Culture of Death, mental health, Pornography, Sex, sin, spiritual warfare, technology, Theology of the Body

Sex, violence, and the internet: every parent’s battle

August 9, 2017

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.

Wrong.

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:

Digital resourcs:

The Digital Kids Initiative 

Fight the New Drug

Porn Kills Love

Print resources:

Good pictures, bad pictures

The porn myth 

Freedom: Battle strategies for overcoming temptation 

Your brain on porn 

Good pictures, bad pictures jr.

Theology of the body for tots 

10 Comments

  • Reply Ann-Marie August 9, 2017 at 11:08 am

    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.

  • Reply Ari August 9, 2017 at 11:28 am

    Amen, sister!!!

  • Reply Bernadette August 9, 2017 at 11:30 am

    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”).

  • Reply Tita August 9, 2017 at 11:37 am

    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.

  • Reply JR's mom August 9, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    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.

    • Reply Charles August 12, 2017 at 6:52 pm

      Do you happen to remember the title of the book? That sounds like it could be edifying. Thanks!

  • Reply Ryan LeBlanc August 10, 2017 at 8:45 am

    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.

    Peace

    • Reply Jenny August 10, 2017 at 9:27 am

      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?

  • Reply Laura August 11, 2017 at 4:36 pm

    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.

  • Reply Meg August 12, 2017 at 9:41 am

    Patron saints you ask for intercession and protection for your babes (boys and gal) specifically in this. Subject? Thanks!

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