You Found Your 13-Year-Old's Porn Stash. What Should You Do?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Oct. 4 2012 2:35 AM

You Found Your 13-Year-Old's Porn Stash

What should you do?

Mother and son having awkward talk about son's porn-watching habits.
"I'm not mad. Just very disappointed."

Pixland/Jupiterimages/Thinkstock.

Let’s say you find a history of porn searches on your 13-year-old’s computer, and let’s say it’s not weird or violent porn, but just run-of-the-mill, mildly off-putting porn. What should you do? I’d say nothing, but maybe I'm wrong.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

There was much ado Tuesday on the Internet about one dad’s rather sweet solution to this scenario. He wrote a note to his son saying that he wouldn’t tell the kid’s mom, and that he did the same thing as a kid, and that there were sites safer for computers, which he listed. He basically said, “I won’t make a big deal or any-sized deal about it,” though he did go pretty deeply and somewhat creatively into the dangers of pornography to computers.  

It is a quandary. What should you do in this garden-variety situation? The most sensible thing I have ever heard on this topic came from the internet scholar Danah Boyd. She pointed out very sanely and sensibly that this isolated moment should be part of an ongoing, larger conversation with your child. One shouldn’t view this discovery as an event in itself, but more a part of the dialogue that has been going on for years about sex, body image, and all of that.

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This seemed very wise and elegant to me as a child-rearing philosophy. But then when I think back to myself, at 13-ish, looking through someone’s stash of Playboys  at a friend’s house, I am not so sure about how it would work in practice. I am quite certain that had my benignly feminist mother walked in the door as my friend and I perused the stewardesses and cowgirls au naturel, she would have loved to interject about how “real woman don’t look like that” and deliver a mini-discourse on exactly why these images do not represent “our values." (She had only a few years earlier, after all, thrown out the Barbie Beauty Palace my grandfather had given me and told me it was “lost.") But thinking back to that illicit confrontation with those pictures, would her words have meant anything to me? Or would they simply have reverberated, more parental noise, more blah blah blah issued irrelevantly from above?

It seems to me that those first sexual stirrings, by their very definition, are something you absolutely don't want to talk to your parents about. Isn’t anything they say tainted, discounted, gross—just by the very nature of their being parents? Sexual curiosities are not something you want your parents to condemn, condone, or otherwise be chummy about. Other people, maybe—friends, an older cousin—but who on earth wants to hear from their mother or father anything at all about sex?

We sometimes act as though there are “facts” that we must convey, as if only we, the parents, are in possession of those facts. But really, after the basic conversation, is it so bad for kids to learn from books, from novels, from movies, from school, from friends? (I am not here suggesting that we should all be like Edith Wharton’s mother, who when the young Edith asked about the facts of life before being married, said “you’ve seen enough pictures and statues in your life.”) But short of that, is there some benefit in discretion, in stepping back, in allowing kids to work things out for themselves, offering help only when asked, or occasionally if awkwardly trying to put out some pathetic message about “our values.”

We have, most of us, certainly imbibed the received idea that we need to step in so our children are not warped, destroyed, or otherwise turned into perverts or masochists by pornography. But what if, in fact, even if those dangers are rampant, there is nothing your parents can say that you will actually hear? Furthermore, the fantasy that you can block off these images forever is, no matter how many child controls you have, clearly futile and possibly ominously overcontrolling.

In the end, kids probably learn most of what they know about everyday relationships by watching their parents. And in most cases, they do probably do catch on that adult life is not some triple-X fantasy of bubble-breasted girl-on-girl pornography. The intelligent 13-year-old is smarter than we think and maybe doesn’t need that note from his sweet father.

I know that we generally long to step in and clamor to interpret the world, offering opinions, footnotes, guidance, ideas about what to have for lunch. Much of childhood sometimes seems like it is spent trying not to listen to your parents. But maybe that impulse toward explication is sometimes to be resisted. Quiet is harder, restraint requires more faith. Maybe there is, when your 13-year-old is looking at not-that-ominous porn, nothing to do.