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A few days ago, my partner Bill walked into our older daughter’s room, where the clunky desktop Mac is located, and to his shock and chagrin found our younger daughter viewing porn on the Internet. Apparently, our bright, tech-savvy child had googled the term “sex” and navigated her way to a screen filled with thumbnail images of naked women in various suggestive poses. When Bill “caught” her looking, she placed her tiny hand on the large screen, as if to prevent him from seeing what was pictured there. When I went in a few moments later to review the visual evidence, still onscreen, I grimaced: a few women in the images were being penetrated with objects, some were spreading their labia apart, and still others bore that pouty-lipped, eyes-half-shut, plastic ecstatic look so common to blow-up dolls and women in mass porn.
Our daughters are nine and seven years old.
Let’s put aside for a moment the incontrovertible fact that the Mac should have had parental controls installed by now. Wait, let me rephrase that sentence with a bit more agency: we should have installed parental controls by now. After all, our girls spend a lot of time online, usually at more innocuous sites like Club Penguin and Games for Girls. Recently, I even purchased a URL for them, to foster their creativity, writing and editorial skills, and technological capabilities. (Clearly, I needn’t have worried on that last point.) So it’s not that we didn’t put controls in place because the girls enjoy all their free time playing outside, as in days of yore, and avoiding “geeky” pursuits. No, quite the contrary; we just stupidly assumed they wouldn’t be interested in digital porn (yet), given how many other cool things they can surf online (animated penguins! fashion design!) and especially given how young they are.
Well, we know what people say about assumptions.
I had also conveniently forgotten my own early childhood curiosity, although mine unfolded in the pre-digital era with a dog-eared copy of a hippie-dippy sex guide, steamy romance novels off my mom’s shelf (there was one with a slippery beach scene that I read over and over again), and glossy pictures of hairless teenage hunks in Tiger Beat with whom I imagined fairly innocent love stories. Not to mention the role-playing games of Doctor, Indian Princess, and Stranger Danger, all of which generated myriad non-specific fantasies and which, I later came to realize, were about power and risk. While sexual curiosity abounded in those days, my options for exploring it were fairly limited, and they were much less explicit than today’s visual cornucopia with its rapidly moving body parts, slick marketing and easy, one-touch access. Compared to what kids now can see, hear, do and consume, we were veritable babes in the woods.
So immediately after The Troubling Porn Incident, we called a family meeting, wherein Bill and I explained in gentle tones that we were not angry. With my highly sensitive seven-year old clinging to me like a startled monkey and my nine-year old nodding sagely, I told the girls that curiosity is healthy, that there is absolutely nothing shameful in wanting to know about sex, but that there were far better ways to explore their curiosity than the Internet. We pointed out that pornography does not typically provide realistic depictions of how people actually experience and enjoy sex and intimacy, and that in most porn, women are not represented in ways that portray them as full human beings. (We stopped short of any “ick” moments describing details of our own sexual relationship, as we’re not actually trying to drive our kids into therapy.) In closing, we offered to answer truthfully any questions the girls might have and encouraged them to come to us first with their concerns.
Then, emotionally drained, we tossed our bemused children into the minivan and drove them to “free play” at gymnastics so that we could enjoy a parents’ night out. Bill and I fled to a local upscale cocktail lounge, and over stiff drinks and a decadent peanut butter chocolate pie, discussed the pleasures and perils of parenting. Our friendly server, mother of an eight-year old son, also weighed in on the day’s events once we all got to chatting. (She even paid for our pie, but then of course, we double-tipped her.) By evening’s end, Bill and I had salved our guilty consciences with alcohol and sugar and vowed to put controls on all the computers posthaste.
For the record, I am not against pornography. In my younger, more behaviorally (and physically) elastic days, I consumed racy images and videos, although I once threw a boyfriend’s collection of skin magazines I deemed offensive into the Safeway dumpster. Nor am I against sex; in fact, I quite like it, although being in my mid-forties—and being a mom—have required some adjustments in technique, volume control and timing. I’m not even against prostitution and tend to favor decriminalization approaches that regulate the demand side and empower sex workers. From whence did this pro-sex feminist stance emerge? I came of age in the 1970s with groovy parents and later I spent more than a decade in San Francisco in a rainbow-hued, sex-positive miasma shaped by equal parts Third Wave Feminism and the Castro. I shopped frequently at Good Vibrations and co-taught a course on sexuality and sexual politics at San Francisco State University. I liked to think I was queerly hip for a straight girl from the Midwest.
But sexual politics are messy, and they are particularly complex when one is an avowed feminist parenting young daughters. While I disagree with some radical feminist views that all sex is rape—after all, this certainly doesn’t describe my own experiences or that of many other women—I tend to agree with Catherine MacKinnon that free speech for some people silences others. So while I am not against porn, neither do I want my daughters consuming it or being hurt by it in other ways. While I am not against prostitution, I fervently hope my own girls never sell (or buy) sex in any form for money. (I’ve taught plenty an undergraduate student who has made her tuition money lap dancing, and more.) And while I like to think I’m up to any challenge life throws my way, figuring out how to nurture my progeny through childhood and adolescent sexual development and into their eventual adulthood is frankly daunting. Learning about the proverbial birds and the bees as a girl and navigating my own path to a relatively healthy sexuality was, despite some missteps, a stroll in the park compared to the weighty challenges of ushering my daughters through the minefield of 21st-century cultural expectations. (Vajayjays, anyone?)
So yes, the sexual politics of feminism and the feminist politics of sex are messy, convoluted, multi-layered, inherently contradictory, occasionally thrilling, often dangerous and fodder for intense dialogue and debate. But while my own public and private positions have shifted with the passing years, I am irrevocably clear about some things. Most absolutely, I am against treating women and girls like shit. Just as I am against treating women and girls like second-class citizens, as less than fully human, as chattel, as means to an end, as collateral damage, as always sexually available, as punching bags, as prey, as invisible, as exterminable and as objects. On these issues, which I find ridiculously uncomplicated, I don’t budge.
Perhaps if we (that ubiquitous “we” sociologists use to mean society at large) can figure out ways to treat women and girls with the humanity and dignity they/we deserve, then some of the more vexing issues might be easier to sort out. Would digital images of nude women be as unsettling if so many women and girls in real life were not routinely beaten, stalked, sexually assaulted and splayed open for male gratification? Would prostitution the world over be as disturbing, or as prevalent, if girls had access to the same opportunities as boys? Would sexuality, and its varied expressions, be healthier across populations if sex itself were not so mired in fear, shame, secrecy, punishment, titillation, commerce, inequality and violence? Would there be so much violence against women and girls if we did not have pornography?
Regrettably, I do not have definitive answers to these provocative questions. Indeed, several virulent and passionate decades of the feminist “sex wars” have not resolved these issues. But I do know this: I will continue to be immersed in these vital concerns, both as a sociologist who studies gender and bodies and as a dedicated parent whose daughters will not always be quite so young and unknowing.