I took my eleven year old son to see the new movie The Green Hornet. About 30 minutes into it, Griffen turned to me and whispered “You sure this isn’t rated R?” Nope. It’s rated PG-13: parents of children under 13 “strongly cautioned”. But as anyone with a tween boy knows, that’s the basically same as PG to a boy chomping on the bit to see the latest comic book action movie. Griffen, who has grown up around actors backstage, a community known for virtuosic swearing, is pretty mature when it comes to language. He has a surprisingly clean vocabulary for all he’s heard, and he demonstrates a sense of care and responsibility about language. So I was not worried that Seth Rogan’s movie would “corrupt” him. Still, I was slightly shocked at what I heard in the movie:
- “shit” about a zillion times
- “bullshit” a few times
- “asshole” a couple of times
Now I will sound like an old-fogey, but when I was eleven, I would not have been allowed into a movie with this much swearing. And if my Dad had brought me, he would have received many raised eyebrows. It was bad enough sitting through the opening to James Bond movies with him, with the psychedelic go-go dancers under the opening credits. But at the Green Hornet, the theater was filled with kids, some younger than Griff.
Driving home, I thought again of the impending conversation I will need to have with both my kids (my daughter just turned eight) about the internet. They both have hand-me-down laptops. Ella hardly ever opens hers, but Griff is on his all the time, which I have set with parental controls. But the time is fast approaching when he will have his own laptop with no parental controls on it, and if he is a normal, sexually curious teenager, he will begin viewing on-line pornography. I was in my teens when I began viewing porn, but I was sneaking glances at Penthouse and Playboy, magazines which seem quaint when compared to the hard-core stuff now available on line. I was in my early twenties before I viewed anything “hard-core”, and then one either had to have friend who had some of it, or one had to go to a really skanky store in a really skanky part of town to view it. There were shame barriers erected around porn which don’t exist anymore. Porn was taboo, like taking your kid to a movie where people say “shit” all the time. But taboo is dying. Now you can see anything you like in the privacy of your bedroom, and no one else ever needs to know.
It’s tempting to take a moralistic position about it: look at the degradation of our culture, what a shame that we have slipped into such a foul swamp of permissiveness. And there is a complex debate to be had about porn, which I won’t dive into here. I find myself moving in a different direction. One of the harmful aspects of taboo is that it suppresses examination, evaluation, conversation. Taboo means we don’t even talk about it, after saying “gross! Don’t look!” But what is happening now is an invitation to talk about it. How do we really feel about “swear words”? My wife has a very principled position, which may surprise you. She feels they are important and powerful words which need to be respected and used correctly. So if you agree with her (and I do), then what is happening, paradoxically, is that as we use these words more and more with less and less restraint, they actually lose their power. Taboo makes them strong, without it, they’re just funny words.
This is what I predict will happen to porn. It will be subsumed by popular culture and will become a kind of erotic “X-Games”, in which performers have to resort to one kind of sexual extremity or another in order to gain attention and the money that comes with it. I write about this in my new novel The Deception of Surfaces, which takes place in Philadelphia in the year 2020. In it, the heroine performs in a “Fantasy Palace” as a day job, having sex with other performers in front of remote control cameras. Friends who have read my MS have said 2020 is too soon. I say it’s not. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
I believe that in the near future, people who are interested in sex will tune in, and the rest will watch sports or talk shows. It will simply be one item on an ever-growing menu of entertainment options. It’s already happening. The backstage conversations I have had with my twenty-something actor friends – male and female – demonstrate a kind of amused acceptance of porn, and a shameless willingness to discuss it for its comic or shock value.
So what kind of conversation will I have with my precious, sensitive, extraordinary children about all this? I’m not sure yet, but I think I have some basics down:
- the choice of what to watch is up to you
- what you watch can affect you, sometimes negatively
- sex is wonderful, fun, amazing, lusty and sacred. It’s best explored with someone you trust
- TVs and computer screens can turn people into objects, which diminishes their humanity
That’s a start. But I do know this: there will be a conversation.
Recently, Susan came home and said, “I have to play you this unbelievable song my [twenty-something] actor friends turned me onto!” And she popped open her computer and showed me the video of Cee Lo Green singing “Fuck You”. We lay in bed roaring with laughter and astonishment. The next day I had to censor myself in front of the kids when I wanted to mention it to Sooz. So maybe that’s the key: the choice we parents make in front of our kids matter the most. We are what they will measure the world against, swear words, porn, all of it. And if they have been raised well, and reflect the values we believe in, then they will make choices which reflect those values. At least that’s my theory. And I’m sticking to it.
There is now a popular song called “Fuck You”. What a strange new world we live in.