Sex, violence, and the internet: every parent’s battle
My boss brought to my attention a startling and, frankly, disturbing piece of research that surfaced last week correlating the age of a boy’s first exposure to pornography and his resultant attitude towards women. In results that ought to startle nobody who is familiar with the concept of the “latency period” in human development, according to this small study of 300 college-aged men, the younger a child is introduced to pornography, the higher the likelihood of violence in his interactions with the opposite sex.
The study authors were surprised, as they’d been expecting to see a correlation between promiscuity and earlier age of exposure. What they weren’t expecting to find was that the younger the child was when he was exposed, the more likely that he would hold a violent attitude towards women:
“That was a shock because scientists had expected that men would be more promiscuous the earlier they came to pornographic material.”
For male children who are exposed to pornography later in life, their attitude towards the opposite sex tended toward a “playboy” mentality leading to higher rates of promiscuity and an increased number of sexual partners.
I feel like any parent in possession of a grain of common sense could have predicted the outcome of the study, provided they were familiar with what the Church has traditionally identified as “the latency period” of childhood development. The notion being that pre-pubescent children are, by design, not in possession of the necessary mental faculties to process sexual images or events when they are prematurely exposed, and thus sex can actually become conflated with violence.
This is part of why sexual abuse of children is particularly horrifying, and why the normalization of pornography in our culture has such profoundly troubling consequences.
You see, introducing children “gently” to pornographic content and premature sexual information, ala Planned Parenthood’s method of classroom instruction of school children, is not the way to craft sexually healthy humans.
Putting porn into tiny, still developing brains that are neither emotionally nor biologically equipped to receive or process such information leads not to sexually-savvy adolescents down the line, but to children whose neural pathways have conflated sex and violence in a devastating intersection of dopamine and digital content.
In a society plagued concerns about rape culture and violence against women, this is something that should grip our attention. The more we learn about pornography and it’s effects on the brain, the greater our efforts to prevent – and honestly, at this point, mitigate – a massive public health crisis.
Porn is not harmless.
It’s not harmless at age 5, (the youngest age at which the men in the above study were exposed. Sob.) and it’s not harmless at 26 (the upper age range of the study). It’s not harmless at 13, which, according to this study, is the average age of first exposure. The wider-studied average appears to be age 11.
And this is really important:
Most said that they had first encountered it by accident, rather than searching it out or being forced to watch it. And how exactly that happened didn’t appear to determine how men would relate to women.
Whether they’d been exposed by accident or by design, it was the age at which they were exposed, not the method (or intention) of exposure, that determined whether they’d tend more towards violence or more towards promiscuity.
Parents, teachers, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, caretakers: this is on us. We cannot turn our children loose with internet devices, however carefully we’ve filtered and password-protected them. We cannot hand over the remote and expect kids to safely navigate Direct TV or Netflix. We cannot check out of the essential and critically important task of raising healthy adults who have a shot at a healthy interior life and decent sex some day.
Porn is not harmless. And it is not inevitable, either.
At least it doesn’t have to be, for our children.
I spend hours each day on the internet, and it has been years since I’ve come across hardcore pornography. Softer porn is harder to avoid, but as an adult with a fully formed brain and conscience, plus the necessary technological and common sense, I can easily click away plus take steps to avoid questionable content in the first place, based on the sites I click and the search terms I craft.
But I am 34 years old and female. And if I can still not help the accidental exposure to soft core porn in my daily use of the internet, imagine with the digital landscape holds for your 10 year old son or your 15 year old daughter.
Do not give your kids smartphones. Do not allow them to peruse the internet without the screen in your plain site and safeguards in place to enable safest searching. This isn’t prudishness; it’s sanity. It’s not a matter of cultural or religious preference, it’s the difference between living in a civilized society and a barbaric wasteland. Does it sound weird and inconvenient? Yep. But the devastating public health crisis we find ourselves in the midst of demands some weirdness and inconvenience of us, the grown ups.
Why do you think co-eds get raped while lying unconscious behind dumpsters on college campuses? That kind of behavior doesn’t develop in a vacuum. A normally-developing and sexually healthy 19 year old male doesn’t violently assault an unconscious female simply because he’s had a drink or 10. That is not normal human behavior. It is the result of a broader cultural dysfunction that has whispered temptingly that we can have our cake and eat it, too. That porn is healthy and acceptable and normal under the right circumstances, and that the consequences of what is done alone behind the privacy of a screen doesn’t reach out tentacles into the wider community.
We were wrong, and it is beyond time to correct course.
Fight for the future generations of men and women who will become the mothers and fathers and leaders of tomorrow. Don’t resign yourself to the inevitability of a sexually depraved future of men unable to care for or bond to women, of women unable to imagine or demand anything more of the partners they’ll settle for.
We can do better. We can do better than an unsupervised 5 year old whose 14 year old neighbor shows him porn on an iPhone. We can do better than a 14 year old girl sexting topless pictures to her first boyfriend, but actually to the entire lacrosse team, whose goalie will upload the images to an amateur porn site specializing in underaged content.
Talk to your kids about porn. Talk to your kids about technology. About social media. About boundaries. About saying no to immediate perceived goods for a greater good down the line.
We do not have to settle for the status quo when it comes to kids and healthy sexual development.
And neither do we have to wring our hands and lament the passing away of the civilized world. Stand up and fight! Your kid will not die without an iPhone. Your kid will not die if you pull them out of public school for their own safety and sanctity, if that’s the reality of your particular situation. Your kid will not die if you forbid the viewing of “Game of Thrones” or “Girls” in your home. Your kid will maybe even thank you some day, on the precipice of 40, surveying a wasteland of divorce and domestic destruction all around him and observing the apparent miracle of his own reasonably happy family.
We cannot settle for this. We must not settle for this.
Some excellent resources for educating about porn, combating the effects of habitual usage, and best practices for parents:
Freedom: Battle strategies for overcoming temptation
Good pictures, bad pictures jr.
I just went through Good Pictures, Bad Pictures with my seven year old. It prompted very good conversations and a good basis for what I know will be a lifetime of conversations.
Jenny, I appreciate this post, and I’d really like to know your thoughts on this: For those of us who do try desperately to shelter our children, at what age is it appropriate to introduce the topic through resources such as the ones you’ve listed here?
I recently read a great review of “Good Pictures, Bad Pictures,” and wondered would be the right time to talk about this. Obviously, the later, the better, in the sense that ideally this wouldn’t even be an issue until 10 or 12 … it we also want to get in there with the right info before friends (no matter how carefully chosen and supervised) bring it up … So how early does one have to start to be preventative?
(I wonder the same thing in regard to information about sex, as well, beyond the generic “a husband and wife love each other and ask God for a baby”).
Thank you for this article. Porn destroyed my marriage. I thought the problem was me then I realized it was his addiction to porn. He tried telling me it was normal blah blah blah. His attitude towards me, the violence & verbal abuse of me & then in time our children was not normal. Again thank you for telling the truth about this horrible monster called porn.
Hi Jenny, thanks for the post. I have a lingering question, though.
I super agree with you on everything you’ve laid out, except that something is missing. Understandably, our kids to get the info they need from us, rather than 1) internet 2) friends/strangers 3) school. But where are the tools that parents have when it comes to teaching them what they need to know? The resources mean well but fall short, because they are vague. Put bluntly, none of the books I’ve seen so far, actually explain what an act of intercourse is, what does it look like. How babies come out. They are rich in all sorts of info, high quality, beautiful, well-written, well-drawn, but vague. They just don’t answer. Rather, by evading the answer and covering up with something else (that is relevant, beautiful, thought-provoking, well-written, etc etc but just. not. the. answer), some of these resources end up mystifying sex, or what it “can be.” And this, is what motivates even the most innocent of our children to turn somewhere else, for “details” we are not providing. I used to think that of course there is no good way to show this kind of stuff to children and use the bees and garden analogy and every possible suggestion of my Catholic mom friends, until I ran into a children’s book on this subject published by some Scandinavian country (sorry I forgot which one). I was impressed at how incredibly child-friendly BUT specific that book was. Nothing graphic, ugly, but a clearly and adorably! drawn picture of what-goes-where. It was a book I felt entirely comfortable enough to read to our 4 year old, no more sensational or standing-out than a children’s book on potty training. I think it is time that we find something that has details (ideally, church-approved), so that we can be the first teachers our kids can turn to on this matter. Details on their own are not evil and would be least dangerous if the parent can first lay them out. A child who is taught the facts by parents is a child who is safe, and won’t be as tempted.
Do you happen to remember the title of the book? That sounds like it could be edifying. Thanks!
Jenny I really appreciate your willingness to discuss tough topics, and sex violence and technology are important factors in our spiritual life.
But I find you misrepresent the findings of the study, and that leads your tone into a stand-up-and-fight mentality that strays from Christlike.
The study found a correlation between early exposure and a concern with power over women. Violence towards women is connected, but not the same thing. A young boy who sees pornography is not doomed to be a rapist, but certainly has been overwhelmed by psychologically inappropriate images, and therefore feelings he is not equipped to process. They could manifest in sexual assault, sure, or power and control over women in other ways.
Mama Bear wants to protect her boys and girls, I praise God, but we don’t need more alarmist culture warriors on the internet.
Ryan, thanks for reading and for your take on the issue. However, I disagree with your assessment of the study’s results. I think far too many parents are sitting on their hands on this one and letting the culture dictate the norms (and form their children) in terms of what is sexually normative, never mind healthy.
I’m glad to hear that “power over women” doesn’t equate violence in your mind, but being a woman in this culture and having been very much immersed in the rape culture on the modern college campus, I beg to differ. Of course a boy who views porn at age 7 isn’t doomed to be a rapist, but you can’t deny that we have a tremendous issue with sexual violence and predatory behavior in younger and younger ages. We would be foolish to look away from the mounting evidence that porn damages more than just dopamine receptors in the brain.
Finally, it’s offensive and pretty simplistic to be reduced to a “mama bear” and “culture warrior” simply because you disagree with my take on the issue. Would you have leveled the same disparagements at a male writer with whom you disagreed?
So important! I have an ad blocker on Chrome and SafeSearch on Google. Still, I’ve had REALLY less than appropriate stuff on Google images and the worst was on Pinterest. If you’re wondering about another offender where kids could easily be exposed: Snapchat. They have terrible “articles” that are unacceptable. Oh, and Instagram. There’s a lot of crap on there. Thank you for taking responsibility and teaching kids how to handle this, because even if parents want to prevent their kids from being exposed, it’s going to happen. Even if they don’t have a smartphone, their friends may. So it’s not just hiding it from kids, but teaching them how to respond when they do encounter inappropriate content.
Patron saints you ask for intercession and protection for your babes (boys and gal) specifically in this. Subject? Thanks!
It’s hard to know where to begin on this. First, I don’t think children should ever be exposed to porn. In any context. That said, both the study and a lot of what’s said here is just so off the mark that I had to comment on some of it. To wit:
1) “… introducing children “gently” to pornographic content and premature sexual information, a la Planned Parenthood’s method of classroom instruction of school children, is not the way to craft sexually healthy humans.”
Sigh. Humans have, through all of history, lived in close quarters with animals, neighbors, and their own family, all of whom were engaging in open (if usually covered) sexual activity. They didn’t think anything about it, and got along just fine. It’s only in our hugely sex-shaming modern society where we presume exposure to anything sexual Destroys Children Forever. And do we really have to point out that Planned Parenthood’s materials and pornography aren’t synonymous?
2) I’m a social scientist and statistician (professor in both those areas), and I’m, well, shocked that there is no discussion here of “latent variables”. For example, if we observe that boys who are exposed to pornography earlier have worse attitudes towards women, that does not mean this is CAUSAL. It could be that a certain kind of boy — one with low self-control, or one with insufficient parental oversight or even violence in the home — BOTH denigrate women AND seek out porn. It could be a function of environmental or personality factors. Just because one thing happens before another thing doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship between them. You’d need a controlled experiment for that, and the evidence discussed here is a far cry from that.
3) But what shocked me the most reading this is an almost willful ignorance of martial history. The article says “Why do you think co-eds get raped while lying unconscious behind dumpsters on college campuses? That kind of behavior doesn’t develop in a vacuum. A normally-developing and sexually healthy 19 year old male doesn’t violently assault an unconscious female simply because he’s had a drink or 10. That is not normal human behavior. It is the result of a broader cultural dysfunction…”
In *every* war, young men, usually well-raised with nice Moms and sisters about, resort to wholesale rape. It occurs with shocking commonality in developing countries, anywhere there is a lack of social control. It is ENTIRELY common human behavior for men to do this when they believe there will be no repercussions, and it has — unbelievably depressingly — gone on since time immemorial. It is NOT moral; it IS common. And it existed for eons before anyone thought of porn.
I’ve read your blog on and off and realize you’re a well-meaning person who tries to contribute to important debates. But a lot of what you say here is either misinformed or poorly reasoned. There’s been decades of very well-conducted research on sexuality and social breakdown, and it’s unnecessary to speculate about the role of pornography on male sexual behavior if that core behavior is going to be so strongly mischaracterized in the first place.
Tom, your comment stands because it’s refreshingly civil, even if we disagree. Having spent 4 years on a college campus steeped in the porn culture and then 3 years on a campus of a very different kind, I concur that yes, it *is* common for men to rape/denigrate/cheat/abuse when there is no moral/ethical formation of the human person and cultural expectations are set rock bottom in terms of what we expect from and model for men.
I reject your premise that “in every way, nice young men resort to rape.” Sorry, I’ve met plenty of both kinds, and there is a distinct difference between men who have been suckled on the culture of on demand sex and Planned Parenthood instruction and men who have been schooled in virtue, personal responsibility, and Christian moral ethics. Are there crappy kids who went to Church every Sunday and still end up rapists? Yep. And there are a handful of noble pagans out there too (trust me, I dated them) who would never violate a woman this way. But those are exceptions, and there is a meaningful and undeniable connection between Christianity (authentic, practiced, integrated Christianity) and the dignified, reverential treatment of women. To pretend otherwise is to be willfully ignorant of history and painfully biased by the prevailing cultural spirit of relativism.
I’m serious about ideas and arguments, and incivility just gets in the way of that. I also appreciate your allowing the post and replying to it.
You did misread a key word in my post: “war”, not “way”. Men do not rape in every way; they do in every WAR, when social controls break down.
I think women do not realize sometimes that, to men, sex is just not a big emotional thing. It does not involve someone literally going past the boundaries of your body. Men must be taught this, and it’s very difficult. [I have the benefit of being male and spending time around males when there are sometimes no women around; by definition, you cannot have done this.]
I think your argument is running afoul of the latent variable trap again: the kinds of families who have their kids go to church and steep them in Christian ethics — a practice I mainly admire, although I do not follow Christian doctrine specifically — also do many other things well: they tend not to abuse their children and one another; they tend to be stable and economically self-reliant; they tend to have integrated into their community; and 100 other things. It’s just impossible to attribute the lack of sexual assault on any one element of that.
It may interest to you know that the most extreme serial killer in US history, Gary Ridgway, was an extremely observant Christian who proselytized to others. One might argue that he wasn’t a “real”Christian, but that’s quite begging the point.
In any case, there is a huge body of carefully controlled studies that have tried to tease these things out. So far as I know, not one has implicated exposure to pornography ALONE with violence or sexual violence towards women. That doesn’t mean it’s not causal, of course. But a more plausible explanation is that kids with all sorts of problems and messed-up families have access to porn and find ‘solace’ in it, just like they do with drugs. And kids from from happy, engaged, close-knit families do much less of both.
In any case, I think we both agree that, as parents, we need to keep porn out of the home. My son has many computers, but they all must be used in the family room with us present, and I check his browsing history. Can he evade these controls? Sure. But it’s inevitable he will be exposed to this unfortunate aspect of our society, and yet I have zero fear he will turn out to be a sexual predator, since not one of the people in his life is remotely that way (and nearly all the women around him have both graduate degrees and professions, so he never got the message that women are less capable than men, which in my view is where all this misogyny really gets going).