A friend of mine recently lamented that when he sat his teenage son down to have “The Talk,” he had to focus on the internet instead of relationships. “It’s not like the old days, when you’d tell your kid about the mechanics of it, and protection, that kind of thing. My son knew the basics from sex ed class at school, and didn’t want to talk with me about it. Instead, I had to lecture him about internet porn.”
Wow. I hadn’t thought about it yet, because my kids are a bit younger, but he’s right. Internet porn is ubiquitous, and so easy to find, most of us have found it at least a couple of times even when we weren’t looking for it. What does this mean for how my children will learn about sex? Is that the mental model I want them to bring into their relationships?
As a historian, I know that pornography is nothing new. Neither is the phenomenon of children looking to racy media to supplement the sex ed they may or may not have gotten from their parents and schools. For example, historian Mary Fissell has collected some fascinating stories about eighteenth-century children sneaking a peek at an early modern mega-bestseller, Aristotle’s Masterpiece. As Fissell explains, the book was, in fact, neither a masterpiece nor authored by Aristotle. It was a widely-reprinted collection of medical and popular reproductive and sexual wisdom and advice, teaching its readers about male and female anatomy, copulation, female orgasm, fertility, pregnancy, and birth, among other sex-related topics.
Many households owned a copy of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, since it was a useful midwifery and reproductive health reference at a time when women gave birth at home and mothers provided most of their families’ medical care. It also had a picture of a naked woman, and some of the text seemed deliberately titillating. In 1700, one teenage laborer found it so fascinating he drilled a hole in the family privy so he could spy on his family’s maid, and take a better look at the female parts described in the book. In 1744, young men in a Massachusetts parish got in big trouble with their minister, Jonathan Edwards, for reading Aristotle’s Masterpiece and using what they learned to tease the girls.
The distribution of pornography, sexual health advice, and writings of all shades in the middle grew exponentially with the explosion of print culture in the nineteenth century. By the post-Civil War years, its availability, especially to young people, was downright alarming to many people. Reformer Anthony Comstock led a legal and social movement against it. With the cooperation of legislators and morally-concerned citizens, Comstock successfully pressed for laws making it a crime to distribute materials about sex and birth control through the public mail. It took until the mid-1930s for birth control advocates to convince judges to push back against the Comstock laws, carving out an exception to permit doctors to communicate with their patients about contraception. Through it all, “dirty” books and pictures continued to be published and surreptitiously distributed.
In the second half of the twentieth century, it got even easier for young people to get their hands on information about sex. Sex education entered more schools in “family life” curricula. At the same time, courts protected a greater range of sexually-explicit materials on First Amendment grounds. In the 1980s, VHS technology enabled a mail-order pornographic film boom.
So are my friend’s concerns about his son’s sex education really anything new?
While kids’ interest in learning about sex is not new, and neither are parents’ concerns about how, exactly, they get their information, I do think the internet age really is different. Internet porn is vivid, ubiquitous, and supported by an enormous range of business interests. As parents in the twenty-first century, we will have to be very creative to compete with it, if we want to share our values around sex with our children.
I am less nostalgic about “The Talk” than my friend is, probably because I have a more realistic sense of how seldom that conversation was actually helpful to children, or even happened in the first place. When I interviewed women about menstruation, they incidentally told me stories about their parents’ versions of “The Talk.” Too often, it consisted of mothers obliquely telling girls when they got their first periods, “Don’t let any boys touch you now!” Even if we grant that many parents will do better than that, the standard “Talk,” with an outline of intercourse and condoms, is likely to leave out some pretty important stuff. How many fathers tell their sons about the anatomy of the clitoris and the importance of female orgasm, even if, in fact, they are sensitive lovers in their marriages? How many fathers with gay sons will know what to say?
So here is my proposal: we need a new XXX website, an alternative to all that internet porn, with some positive examples that represent our values around sex. We can call it “Average-looking Married Couples Having Caring, Respectful Sex.” It will have a number of videos, since caring, respectful sex comes in many forms, as do average-looking couples. I would take as a model Nancy Redd’s book for young women, Body Drama, which has a wonderful pictorial spread of 24 vulvas, of a variety of shapes and colors. It could show a sampling of diverse bodies and caring lovemaking. If we know that our children will turn to the internet to learn about sex, let’s give them a source that shows people with a variety of bodies, so that they know you don’t need a Brazilian wax and silicone boobs to be beautiful and sexy to your committed partner. Let’s show them that lovemaking doesn’t have to unfold like a movie stereotype to be satisfying and relationship-building.
Perhaps this is not a perfect solution. Sex education and pornography are not so easy to disentangle, and I suspect that the more informative any particular sex education is, the more likely it is to be titillating, whether that is our objective or not. In any case, the viewer uses the videos for his purposes; the filmmaker must relinquish control. We can make a site like this and point it out to our children. Will they stop viewing once they feel adequately informed, or will they exploit it?
Still, given the ubiquity of internet porn, I stand by my proposal. When my kids are a little older, I will explain my objections to internet porn – the ways in which it is often exploitative, degrading, and unrealistic. It would be even better if I could also give them an alternative that shows what I mean by good, loving sex. I don’t want them to only have a list of “nos” around sex. As in any good parenting, I shouldn’t just scold; I should offer a positive alternative.
So, if you’ve found my argument persuasive, you are probably starting to wonder how exactly we’re going to build this website. That is the tricky part. Any volunteers?
Mary Fissell, “When the Birds and the Bees Were Not Enough: Aristotle’s Masterpiece,” The Public Domain Review.
Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994)
Nancy Amanda Redd, Body Drama: Real Girls, Real Bodies, Real Issues, Real Answers (New York: Gotham, 2007).