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: