When I was in medical school, there was this show called Beavis and Butthead.
Beavis and Butthead (as their names suggest) were two exaggerated versions of typical early adolescent boys who snickered at words with even a hint of sexual connotation. It was fashionable when the show was on to imitate their raspy laughter. I’ll admit that many of my friends (men and women alike) found the show to be pretty funny. Its creator, Mike Judge, has gone on to do some great comedy on the big screen.
So, what do Beavis and Butthead have to do with Internet pornography?
Not much—and that’s a good place to start this discussion.
Many of the more memorable episodes of Beavis and Butthead would not have been possible in the age of X-rated cyberspace. In one episode, the boys are “forced” to sneak into a coveted nudist colony because they lack the $4,000 entrance fee. They just want to watch. They’re curious.
But this episode was written at a time when there was no Internet to speak of. The access to pornographic images for Beavis and Butthead was relegated to magazines with the front covers shielded, kept safely behind the counter at 7-Elevens and gas stations. (Or, more exotically, at nudist colonies.)
Today, the nudist colony episode would last about four minutes. There’s no longer a need to sneak into a nudist colony—you just have to search your computer.
Discussing the multitude of sexually provocative images and movies that are readily available on the Internet is, to say the least, difficult. Nevertheless, I’d estimate that not a week goes by that I don’t hear about someone who is understandably worried about his or her child’s interest in, or apparent exploration of, Internet pornography. This has become a central issue in child development.
This post will not attempt to define pornography (indeed, the famous U.S. Supreme Court default of “I know it when I see it” shows how hard it is to put these issues into words), nor will it shower you with endless statistics. Estimates of the amount of pornography online are almost certainly overblown–but this isn’t the place to quibble about numbers. What we know, from studies as well as from clinical experience, is this:
It’s this last conclusion—that internet pornography might drive expectations around sexual experience—that is most worrisome.
Remember that humans are sexual creatures; we are programmed to think and behave sexually. It is also the case that sexual experimentation and activity are healthy and normal parts of human development. Kids at all ages have a sexual drive and curiosity—from “playing doctor,” to wanting to come into the bathroom with Mommy or Daddy. Teenagers, with their stronger sexual urges, will of course want to explore sexuality in far more advanced ways. It’s simply part of being human.
So, how do we reconcile our normal and healthy drives with the massive amount of sexually provocative material that is amply available online? More importantly, how do we discuss these issues with our kids?
Here are some tips to follow. But first, as you read this advice, remember that each child is different. You’ll need to adjust your tone and your attitude based on your child’s developmental stage and your own personal belief system.
Here’s what we can offer:
Most importantly, let your children know that what they see online is NOT REAL. Sexual activity is normal, but what they’re seeing is staged. It’s like reality TV; no one really believes that reality TV isn’t to some extent scripted. Similarly, even the adult Internet sites with “regular people” are, by definition, not depicting regular sexual activity. That’s because they’re performing on-camera, or worse, because they’re being unknowingly filmed. This is in many cases exploitative, and you can stress to your teen that sexual activity never goes well when one person exploits another.
You can then decide with your teen how much you want to limit access to the computer. You should also discuss the strong feelings that are generated with any sexual activity. One of the reasons we ask adolescents to think so carefully about sexual conduct is that the conduct itself often stirs up unexpected and sometimes overwhelming emotional reactions. To that end, we’d like our children to have realistic views of what constitutes healthy sexual behavior.
Sex is, of course, a normal part of being human. If we keep this in mind, then we can take what we see on the Internet with a grain of salt. What we call pornographic images stretch back to antiquity; the difference today is largely one of scope. The vastness of what is available to view, the ease of accessibility with which it can be viewed and the unknown effects of such far-reaching access are largely unknown. We’ll surely have better guidelines in a few years, but for now, as we always stress, talk to your child. It will be a welcomed discussion—even if takes him or her a few years to realize it.
And be prepared to blush during that discussion. That’s also part of being human.