My older son is closing in on 13 years old, has Internet access, and wears the same size shoes as I do. So I figured it was time to have the Porn Talk with him.
I sat down to write a bullet list of talking points that I wanted to be sure to cover, but it came out in essay form instead. It’s reproduced below. Note the careful omission of judgmental and heteronormative language. If the values expressed are similar to yours, please feel free to repurpose this for your own parental porn talk.
It went well. I did all the talking and hewed pretty closely to what I had previously written. At first, my son was clearly put off to be talked to about this by his dad. Sitting with arms folded, he told me as much. But he turned receptive as it became clear that I was basically cool with it and would not be asking him to reveal whether he has ever looked at porn, or otherwise to “incriminate” himself.
There are good things about porn, bad things about porn, and in-between things about porn. It’s important to know about all of them before you get too involved with it.
First, the obvious. Porn can be fun. It’s exciting, it’s arousing, it’s a sort of “preview of coming attractions” before your actual sex life begins. It can help you learn about what sexual things you like and what things you don’t at a time when experimenting with other people is not possible (or at least not a good idea). It can answer some of your questions about sex, ones that maybe you’re too embarrassed to ask, or ones you simply didn’t think of. Being interested in porn is normal and OK. I’d be more concerned about a 13-year-old boy who wasn’t.
Now the not so obvious. Most porn is very different from real-life sex. In porn, the men and women have perfect bodies, are easily excited, and are always up for anything. They do not worry about pregnancy or about sexually transmitted diseases. This is a fantasy. You should not expect real sex to be just like porn any more than you’d expect real archaeology to be like Raiders of the Lost Ark. In real life, bodies aren’t perfect, people aren’t always in the mood, and sometimes you or your partner will say “ow” or “stop” or “no, I don’t want to do that.” I don’t mean that real-life sex isn’t amazing – it often is. It’s also sometimes just OK, and sometimes it’s even bad, like everything else in real life.
There is a serious problem that exists among some people who look at porn: they can develop unrealistic expectations about sex and about their partners. When things aren’t just like what they learned in porn, they get disappointed and disinterested. This can really interfere with their intimate relationships and mess up their lives. This doesn’t mean that you should accept a partner who disappoints you. The point of dating is to find someone with whom you’re compatible, who is into the same things (sexually and otherwise) and whom you find exciting. It’s OK to want a little fantasy in your sex life. But if all you know is porn, you risk closing yourself off to the wider, richer world of real-life sex.
Beyond that, there are worse problems. One is the problem of porn addiction, which is a real thing to be feared. You can become addicted to anything that gives you pleasure. It’s a biochemical change in the brain, which is what makes it so difficult to reverse. (You can read more about it here.) This is why we say that things should be enjoyed “in moderation.”
How can you tell the difference between innocent enjoyment on the one hand, and problematic addiction on the other? It’s actually pretty easy. When it starts interfering with other parts of your life, it’s an addiction. You may act towards other people in ways you wouldn’t normally choose to. You may skip activities in which you would normally participate. You might perform poorly on schoolwork or other tasks that you could usually do well. You definitely want to avoid getting addicted, because once you have an addiction, breaking it is very, very hard. To avoid addiction, exercise control over when you look at porn. Don’t let it exercise control over you. To reverse addiction, you first have to be able to acknowledge it exists, which can be hard all by itself. (A good rule of thumb: if you ever find yourself insisting, to yourself or others, that you don’t have a problem, that’s a sign that you probably do.) Seek help from someone, and get yourself involved in one or more different activities to divert your brain’s attention from what it’s craving.
Another serious problem is that, although there’s plenty of porn out there depicting joyful and even loving sex between consenting partners, there is also unfortunately a lot of the opposite: porn that is humiliating to someone, or degrading, or even violent. Porn with one or more of the people clearly not enjoying themselves. Sometimes it’s just an act, but much more often the people in this kind of porn are trapped in a life that’s little better than slavery, and the people producing this kind of porn are genuinely evil. Stay away from this stuff. Not only does looking at it encourage the scum that makes it; the bad vibes can take you to a dark place, messing up your head and your future sex life.
Some porn is actually illegal – illegal to make, and even illegal to look at, and people go to jail for it all the time. This does not apply to most normal porn featuring consenting adult men and women, but even that exists in a grey area where very many people disapprove of it, sending the police and the courts after them at every opportunity. (A great movie about this, which is also a true story, is The People vs. Larry Flynt.) As a result, the whole porn world is sort of semi-legal, and that invites certain kinds of scam artists. Beware of identifying yourself in any way to any porn site. If you are invited to chat, ignore it. Don’t answer survey questions. If you are offered a free signup to some new site, ignore it. Definitely do not respond to requests for photos or video of yourself or others. Disable “browser cookies” if possible. I can show you how. And do not download files; they are almost guaranteed to turn your computer into part of a criminal botnet under the control of Russian gangsters!
The point of all this is not to scare you or to be a killjoy. It’s only that if you’re not aware of this stuff and you’re not careful, it’s all too easy to land on content you’re better off avoiding, or to mess yourself up in a variety of ways. Forewarned is forearmed.
The most important thing is to remember that you can talk to me about any of this any time you like. If you have questions, if you see anything that bothers or worries you, if you have anything you want to express, I’m here. I promise never to embarrass you and to keep everything just between us. Don’t forget, I was a 13-year-old boy once too, and I was also every age you’re going to be for the next few decades. There’s bound to be some info in my head that you’d find helpful, and even when there isn’t, sometimes all you need is someone who’ll listen.