“Mom, what’s the Playboy Mansion?” my 11-year-old asked me one day we were hanging out in our basement, tossing a giant red ball back and forth to each other. I was so shocked by his question that the ball smacked me in the face. One minute we were talking about his 6th grade Spanish quiz; the next minute he’s asking about one of the most fraught pop-culture institutions of the 20th century.
As background, no questions are off-limits in my house. I may choose not to answer a question if it violates my sense of privacy: “Mom, how old were you when you first had sex?” Or I might keep my answer to a complicated question pretty narrow: “Mom, what is abortion?” But my policy (and the advice that child psychologists hammer home) is that I never lie to my kid or purposely avoid any question.
So my first order of business with this question, or really any question, was to find out where it’s coming from. In this case I asked: “Where did you hear about the Playboy Mansion?” His response: “Remember that show about the Lakers I was watching with Dad that I decided was inappropriate for me? They showed the Playboy Mansion in that.” Awesome. We’re clearly winning at this parenting-a-fourth-kid thing. Free sidebar advice, in case you were considering it: I would not recommend Winning Time for an eleven-year-old.
But I now had my starting point for responding. First, I reminded myself for the zillionth time not to lecture him. I started by telling him about Hugh Hefner (I couldn’t remember if he was dead or alive — FYI, he died in 2017) who started a magazine called Playboy. I then asked my son, because it’s super important to clarify all terms in these complex conversations with kids: “Have you ever heard of Playboy?” To which he responded, “It’s like porn, but in a magazine, right?”
That comment right there tells you everything you need to know about the evolution of pornography in the modern era. For those of us middle-aged or older, when we were growing up, pornography meant images of naked people in magazines or maybe a VHS tape hidden under mattresses or stored in shoe boxes on the highest shelf of the closet. But these days, porn is accessible to anyone with an electronic device, which includes everybody from toddlers all the way up to centenarians.
Therefore, I’ve talked to my kid about porn before, more than once, because as a parent it’s my responsibility to educate my kid about an issue that could impact his understanding of sex for the rest of his life. The average age of porn exposure for boys in this country is around 11 years old — my son’s age — so either he learns about pornography from me, in age-appropriate ways, or he learns about it from his equally ignorant friends or by stumbling upon some pretty confusing stuff online.
Having put Playboy in some kind of context — “kind of like porn” — we got into the heart of the question: The Playboy Mansion. I explained that the Playboy Mansion was a place in Los Angeles where Hugh Hefner lived with several women who all looked alike and were (theoretically) all his girlfriends. He would host outlandish parties and, among certain kinds of people in Hollywood at that time, it was considered an honor to be invited. Having given him two “facts,” I felt it was now within my rights to moralize a little bit. I told him that even though a lot of people (particularly men) thought it was cool to go to the Playboy Mansion, it was actually a really troubling place filled with misogyny.
I then checked to see if my kid understood that grown-up word: “Do you know what misogyny is?” His response: “Is it where men think they’re better than women?” I’m psyched (in a super sad way) that my kid has some sense of what misogyny means. I then elaborated on his definition and explained that it comes from a Greek word, which means men who hate women.
On the heels of this depressing vocabulary lesson sitting across from each other on the rug, he looked me dead in the eye and says “Did they rape the women in the Playboy Mansion?” I took a deep breath, because I was not prepared for this question. We have talked about rape before, but I had never made the connection for him between misogyny and rape. He made that leap all by himself.
His follow-up question gave me a better understanding of why he had asked about the Playboy Mansion in the first place. My impression was that he sensed it wasn’t a safe or fair place for women and that what he had seen in the TV show troubled him. So I looked right back at him and responded as honestly as I can: “I don’t know for sure, but it was definitely not a great place to be a woman.” He gave me a short nod and threw the big red ball back at me. This time, I caught it.
And while I wish my kid had never watched the show that prompted this line of questioning, I was so grateful that it had led us down a path to talk about these big, complicated, topics together, with honesty and trust.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the co-host of The Puberty Podcast; the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company using sports and puberty education to empower kids; and the author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter, musings on raising adolescents. You can follow her on Instagram @vanessakrollbennett.