Bad behavior

I found my son looking at online porn and he said, "Dad does it, and he says, don't tell Mom we do it."


Cary Tennis
June 5, 2003 11:35PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

The other day I happened to look at the history panel in our family Internet browser and discovered dozens of porn sites listed. I asked my son and he confessed that he spent several hours looking at all kinds of explicit sexual pictures, some of them utterly revolting. He is 14 years old. He then proceeded to tell me that "Dad does it, and he says don't tell mom we do it."

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Later, I confronted my husband privately. I said that our son should not be basing his adolescent sexual development on this kind of imagery, that I wanted him to never look at porn on our family computer, and that I was upset because I now felt insulted or cheap when he touched me. I mean, how can he make love to me after seeing hours of these exploitative, rude, and often sick fantasy-based images? Who does he think I am? I have real trouble now being touched by him. Our sex life was not very good to begin with, with him being pretty selfish in bed, but I had no great expectations in that department after 15 years of marriage, but I could live with it. But not any more. I am furious.

He agreed to not go to porn sites on the family computer, but I know he can access it elsewhere and I suspect his habits will not change. What message has he given our son? How can I get back my self esteem? What is going to happen to our marriage if this happens again?

Bewildered in California

Dear Bewildered,

Solely in the interest of science, I went to alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.lesbians and did an experiment. I looked at the pictures. I paid attention to what happened. And you know what? Before I could register any conscious thoughts at all, there was an immediate swelling in the nether regions, if you get my drift, and a discernable physiological payoff, like a little hit of cocaine. It was as if there were some substance in the image itself that went straight into my nervous system and started working on me. I sort of knew this was the case but I wanted to confirm it consciously. I wanted to start at the beginning, as though I'd never heard of pornography before.

Having done that, I'm inclined to suggest that we try not to think about pornography so much as a shaper of cultural attitudes but instead as a kind of drug. Perhaps it is in that sense addictive, I don't know; but if it feeds on isolation and is practiced in solitude it would share those traits with classic drug addictions. (I do not believe that most men look at porn with their wives around, though perhaps their lives would become a little more interesting if they tried it.)

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Also like drugs, porn seems to short-circuit reason, aesthetics, taste and morals, and go right into the bloodstream. Plus it represents a huge business, much of which is transacted underground. So the question I posed to myself as I sat there looking at vivid, free, completely naked, completely X-rated porn was: What am I to do about this, sitting here, being aroused by these pictures of young women named Janna and somebody, frolicking on a bed, undressing each other, stroking each other? Damn. What's a man to do? Might this be sexual heroin?

If so, perhaps it should be kept out of the hands of children. It's not so much that it would shape the child's view of women as that it's simply too powerful for a child to handle. But I'm in favor of making drugs legal and available to adults.

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I wonder to what degree your outrage is fueled by protectiveness for your son and to what degree it's anger at your husband. No doubt the two are a little entwined; perhaps you also feel that your husband is endangering your son. Without condoning what he's done, I would like to suggest that fathers and sons can often feel stifled in a house run by a woman, and you will find them banding together in protest. Say that Mom doesn't want them fishing because fish are stinky and she doesn't want them hunting because hunting is barbaric and she doesn't want them driving loud cars because loud cars are uncivilized and they shouldn't watch boxing or football because it's violent and repugnant or whatever. The men, knowing who they are and what they feel, find in mutual illicit pleasures a kind of affirming solidarity. And who can blame them? They're just trying to be who they are and not be ashamed of it.

Many women, however, have the same visceral abhorrence of porn that you have. If they found their husbands looking at porn it might be like finding them with a needle in their arms -- or, more to the point, with a hooker in their arms, as the porn experience is a kind of disembodied adultery carried out in a fleshless world of signs and symbols. Women's revulsion at porn also seems strangely autonomic, like a shiver out of the amygdala, uncontrollable, ancient, immune to secular society, powerful yet irrational, like a fear of spiders.

But in a physical sense, porn is no more dangerous than spiders. What if a husband covered his face with spiders? Why would he do that? He wouldn't do it just to freak out his wife, would he? What would be the point? He'd only do it if it felt really, really good to cover his face with spiders -- so good that he's willing to risk losing his wife. Again, that sounds like addiction -- why would a guy drink and ruin his life unless he just couldn't stop?

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What to do? I don't know. But let's acknowledge that porn works on a man in powerful ways and it's a huge and sometimes hugely unacknowledged part of our culture. Should we men feel responsible for our physiological susceptibility to porn, as though we had designed our nervous systems ourselves? Would that we could even open the hood on such an engine! Should we fight our responses to it as though such responses were our moral failure? I don't see why, any more than we should be ashamed of the fact that we grow facial hair or that we're the ones with the testicles.

Granted, the father-son porn connection sounds a little creepy, and 14 seems too young. You're not supposed to look at porn when you're 14, although I found a way to when I was that age, and so would Wally and Beaver Cleaver if given the chance. It's mischief. It's curiosity. I'm no psychologist. Maybe it's harmful. Maybe I and all the other kids who hid Playboys in our junior high school lockers were permanently damaged by it. Maybe that's why I became an alcoholic and a drug addict!

I'm being sarcastic. As an American with deep roots in the mythos of rebellion against the state, I can't help cheering anything that teachers, preachers and presidents don't approve of. Sometimes all you have to define yourself is your appetites. They remind us that we are glorious animals. And so looking at porn can be a kind of rebellion against the state.

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I may be stretching things a little, but I'm from the '60s, and that's how I feel about it. I remember how excited I was to read R. Crumb comix and Wonder Wart Hog, how freeing it has always been to gaze upon the forbidden, to see what they don't want you to see.

At any rate, regardless of your moral views, maybe some good can come of this encounter. Do you think it would be possible for you to sit down with your husband and just tell him that you love him to death as a man but porno completely creeps you out, and the son/husband porno connection doubly creeps you out? Maybe you could do that and see where it leads.

Your husband shouldn't be showing your son porn. That's not what he's supposed to do. But keep im mind, men aren't sick and twisted just because they get boners when they look at porn. It's how they're wired. And porn isn't going to make your son rush out and start oppressing women. On behalf of the males in your life, and for the sake of your marriage, I'm going to ask you to cut them some slack.

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