The secret life of boys
Pornography is a mouse click away, and kids are being exposed to it in ever-increasing numbers

By Bella English, Boston Globe
May 12, 2005

The first time she noticed the unfamiliar $40 charge on the phone bill, she didn't pay much attention. With three children, life was hectic; the North Shore mother simply paid the bill. But when it appeared again the next month, she looked into it, only to be told that the charge was for calls to a pornographic website.

The calls were made during the day, when she and her husband were at work. Someone was accessing X-rated sites in midafternoon, shortly after school let out. That someone turned out to be her 13-year-old son.

The parents were shocked, even though it wasn't their first brush with Internet pornography. A few months earlier, their computer had contracted a virus after being jammed with porn. ''It just blew," says the mother, who, like many of the people the Globe interviewed for this story, would not agree to be identified. ''So not only did we have the phone expenses, we also had to pay a fortune to get the computer fixed."

The son lost his computer privileges for a year, had to pay the $80 phone charges, and got a lecture from his father on how pornography demeans women. His mother remains horrified. ''It disturbs me, because I think it completely distorts sexuality, and I don't want him to see women like that. I don't want him to think that's what sex is all about."

She has lots of company in her plight over pornography. Boys -- and some girls -- aren't using the computer just to do homework, send instant messages, and play games. In increasing numbers, they're using it to access pornographic websites, many of which don't charge fees or require users to prove they're at least 18 years old. One recent study found that 9 out of 10 kids between ages 8 and 16 have viewed porn online, most unintentionally, when using the Internet to do homework. Another study found that a quarter of all boys 15 to 17 have lied about their age in order to access certain sites.

It's a far cry from the old days of finding your father's stash of Playboys or asking the guy behind the counter for a skin magazine. Today, X-rated images are as near as a computer screen, which virtually every adolescent has access to, if not at home then at the library or a friend's house. And it's not solely a matter of visiting pornographic sites. As one 13-year-old boy explained: ''All you have to do is type a girl's first name into Google and hit 'images.' Something will come up."

Thousands of hard-core pornographic websites are a mere mouse click or unsolicited pop-up away, showing every fantasy imaginable, including bondage, bestiality, and group sex. Internet pornography is a $2.5 billion business in the United States, with more than 4 million websites, according to Family Safe Media, a company that sells parental control products for computers. The company, which compiled statistics from various outlets and studies, claims that the average age of first exposure to Internet porn is 11, and that children between ages 12 and 17 constitute the largest group of viewers of online porn.

Porn-peeping isn't always deliberate. Even if adolescents aren't looking for it, it can easily find them. A middle school boy from a suburb west of Boston was searching for music on the Internet when up popped a porn site. A classmate looking for pictures for a school project Googled ''perfect images." One of the sites offered was nude models. ''I went to this site and there were all these hot girls," he says. A 14-year-old girl was doing a search for information on submarines, and up popped images of people having sex. Indeed, teens say, if you search for cartoon characters online, you can find pictures of them having sex. And they aren't all commercial websites; sometimes it's just someone posting nude photos of a friend or celebrity. Even a popular free online classifieds site contains erotic images that are easily accessible.

At a recent meeting with eight senior boys at a public high school, Boston-area psychologist Michael Thompson, coauthor of the best-selling book ''Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys," asked how many had downloaded porn. All of them raised their hands. ''More than 10 times?" he asked. Everyone. ''More than 20 times?" All hands went up. ''More than 30?" Unanimous. ''It is a big part of my life," one boy told him.

Normal becomes abnormal

Carleton Kendrick, a Boston-area family therapist, remembers getting into his father's girly magazines when he was a boy, which were ''hidden between the gloves and winter caps in his closet." But that was totally different fare than what boys -- and girls -- are exposed to today.

''My father's and uncle's magazines were basically stripped-down pinup girls," Kendrick recalls. ''There was no simulation of sex, there was no bondage, no water sports or scatology. There were no sexual aberrations. Now, any kid can go online and find women and men having sex with animals, they can find torture, they can find simulated rape, they can certainly find any kind of oral, anal, vaginal sex, group sex, gay sex." Many sites offer an alphabetical list of fetishes to click on.

Adolescent curiosity about sex is normal. What experts fear about Internet pornography is the constant bombardment of violent and degrading images, which can skew boys' attitudes toward girls and can lead to earlier sexual behavior.

''What is a relatively normal thing is turned into an abnormal thing," says William Pollack, a psychologist and author of the best-selling book ''Real Boys," who runs centers for men at McLean Hospital in Belmont. ''Boys are looking for a normal aspect of what girls look like, biologically, but they're getting this hard-core movie-industry type of material. If they didn't have an interest in it before, they are drawn into a world that goes beyond the normal curiosity."

Thompson notes that boys have been interested in photos of naked women since ancient times; pornographic mosaics have been found in Roman baths and homes. The boys he worries about are those who are ''holed up in their rooms" with Internet porn instead of leading a balanced life. ''The worry is that they cannot stop when they need to."

Howard Shaffer, a psychologist and expert on addictions, is concerned that constant viewing negatively affects boys' relationships with girls, and later on, women. ''What is happening is that young people are beginning to think that this kind of human behavior and relationship is average and acceptable. They don't see it as rare. So it changes their view of the world during their formative years, and I can't imagine that's a good thing."

If adults are worried about children's constant exposure to pornography, the kids themselves don't seem too concerned. Hard-core porn has apparently gone mainstream. ''All the boys do it," says one eighth-grade girl. ''They kind of brag about it."

Another girl says when one friend, a boy, showed her a pornographic website, she scolded him: ''Dude, that's gross. It totally objectifies women." The boy replied that it was ''artistic."

The girls were among a dozen eighth- and ninth-graders interviewed recently by the Globe, along with boys of the same age, in separate sessions, at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Bedford. The teens are participants in a comprehensive sex-ed curriculum created by the Unitarian Universalist Association called Our Whole Lives.

All the boys interviewed said they had seen Internet porn that included heterosexual, gay, and group sex. ''Even if you're not looking for porno, you get it," says one boy. ''You need a pop-up blocker."

Colleen Tedesco of Franklin, who has two daughters, knows how easy it is to get. When her 14-year-old daughter was doing a paper on royal economies and looked up ''queens," all sorts of racy drag queen sites popped up. Another time, Tedesco was researching scouting camps online when what should appear but a site about men's lust for Brownie scouts. ''Nothing is sacred online," says Tedesco. And so the computer remains in the family room, with parental control settings.

Many pornographic sites are free, but others charge -- though minors often don't realize it. Legally, users are supposed to be over 18, but the computer can't ''card" people. Indeed, at some sites, this warning is posted: ''This site contains explicit sexual content intended only for adults over the age of 18. If you are under the age of 18 or do not want to view sexual content do not click the enter button. . . . If you wish to view material of a sexual nature click enter." The boys who told the Globe about the site are 13 and 14.

Both adult and juvenile Internet users find spam e-mails luring them to pornographic sites that offer free, anonymous entry. The catch: a pop-up window explaining that the user will be connected to the site's long-distance and sometimes international service. Many boys -- like the one on the North Shore -- fail to read the fine print and are unwittingly charged exorbitant rates.

Unlike skin magazines, some of which are wrapped in brown paper and kept behind store counters, Internet porn has few restrictions. Although Congress in 1998 passed the Child Online Protection Act, which would have restricted material ''harmful to minors," various courts -- including the US Supreme Court -- have blocked enforcement of it, ruling that it would have a chilling effect on free speech.

Crisis control

What are parents to do? Some set parental controls through their Internet provider or place a block on international calls made from their computers. Others install firewalls or protective software. Some refuse to hook up their child's computer to the Internet.

Shaffer, who teaches at Harvard Medical School, set the controls on the family computer several years ago. ''My daughter, who is 18 now, complains, but I still know every website she goes to," he says. ''Ultimately the hard work falls on the parent."

Jeanne Hummel of Franklin has done that work, too. Years ago, when her son, now 19, was caught checking out unsavory sites, she and her husband set tight controls on the family computers. ''We can look at every site the children have been to," Hummel says. Still, her younger son, 14, reports that classmates surf for such sites on school computers.

Over the years, Kendrick has counseled many males he considers addicted to porn. ''The youngest was 10," he says. ''If you're going on these sites every day, it's going to become part of your sexual DNA and your emotional DNA and your attitude toward women." He says marriages have broken up because of husbands' obsessions with porn. ''Pornography changes boys' expectations of real girls, and that by default changes reality for the girls. What bothers me is that the girls aren't outraged by it."

Kendrick and other critics note that in pornography -- as in prostitution -- there is no romance. ''You will be hard pressed on any porn site to see a man and a woman kissing. It has nothing to do with romance but with being used or being the user." And of course, safe sex is rarely depicted.

Indeed, notes Pollack, most of the porn sites don't offer ''the normal female body"; those soft-porn sites you have to pay for. ''The most abnormal, the most bizarre, is what you get for free," he says. ''It gives boys a completely objectified, diminished, and bizarre view of what the female body is, and what relationships between females and males are about.

Psychologist Cate Dooley, who works at both Brandeis University and Wellesley College, agrees that pornography disrupts relationships. ''The bottom line is, it's moving away from emotional intimacy, and that's dangerous ground," Dooley says. ''Boys don't learn how sex comes out of friendship and emotionally intimate relationships. Boys and girls are losing that in our culture, and I think it's a crisis."

Dooley, too, is bothered by the cavalier attitude of girls, who seem to accept that boys look at porn. ''At least in a marriage, if the wife is unhappy about her husband downloading porn, she can bring him into therapy," she says. ''But for girls this is just the way it is. There's no consequence for boys."

Those who work with adolescents agree that parents who discover their child is downloading porn regularly should be firm without shaming him. Kendrick likens it to obscene rap lyrics or suggestive videos that parents forbid. ''You can say, I understand how you can be very curious about these images, but we don't support people who think of women in these ways. . . . We don't welcome them into our house, not through the boombox or your iPod, not through the radio, or the television, and not through the Internet."

Kendrick might want to add cellphones to that list. Companies such as Playboy and X-rated film producers have announced plans to bring ''adult material" to cellphone carriers, which they ultimately expect to be even more lucrative than Internet porn.

Today, one-third of children between ages 11 and 17 have their own cellphones. The number is expected to increase to nearly 50 percent in two years.

Kids and porn

According to a poll released in March by the Kaiser Family Foundation:

  • 70 percent of teens ages 15-17 say they have accidentally come across porn while using the Internet.
  • 25 percent of the boys admit they have lied about their age to access a website.
  • 76 percent of the teens say their schools have Internet filters on the computers.
  • 33 percent say their home computer has a filter.
  • Family Safe Media, an outfit that sells Internet filters and other blocking devices, has also compiled research on the topic. It has found:
  • The average age at which a child is first exposed to Internet porn is 11.
  • The largest consumer of Internet porn is kids between ages 12 and 17.
  • 12 percent of all websites are porn sites.
  • 25 percent of all search engine requests are for porn.

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