Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

How Much Porn Is Your Kid Watching?

Is porn culture affecting the next generation's attitudes towards sex?

There is a scene in HBO’s Girls, where Hannah’s boyfriend has anal sex with her in what may be the un-sexiest sex scene ever presented on television: he is brutal and uncaring; she is passive and unenthusiastic. Interpret it how you will—an affront to all we hold dear; character development; or simply shock value for audiences that are increasingly hard to shock.

But at the core, it’s another example of the rampant dehumanization of sex, where the physical and the emotional are going their separate ways without so much as a backward glance.

I blame porn. I’m not an anti-porn crusader by any means. In terms of the likelihood of change, you might as well be anti-cell phone. Still, the scene—where he didn’t seem to notice her head banging against the bedpost and she didn’t seem to care—is both an example and a reflection of how thoroughly sex for the sake of sex has saturated America’s culture.

As we adjust to this infinite swamp of pornographic availability, three questions emerge. How much porn are kids watching? How is it impacting how they see the connection between sex and emotion? And what—if anything—do parents do about it?

How much they’re watching starts with how much is there to watch.

First, videos and DVDs brought porn into the home. Now comes the Internet, and porn is everywhere. As widely reported, a University of Montreal study concluded 90 percent of all pornography now comes from the Web. Just 10 percent comes from video stores. The technology blog Gizmodo puts the number of pornographic web sites at 24.6 million, roughly 12 percent of total web sites. As for breadth of content, a few quick search terms can take you—often by accident—directly to a site that proclaims itself “the largest bestiality site” on the Web. You might want to be there when your child searches: “My Little Pony.”

How much are kids consuming? Study results vary widely, and none are lock-down credible. The University of Montreal study reports that boys seek out pornography by age 10. A University of New Hampshire survey of Internet users ages 10 to 17 published in Pediatrics found that 42 percent said they had viewed online porn in the past 12 months—and 66 of those said the exposure was unwanted.

A significant number of teens report getting into producing porn themselves. A University of Texas Medical Branch study of students in southeast Texas found that 30 percent of U.S. teenagers are sending nude photos over e-mail or texts.

Two facts are beyond debate. Porn is omnipresent, and kids are encountering it. Much less clear is what to do about it.

Regardless of the most determined parental filtering and blocking, kids at the peak of their sexual curiosity will find their way to it. What happens once they arrive, however, is an open question. Predictions tend to vary with agendas.

For boys (the prime consumer), it may poison attitudes toward women, create confidence-sapping comparisons of dimensions and performance, crowd out actual relationships—even carve out new neural pathways. Or it may do nothing at all. Boomers, after all, managed to survive Playboy, Hustler, X-ratings, strip clubs and all the ensuing and incremental media sexual firsts with their sexuality generally undamaged.

Still, we’ve never experienced push-button porn serving up genres from routine to revolting.

In the absence of credible, long-term research, we simply don’t know where the age of insta-porn is taking us. One thing is certain, however: parents are not behind the wheel. From adolescence on, blocking and filtering are simply denial. When biological urgency meets technological capability, the only weapon is to construct a frame of reference; a way to process things past generations have never seen.

How families approach that is an individual decision. But there is a fundamental and consistent message: porn is not sex. It’s a commercial depiction of sex that has nothing to do with real (non-digital) human relationships.

The sexual revolution is now some five decades along. One thing we know about revolutions—sexual or otherwise—is that they don’t go backwards. Porn is here to stay. (Google Glass wearable computer  already has a porn app.) Nothing will diminish its presence or its access. But with an open attitude and a real-world perspective, we can help young people understand it for what it is.

Kids need to know that what they are seeing, in all its often disturbing variety, is not what sex really is. Pornography is a business. It makes money by taking a natural thing to an unnatural extreme. Porn is part of sexuality, but it doesn’t define it. The sex on porn sites is not the sex that is a wonderful part of life.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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