Welcome to Survivor in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.
Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.
Our middle-school son has been doing some online searching lately of a seemingly puberty-driven nature. "Boobs" was the first search term that caught our eye. We're conflicted about how to handle this. We most definitely don't want to shame him in any way. We do want to be clear that if he searches he will easily find things that are disturbing and upsetting. We're struggling to find a way to honor his very normal interest in these things. We want him to know it's totally ok to feel this stuff and that we aren't mad or upset or anything other than wanting to support him as he grows.
You are so lovely, and he’s so lucky. Yes to wanting to honor his very normal interest. Yes to wanting him to know that he’s completely OK. Yes to wanting to support him as he grows. Our 17-year-old once confessed to us as a little kid that he wished he could see more naked people — and we were like, “You and everybody else, honey. Everybody wishes that.” It was so nice to get to relieve him so easily of a guilty secret.
He then had the great idea of gathering up all the individual nude photographs — “You know how there’s one in every coffee table book?” — into a single book of just naked-people photographs. (We did not have the heart to tell him that this was already an often-revolting billion-dollar industry.) And I only mention this here because talking with my kids about your question, we were realizing that when it comes to sex, what is sanctioned for young people is educational material. But there’s not much in the way of pictures to look at for pleasure or curiosity. “Ugh,” my 17-year-old said, “I once looked at a dot-to-dot book in a gag-gift store. It was called Lesbian Sex, and I actually tried to connect some of the pictures in my head just because that was the most graphic thing I’d ever gotten to look at.” Poor kid.
So what can we do? I have been tempted for years to start a website called Gentle Porn for Teenagers. Because one sad thing about the world we live in is the fact of internet porn — how relentlessly ungentle and unrealistic it is. It makes me actually nostalgic for the 1970s Playboy magazines of our own childhood, which now feel so wholesome in retrospect. Just boobs and airbrushed nipples and nice, neat triangles of pubic hair. Those were the days! Now everything is bald and oily and there are two cocks for every hole and cum in your face and everyone is screaming, clawing their 10-inch fingernails down everyone else’s back. It’s not the way we want our kids to learn about sex because a) The images are often degrading to women; b) The industry is often degrading to women; c) That’s not what bodies or sex are actually like; and d) Find me a real-life woman who has a real-life orgasm because someone fucks her up the ass for 15 seconds. Please. We want our children — boys and girls both — to learn pleasure, respect and mutuality. We want them to approach sex with curiosity and courage: “What feels good to you? Tell me. Show me.”
But I am getting ahead of myself! And certainly ahead of your son, who is merely boob-curious, I realize.
My kids feel that you should not confront him directly — “Oh my God,” the 17-year-old said, “He’ll have, like, total shame PTSD,” — but that you should casually leave some books around that he might like to look at. They’re imagining sex books for teens or even The Joy of Sex. But another option is the artsy Taschen Big Book of photography series: collections called Breasts, Penises, and Butts that pretty much are just what they sound like. Other art books might be good too — histories of the nude, say, which you might be able to get from the library, even! “Just leave them around,” the 14-year-old said. “He’ll find them. I promise.” (Of course, this might seem like overkill for your son, who doubtless springs a boner simply because someone’s dressing a nude mannequin in a shop window. You will have to use your judgment on this.)
“But don’t they kind of have to talk to their kid about how porn is different from real sex?” I asked my own. “I mean, chances are he’s already seen something that represents sexuality in an unrealistic or degrading way.” Maybe he’ll wish he could unsee it, but he can’t. My kids admitted that this was likely the case and recommended that you frame this issue carefully so as to not embarrass him: “You know what I’ve been thinking about? You’re getting to an age when some of your friends are going to be looking at stuff on the internet. Which is totally normal. But there are some things I want to say to you about that kind of thing…” What those things are, of course, is up to you.
(One last piece of advice? Pretend you’re writing an advice column for parents of teens and ask them this question. You’ll be able to say everything you’ll wish you’ve ever said to your kids about porn, because it will be in the service of your work and of helping someone else with an issue. Nobody will even feel lectured or mortified! In fact, after you’re done talking, you’ll get a bunch of sex books from the library, and everyone will be really happy.)