What Our Children See

“Your child,” says the executive director of a national sex-education organization, “is going to look at porn at some point. It’s inevitable.”

The first woman I saw bare-breasted, her legs splayed for the pleasure of men, was posed in the slick pages of a magazine stashed in my stepfather’s dresser drawer. He kept this woman and others like her hidden, but not well enough. Often when I was alone, I would go into that darkness to see what lay there. I was twelve years old.

Some boys in my neighborhood stashed dirty pictures (despite our ignorance we knew that was what to call them, though these fantasy women were smooth and unblemished) in the hollowed center of an old cable spool that rotted at the edge of our subdivision. This became a sort of library. We were twelve and thirteen and fourteen. Some of us were younger.

“It’s inevitable.”

Perhaps this was true even when I was a child; it certainly seems true now, when so many of our children can access the internet unattended at their friends’ houses, in the privacy of their bedrooms, on the tailored screens of their hand-held devices. Two of my sons have reached the ages of the boys who crept to the edge of our neighborhood when we craved more.

My younger two sons, meanwhile, are the ages of children I know about, whose parents let them get on the computer as part of a wildlife study. You have to understand, if you would track animals, the differences in their scat. These parents did not realize that some people derive pleasure from shitting on one another and putting pictures of their exploits online.

How do you explain to your seven year-old why someone would shit in someone else’s mouth? Perhaps, in twenty years, some enlightened therapist in a national sex-education organization will reassure us that seeing such things is inevitable. Perhaps he can offer downloadable guides to help parents talk to our children about this in a healthy clinical manner. Perhaps while he is at it, he can help us talk to our children about butt plugs and choking and furry fandom, and suggest hygienic methods of being pissed on.

There is a wide gulf between scat play and blowjobs, of course, and only a curmudgeonly traditionalist imagines we are not all hardwired into our sexual slots, with a permanent bell curve of normalcy in the center and perversions at the tails. Only a theocratic alarmist would claim instead that any one of us is capable of sliding deeper into darkness, that Eros unbounded becomes a slave driver, and the only salve for his lashes is titillation. Only a protective busybody would assert that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and that the souls of children must be guarded.

No, our brave new world depends on the hardwired hard-on. Boys want what boys want, and mostly they want to see women’s breasts, though sometimes they want boys and sometimes they want to dress up like a cat and be degraded by older men. Whatever they want, we should take care not to shame them for it, or deceive ourselves that they can be deterred, and in fact should ourselves be ashamed if our impulse is to deter them.

And if what they see is not what they want, we should learn to have a good laugh with them when they stumble across those images, because, well, they’re bound to see it sooner or later, so why traumatize them by making a fuss?

This is very convenient for the modern pornographer, be he the aggregator of shot-in-a-basement amateur porn, or the violence-besotted Quentin Tarantino, or an overseer of last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, who found unobjectionable a dance number featuring transvestites in hooker boots. Why should anyone feel responsibility for what he spews out into the world, if children are bound to see it anyway?

How convenient for parents as well, we who rely on the digital screen to entertain our children when we are tired, we who perhaps indulge on occasion our own hunger for titillation, who dutifully remember, when we see our daughters invited to do strip-tease numbers as cheerleaders, our sons enticed to play first-person shooter games where heads explode and victors exult over corpses, that every generation before us has worried that we are crossing a civilizational line that may be our undoing, yet things have turned out Just Fine.

I don’t know what portion of children have had pornographic images seared into their memories, whether of sex or violence or the commingling of the two. Of those who labor under that weight, I don’t know how many have their subsequent relationships impaired. There is no accounting for this. We don’t want an accounting.

The bill comes due regardless. I could tell you of the bills I’ve paid. I promise you that you know men, women, and children—many more than perhaps you realize—who could recount for you the bills they, too, have paid. There is no federal policy that will fix it. And God help me as a father, I don’t believe I can protect these children of mine on my own.

“It is the community,” writes Wendell Berry, that must protect “the childhood of children…for they can be protected only by affection and by intimate knowledge, which are beyond the capacities of the public and beyond the power of the private citizen.”

There’s wisdom here, though I can’t yet piece together what it means for the liturgy of our daily lives. Unplug our TV? Smash that goddamned cable box where it sits blinking in a corner, and convince all our neighbors to do the same? I don’t know. I only know what my gut tells me, which is that we’d better figure something out, and soon.

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal andThe London Times, and his short stories, two of which have been nominated for Pushcart prizes, have been published in ImageRuminate, and Saint Katherine Review. His website is www.tonywoodlief.com.

About Tony Woodlief

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things. His website is www.tonywoodlief.com.

  • Maureen

    It’s stunning how pervasive the porn is; it’s even on Twitter, and woe betide the person who accidentally clicks on just a link. Thank you for your frank essay. I wish there were a ready solution; trying to police porn on the Internet is like falling in a black hole, metaphorically and in all other ways.

  • Tania Runyan

    Sobering post, Tony. Thank you for speaking so honestly about this subject.

  • DerpyMann

    I don’t like how you put furry fandom into the same categories of those things. Maybe Yiff would be a better term? Dust: An Elysian Tail and Star Fox Are furry games, but aren’t pornographic, neither was Walt Disney into furry porn either.

  • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

    “If we do not ‘come to our senses’ soon, we will have permanently
    forfeited the chance of constructing any meaningful alternatives to the
    pseudo-existence which passes for life in our current ‘Civilization of
    the Image.’”

    ~David Howes (Professor of Anthropology at Concordia University, Montréal)
    [source: Running on Emptiness: The Failure of Symbolic Thought]

  • Anonymoose

    “Furry fandom” Ignorant shithead. You mean Yiff?

  • Tony Woodlief

    My apologies to those more current on the latest terminology regarding seeming adults who dress up like animals. A couple of years ago, the dress-like-Rover-and-have-sex subset of furry fandom was still encompassed by that broad term. Thanks for the correction.

  • Tony Woodlief

    Brian — thanks for that reference, which I have not seen.

  • Brad Winters

    Please notify me first if and when you figure it out. It helps to have a fellow parent express the lament so well.

  • Psycho Gecko

    Porn websites all have that notice saying “If you’re under 18, you’re not supposed to be here.” You don’t get to see what you aren’t looking for.

    You can’t childproof the world just because kids aren’t listening when told not to go look at something. If you don’t want your kids playing First Person Shooters, then don’t buy them for them. There’s a reason why graphically violent games are labeled for those 17 years old and up.

    Now, let’s all go back to the old days of watching people get shot during Have Gun – Will Travel, or perhaps reminisce about Miss Kitty, the love interest/prostitute madam from Gunsmoke, or even listen to Minnie the Moocher, a song about a heroine-addicted prostitute, when that performance is shown on TV.

    You know, back before anyone was ever showing too much sex and violence to kids.

    • Tony Woodlief

      Psycho,
      Your logic seems to be that one only sees what one wants to see, therefore it’s the kid’s fault when he takes in vile images. This would be entirely reasonable if: a) it were true (which it is not), and b) children could be trusted to make decisions about things well beyond their capacity to understand. Which of course they can not, which is why they are entrusted to the care of adults.

      As for your intimation that Gunsmoke equals Saw equals Debbie Does Dallas, I can’t imagine even the purveyors of porn would muster so facile a claim.

      • Psycho Gecko

        Not only would the purveyors of porn not muster that claim, but neither did I. By the way, you still have a little straw on you from setting up that statement.

        There is, though a huge difference between Saw and Debbie Does Dallas compared to Gunsmoke. Gunsmoke was so popular in the U.S. that public pressure kept it on the air for 20 years, whereas the people behind Saw will be lucky if anyone even remembers their movies in 20 years. Gunsmoke was mainstream television for a generation, but you’d rather complain about stuff on the “so bad, it’s good” lists.

        Once again, kids aren’t supposed to get in to see stuff like Saw. If they did, then they made an effort to it or someone with authority over them, like a parent, screwed up. They let the kid stay up late to watch stuff that’s only aired late at night. That stuff tends to get aired then to avoid being seen by kids. Or they let the kid into a movie they weren’t supposed to. There are ratings systems for a reason. Maybe the kid just put the effort into finding his dad’s dirty magazines. Freedom of speech must be curtailed because you really wanted to look at pictures of naked women?

        To say it’s not entirely the fault of a kid when they see something is true. The parents bear a great deal of the responsibility, but you seem to be taking the responsibility entirely out of the parents’ hands by claiming it is just too much and that the community as a whole must get rid of entertainment that was never meant for kids.

        You strike me more as someone who wants lots more control over society than you should have, rather than worrying about the responsibility you do have to your children.

        • Tony Woodlief

          Since we’re sharing impressions, you strike me as someone who cannot distinguish voluntary community action from governmental intervention. Re-read my essay. At what point do I call for curtailing free speech?

          Your argument is that kids aren’t supposed to see this stuff. I agree. But they do. Your answer is — at least this is how it reads, to me — a flippant, “well, that’s too bad, they or their parents screwed up.”


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