My 9-year-old son blushed and giggled as he shared this part of his day with me. He scanned my face for a reaction, and I tried my hardest to suppress my shock, to appear as open-minded as I could. This was a big moment. I didn’t want to waste the sliver of a chance I had to teach him something important. And though my first instinct was to preach—about exactly what, I didn’t know—my better judgment told me to ask. Just ask.
The person my son had referred to was a friend, a fellow third-grader. Somehow, he had smuggled a phone into school. Somehow, he had discovered a picture of a naked woman. And somehow, he had managed to show the picture to all of his friends.
I’d always figured that this day would arrive sometime around middle school. Elementary school seemed a bit early, but as a person who didn’t grow up in the Internet age, I have no personal reference point for when a child typically sees her or his first naked picture on the Web. (Kids found magazines stashed under mattresses—not millions of photos accessible on phones—back in the old days of my childhood.) Nonetheless, I’ve never wanted to be naïve about the very real possibility that my kids might stumble upon—or purposefully seek out—sexual content on the Internet far sooner than I may want them to. Thus, over the years I’ve tried to mentally prepare what I call “The Birds and the Bees 2.0.” It’s a 21st century sex talk that goes beyond the basic mechanics of human reproduction and addresses the intersections of sex and the Internet.
And so my son and I had the talk. Or at least my fumbling, inelegant version of that talk.
“You know,” I said, still trying to wear my mask of nonjudgment, “lots of pictures of naked people on the Internet aren’t, um…not all of the naked people really want their pictures on there. Some of them are kind of like slaves who are forced to be in those pictures. Some of them are even young, like kids.”
My son looked confused. “You mean kids like my brothers and me?”
I gulped, not wanting to terrify him, but wanting to be real at the same time. “Yes. Some of them are. But even some of the older teenagers are still technically kids. Some of them might have taken a picture, but then they don’t even know that the whole Internet can see it.”
“That’s awful,” he said.
“I know. And then, you know, some of the pictures you might see—there are videos too, sometimes they make videos of naked people—sometimes they look and act in a way that most people don’t always look and act. Women—sometimes men too, but especially women—in those pictures and videos aren’t always treated nicely. Sometimes they even get hurt. And their bodies, you know, um, their bodies don’t always look like other people’s bodies. Sometimes there’s a lot of makeup. Sometimes they’re just…just changed. And when you get older and love someone and see real naked bodies…”
“Oh, gross, Mom!” His face was behind his hands, hiding from the shame of the mere possibility that he might want to see another naked body someday.
“…I know you think it’s gross now. But you need to hear it.” Or at least I thought he did. “Not all, not even most naked bodies you’ll see in real life will look like the ones on the Internet. And I need you to know this. Because I, you know, I love you. And I want you to approach these pictures—and people, all people—with respect.”
We spoke for a few more minutes. He asked me questions. I tried to answer as age-appropriately as possible. It was challenging. It was moving. It was awkward. It was gritty and real.
“You know,” I said, my son now inching away from me as if he wanted to be anywhere but there, in our conversation, “looking at naked pictures isn’t always bad. Someday, you’ll probably like it. But I just want you to think about these things before you, you know, look at them. Those pictures. The naked ones. You’ll need to think about what kinds you’re looking at.”
As I spoke with my son, I saw two different boys in his face: one, the curly-haired, freckle-dotted boy with a gap between his two front teeth. This little boy comes home most nights with mud smeared on his pants, his knees, his elbows. He describes anything remotely romantic as “gross”—the kind of gross that makes him crinkle his nose and twist his face with disgust.
But the other boy I saw in my son’s face was a soon-to-be young man. A young man whose life will one day—and perhaps one day soon—drift away from my own. A young man who will soon develop secrets. Serious crushes. Desires for things he now finds gross and disgusting.
I knew I had to speak to both boys: to the little one, and to the growing one.
Part of me wished that I could declare, “Absolutely no porn on the Internet!” Or better yet, “You can look up porn, but just make sure to okay it with Dad or me first! Make sure that it’s sex-positive porn!” But the more rational part of me knows that either of these moves would be futile, or silly in the case of the latter. As he grows older, my son will continue to have access to screens, and he will have access to the Internet. His father and I might be able to control what our children can access on the family computer, but on their phones? On their friends’ computers? Not likely. In fact, according to a recent study from Northwestern, 43 percent of teens say they have seen pornography online.
It is very likely that one day, my son will actively seek out naked pictures (or videos) of people on the Internet.
What I want my son—and all three of my sons, in fact—to know is that sex is beautiful and positive and enjoyable and fun. I want them to be able to approach sex without shame or guilt. I want them to understand and respect and appreciate consent. I want them to understand that not all pornography is emblematic of real-life sex. I want them to approach porn critically. Mindfully. Morally attuned to all the nuances of sex and power and representation.
And so I’ll keep having this talk: this Birds and the Bees 2.0 talk, as awkward and gritty and inelegant as it might be. Because as with most parenting issues, I know that I cannot completely control what my children see. None of us can.
But sometimes, I think we can try and adjust the lens through which they see the world.