American parents worry constantly about the implications of their children watching R-rated, or even PG-13–rated, movies. They won’t let their kids view countless films, made mostly for good, clean entertainment, because of a sexually suggestive scene here and there, or maybe — God forbid — the occasional shot of breasts. What would they think of those same children viewing X-rated films, with full sexual contact, often of a shockingly violent or abusive nature?
Yet this is exactly what many of their children do every day. It’s time for our society to wake up to the reality that is pornography in the digital age.
There has always been erotic art, and there always will be, as long as humans remain human; pornography, too, has long been a particularly explicit variant of that. But even as recently as 20 years ago, pornography was the domain of the secluded, the hushed and, most significantly, the adult.
One of the most important and least discussed innovations of the Internet was the explosion of pornography that followed. The problems feminists had with it beforehand are now intensely magnified as rape, bestiality and underage porn continue to be widely available. With hundreds of thousands of small pornography companies flourishing around the world with almost no legal or cultural oversight, the lines are blurred between amateur and professional; between consent and coercion. Who better to illustrate this than Casper Desfeux, that ghost in Yale’s own closet?
But for me, all of these problems aside, the most disturbing thing of all is that the young men of America are now raised on a steady diet of pornography. It was bound to happen, given the ingredients: Take kids who are far more adept with technology than their parents, mix in the eruption of internet porn, add a dash of parental neglect to boot, and you have an entire generation of boys addicted to pornography from puberty.
Yes, girls, it’s true. Most boys of our generation watch pornography, at least sometimes, and yet this unsettling fact has been acknowledged by practically no one in our society. The boys themselves are afraid of talking about it, except in furtive conversations with close friends. Their parents, for the most part, are ignorant of the situation, and mainstream politicians and media outlets don’t care. In fact, the only people that seem to have written about it at all are your typical “family-focused” advocacy groups, the kinds whose other campaigns include homophobia and misogyny.
But unlike love between men, the prevalence of pornography among our nation’s youth is a serious problem. Boys will always be boys. They will always want to know more about sex and sexuality. They will always experiment with their developing bodies and have a desire to see naked women. But that doesn’t mean that their every teenage whim requires satisfaction, or that pornography might a reasonable outlet for those desires.
When a teenager sees pornography, he does so in secret and with absolutely no knowledge of what is normal or acceptable. All pornography is equally forbidden from the perspective of his parents and — so he thinks — his society, so the most brutal and misogynistic sexual acts might strike him as simply par for the course. The fact is that most teenage boys today receive their primary sexual education from pornography. And for anyone who has ever witnessed the breadth and depth of internet porn, that’s a scary thought.
Lest I sound like a moralizing Puritan, I should say, of course, that erotic art isn’t inherently bad, and even explicit pornography can be acceptable. In any case, I’m certainly not one to limit free speech — if filming sex acts does indeed count as “speech.” But we face a serious problem if a nation of boys is taught about sexual health by teenage forays into the unregulated and frequently damaging world of cyberspace.
The only solution, since we don’t want to make it illegal, is to bring it into the open. It’s time we had a frank discussion in our culture about what, exactly, is going on with pornography, and whether that needs to change. I think it does, and I expect most people would agree with me. But if no one aside from the most conservative Christians is willing to speak out, then nothing will change. Twenty years from now, the 11-year-old boy watching rape porn will be yours.
Sam Bagg is a senior in Silliman College.