Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pornography, Alcohol, and Children

Pornography is a popular topic for religious attack. Not entirely by coincidence, what is commonly called pornography is ubiquitous on the Internet. But why should erotic depictions of human beings engaged in various sexual activities be frowned upon in the first place? We are sexual beings. Sex is a basic fact of our very existence, not some deviant behavior reserved to perversely twisted members of our population. A very basic aspect of our being is that sexual stimulation is pleasurable.

Sexual repression promulgated by religion might have its roots in a plague of sexually transmitted diseases long ago, either as a direct reaction to the conscious realization that sex led to the diseases, or as an institutional effort to bring the problem under control, or perhaps both.

Today we understand sexually transmitted diseases, their transmission mechanisms, and precautions we can take against them. As informed adults, whether or not disease originated it, why should we continue to carry this sexually repressive baggage?

The notion of “protecting our children” from explicit sexual depictions, or even of any knowledge of sex at all until they reach a certain magical age, after which they’re suddenly expected to be ready for this knowledge, also is ludicrous. Children naturally develop sexual feelings at a fairly early age and begin to act on them. Somehow many forget this by the time they reach adulthood and don’t recognize this in their own children. They often react in disbelief and anger when they learn that their children explore and experiment sexually, usually with themselves and/or others in their own age group, often well before puberty. But this is actually normal and healthy human behavior that would be far better served if parents communicated with their children about it, educating and equipping them for responsible conduct in that area; rather than living as so many seem to, in denial of it, or believing that it’s somehow a “sin”. While it might not be appropriate to actively encourage sexual experimentation by their children, neither is it appropriate to saddle them with shame and guilt over it, as they will carry this forward into adulthood.

Similarly, absolute prohibition against restaurants serving wine or beer to anyone under some magical age, even when their parents are present, probably does more harm than good. As a result, when kids do become “of age”, they often end up engaging in drinking orgies to indulge in what has been denied them up to that time, sometimes with dire consequences. If instead they were introduced to wine and beer as a normal part of their upbringing, along with appropriate guidance for responsible consumption and behavior with respect to alcoholic beverages generally, by the time they reached adulthood, it would be no big deal – just part of life, and they’d likely be better equipped to handle it responsibly.

Childhood is the time when our foundational understanding of our world develops. The vast majority of us are born with a burning, passionate intelligence and curiosity about our world and incredible abilities to absorb and categorize information. The conduct of the parents in response to this curiosity and the questions that arise from it is critical at this stage. It can promote the healthy development of an intelligent mind, or it can damage that intelligence irreparably.

Some parents actively discourage their children from “asking too many questions” or “thinking too much”. Frankly, this practice is stupid, and can do tremendous harm to the child’s social and intellectual development. Some parents feel threatened if their child asks a question to which they don’t know the answer, and may lash out in response. This is an abusive parental behavior.

Effective parents, faced with a question to which they don’t know the answer, readily acknowledge their own ignorance on the matter. They’re more likely to respond with something like “I don’t know, let’s find out”, and proceed to research the question together with the child, subject of course to that child’s attention span. The result is that not only has the question been answered, both the parent and child having learned something in the process; but also the child has been shown several important things: that parents don’t know everything and shouldn’t be expected to, that it’s reasonable and proper to admit to not knowing something, and perhaps most importantly, how to find information. In today’s Internet environment, such research can be conducted quickly and conveniently.

Many of the ideas presented in this blog are outside of many people’s accepted world view, but despite this (or perhaps because of it), they merit serious consideration, particularly by those very people. We can better ourselves if we frequently examine our own ideas and behaviors, try to step outside of our usual frame of reference, ask ourselves honestly whether these ideas make objective sense to us or whether they should be discarded or adjusted; whether we are happy with our behaviors or whether we need to alter our habits, and work to make the necessary changes. As an ethical guideline, introspection is primary. Teaching this to our children, by example and explanation, helps them to be better people as well.