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Scarred Forever. Not.

They 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 dead.

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 tale book.

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 and neuroses.

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 mother.

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 ring.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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