were burned into my brain, those explicit images. I tried
not to think of them, or things that might make me think of
them, because they made me sick to my stomach. Or sometimes
I reversed tactics, bit the bullet, and reviewed every last
detail I remembered about the pictures, in an attempt to avoid
having them sink into that part of my subconscious where nightmares
come from (Does that work for anyone else?). What horrible
immoral images did this decadent society parade in front of
my young eyes, you ask?
Well, one was a photo essay in a copy of Newsweek that
was sitting in the waiting room of my dance school. It showed
a guerrilla execution in an Nicaraguan jungle during the contra
rebellion against the Sandinistas. I don’t remember which
side was doing the executing—only that in one shot the guy
to die was given a last drink of condensed milk, in another
he lay down in a predug grave, and in the last he was gruesomely
Then there was a TV commercial for a documentary about journalists
who had been imprisoned in Turkey. In dramatic greenish light,
it showed someone hung upside down, being beaten on the soles
of his feet.
I was about 11 when I ran across these explicitly violent
and cruel images. They replaced thoroughly and completely
the kinds of things I spent my younger childhood trying not
to be reminded of—the dead sparrow with a cheek pulsating
with maggots, the fiery disembodied head in my Iroquois folk
I don’t regret having seen these, even as a child. If anything,
they probably sensitized me to the horrible things we do to
each other, and helped me move beyond caring about “nature”
to also caring about people. They were unpleasant in a lasting
way, but not, in the end, traumatic.
Nonetheless, I find the stark detail and clarity of my memories
of those brief images (as opposed to my complete inability
to remember the plots of any of the hundreds of books I read
during the same years) very interesting in comparison to my
memories of some other explicit images I stumbled across around
the same time.
Sometime during 6th grade a few friends and I found some moderately
hardcore porn under a mattress in the basement of my friend
Tia’s house. We were appropriately scandalized and proceed
to look it over thoroughly. I remember thinking the little
black boxes over the exact point of penetration were perhaps
the dumbest thing since “the whole class is going to stay
after if we don’t find out who did this.” But there are no
strong emotions attached to my memory of looking at those
pictures. They neither bothered nor excited me. Probably the
only reason I remember that day at all is that later I was
distressed in almost unbelievably goody-two-shoes fashion
to find out that Gina smoked (“We’re only 11 for gosh sakes!”
read the journal entry, I think. Oy).
That summer another friend and I discovered The Joy of
Sex in the tower room of some hippie friends of her family
who lived in a solar- and wind-powered house on top of a mountain
in Idaho. I have even less memory of what that contained.
It was interesting, I guess.
But again, the emotionally dramatic, I’m not-sure-we’re-ready-for-this
moment of the week was not the sexy pictures, but was drug-related—in
this case, the revelation by another resident of the mountain
that she grew marijuana in her garden for medicinal purposes.
We’d been so indoctrinated with anti-drug messages, already,
that if we’d had cell phones we probably would have called
the cops on the poor woman.
The point is not just that stumbling across some porn at a
fairly tender age didn’t do me any damage. Nor is it that
porn is appropriate for kids. It’s not, and kinky porn in
particular can communicate some troublesome ideas if not put
in it its proper context (a context many non-kinky adults
don’t grasp well enough to explain).
But in terms of the hysteria that surrounds the idea that
children might ever catch a glimpse of a dirty picture, I
think it’s important to remember this: Kids are going to be
most disturbed by images they’ve been told are disturbing,
even among those ideas/images that they may not be developmentally
ready to grasp. They are master readers of adults’ attitudes
My childhood reactions make sense to me. I grew up outside
a war zone, in a family, social circle, and church that prized
nonviolence and compassion. On the other hand, anti-drug messages
were beaten into us in school so forcefully that it eventually
exasperated even my ultra-law-abiding, very-occasional-drinker
And sex? Well, I learned about it at the Unitarian Universalist
Sunday School, so I certainly escaped the usual pile of vague
guilt ladled onto it. My parents were not uptight about it,
but also didn’t bring me to R-rated movies or otherwise expect
me to deal with stuff that they considered above my age level.
When I traveled with my parents to Germany, my mother teased
my father about looking at the women sunbathing topless, but
it came out without any particular angst or innuendo. Hence,
my first encounters with porn (and they weren’t unusually
early really; just about everyone I know saw it first either
from their dad’s closet or when babysitting) as a kid made
practically no impression on me one way or the other.
So I’m glad that the Supreme Court took a First Amendment-friendly
stand regarding Web porn, given that the Bill of Rights is
suffering so many assaults these days. A few mistaken glimpses
of Web porn aren’t going to hurt children, unless they get
the message from neurotic adults around them that they are
bad or tainted for having looked. And if they’re getting more
than a few glimpses, the problem is with parental supervision.
Unfortunately, the chat rooms where kids are lured by potential
pedophiles, an actual serious danger, are far harder to regulate
(and get far less attention, oddly) than plain old porn.
Still, if all the resources that went into anti-porn hysteria
were devoted to finding solutions to thorny problems like
that, or like poverty, sexual abuse, or failing schools, maybe
the phrase “protecting our children” would have a less hollow