THE PARADOX OF PORN: the Internet as sex educator

The New York Times recently reported that a woman in Los Angeles sat down at her desk at the end of a long day and discovered that the search history on the family computer included “child porn.” A couple of days later, her 13-year-old son admitted that he had typed in that search. “He said he was looking for porn made for children,” the mother said. “He explained, embarrassed, that he just wanted to know what his body was supposed to look like at his age.”

I can relate to that. Can’t you? Kids are insatiably curious about bodies, their own and others’, especially in that time of life when their bodies are changing. And as advice columnists routinely attest, the #1 concern they field from readers boils down to “Am I normal?” The paradox of pornography is that it puts naked bodies on full display in all their voluptuous glory – a godsend to anyone who’s curious and in the dark about such things. At the same time, the kinds of bodies you see in pornography often convey a distorted picture of what constitutes “normal.” Not all the time, but a lot of the time the women’s boobs are enormous, the men’s dicks are gigantic, the crotches are shaved and hairless, and the skin is smooth, white, and waxy. And the paradox for kids is that we live in an era when any naked pictures of humans under the age of 18, even cartoon drawings, can be construed not just as pornography but as grounds for serious legal prosecution. The agony of hormonally activated adolescents starving and literally dying for lack of information about sex was the subject of Frank Wedekind’s deeply wild, long-suppressed 1891 play Spring Awakening, as well as the terrific 2006 Broadway musical based on the play. These days when kids go looking for a little bit of sex education online, they’re more likely to end up with TMI.

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It would be great if we all grew up in body-positive households where nakedness occurred casually and appropriately from an early age, not necessarily equated with sex or something “dirty.” I was impressed to visit Iceland, where virtually everyone sits in hot tubs almost every day, and to note that the dressing rooms mandated the strictly enforced hygienic protocol that every person shower completely naked – and not in separate curtained-off cubicles but in open (sex-segregated) gang showers. Kids grow up seeing all sizes and shapes and ages of naked bodies, displayed in all their beautiful specificity yet with a community ethos of respectful modesty and mutual acceptance. Korean spas convey a similar healthy openness. It would be great to be exposed early and often to the notion that what you see in the mirror reflects exactly what you’re supposed to look like. If you don’t grow up in that kind of culture, how do you satisfy your curiosity? “Playing doctor” used to be the way kids explored seeing each other’s naked bodies. Nowadays it’s Doctor Google who holds all the answers.

You can be a lot older than 13 and still turn to online porn with the same questions: am I normal? What is my body supposed to look like? The Internet is kind of like the Bible – with enough persistent clicking around, you can find whatever you want there, to support any theory you want. Fretful parents can absolutely find scary images. Gender-queer explorers can find kindred spirits. Diversity hounds can find an XXX-rated Noah’s ark. People with crippling qualms about their own bodies can find evidence to support harsh self-judgments. “Over-exposure to porn, especially idealized body types, has led to disappointment with normal guys and a need to fantasize to achieve orgasm,” D.R. told me. “It’s also led to an unhealthy view of and disappointment in my own size and output.” (The word “output” is his modest way of voicing what I’ve heard from other men – porn can instill a sense of inferiority not just about the size of your dick but also the amount of jizz you shoot.)

Yet for every guy who feels shamed and intimidated by the invidious comparisons that online porn facilitates, someone else sees past the imperfections and experiences liberation. “Internet porn and social media is so great,” enthused S.A. “It’s making me 100% confident there are tons of guys who share my interests in various things to various degrees, some a lot more than me. I really think looking at naked guys, their genitals, butts, seeing all their curves and what used to be sort of weird-looking parts, so many variations in bodies, is very helpful to my emotional, psychological, social, and even physical health.”

It’s not easy being totally honest about sex, about bodies, about pornography, about curiosity. But I think it’s worth pursuing. What do you think?