Inside the Pornocopia

These days, teens navigate a world with porn a-plenty, and hey--that's just fine with them


Go!: Pornography is ubiquitous on the net. But does it actually hurt our kids?

Jessica Lussenhop

While many interviewed below gladly gave their full names, we adults have excised their surnames for their own good. 

Four teenaged boys are gathered around a chessboard having a civilized conversation about pornography. As he mulls his next move, Chris, a straight-talking 18-year-old with a goatish beard tufting from his chin, recalls some of his earliest dabbling.

“In junior high, I started printing out porn and bringing it to school. I don’t even know why,” he says. “We’d go, ‘Ooh, aah,’ and I’d put it away. It wasn’t really sexual stimulation, it was, ‘We’re doing something we’re not supposed to at school.'”

Never was that so clear to him as when he was dragged into the principal’s office on an unrelated charge with a half-inch-thick stack of smut in his bag. Terrified he would be searched, he ended up “dumping it in the vice principal’s trash can,” he says. “Then she came in and decided to eat an apple. She was peeling it into the trash.”

Luckily for the preteen Chris, the vice principal never looked down into the trash, but he didn’t exactly learn his lesson. Now he trades chess pieces and porn parables with his 17- and 18-year-old friends with the utmost candor.

“I think our social group has overused the access,” he says. “It is certainly past the point of being new to us.”

“I have 140 gigs of porn on my computer,” one of his friends says. “I was going to put it all on an external hard drive and pass it to all my friends. And I said this in front of my friend’s parents.”

His frankness is astounding. This very nice boy with 140 gigs of pornography gave me his first and last name to print; I’m not going to. Even though he seems to be a very mature 17-year-old, I’m not entirely sure he’s thought about the fact that the day this story hits the web, any prospective employer, dean or girlfriend who Googles his name will find the words “140 gigs of pornography” in the same sentence. But maybe for this generation, that’s not going to matter.

It is easier than ever to watch, create and share pornographic images and text, and as the first wave of web-savvy teenagers who have always had the instant gratification of DSL, who get cell phones as soon as they’re old enough to talk and who’ve never used air quotes with the word “blog,” their knowledge can easily be applied to creating their own porno paradise. Which leads to the question, can this be bad for them? If cigarettes stunt your growth, does porn stunt your soul?

Porn Pups

On the second floor of the Santa Cruz Teen Center, 16-year-old Jane considers the concept of “sexting,” or sending naked photos via cell phone. Behind her is a row of computers with signs posted nearby that read “NO PORNOGRAPHY.” “In my high school, technology isn’t necessarily openly used as much for sexually explicit stuff, but more for cheating on tests,” she says.

That said, Jane, along with a small sample of extremely gracious teenagers ranging in age from 14 to 18, concede that they’d sought out or at least seen internet pornography. Most were given access to a personal or family computer between the ages of nine and 14, and it took only a year or two after logging on for the first time to find sexually explicit material. One boy says he started seeking it out as early as 11 years old. They’re in good company: recent surveys show somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 percent of adolescents report they’ve seen pornography while surfing the internet.

Furthermore, they think it’s no big deal. A 2008 study found that two-thirds of college-age men and one-half of women think viewing pornography is acceptable. “Most people I know are decently open about it. They aren’t quite as open as [I am], but they’re certainly not closed,” says 17-year-old Bill.

If there is a common thread, it is nonchalance and acceptance. “I think this is happening basically every day for students in high school,” says 15-year-old Matt. “It doesn’t bother me. I don’t particularly have negative thoughts against that type of thing.”

Another 18-year-old girl confesses that she wasn’t shocked when her 15-year-old brother told her he looks up pornography on classroom computers when the teacher’s back is turned. “I’m used to it now that I’ve finished high school,” she says. “That’s old.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the more active young connoisseurs felt their porn proclivities were inflicting psychological damage on them. “More access is not a bad thing. I’m not exactly sure if it could be a thing that influences you to be a bad person,” says 17-year-old Matthew, a home-school student. “It depends on your nature.”

His friend Kendall agrees. “There are people who will see it as an opportunity to be themselves, and there are people who will see it as a tool to exploit people,” he says. “It really depends on the person.”

Evidence Inconclusive

Dr. Neil Malamuth, a professor of communication and psychology at UCLA, knows firsthand why studying sex, teenagers and technology is so fraught with peril. You have to apply your findings to your own kids.

“At one time, my son was about 15 or 14, and I went with him to San Francisco and we checked into a hotel, into two different rooms,” he says. “The bellhop said, ‘Oh, should I disallow the sexually explicit movies in this room?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, you should.’ My son got very upset, saying, ‘What right do you have?'” Malamuth also insists that his son attend a panel discussion he was participating in the next day. “So then he comes to my talk, and the first speaker was a radical feminist who was talking about very extreme porn. She showed samples of it.”

He laughs. “My son’s sitting in the audience and he’s smiling,” he says. “When you try to apply this to your own children, you have to consider real-world situations.”

Despite the failure of his personal policies, Malamuth has soldiered on and studied one possible consequence of heavy porn usage: sexually aggressive behavior. After 37 years’ worth of research, he has found that Matt and Kendall’s intuitive assumptions may be true.

“First of all, it’s inaccurate to try to make a simple generalization across the board–porn is good, porn is bad,” he says. “When it comes to effects that we can label as undesirable and antisocial, then it seems to depend on the content of the pornography and very much the profile of the person.”

Malamuth says a constellation of certain factors can result in a sexually maladjusted person and seem to rely more heavily on the predisposition due to negative factors like a narcissistic personality, hostile feelings toward women, violence in the home or aggression between one’s parents. “By and large, the answer is, if a person is high on multiple risk factors, heavy consumption of pornography does add fuel to the fire,” he says. “For people who are not at a particular risk of committing sexually aggressive acts, whether or not they are heavy pornography users, it doesn’t make much of a difference.”

Neither does risky sexual behavior in teenagers seem to correlate with the rise in technology, according to Dr. Doug Kirby, a senior research scientist at ETR Associates who has studied adolescent sexual risk behavior for over 30 years. “It is not the case that all the changes that have taken place in society, including much greater access to pornography, have led to an increase in sexual behavior,” he says. “Between the ’90s and the early 2000s, the percent of young people who’ve ever had sex did not increase.”

Indeed, a study by the Centers for Disease Control shows that from 1991 to 2007, the number of adolescents in grades nine through 12 who have had sex at least once dipped 16 percent, from 54.1 percent to 47.8 percent. Along with it went the incidence of teen pregnancy among 15- to 19-year-olds, which dropped 38 percent from 1990 to 2004 (in California in particular, pregnancy rates dropped dramatically). Though it’s too simple to say this absolves technology of any influence it’s had on the sex lives of teenagers, a long-term study that explicitly asks how porn affects child and adolescent development hasn’t yet been done.

Similarly, development professionals are not exactly suggesting that these materials have no effect on teenagers. “I don’t think that they’re going to become more deviant, perverted people because of this,” says Dr. Neville Golden, chief of adolescent medicine in the pediatrics department at the Stanford School of Medicine. “Still, I think life is much more complicated for young people. They’re bombarded with much more topics much earlier in life. It can be confusing.”

Many of the teenagers I interviewed saw the internet most importantly as a tool for learning about themselves sexually rather than just a fast track to hot naked babes.

“It can be a tool for anyone, anywhere to find out who you are if you don’t fit in very well,” says Jane. “I think the internet is a great way to learn about that and do some self-realization.”

But, Golden warns, that’s no reason to unlock the internet filter and throw away the password. “The internet has a lot of information. Much of it is good, but there is also information that is potentially dangerous,” he says. He points to bad medical information or fringe websites that encourage unhealthy behavior like eating disorders, though he stops short of writing off pornography as a wholly destructive use of one’s time online. “The studies are in the infant stage,” he says, “We’re not there yet.”

‘Sex, Boobs and Asses’

Lala and Nessa, both 18, come to this discussion from a very different perspective. The two best friends are chatting in the weedy backyard of Lala’s house in Watsonville while she cradles her squirming three-month-old baby boy. “He’s like a fish,” she says, looking down at him pulling mightily at a baby bottle with his toothless gums. As she struggles to keep her grip on his tiny wiggling body, she admits, with evident guilt, that this isn’t the life she’d hoped for.

“I didn’t want to have a baby. I wanted to finish school. I guess it didn’t work out like that,” she says. “It’s hard, it’s really hard. You can’t go to school. I can’t even take a shower anymore.”

Nessa keeps checking her phone. Texts from her overzealous boyfriend keep coming in. Though Nessa is taking classes and working, she remembers with a tinge of regret the boy-crazy high school days that ended with half of her friends becoming mothers. “If we were less experimental at a young age, we’d have had more time to focus on our futures,” she says.

“In school, it’s all about sex and boobs and asses,” says Lala. “Everybody’s comparing themselves to things they see on technology. All my friends were having sex.”

Though both girls acknowledge that their classmates watched pornography and posted risqué pictures of themselves on MySpace, Lala has a pretty old-school theory on why she ended up a stay-at-home mom at age 18. She gestures to Nessa.

“She’s the way she is because of her dad, because he would call her and call her,” says Lala. “My parents would never call me. They would just let me do whatever I want. That’s why she’s in school and doesn’t have a baby.”

Nessa considers this. “The positive way is talking to your kids; the negative way is using aggression and raising your voice,” she says.

Lala nods. “I did whatever I wanted all the time,” she says again.

The Parent Factor

Though Lala’s situation has plenty of other issues couched in socioeconomic and cultural differences, her perspective on her own pregnancy seems to be one of the few things that both development professionals and teenagers can agree on: parental involvement has not become obsolete.

“The reality is, they still want parents in their lives,” says Dr. Claire Brindis, a researcher in adolescent health at UC San Francisco. “Even with these new devices, teenagers that I’ve come across in my research still have this unmet need for comprehensive sex education. We as a society must recognize that the period of adolescence is one of the most challenging, and young people need guidance. These are universals that have not gone away.”

For Dr. Marty Klein, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of America’s War on Sex, the more alarming behavior has come from adults overreacting to teenager’s technological expressions of sexuality, like the recent media hysteria over “sexting” (a term none of the teens I met used or could use without making a face).

“A lot of the public policy conversation that’s taking place about kids’ sexuality is more about adult anxiety,” Klein says. “When I hear district attorneys criminalizing sexting, what I hear them saying is, in order to prevent kids from ruining their lives, we’re going to ruin their lives.”

Another thing that both teens and their doctors seem to agree on is that no matter what the consequences may be, kids will find a way–through any internet filter, past any padlock, through any key code–to get at the things that fascinate them. “I think if a young person is going out for it, they’re going to find it one way or another, if it’s really hard or really easy,” says 16-year-old Tanya. “It’s not changing the interest you have in sex; it’s just another source of information.”

Given that assumption, Klein stresses that parental involvement is crucial. “The answer is to teach them how to talk about sex to one another, how to value their bodies,” he says. “Teach them how males and females can talk to each other rather than separate them in sex-education classes. The thing we need is more education, not fear.”

Easier said than done. Many interviewees reported that their parents had, at one time or another, attempted to have “the Talk.” One of them was 15-year-old Matt. “I kind of shot my dad down because I thought he was being sort of cheesy,” he says. “I learned my thoughts and opinions on that stuff on my own.”

Fourteen-year-old Zack balked when his mom tried to talk to him about sexting after a neighbor girl got caught sending nude photos to her boyfriend. “My mom was like, ‘Don’t do that, don’t send pictures of yourself,’ and I was like, ‘OK,'” he says. “It was weird. I was like 13 or 12 then, so I didn’t even know about it yet.” Many kids reported that by the time their parents worked up the nerve, they could only tell them, “I already know this from the internet.”

Text Question, Please

Luckily, there are other options developing that actually use the same technology parents are so worried about.

Santa Cruz County health educator Sarah Harmon tries to answer the text messages that come to her cell phone with a little “ding-dong” sound. “Oh, there’s one now,” she says.

As coordinator for the teen pregnancy prevention program, Harmon gives presentations to hundreds of students on birth control and family planning. Two years ago, she started offering her work cell phone number to students as a way for them to contact her with any concerns. “I was not a texter. I was totally foreign to the whole thing. I gave it out thinking they would call me,” she says. “But this is the way teenagers communicate.”

Harmon says the number of texts she receives has doubled in the last school year alone, and though the majority of the questions are just to find out Planned Parenthood clinic hours, she is also asked how certain birth control methods work or about extremely personal situations her students might not feel comfortable asking verbally. “A lot of them are wanting pregnancy tests, or just wondering if something that’s going on with them is normal,” she says. “Our society in general doesn’t talk about sex much. Teens realize they can ask questions of me that they can’t ask their parent or teachers because they’re afraid.”

Programs like Harmon’s are springing up throughout the country, and Californians, who have always rejected abstinence-only education, are at the forefront. San Francisco teenagers can text a number to get a menu of frequently asked sexual questions and automated responses, and a service called the HookUp that texts weekly health tips and can locate the nearest health clinic by zip code is available statewide. Sonoma County is interested in developing a student-to-educator texting service like Harmon’s, even as state budget cuts are cutting teen-pregnancy-prevention programs to the bone.

There are also less tangible things at stake. Judging from Kendall’s assertion that his girlfriend of a year and a half is someone who helped him see “who I wanted to be more into the future,” or the way that Jane lightly kisses her girlfriend Tanya’s wrist as she talks, or Nessa’s feigned exasperation as her phone buzzes with her boyfriend’s umpteenth text, puppy love still thrives in the digital age. Several of the teenagers I spoke with had been in the same committed relationship for a year or longer. But is one’s capacity for intimacy adversely affected by hours of hours of online bonkfests?

Again, while little research is currently available, Malamuth points to a 2008 study done in Croatia which showed that a small but statistically significant number of young men age 18 to 25 reported lower feelings of intimacy with their partners, though the correlation was found only in those watching extreme or more socially unacceptable pornography. “There was no effect in mainstream sexually explicit material,” he says. “[Again,] it depends on the type of person and the type of pornography.”

Brindis is quick to dismiss the notion that technology will terminate the butterflies in teenagers’ stomachs. “The power of Romeo and Juliet, the intensity of that love, gets repeated in the 21st century,” she says. “You still have to go through the phases of finding out who you are and defining who your romantic partner should be. It’s not going to take away from that.”

And, she says, with so many more ways to keep in touch, teenager may actually becoming more intimate and in touch. “I always say, high tech, high touch,” she says. “You may be on the phone more often, you may be texting or Twittering more.”

Jane agrees. “Between couples, there’s plenty of that. Why not? What’s stopping you? You don’t have to set a time or a date or wait until your parents are going out of town.”

Generation Sex

Neither Chris nor Lala nor Will nor Matt nor Nessa nor any of the rest can really say that their early exposure to pornography and other early sexual experience was too early, or that their lives will be adversely affected long into the future. Neither can the development professionals. But all are trying their best.

“At the end of the day, what needs to drive public policy around sexuality is science rather than emotion,” says Klein. “The science says that kids from the beginning of time have looked at sexual pictures, and it doesn’t seem to harm them very much. As young people have more access to technology, they need more and more sex information; they don’t need more repression.”

The teenagers I spoke to did not wish that pornography be wiped from the face of the earth–no surprise there–or that cell phones be confiscated on a wide scale. They all feel pretty relaxed about the availability of X-rated material in their lives, particularly Bill. “When I was younger, I was definitely more shy, more shut in. I rarely would leave the house,” he says. “In my current being, I’m a lot more open to new experiences, and I think at least a small part of that could be contributed to the internet and pornography. I think I turned out just fine.”

Back at the chess game, as Chris’ chances of winning slowly slip away, he considers whether or not his habits have any downside. He thinks hard. “I think the overease of access makes everything blasé,” he says.

Does that boredom make him nostalgic for the days of diving underneath mattresses for your older brother’s Playboys?

He shakes his head vigorously no. “Ease of access is nice. It definitely is nice.”

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