Interrupting Childhood: One Mom’s Dilemma

My son turned nine years old this week, so by my estimate he’s got two years left in his childhood. How do I know? Current research confirms the average age of a boy’s first exposure to pornography is eleven, so I’m engaged in a game of chicken with the pornographers: do I proactively and preemptively introduce the foreign-to-him concept of pornography, or should I wait for exposure to happen and discuss it reactively? After all, “average age” means that some kids are younger than eleven, and others are older.

If I wait, maybe we’ll be lucky and he’ll get a few extra months of childhood. But if I wait too long, they’ll get the chance to frame our first conversation. It’s a no-win situation, and I hate the pornography industry for forcing it upon my family. I imagine your family is in the same situation.

By all accounts, my son is a neat kid. He likes Legos, which is basically required by law of boys his age. But he’s big into Greek and Egyptian mythology too, having devoured most of Rick Riordan’s novels over the last year. He’s also extraordinarily patient with his moody younger sister, and pretty good with most small children, practicing comic pratfalls as they pretend to kick him from the swingset. He’s worked diligently to ingratiate himself with our neurotic elderly cat, who despises everyone but will now sleep on his bed. Finally, he’s in the midst of a “Weird Al” phase, memorizing the order of Al’s fourteen albums and planning to sport a mustache, wig, and accordion for Halloween.

As far as sex goes, he has pretty limited knowledge, having only recently asked, “How is the dad involved in making the baby?” We explained the mechanics of reproduction, and since he had no further questions, left it at that. We’ve chosen to exclude television from our house, so he’s consumed very little mainstream media. He can play Angry Birds or Temple Run on my husband’s iPod, but his daily screen-time allotment is two hours, and he readily complies. He’s an affectionate boy, still requesting frequent hugs and nighttime snuggles. In short, I’m proud that my son is having a blessedly trauma-free, innocent childhood, similar to my early 80’s childhood, but with a few extra gadgets thrown in.

So why would I want to disrupt this idyll by initiating a pornography talk with him? Because I know that sometime soon, one of his YouTube searches for obscure Weird Al videos will veer off into uncharted territory. Or the autofill in Google’s search bar will offer some interesting, explicit phrase, and he’ll click on it while I’m in the next room making dinner. Or worse, the 4th grader on his bus who got an iPhone for Christmas will decide to shock him for a laugh, and I’ll need to begin the conversation I’ve been dreading for years. It’s possible he may not even disclose his initial foray into pornography at all, and I’ll have to piece it together from behavioral changes or other clues.

Will a glimpse of internet porn scar him permanently? Maybe or maybe not. But as his mother, I know his brain and his psyche are nowhere near ready for the concept of pornography. He doesn’t have a clue that people have sex with strangers, on camera, for money, so that other strangers can watch. He certainly doesn’t have a clue about the multibillion dollar industry devoted to strangers having sex, on camera, for money, so that other strangers can watch. It’s a pretty foreign concept when you break it down that way. Why should he require this information at age nine, while his head is still filled with mythic heroes and chess moves and a new idea for a recess game?

The pornographers don’t care about cutting my son’s childhood short, and so I hate them all. To them, an eight- or nine-year-old boy finding pornography is an excellent consumer prospect. Get him early, shape his sexual template, and you’ve got him for life. Train him to believe that “real sex” involves a computer, a credit card, and a series of strangers. I know they don’t see my son as a unique, caring boy with amazing potential, but as “traffic,” or “eyeballs,” or “revenue.” Their business model is built on trapping young males into an infinite spiral of links, pop-up ads, free content leading to subscriptions, and eventual addiction. Their promotional copy promises the prospect of “real” manhood and domination over lesser beings called “girls” (and much worse names). At some point in his life, my son may buy into this misguided ideology.

Other parents can swap tips of newer filters and tracking software to keep their children “safe,” but I want to know why my country has abdicated its collective responsibility and left the parents to play haphazard defense against a predatory industry using our own meager resources. We are no match for a multibillion dollar industry determined to expand its new audience. The well-financed porn lobby rejects any attempts at regulation, pouring money into lawsuits to fight California’s Measure B, which requires condoms for performers, and a federal law requiring proof that performers are 18 or older. These bare-minimum labor standards were too “burdensome” to their business, industry lobbyists said. If the pornographers don’t care for the health or safety of their own employees, how can you expect them to care about your children’s health and safety?

We are now raising our second generation of internet porn-affected children, and the disastrous results are beginning to trickle in. A few other countries’ governments are experimenting with large-scale action to protect their youngest citizens against the sex industry. Meanwhile in America, pornography’s influence on children doesn’t seem to bother our government. Surely the sizable revenues generated for phone, internet, software, and financial companies are a primary reason for the inaction, but I’d like to hear members of Congress admit that. They’ll tell you that “nothing is more important than our children’s safety,” or some such platitude, but we all know that money is the only language they understand.

Personally, I think it’s “burdensome” for overwhelmed and overworked parents to purchase and install filters on every device, check the browsing history nightly, have awkward conversations with other parents before playdates or sleepovers, and in my case, interrupt my son’s perfectly ordinary childhood with a preemptive defense on pornography. This is not a problem I caused, and I resent that I’m expected to solve it.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way, but too many of us have thrown up our hands and let others define the culture for us. There is no legitimate developmental reason that childhood has to end at age eleven. I want a well-funded parents’ lobby, demanding the return of childhood for all kids, by any means necessary. Who’s in?

Jill is a feminist activist, founder of one angry girl designs, and a Board Member at SPC. You can contact her at spcjill@gmail.com