The internet, with its cascades of streaming smut, is supposed to be dangerous for children. Online porn, sexting chat room predators — the culture has been coarsened and sexualized, we are told. If pundits and parents are not vigilant and draconian, young people will be lured into digital orgies and sex addiction from which they may never recover.
As the father of a 14-year-old son, I'm aware that new technology has downsides that my own parents didn't have to think about when they were raising me. But there are upsides as well. Information about sex and sexuality is perhaps more widely available than it's ever been before, both online and offline. If you believe in education, and think that kids benefit when they have access to knowledge, that's a good thing.
When some people talk about the dangers of the internet, you can get the sense that before computers were invented, children lived in an Eden, untouched by corruption. Of course that's nonsense. My pre-internet childhood in northeastern Pennsylvania, a heavily Catholic community, was rife with sexual misinformation and confusion.
The football coach who taught my health class looked like Jim Unger’s Herman and mumbled scared-straight platitudes with neither interest nor conviction. Teen pregnancy was far from a rarity, but no one showed us how to use a condom or discussed masturbation, much less consent. And of course homophobia was ubiquitous: Teachers used slurs regularly and casually.
My son's childhood is dizzyingly different. He has, for example, been following the discussions around #MeToo with great interest, and he read the story about Aziz Ansari's alleged sexual misconduct. Critics of #MeToo have argued that it is damaging careers or confusing young men or leaching the sexiness out of dating. But it's allowed my son to independently learn about how not to pressure people for sex — and about how to recognize when he's being pressured himself.
The internet, and contemporary media in general, is a great way for him to learn about alternate sexualities. My son — who has trans classmates and teachers — has followed debates about trans bathroom bills online. He's also watched “Penny Dreadful.” Some might argue that the show is inappropriate for a young boy. But, on the positive side of the ledger, the series includes multiple gay characters and frank portrayals of gay sexuality. I'd rather have my son see that as normal and acceptable than have him go through high school, as I did, with a confused, low-key antipathy toward the idea of homosexuality.
As far as I know, my son hasn't looked at porn online as of yet, and he hasn't been sexting. But I'm not especially worried about either. In part that's because I think digital experimentation and exploration is actually safer in a lot of ways than the options kids had for finding out about sexuality in decades past. No fluids are exchanged when sexting; the chances of conception over the internet are, reliably, zero.
More generally, I'm not overly concerned because I feel that discussions of sexuality on the internet have prepared my son pretty well for representations of sexuality on the internet.
Knowledge is always better than ignorance, even if it’s explicit. Beyond the internet, my son's hippie middle school had a fantastic Health and Human Fertility class this year. The curriculum included condom use demonstrations, extensive discussions of consent, and information about how law enforcement sometimes prosecutes sexting as child pornography. Plus, the teacher warned them about using vegetable oil or kitchen products as lube, because of the dangers of yeast infections. Honestly, I didn't know that this was something young people were doing out there in the first place, but thanks to conversations with my son, I am now forewarned. Kids — they sometimes teach you things.
Getting taught new things — by your parents, or your kids, or the internet — is generally good. The web isn't some sort of digital sex trap; it's just a tool, which can be used for ill, but also has great potential to enlighten.
It's important for parents to talk to their kids about sex and consent and sexuality. It's important for schools to provide nonjudgmental, informative, honest sex ed classes. And it's important that kids can access information about sex on their own.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of the forthcoming book “Chattering Class War: Punching Pundits from Chait to Chapo and Brooks to Breitbart.”