Boys, boys, boys. (…and girls, and porn)

Yesterday, writer and blogger Marinia Robinson posted an article on the frequently fantastic blog, The Good Men Project, “Boys and Porn: It Ain’t Your Father’s ‘Playboy.” If you are raising teen or ‘tween boys or if you care about them, you should read Ms. Robinson’s piece.

One commenter wrote that it isn’t enough to look at the effects of porn on boys.  He advocated that we also ask, “… why do men want to pay women to appear in films so they can be aroused by humiliating and hurting them. Why do men get off on women being hurt (real or fantasy) or degraded, dominated and humiliated?”  Why indeed?  The commenter expresses his shock at men’s magazines when they “…promote prostitution, lap dancing and all sex industries who often deal in the misery of poor and ethnic migrant woman and girls.”  He said that in his experience, “…most men simply are not interested to hear of what really goes on behind the scenes in porn and the sex industry. Why?”  Yes, why?  It is heartening that many men, many good men, including that commenter, are concerned about this stuff.  It’s true that this subject isn’t just one for our boys, but for our men, and for ourselves.

My parents weren’t exactly the poster kids for responsible parenting and as a youth, exposure to pornography helped to shape my own developing sexuality, and in ways which were neither positive nor healthy.  I remember my first real boyfriend telling me I had a great body, “… like a centerfold.”  His mother had told him real women didn’t have “…playboy tits, but wow, Annie.”  There was a cultural ideal of “sexy” and men’s magazines set the mark.  It took me decades to fully sort out the mind job.

Marina Robinson’s piece begins, “Boys today have access to super-stimulating porn that may lead to erectile dysfunction, social anxiety, and other problems.”  Increasingly techno-savvy young users with high-speed internet capability have ready access to material that tweaks their brain circuitry.  Dopamine with a norepinephrine chaser, anyone?  It is thought that regular exposure to pornographic material at a young age actually alters the brain.  Those neural pathways that I was so interested in cultivating for language acquisition when my son was a baby are now developing for sexual arousal, stimulation, and satisfaction, for good or ill.  (Lord help me.)

Some commenters criticized Robinson for putting forward a prudish model of “normal.”  What is “normal” is always in flux, changing with the winds of culture.  Still, I think it is important to think consciously about where we want to sail on those winds, lest we end up on some barren, dystopian, sick, and sexually frustrating island:

The brain changes that follow repeated stimulation can have surprising effects. Young men report that their sexual tastes sometimes morph in unexpected directions, and that they become less responsive to normal flirting.

Since I began sharing the correlations men are discovering between heavy Internet porn use and symptoms like erectile dysfunction and social anxiety, I’ve been hearing from younger and younger guys struggling with such symptoms….”

Okay, that’s anecdotal.  Where’s the research?  (You’re kidding right?)  As Robinson points out:

Science has not investigated or verified the answers to …[these] questions. First, who can find porn virgins of a suitable age to test? Second, who deliberately wants to expose kids to hyperstimulating, abnormal, erotic videos to see what happens in their brains, or how it alters their sexual response? No one is measuring the ways in which extreme videos may subtly be changing brain sensitivity, thereby altering libido and sexual tastes over time.

Yipes!  I can’t imagine the mother who would willingly sign the consent forms allowing their sons (or daughters) to be subjects in such a study.  I add, that in my youth, I was a subject in such a study.  There was no data collection happening, but I have no doubt, my neural pathways were affected.  Given what we do know, it’s probably safer to assume true the hypothesis that repeated exposure to pornography alters the brain than to believe that it doesn’t, especially with more extreme material and the physiological reinforcement of orgasm.

Isn’t it just what every mother wants her son to become—a pervert?  (Okay, that was stupidly judgmental, I admit it, but seriously—what mother wants to have a son whose real-life relationships are compromised because he is hooked on “autoerotic asphyxiation, bondage, or rape porn….?!”)

So, what do we do?  Robinson has a prescription and it doesn’t involve hoping for the best while burying our heads in the metaphorical sand about our boys’ developing sexuality.  Uncomfortable as it may be, we have to engage.  We can’t just say “porn is bad” and leave them feeling guilty for their interest.  We have to do more.  Um, it’s something a boy doesn’t necessarily want his mother’s input into, even if men her age often think she’s a hottie.  One has to try and I did with my twelve-year-old son.

Robinson suggested we teach kids “…that masturbation is normal, and that it’s beneficial to work out a schedule that doesn’t escalate. Tell them to experiment with different intervals of say, once or twice a week, or even less.”  They should learn discipline.  Just so you know, I’m not putting a chart on the closet door as I have for weekly chores.  Also, as other readers commented, once a week or less is probably unreasonable and honestly, I don’t want to know any of the details. The point is for parents to have a conversation about frequency (no kid would want to be thought whack-happy, anyway) and to mention that “…sometimes less frequent masturbation actually results in less overall frustration.”  (This part of the conversation was far worse than my having subjected my son to the ballet.)

We should also help our youth to “understand the escalation problem.  Point out that our brains are generally calibrated for genitals achieving normal degrees of stimulation and arousal. Once we move to new thresholds of stimulation (today’s super-porn or sex toys), we risk making our brains temporarily less sensitive to subtler, ordinary stimuli.”  Translation:  Dude, look, if you are masturbating every single little minute and get your head all caught up in hard-core, you are likely to find yourself with a super suck-y real-life sex life when the time comes.  (Now he was listening.)

Robinson advises that we encourage our youth to masturbate to their own fantasies of “…real potential mates and realistic, affectionate sexual encounters.”  If that isn’t getting them off, encourage them to be patient rather than turn to porn.  Translation:  Son, if you don’t want to be a solo artist for your whole life, you better think about what is real, which brings us to:

Porn isn’t real.  Real sex is not like porn sex.  Porn is flat, two-dimensional and distorted and youth should be told this explicitly.  I said to a friend once, “Porn sex is not like real sex,” and he replied flippantly, “Well, it gives us something to aspire to.” Aspire to?  (I have a feeling the fellow’s sex life hadn’t been all he’d hoped, which is part of my point exactly.)  Robinson encourages us as parents to “paint a mental picture of normal sex…” for our boys.   Another dad asked me if there wasn’t some positive depiction of sex that could be offered as an alternative.  (Readers, I’m stuck on this one and accepting free advice, here.)

My children participate in Our Whole Lives (OWL), a sexuality education program which is an important feature of their religious education.  It is an amazing program, the key component of which is eighth grade OWL, a weekly, year-long sex ed course.  It goes far beyond either abstinence only (get real already) or tab A into slot B.  It gets into cultural perceptions of gender roles, body image, and sexual decision-making, in addition to human sexuality.  (Disappointingly, last I checked the course did not cover the topic of pornography.)  It is a course which many youth of other faiths participate in as well because, well… it works. Statistically, youth who are blessed to participate in the program are more likely to make responsible decisions around sexuality.  My son will get those pictures of “normal sex” in OWL next year, so I’m considering myself partly off the hook on that one.  I’m hoping it’s enough to say those images of “normal sex,” they’re out there.

Robinson also recommends we discourage our boys from regulating mood with masturbation.  We are to encourage them to use other strategies.  I’m not sure I wholly agree with this one—the key is balance. I am quite sure most youth don’t want to be addicted to anything, but especially not masturbation.  Emotional regulation and healthy coping skills are an important part of their development, no doubt.

Lastly, we are advised to “Avoid threats and shaming….” because it may “…increase porn’s power to overstimulate the brain, making subsequent porn binging more likely.”  Threats and shaming don’t work.  Still, as I have before, I made it clear to my son that it is not acceptable to view porn in our home or on our computers, that it is not okay to view porn at all.  (I made it clear, as I have in the past, that his search history is no secret, even if he empties the cache.  I don’t want to be looking through it, but if he trashes my trust and I become concerned—it’s there.)  On top of my own puritanical, moralistic fits about exploitation and the like, my son is twelve and it’s illegal.  It is natural to be curious, but that brand of curiosity has consequences, consequences my son doesn’t yet entirely understand.

Ms. Robinson pointed readers to the YouTube series, “Things You Didn’t Know About Porn.” It’s aimed at straight boys, which my son appears to be, though I made it clear to him that if he wasn’t, (he rolled his eyes), the principles were similar, and the part about how the brain works was really the point.

These clips are slow, a bit dry, and rather dumbed down, but my son watched them all the way through with me.  In addition to a bit of brain science, these videos draw the parallel between porn and images of junk food.  Having gorged on too much Halloween candy and made himself quite sick, my son got that.  He also understands addiction, perhaps too well.  (Though he doesn’t know that in addition to his other addictions issues, his father was a porn/‘net sex junkie.)  My son is embarrassed that I bring up topics like this one, but also—he is relieved.  It is so confusing to figure out all this stuff on your own.  After he had watched the “Things You Didn’t Know…” clips and had heard me out, I asked, “Do you have any questions?”

“I’ll let you know if I do,” he said.  That’s a good start.

Comments are closed.