position. Compared to what shows up unbidden in spam email these days, it was tame stuff, but I still remember thinking that something had been revealed which had previously well hidden. If I'd thought that book was the way to act because of a Web site asking if the models were "hot or not" that reinforced the power of the images, it would have been damaging to my ability to have a relationship, because I'd have begun thinking the role of a woman is performer, not friend and lover.
Now, in all likelihood, the first exposure to sexuality and sexual roles will happen on the Internet. No matter what parents do, they cannot insulate their kids from the people on the Net who are seeking to make customers or victims of them, because the vendors and practitioners of sex are determined to get their hooks into customers young, just like the cigarette and alcoholic beverages industries. This isn't a "beware of predators" posting. We should acknowledge that with so much sexual content to choose our children's friends are more likely to be the conduit to pornographic images than an adult predator.
My friend Susannah Breslin, who writes very perceptively about sexuality at the Reverse Cowgirl, tells about the "pretty girl" shots taken of porn performers before a film is made. "Afterwards, the porn star isn't so pretty," Susannah wrote. That speaks volumes to me about what is wrong with letting kids find this stuff without some preparation: Real love doesn't make your lover uglier, but today's media version of sexuality is all about making people into tools that can be worn out, used and reduced to an empty husk on screen or in an image. It's a form of entertainment, but it isn't the basis of a love life.