IT WAS THE kid’s quicksilver fingers tapping across the keyboard that gave him away.

Dad didn’t usually come home this early, and the minute he confronted the boy, now doe-eyed in front of an incriminatingly blank screen, everything about him screamed guilty. Sure enough, a glance at the browser history revealed the misspelled name of a celebrity hottie, followed by the word nakkid.

“I told him if I couldn’t look for pictures of naked women on the Internet, I sure wasn’t going to let him do it,” the dad told a bunch of us later. Gathered over beers in his kitchen, we laughed sympathetically. “I said if I caught him at it again he’d have to take it up with his… mother!”

More laughter, as we all recalled that familiar threat, only gender-bent for the new millennium. “Well you did the right thing,” said another mom, adjusting bifocals across a deep blush. “Because porn… ugh. Parents have to stop that in its tracks.” Murmurs of concurrence all around.

“Wait a second,” blurted the boy’s uncle. (The boy’s brave uncle.) “When I was that age, I was taking babysitting jobs at the house next door because the dad had a stash of Playboys. Boys have been looking at pictures of naked women forever. Where’s the harm?”

Before our eyes Ms. Blush reared up to about twice her normal height. “Have you seen what’s out there today? No more airbrushed beauties half naked on tropical beaches—not that that was so great. But now it’s hard-core, violent stuff, turning up in searches from kids who might just be curious.”

“Or kids who aren’t even that!” another dad declared. “When our daughter was five, she innocently misspelled the American Girl web address and got…well, they were girls all right.”

“Trust me, a lot of this stuff is perverse,” Ms. Blush went on. “Stuff like, oh I don’t know…vegetables!” she sputtered. “ Barnyards!”


As I tried to conjure erotic images of vegetables in barnyards, which wasn’t proving effortless, Ms. Blush made her point: That 13-year-olds have no business looking at today’s level of smut.


“Well, the thing about his age—” started Dad. “He’s very likely older than that.” He’d been adopted as a young man from a country with unreliable birth records. “He may be 15 or 16.”


Ms. Blush was about to insist that didn’t matter—you could see the argument boiling behind her glasses—when Uncle Brave chimed in again. “Guys… really? If my nephew is 16, even if he’s 15, he’s got adult sexual desires. According to Dan Savage"—Stranger editor and sex-positivity columnist—“that’s the average age people now lose their virginity. Shouldn’t we be glad he’s finding ways to satisfy himself, rather than pursuing a classmate for sex? Surfing for raunchy photos may be gross…but actual sex can be dangerous—emotionally, legally, physically, even mortally. Especially at his age. Uh, whatever that is.”


“So you’re saying porn isn’t dangerous?” rang a quiet voice from the doorway. It was the boy’s mother, a feminist attorney whose wisdom and fierce devotion to women’s rights add up to a mighty maternal force—a force no teenage son in his right mind would want to take on re: “nakkid” women, let alone barnyard vegetables.


{page break}


In the three years he’d lived with them, she had already butted heads with the boy, who had formed at least 10 years’ worth of his worldview in a country where men are culturally dominant. The fluid gender roles of Seattle-style domestic life—Dad and son peeling dinner potatoes while Mom gets interviewed on NPR—had nearly unhinged this boy at first, and was proving a challenge yet.


“To the extent that porn degrades women, it’s dangerous,” Mom said simply to the group. “It eroticizes male supremacy.”


“Besides, have you seen the research?” added the MD in the room, a fortysomething scientist whose son and the boy were best friends. “Apparently neuroscientists are finding that orgasm provides just the reward response the brain needs to create new pathways to arousal.” Climaxing to lewd images, he explained, can literally rewire the brain to require a steady diet of ever more extreme visuals to get a guy off.


Porn doesn’t just degrade women, the doctor sighed. It degrades everybody.


The room fell silent, as every earnest parent privately processed information that enlightened everyone but surprised no one. Not a one of us needed science to prove that porn isn’t edifying; that’s possibly the most intuitive truth in the world. The dirtiness is the largest part of the attraction. The dirtiness is the very thing that makes it hot. But wrong? Truth be told, some in that room had enjoyed the occasional dirty movie from behind the closed doors of their loving partnerships. At least one struggling couple I knew even partook on the advice of a marriage counselor. Which meant that in at least one case—dirty movies healed.


Dad continued, interrupting our reveries. The boy did get busted again, so mother and son sat down for the threatened summit. “You know, he was scared—but I was terrified,” Mom recalled, her professional confidence obliterated in that moment by every parent’s stalking shadow, self-doubt. “I felt so strongly about this, I was afraid I might unintentionally load the talk with shame—the last thing I wanted to do to him.” She had been raised Catholic, and knew how devastating it could be to conflate sex with sin. “In my opinion, that’s as potentially destructive as porn is. I had to really be careful about what I was going to say.


“So I told him sex was a beautiful thing—when pursued mutually, and within a relationship of trust.” With her trademark eloquence she recounted how she’d gently marked the line between the wholesome joys of sex in its most loving context and the animal urgency of sex within its most carnal.


“That’s a line no teenage kid can be expected to draw for himself,” said ­Uncle Brave. It’s a line many adults can’t draw. Heck, it’s a line the Supreme Court of the United States, in its famous “I know it when I see it” opinion, couldn’t even find. Around the circle stood eight parents mentally adding “Do better than Supreme Court on pornography” to their to-do lists. That meant, we all realized, drawing that line for our children.


Which we all resolved to run home and do. Just as soon as we figured out exactly how…and precisely where. “Well, I know I need to tighten up our computer controls,” said the doctor, casting around for agreement. “Yeah—and something maybe a little more…positive?” added Ms. Blush, her cheeks pinkening again. “Something affirming of their sexuality? I don’t know…I cannot believe I’m suggesting this—but maybe a subscription to Playboy?”


“So he can read the articles,” mumbled Uncle Brave, and everyone laughed uncomfortably.
Filed under
Show Comments