My wife and I discovered that our 13-year-old son was looking at gay porn on the internet. When we took his computer, we also found nude selfies he and another boy had sent to each other. And when we pushed, we discovered they’ve had some sexual activity already, presumably to try out things they’d seen in porn.
My wife freaked out. I’m trying to stay calm. But we don’t actually know who the aggressor is here; it might have been my son. Do I need to worry that he’s turning into a bad kid? I’m trying to decide what to do and how to feel about it.
— Wanting to Hit Reboot
I’ll start by saying that if I was in your shoes, I’d actually have been in your wife’s shoes: I’d have started with a good solid freak-out. While it’s easy to write advice about other people’s lives, when it comes to my own family, I’m a classic Pisces with all the big emotions you’d expect. Typically, however, after my head explodes, I force myself to take a few deep breaths and start dealing with the real.
The reality here is that your adolescent son is already exploring sex and he is influenced by porn. Discomfiting or not, both things are very common. Dealing with the real means talking with him about all of it. You’ll need to cover a lot of ground: his awakening sexuality; the nature of porn and why it can be problematic; and the legal issues involved.
Few parents like to imagine their kids feeling or being sexual, especially so young — but it’s actually developmentally age-appropriate. Your son’s behavior might feel shocking (especially if you weren’t trying things out at that age), but early teen sexual exploration is not new; ask anyone who has ever worked at a summer camp and they’ll have stories to tell. As for me, I was a devoutly religious boy and still spent a good part of the summer I was 12 literally in a closet with another boy, equally religious, discovering what our bodies could get up to.
Of course not all kids are early experimenters; for some, sexuality is way off their radar at this age, so there’s no predicting when a child’s interest (or activity) might kick in. When it does, you very well may not know; most kids don’t come to their parents with this — they turn to friends or the internet for information and outlets alike.
Since you know your son has been active, you should be talking to him about sexual safety and all that it entails: emotional health, physical health, STIs, consent, and personal agency. If you have a child who (like many boys) is not chatty, he might not be excited to be having these talks, but do persevere, maybe in small doses at a time. You can’t actually control all of your child’s behaviors or choices, but you can at least make sure he’s hearing the messages you’d like him to take in. Try to focus on what he needs to hear versus what you wish he could get by with (which will always be less).
A bigger problem is that he’s already getting many of his messages from porn — and so are his classmates. (The majority of boys and girls 11–13 have already been exposed to porn, often much earlier, and 10% of boys who are your son’s age even worry that they are addicted. ) Though many adults embrace porn as a form of sexual release, your son isn’t an adult; his frontal lobe is only halfway done growing, which means he’s still pretty bad at impulse control or considering cause-and-effect. He may not understand that porn is not very realistic and may think sex should or must look like what he finds there.
That’s where porn poses a problem. One of the most prevalent patterns in porn is aggression; one study found that 88% of porn includes physical aggression and 48% also includes verbal aggression. Sex in porn often does not involve consent, and it may not highlight safe sex practices (including condom use). It suggests that sex looks a certain way; certain positions and practices are portrayed as defaults, without regard to intimacy, trust, or personal comfort. Like the rest of the media, porn aggrandizes certain features and measures worth by physical standards.
Even many adults have trouble seeing the difference between the fantasy aspects of porn and their realities, so it’s important that you help your son understand the real limits of porn. It’s just cinema, with good-looking actors selling their scenes for all they’re worth. Just as he wouldn’t let watching Marvel blockbusters convince him of his physical capabilities, he shouldn’t let porn do so. And if he treats porn as real sex ed, he may find that it leads to an unfulfilling sex life as he gets older.
Talking about the social, emotional, and ethical facets of sex may cause a teen’s eyes to glaze over (do it anyway), but he might pay more attention when you tell him that sharing real life images with his friend could get him in serious hot water — and not just with you.
For those under 18, sharing any photo of genitalia runs afoul of federal statutes against child pornography. It is not only the senders who are affected; receiving but not deleting the images counts as possession in the eyes of the law. That is true even if the photos do not show sexual activity and even when the subject is oneself. Fortunately, if the parties involved are both minors close in age, the federal government is only likely to get involved if the images cross state lines; prosecution is mostly left to the states.
Each state has its own rules that affect minors who share such images, with penalties ranging from fines to juvenile detention or actual prison sentences. In Massachusetts, for instance, it remains a felony to show “any pose, posture or setting involving a lewd exhibition of the unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks or, if such person is female, a fully or partially developed breast of the child” with penalties ranging from $1000 fine to 10 years in state prison. In certain states, a 16-year-old may be charged as an adult and face adult sentencing as a result.
Some officials are reluctant to prosecute consensual sharing of images between teens but others enforce the letter of the law. That’s how a high school girl in Minnesota got charged with child pornography and a pair of dating 16-year-olds in Michigan ended up facing felony charges for texting each other nudes.
With the risks in mind, ask your child to consider all of the possible ramifications for themselves, the others involved, and even their families. Set the kind of boundaries that you would around anything illegal for their age; i.e., ask them to wait until they are 18 to share any sexual images (and only then with others also 18 or older). Ask them to delete any received images immediately and, if the text is unwanted, to let you know so you may help them decide what to do about it.
This will likely be an unnerving time; it’s hard to shove the genie back in the bottle once it’s out. Your child’s sexual attitudes and practices now joins the list of factors you must consider when keeping an eye on their well-being. But consider your recent discoveries a blessing: it is so much better to be in the know than in the dark.
At this moment, what you need to express to your child is this: “I want you to be safe, savvy about what you consume, and on the right side of the law.” None of that is about him being good or bad, only about what he can learn in this moment that will continue to help him later.
Even if you’re freaked out, the face he needs to see is the one that loves him enough to say, “I’m glad I know.”
Your Other Dad Says is a weekly advice column for young people and those who love them.
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