A few years ago I asked my twentysomething son why he avoided attending my public lectures on the effects of porn on our culture. He looked me in the eye and responded “mom, nobody wants to have the word mom, and the word porn in the same sentence.” He was right. And this makes it especially difficult for mothers – and indeed fathers also – to bring up the topic of porn with our sons, but if we avoid this discussion then we leave our boys vulnerable to a predatory industry that spends millions of dollars on researching how to attract younger and younger consumers. The average age of first viewing porn is 11, and given that the majority of boys at this age have little prior experience of sex, porn is most likely the first time boys get to see what “sex” actually looks like.
But sex in porn is not about making love. The feelings and emotions we normally associate with such an act – connection, empathy, tenderness, caring, affection – are missing, and in their place are those we normally associate with hate – fear, disgust, anger, loathing, and contempt. In porn, the man “makes hate” to the woman, as each sex act is designed to deliver the maximum amount of degradation. Slapping, spitting, choking, and vile name calling are commonplace in porn today, and no act is too painful or demeaning for women, since according to porn, the greater the abuse, the hotter the sex.
Defenders of porn say that it is just harmless fantasy and anyone who criticizes porn is an anti-sex prude. The reality is that porn, like all media images, has an effect on the way we think about the world, and while it won’t turn the average boy or man into a rapist, it will help shape the way he thinks about women, sexuality and intimacy. Indeed, it will impact on how he thinks about his own sexuality. To think for a moment that boys can masturbate to these images and not be affected is to ignore how we, as social beings, learn what it means to be human from the cultural messages that surround us.
From an early age boys are bombarded with messages about what it means to be a “real man,” and any deviation from this leaves a boy open to humiliation and ridicule. As boys get older, there is tremendous peer pressure to look at porn since this is seen as a rite of passage into manhood. Just take a quick look at the enormously popular adolescent boy movies of Judd Apatow, or listen to Howard Stern, or play any bestselling video games, to see how porn use is seamlessly packaged as an integral part of being a man. The end result is that rather than developing a sexual identity that is authentic, affirming, and in keeping with their own developmental time clock, boys are bullied into a sexuality that is created by a bunch of predatory businessmen whose goal is to maximize profits, not nurture the wellbeing of our sons.
After twenty years of traveling the country giving lectures on porn, I have spoken to thousands of men and while it is clear that not all are affected in the same way, affected they are. Remember, this is the generation that grew up with Internet porn, and unlike previous generations these boys and men have an unlimited supply to hardcore porn 24 hours a day.
These young men have become so accustomed to porn sex that some are disappointed by their own sexual performance. When they compare themselves to the male porn actors, who can sustain Viagra-fortified erections for long periods of time, the guys I talk to often admit to feeling like sexual losers, and worry that something is wrong with them. Adam grew up watching his father’s porn and felt that “porn taught me all I know about sex. My parents never mentioned the word sex at home, and sex ed in school was a … joke. I had this image of how great sex would be, both of us going at it for hours. So it was kind of a shock the way the real thing turned out…”
What troubles many of these young men most is that they need to pull up the porn images in their head in order to have an orgasm with their partner. They replay porn scenes in their minds, or think about having sex with their favorite porn star when they are with their partners. Dan was concerned about his sexual performance with women. He told me that “I can’t get the pictures … out of my head when having sex, and I am not really focusing on the girl but on the last scene I watched.” I asked him if he thought porn had in any way affected his sexuality. He said, “I don’t know. I started looking at porn before I had sex, so porn is pretty much how I learned about sex. It can be a kind of problem to think about porn as much as I do, especially when I’m with my girlfriend. It means I’m not really present with her. My head is somewhere else.”
What is new over the last five years or so is college-age men admitting their addiction to pornography, and I am not the only one to hear this. Sex and relationship therapists Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz discuss in their book “The Porn Trap” how therapists are seeing a rising wave of porn addicts looking for help. They found both in their practice and from interviewing other therapists that “what used to be a small problem for relatively few people had grown to a societal issue that was spilling over and causing problems in the lives of countless everyday people.”
The men at colleges I speak to who are addicted do indeed end up in serious trouble; they neglect their school work, spend huge amounts of money they don’t have, they become isolated from others and often suffer depression. They know that something is wrong, feel out of control and don’t know how to stop. While men may share their favorite porn stories, they don’t tend to talk to each other about their addictive behavior, which further adds to their feelings of isolation. Ted described his addiction in this way: “I never thought I would become so dependent on porn for sex. I can’t get away from it, even though I know that this is no longer just a phase in my life. I don’t know how to stop it.”
Never before have we brought up a generation of boys on hardcore porn so we are actually in the midst of a massive social experiment. The only problem here is that most of us did not sign up to be participants. What can we do about this? Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets. Education can help people open their eyes to the issue, and can move people to start taking control of their lives. I recommend that parents read all they can about porn so they feel comfortable about opening up a dialogue with their children.
I have been on many talk shows where someone invariably says that it is up to the parents to keep their kids away from porn. Certainly we have a part to play but the reality is that the culture should be helping us to raise our kids, not undermining us at every turn. The pornographers have done a stealth attack and it is now time to fight back. We can’t do this only on an individual level so we need to build a movement that empowers parents and children to resist the porn culture. The first step is a grass roots education campaign aimed at raising consciousness to the harms of porn as a way to build a community of like-minded people.
One tool in this battle is an anti-porn slide show developed by the founders (including me) of the activist group called Stop Porn Culture (stoppornculture.org). This show is now being given in homes, community centers, colleges, schools and anti-violence organizations across the country. It is a way to start the discussion and to encourage people to become active. It is important to build a network in your area because your children need the support of a peer group if they are to stand outside the porn culture. Ultimately this movement is based on the belief that the culture belongs to us, not the pornographers, and they have no right to rob our children of an authentic and life-loving sexuality that is based on connection, intimacy and equality.
Last week, a Long Island high school senior committed suicide, and the website Formspring.me is suspected as a cause. Yet most parents don’t even know it exists. Formspring is the latest cyberscourge for teens. It lets you open an account and allows your anonymous audience – usually your classmates – to communicate with brutal honesty. By which I mean breathtaking cruelty.
Formspring takes cybercruelty to a new low by making it appear consensual. You sign up for your own account, literally inviting others to bash you with their “honest” opinions. Because it appears consensual, it no longer seems like cybercruelty at all. It just becomes another avenue for teens to communicate, and it desensitizes them to what they’re doing.
“I hate you,” writes one peer.
“You’re slutty,” opines another.
Account holders are always able to respond, and most act as if they don’t care.
“I’d f*** you,” muses one.
“thanks I mean very blunt but still flattering,” responds the account holder.
Remember, these are often friends writing the comments. To wit:
“I’ve known you for a long time. you’re not even that good at soccer. you just had one really good season…”
As you might expect, cyberbombs like this usually launch the account holder into an extended freak out about who could have written it. Imagine walking the halls or sitting in class, never knowing who is saying what on your Formspring. Not exactly conducive to good focus on your studies, if you get my drift.
I suspect girls are especially vulnerable to Formspring for several reasons:
- Most girls are passionately invested in their friendships and what others think of them. At the same time, they constantly second guess their peers about what they really think and mean. As I showed in The Curse of the Good Girl, the ubiquity of “just kidding” and the pressure to keep friendships conflict-free force lots of truth underground. Girls know it. Formspring gives you a perverse chance to “really find out what others think of you.”
- Many girls define social success as being liked by everyone. Despite my best efforts as a speaker, educator and mentor to tell girls that it just ain’t gonna happen, Formspring lets hope spring eternal: you can open an account and maybe, just maybe, you won’t get a mean comment. You’ll be that girl who everyone really loves!
There is zero, and I mean zero, value in this website and no girl or boy should spend a minute on it. Formspring creates unnecessary emotional risks. It legitimizes cybercruelty and divorces kids from responsibility for their words. You can pretty much file Formspring along with wouldn’t-it-be-fun-to-stand-on the-railroad-tracks-and-jump-right-before-the-train-comes and I’m-sure-no-one-will-notice-if-I-just-pocket-this-one-mascara.
So what to do? Here’s what I suggest. Start a conversation with your daughter about Formspring. Ask her if people at school use it (don’t start off by grilling her about what she does or she may scare and fly away). Ask her what she thinks of it. Then ask her if she uses it.
If she says yes, tell her she’s banned for life from the website. Period. Here’s what I tell kids when I suggest they stop using it:
- It’s an invitation for people to be evil to each other without taking responsibility, which means people will exaggerate and even outright lie just to hurt you.
- By inviting people to say harmful things to you, and spending time reading about it, you disrespect yourself.
- There will always be haters. You will never be someone who is 100% liked by everyone. That doesn’t mean you need to set up a website to catalog who those people are. Focus on the relationships that bring you happiness and security, not people who tear you down.
Even if your daughter says no one has ever said anything mean to her, hold your ground. It’s only a matter of time.
If your daughter denies having an account, open your own account here (it’s very easy) and begin searching for your daughter by her name. Most kids include their full names in their accounts.
If you know me, you know I’m not in the habit of telling you to go behind your kid’s back. You can imagine how dangerous I find this website if I’m urging you to do it at all.