Last Thursday morning I had the pleasure of speaking with Robert Jensen about pornography and raising kids in a sexually saturated society. I have mentioned Jensen’s newest book on pornography in a previous post. Several articles he’s written are on his website.
What is a brief description of how you see porn?
When you look at pornography, you see the perfect storm of a predatory corporate capitalism, white supremacy, and male supremacy. Pornography is not only racist and sexist, but it’s also the commodification of one of the most central part of ourselves. You can literally buy your sexuality. If you actually look honestly at that, it’s incredibly depressing.
How is it that kids or teenagers typically get introduced to porn?
Well, there just isn’t much in the way of reliable research on kids’ use of pornography, or much research on adults’ use for that matter. I always use my own experience as a baseline for understanding men of my generation, the post-Playboy generation, I’m 49. But there have been dramatic cultural changes driven by the technology since my generation. The first of those changes was the VCR, which made it much easier for people to see the hardcore stuff in their house. And then of course the internet, which ramped pornography use up by about a factor of a thousand. The fundamental thing that hasn’t changed over the years is that boys are much higher users of porn than girls.
So how should parents talk with their kids about porn?
It seems that for teenagers, boys use porn far more than girls. Not surprisingly, because the vast majority of porn is directed for a man’s imagination. And the conception of masculinity in pornography is in line with the rest of the training that adolescent boys get in becoming a man.
The one footnote to that is this “girl power” trend. And there has been some writing on this, where girls are taking on more stereotypically male sexuality, it’s called the “hook-up culture.” And so girls are taking on the perception of sexual pleasure and dominance. This is the “Girls Gone Wild” culture.
However, I still think that porn is still overwhelmingly a male genre. It is made by men, for men, and addressing the male sexual imagination. It reinforces the worst aspects of gender training, particularly around male sexuality.
What can parents, particularly of boys, do?
Well, at the obvious level, parents have to deal with their own fear of pornography first. We have to get over the feeling that if we critique porn we’re prudes.
The second thing is that I think a lot of parents in the post-Playboy world saw porn as kind of a harmless indulgence when they were growing up. So parents sometimes avoid the topic by seeing it as harmless.
Mothers in particular have to deal with their own fears in order to have good conversations with their boys about it. Most adult women have this very visceral reaction to porn, for very reasonable reasons, because it generally turns them into an object. Porn and pop culture is a very scary thing, with threats of violence, and particularly sexual violence. And add on to that, there is often a very nervous relationship with husbands regarding their own use.
Fathers, on the other hand, have to come to terms with their own pornography use. It is my experience that if you get together 10 nice, liberal men who deny using porn, at least 5 of them are lying. My experience says that men don’t step up to their responsibility in talking to their boys about porn, and particularly if they’re users themselves, they can’t.
The thing to remember is that no intervention is too early. The earlier that kids have a framework to understand the negative cultural training the better. There are two main perspectives from which sexualizing teenagers and the sexual culture is critiqued: the right-wing religious framework or the feminist framework. Those are the only people who are being vocal out there saying that our sexualized culture is wrong. The right-wing approach is rooted in a fear of sexuality and male dominance. I think we need a feminist analysis, and it is never too early to introduce that to children.
So first parents have to come to terms with these things. And if you really come to terms with pornography, it is overwhelming. It has to be. Because it’s one thing to know that Hollywood movies objectify and sexualize women. It’s another thing to know that there is this huge corporate complex out there that directly supports men having sexual power and sexual dominance over women.
We also need to remember that boys often are struggling with this too. There’s a kind of surface bravado, like when they trade images and web links on e-mail. They have this kind of jocular, surface, male bravado kind of conversation that allows them to circulate the material risk-free because it’s just joking. But what that shows is that young men are very conflicted about porn. They know there is something wrong with this, that their sexuality is reduced to 7 minutes or less of masturbating while online. It produces an incredible amount of insecurity in men.
So whatever kind of bravado parents get from boys may just be masking the terror on the inside. Boys don’t understand sexuality, they’re scared of it, they’re aware that they usually are a step behind the girls in development. That’s scary to them. And then you put that fear into a situation where they’re watching a hyper-sexualized image of masculinity, that they know they will never be able to meet. That says to me that boys are a mess, and so the more conversation with parents the better.
Of course, all of this assumes a healthy communication between the parents, which is why I always say that the first step is for parents to get together and deal with their own fears.
That addresses boys, but what about girls? What can parents do to help their girls survive in this pornography-saturated, hyper-sexualized society?
If you’re a young woman, and you see the outline of the sexual culture that you live in (male dominant, hyper-sexualized, etc.), and you think it’s not going to change, many girls have the not unreasonable response that if you can’t beat it, join it. They take as an assumption that men are going to set the terms of sexual dominance as a form of pleasure acquisition (i.e., not intimacy). If you’re a woman, or a girl, you may not believe that is what sexual encounters should be. But nevertheless it seems to be the way things are, and if you don’t have any counter-cultural way to see the world, you may assume that if you can’t change it, you can take control of it. That’s where this hook-up, Girls Gone Wild culture comes from. So girls trying to use their sexuality as power may just be making the best of a bad situation. But the problem is that it still doesn’t meet teenagers’ deeply felt need for intimacy and love.
So what do you do as a parent in this culture? It’s mostly trying to provide an alternative when there aren’t many alternatives out there. Some teenagers take this into their own hands, and decide as a group that they are taking sex off the table and interact as a group, as close friends who don’t date, making a safe space for themselves. The problem is that as a kid, you can’t do that alone.
The reason we have to pay attention to pornography, and the reason we have to talk with our kids about it, is because we have to talk to them about their sexuality and we have to talk with them about what kind of people they are becoming. This is really just part of that broader question of what kind of people they want to be.
So I don’t have any great insights about helping kids worth through the issues inherent in pornography, just that it’s something as parents we have to talk to our kids about. And part of that is coming to terms, and talking with them, about our own struggles with the issue.