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In Loco Parentis
If parents don't talk to their kids about porn, can anyone else really do it for them?
Once, I was in a screenwriting class, and the instructor started talking about the time when he got a gig writing for porn. At first, he was flummoxed. “I couldn’t figure out how to write the action—do I say where every body part goes, or what?” But he’d had some experience writing action sequences more generally, specifically car chases. And as he thought about the problem, he had a revelation: “A porn sex scene is just like a car chase.” And with that, he was able to write.
This was an insight that served me well a few years later when I discovered that I had missed the boat in talking to my son about porn, because that summer at camp he’d already been exposed. (If not before; it was after that summer, when he was eleven I think, that I made the accidental discovery.) So after some panicky rehearsal with a trusted couple of friends, I sat down to talk to him. And my message was, basically: porn is like a car chase.
By that I meant: yes, those people are real, and they’re really doing those things, but they’re trained professionals putting on a show to entertain you. If you don’t like it, it doesn’t mean you won’t like sex. If you do like it, it doesn’t mean you need, or even want, sex to be like that—or that anyone else you know would. Sex is about as much like porn as driving a car is like a movie car chase. And even if you were capable of driving like that safely, most people wouldn’t enjoy being driven like that—even people who enjoy watching car chases likely wouldn’t enjoy being in a car chase. It was a pretty one-sided conversation, honestly, which I have no doubt embarrassed him thoroughly, but I thought it was important.
We’ve had other conversations about sex and romance, both before and since then—conversations about dating conventions and how they’ve changed (or haven’t), about consent and sensitivity, about birth control, about marriage. Sometimes I’ve gotten the pushback of “you don’t need to tell me this” or “we covered this in health class” and sometimes we have an actual conversation—and when the latter happens, it’s really great. It’s never less than at least a bit awkward, but it’s never really more painful than that either, and sometimes it leads interesting places. I don’t think I’ve done a particularly exemplary job, but I’ve tried my best. I hope I’ve been helpful to him.
But I also know that I have—and that I believe I should have—only a limited influence on him in this regard. My fundamental job is to make myself available and trustworthy, so that he always knows he can reach out to me should he need to in any circumstance. I think it’s terrible that kids grow up in a porn-saturated environment these days, and I do think that environment has something to do with the sex recession and its related malaise. On the other hand, I also think boys have always sought out and shared pornography (I remember my first encounter was at overnight camp at age eight, I think), and that girls have always been turned inside out around what boys might want or expect of them. But whether the world has changed radically or whether it was ever thus, it is the world. I want him to feel at home in it, to feel like the world is interesting and worth exploring and also that he has the wherewithal not to explore this or that corner of it if it makes him uncomfortable, or just because it doesn’t spark his desire. I can’t make the world safe for him, and I don’t really want to.
On the other hand, I really do want this job—the job of making myself available and being a key person he can trust. I don’t want to outsource that. I don’t, actually, think I can outsource that, not without real negative consequences for my relationship with him, and quite possibly for him as well.
I’m thinking about these things apropos of Peggy Orenstein’s recent opinion piece in The New York Times about talking to kids about porn. I feel a lot of empathy for the well-meaning teachers who are, by and large, just trying to do their frequently impossible job. But the job is frequently impossible, and one reason it’s impossible is that the clueless, self-protective or controlling parents who are furious that people like her are talking to their kids about porn have a point even when they don’t. That is to say: they may be handling these matters in a completely counterproductive way, not merely for Orenstein’s perspective but from their own if they were to seriously examine their premises and the consequences of their parenting choices. But they’re still the parents. I understand why they might react to someone like Orenstein as a usurper—not because they should have the right to comprehensively control their kids’ environment (they’re deeply delusional if they think they even can do that), but because this stuff just is the stuff of parenting.
I think Orenstein is largely right that a lot of parental objections are about protecting their own innocence rather than their kids’. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s going to hurt when a teacher rips that innocence—about their own parenting as much as about the world—away. And I empathize with that hurt. I would feel it too, if I were in their place.