Just the Facts of Life Now
Mike Clark figures he was just a little kid when he saw his first sexy pop-up ad on the Internet, and somewhat older when he saw his first sexy pop-up that he understood. First X-rated spam? Let’s see -- when did he first learn to use e-mail? First videogame with sexy images? Probably the first time he played Grand Theft Auto. First glimpse of an online porn site?
“Right after my first sex ed class in seventh grade,” the peach-fuzzed Orange County 16-year-old confessed one recent Saturday as his buddies burst out laughing.
“I mean, the minute they tell you that stuff is out there, you’re like, ‘Really? It is?’ ”
And it is, his peers confirmed, shouting over music during a lunch break at a conference of a teen service organization in Irvine. It’s online, on cable, on cellphone cameras, in chat rooms, in instant messages from freaks who go online and trawl children’s Web journals, on cam-to-cam Web hookups, on TV screens at parties where teens walk past it as if it were wallpaper, in lectures about abstinence in Sunday school and in health class, in movies, in hip-hop lyrics like the one blaring from the loudspeaker as they lined up for pizza and burritos.
“Pornography,” shrugged Scott Timsit, a dark-haired 16-year-old in wire-rimmed glasses, “is just part of the culture now. It’s almost like it’s not even, like, porn.”
The first generation to grow up with the Internet and all it has wrought in the cultural mainstream is beginning to come of age. It is a generation for whom 900 numbers and scrambled scraps of flesh on the Spice channel have given way, in a few short years, to bulk e-mail ads for the Paris Hilton sex tapes and porn subplots on “The O.C.” It is a generation in which sexual frankness has become a permanent feature of the landscape, with uncertain long-term implications.
By definition, pornography is sexual material that is so beyond the pale as to be offensive for most people, said Gilbert Herdt, director of the National Sexuality Resource Center, a Ford Foundation-funded project in San Francisco. But as the Internet has made more extreme images more accessible to more people at younger ages, standards have shifted in other media outlets.
“What we once called porn is just mainstream sex now, and what we now think of as pornography has shrunk to a tiny, tiny area,” Herdt said. “We’ve expanded the envelope of normative sex so much that there’s not much room for ‘porn’ anymore.”
X Loses Its Shock Value
Sex, of course, has always sold in American culture. And hand wringing about children’s exposure to it is as old as civilization. But never has adult content had a platform as powerful -- and legitimizing -- as the one-two punch of cable plus the Internet.
Images and subject matter that were stigmatized a generation ago now flow and multiply from one mass medium to another, turning yesterday’s taboo into today’s in-joke. Adult film actress Jenna Jameson has moved from X-rated DVDs and downloads to the bestselling sex manual “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” and, last year, a VH1 documentary. Dance moves once associated with strippers are as common on MTV as tight pants on rock stars. Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton are famous equally for their TV work and their downloadable bootleg sex tapes.
What this has meant for children has been a massive spillover of sexually charged content into the mainstream. Patricia Greenfield, director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at UCLA, calls it “an all-pervasive sexualized media environment” that now throws sex at kids even when they aren’t looking for it and hits them at an ever younger age.
Grade-schoolers doing their homework on the family computer, for example, now routinely start by deleting spam for impotence drugs from their e-mail. Middle school students clandestinely trade copies of such adult-rated videogames as “Playboy: The Mansion.” Teen advice columns offer wisdom on porn addiction. Online chat rooms for adolescents lapse in and out of graphic sex talk. One TV ad for male body spray depicts a young teenage boy fending off the sexual advances of his date’s middle-age mother.
On MySpace.com, an online site popular with teenagers and middle school children -- and one that expressly forbids explicit postings and participation by people younger than 16 -- teens inventing new screen names can nonetheless access an automated “name generator” whose ad offers, among other things, to come up with monikers for their genitalia and to answer the playful question, “What’s your porn star name?”
Whether so much sex talk distorts children’s views is only beginning to be researched. Dr. Lynn Ponton, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco and author of “The Sex Lives of Teenagers,” notes that exploring sexuality is an important part of a healthy adolescence, but the usual outlets for that aren’t what they used to be.
One study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found, for example, that 70% of the nation’s 15- to 17-year-olds have looked at pornography online. But an average porn site can generate as many sexual images in a minute as an entire issue of Hustler, Ponton said, and often they are exponentially more violent and explicit than the centerfolds that past generations used to stash under the mattress.
“If you see images of women being tied up and degraded, and you’re seeing them year after year and by the thousands, it desensitizes you,” Ponton said. “And this has not yet been looked at developmentally.”
“Young people don’t have a lot of reference points,” agreed Ralph DiClemente, professor of public health and medicine at Atlanta’s Emory University, who is midway through a five-year study of children and the Internet sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. “For them, the media is reality.
“So, you’re a young person, you’re curious, you haven’t had sex but you don’t want to appear to be a neophyte. What do you do? You go on the Internet to see, how should I behave? And a lot of what they’re getting is a stilted perception of reality.”
Whether that perception translates into behavior, however, is another question. Most children, after all, tune out what they don’t understand. And for all the sex in their sightlines, teenagers now have the lowest pregnancy, birth and abortion rates in decades. The vast majority of adolescents still are virgins at age 15, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2002 that the size of that majority had increased since 1995. In a recent poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates commissioned by People magazine and NBC, 95% of 13- and 14-year-olds said they had not had intercourse, and 9 out of 10 said they disapproved of it for those their age.
“Adults always think kids today are worse, or more sexual or more promiscuous, " said Mike Males, a lecturer in sociology at UC Santa Cruz and the author of “Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the Next Generation.” “But most of the measures of that are at all-time lows.
“So then we get into these weird assertions that their attitudes are just worse somehow, and when it comes to attitudes, I’m very suspicious of adult perception and motives. It’s as if adults were trying to say, we’re better, we’re more moral, we’re superior.”
At the youth conference in Irvine, teens talked of feeling pushed and pulled by the forces of sexualization and morality.
As a DJ raffled off snowboards and Volcom clothing on the City Hall lawn, half a dozen girls sat in a circle, chatting and cheering and periodically interrupting themselves midsentence to rock out to some particularly compelling backbeat. Asked whether Internet pornography and sexually charged cable content had influenced the messages they got from the larger culture, they exploded.
“For one thing, it causes girls to think they need makeovers,” said Kirstin Williams, a 15-year-old blond in sweatpants and a hoodie. “Like, I know people who are considering plastic surgery.”
“You’re supposed to have skinny thighs, big [breasts], flat stomachs,” said Amy Liu, 14, brushing her long, dark hair behind one ear. “But then if you’re fortunate to have that kind of body naturally, then they call you anorexic.... You can’t win.”
Across the lawn, a table of boys explained that girls weren’t the only confused ones.
“You get the message that that kind of sex is glamorous, that you should be with these skinny blond types,” said Timsit.
“And that sex should be unemotional,” said Brad Spitzer, 17, wolfing down a plate of El Pollo Loco. “But then my mother gave me, like, this moral talk about how porn is all immoral.”
Others said their main complaint about porn was that their parents continually accused them of downloading it when they were in fact indulging their real passion: playing gory online computer games.
What, though, of the unsettling exceptions? Take the recent Newport Beach date rape trial in which three boys filmed themselves sexually assaulting an apparently unconscious female friend. Or the sex video that was made and disseminated last year by teens at an upscale Scarsdale, N.Y., high school.
Or the student-made sex DVD that two years ago rocked the private Milken Community High School in Los Angeles.
“I was sick,” recalled Milken’s head of school, Rennie Wrubel. Parents had reported that their child had been shown the homemade DVD by a classmate on a library computer at the Jewish day school. “Sick over the kids because I cared for them, sick because I wanted them to care more about themselves.”
The children -- two boys and a girl who were then in 10th and 11th grade -- were expelled, and the event set off weeks of anguished soul searching on and off campus. The school called in mental health specialists, held marathon meetings and coffees, sponsored seminars for parents and children on the responsible use of the Internet. But it soon became clear, she said, that the incident was far more about the particular children than their cultural influences.
“There really was no link to anything larger,” said Wrubel, who stayed in touch with two of the three after they changed schools and followed their redemption proudly as they embarked on a community service project in which they’re still engaged.
“They were just being inappropriate and experimenting, and they had their own issues. This is a tough age.”
Many young people say their parents would be less shocked by the current landscape if they realized how much the extreme end of the spectrum has changed. For example, porn as they know it now, they say, makes “Deep Throat,” the groundbreaking 1972 X-rated film, look tame. It lacks even the pretense of a plot, and much of it is in short, brutal bursts whose harshness then seeps into their language, fashion and postures.
“In a lot of these films, the camera itself is violent,” said Shade Remelin, a 22-year-old Laguna Beach filmmaker who, as a film student at UC Santa Barbara, once wrote a 15-page letter in hope of persuading a professor who’d included porn in a film class there to talk less about the aesthetics of the genre and more about its misogyny.
“Everything is done with hand-held now, so the camera is in everybody’s face,” he said. “It’s not only like you’re watching it, but like you’re doing it. Which wouldn’t necessarily be bad if what they showed was mostly normal sex, but it isn’t. It’s really mean stuff. Mean to women. In a lot of them, women don’t even get a name.”
That said, much of the extreme content being produced now is also a product of this generation, and, more important, its history, notes Santa Monica attorney Jeffrey J. Douglas, board chairman of the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult industry. Before the Internet, he said, mail-order erotica was far less accessible and most sexually explicit material was sold by merchants who feared criminal prosecution and local sanctions. But with the rise of the World Wide Web, which opened the door for a flood of cheap content -- much of it made outside U.S. jurisdiction -- any inclination to self-censor went the way of the corner adult bookstore.
“A lot of the domestic content producers now literally came of age in an era in which there were no federal prosecutions,” said Douglas. Four years ago, he said, he got into a conversation about a 1987 obscenity prosecution with a 20-year-old who had made a medium-size fortune producing explicit material online.
“The guy looked at me and said, ‘Do you know how old I was in 1987?’ It was like I was talking about the Spanish-American War.”
With that sort of shift at the margins, teens say, shock value simply isn’t what it used to be. The disconnect was on display recently at an Orange County movie theater where the documentary “Inside Deep Throat” was playing. The audience was overwhelmingly middle-age. Though it was a Saturday at a mall, not a young person was in sight and not one adolescent lurked near the forbidden NC-17 doorway. Not even Ben Meredith, the 18-year-old popcorn jockey, had bothered to check out the action.
“I mean, porn is really easy to get now,” the UC Irvine freshman shrugged, tossing his long bangs, which were dyed blood-orange. “It’s like, who cares?”
X-rated images, he said, were “like cigarettes, which everybody can get if they want them.” They were as accessible as a cellphone ring tone or an addition to the playlist for your iPod.
“Porn,” he said, sticking a plastic cup under the soft drink dispenser, “is just another form of entertainment now.”