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Opinion | Margery Eagan

The question we don’t want to ask our teens

MOST OF US have been there.

We’re in the kitchen, sponging down the counter.

The teens are in their rooms, or maybe 20 feet away, noses glued to their phones. The thought comes to mind, again: Could that smooth-skinned boy in ratty sweats really be watching as much pornography on that phone as endless media stories claim? And his sister, too?

Most of us don’t really want to ask. The teens? They’re not talking.

But earlier this month came more bad news: Teens are likely watching much more pornography than we think they are. Worse, it’s shaping, even distorting, how they believe sex should be.

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For too many kids, pornography is becoming the new sex ed, concluded a Feb. 11 New York Times Magazine story that focused on Boston teens in a “Porn Literacy” program sponsored by the city’s health department. It also cited much current research.

■ Twice as many 14- and 18-year-olds have seen porn as their parents think.

■ Parents underestimate what kind of sex acts their kids know about and may consider normal.

■ The percentage of 18-to-24-year-old women who reported trying anal sex rose to 40 percent in 2009, from 16 percent in 1992.

■ About one-sixth of 14-to-18-year-old boys who had sex reported “choking” a sex partner, preliminary findings from one study revealed, ranging from a gentle hand around a neck to a more formidable squeeze.

■ Teens often don’t know what’s fake or real in pornography. One high school senior boy told Times reporter Maggie Jones, “I’ve never seen a girl in porn who doesn’t look like she’s having a good time.”

■ Teen girls, seeing the same scenes, may believe they are supposed to endure what female porn actors do for pay.

“Years ago, when a guy asked you to do something like this, you’d think he was a crazed psychopath,” said Gail Dines, a professor emerita of women’s studies at Wheelock College. “Now you may think it’s the norm.”

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Mainstream media add to the confusion, writes Jones, from “Family Guy” (references to choking and anal sex) to Rihanna’s “S&M” (“Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me”) to the bondage bestseller and movie trilogy “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Then there’s the president of the United States, whose personal lawyer said he paid $130,000 of his own money to a porn star who allegedly had a sexual relationship with Trump in 2006.

Because so many states, including Massachusetts, do not mandate sex education, online pornography can become a teen’s primary sex educator, Jones’s article argues, right there on their phones. Certainly not every teen, said Jones in an interview, not wanting to cause panic. “But what’s alarming is that we are so paltry in our sex education, while porn is so readily available. Why shouldn’t we expect they’re looking at it for information?”

And then taking it to their dating relationships.

So what is a parent to do?

We could advocate for more of what Boston’s “Porn Literacy Program” does: recognize reality. Since teens see so much pornography, make them critical consumers. By the end of the Boston program, Jones reports, teens’ attitudes changed to acknowledging pornography’s violence and misogyny and understanding that it’s like sexual fake news.

But since a program like that won’t take off soon in a country still arguing about birth control and abstinence-only programs, we need other options. Dines just completed a free course for parents of tweens on the website CultureReframed.org. Jones suggests other sites, including The Porn Conversation, for parents, and Amaze.org or Scarleteen.com, for preteens and teens.

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Luckily, all this means we need not swoop in from the kitchen, completely unarmed, to start the sexual inquisition of our teens. Yet numerous studies have found that we’re not the successful sex educators we think we are.

Technology, again, has left many of us behind. Teen culture has changed too fast. Few of us are ready for this both grisly and delicate task. Few of us, really, have any idea what we’re talking about. And our teenagers know it.

An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported the age of a student interviewed by New York Times reporter Maggie Jones. It also incorrectly reported the number of 14-to-18-year-old boys who had sex and reported to choke a sex partner, which came from preliminary data not yet finalized and submitted for academic publication.


Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”