This was the conversation I was dreading—the one probably every father dreads—and it was happening much earlier than I’d expected. I’d been steeling myself for it all day; I knew neither of us was ready. Watching my boy bound out the doors of his school, all smiles and sprints—I’m free!—I wished he’d slow down. The week before, he ran face-first into a wall of his own curiosity, saw things he shouldn’t have, things that he certainly would’ve kept to himself if I chose to let it go. I wondered what his expression was then.
At 9 years old, Oscar could have easily passed for 12 or 13: He stood 5’2” and weighed 125 pounds. You had to really look at his face—with its lingering bits of chub and soft, trusting eyes—to remember how young he actually was.
“So, I have to talk to you,” I told him, once we were inside the car and away from other ears.
He shrank in the passenger seat, bracing for the worst. I quickly reassured him he wasn’t in trouble, he didn’t do anything wrong, but there was this thing that I knew and it had to be out in the open. I jumped right into it.
“I know you were looking at porn.”
Oscar gets easily defensive, always quick to deny wrongdoing—even when he’s told he didn’t do any wrong—and so I expected his reflexive protest of, “No I wasn’t!”
“Ossie,” I intoned, making clear the fact that he was speaking out of turn. "I know you did. For a fact, and lying to me isn’t going to make this any better.”
His eyes darted back and forth, as if looking for an escape hatch inside his own head. He was formulating a plan, something to get out of this situation, and then he stopped. His brow furrowed.
“Wait,” he said, sitting back upright. And then he followed up with possibly the sweetest thing he ever asked me, given the context. “What’s porn?”
I couldn’t help but smile. His defense hadn’t been self-preservation so much as it was genuine confusion. “It’s videos and pictures of people having sex,” I told him. He slumped back into embarrassment. “Oh. Then, yes. I looked at porn.”
A silence hung in the air between us as I tried to figure out where to go from there. He looked at me, eyebrows up and eyes wide open, on alert for whatever would come next. The past winter had torn up the road, and his still baby-fatted cheeks bounced along with the car as we headed back toward our house. The anticipation of my response was clearly getting to him.
“Are you gonna say anything else?”
“To be honest, I hadn’t really thought this far ahead,” I told him. “I only planned as far as this, telling you I knew.”
Of course, a few million things had gone through my head in the week since my discovery. I wasn’t looking for what I found when I went snooping through his cheapie Android tablet. Oscar loved video games, and lacking the Xbox or PlayStation consoles he desperately wanted, he’d instead watch videos of other people playing games on YouTube. This is a thing, by the way, if you didn’t know. Teenagers and 20-somethings record themselves playing games like Minecraft or Call of Duty, providing voice-over commentary composed mostly of irritating screams and laughter. I hated everything about these videos, from the pointlessness of watching them, to the sub-mental chatter, to the fact that my seething lack of understanding of modern trends meant I was getting old and marching closer to irrelevance. But good parenting doesn’t mean you support every dumb thing your kid is into; sometimes it just means you don’t stop them from doing things because you think they’re dumb.
Still, there had to be limits, and Oscar had recently been made aware of the existence of Grand Theft Auto 5 at another house. For a few weeks, it was “GTA 5 this” and “GTA 5 that,” and I made clear that this was not a game he should be watching, let alone playing. I’m definitely no prude, though, and it’s because of this that Oscar couldn’t understand why I was so vehemently opposed to the game. He relentlessly badgered me to give a him a firm age when I’d let him play it. But how do you tell a 9-year-old that there really isn’t an appropriate age to role-play as a drug dealer who shoots prostitutes in the face? Plus, then I’d have to tell him what a prostitute is. I told him to drop it, that it just wasn’t going to happen in my house. When that succeeded in keeping him quiet, I became suspicious.
I figured something was up when he declared himself tired one night and asked to go to bed early, and could he bring the tablet to bed and just play a few games before sleep? Later, when I went into his room to say goodnight and he clumsily stuffed the tablet under his pillow, it was clear he was hiding something. But I didn’t want to make a big deal of it right then. Bedtime is a very important moment in a single parent’s day. I still had to do the dishes from dinner and make the next day’s lunches for Oscar and his sister, and I wanted very much to be sleeping before midnight.
Later, when I was sure he was finally out for the night, I snuck into his room. He’d fallen asleep with the tablet under his pillow and I had to gently reach under and slowly remove it—a visit from the Truth Fairy. Back in my room, I fired up his browser of choice and typed in the omnibox, “chrome:history,” thinking I was prepared for what I would find. As it turned out, my suspicions were confirmed. He had been watching GTA videos—plenty of them—but that wasn't the first thing I noticed. My brain registered the title of a website in the middle of the history list before my eyes really focused on anything.
I expanded the Page Title column to see the whole thing and was dismayed, but not surprised, to find that Sheila was not the Queen of Analogies. There were several more pages visited in rapid succession, all featuring women giving jobs that had nothing to do with our nation’s unemployment rates. Finally, the browser history showed, a Google search for “sex videos” had led to brief visits in the internet’s nether regions before he’d apparently seen enough. I called his mother the next day.
“So, I have to talk to you,” I told her, and then quickly reassured her I wasn’t mad at her, she didn’t do anything wrong, but there was this thing that I knew and it had to be out in the open. I let her know what I found, and she gasped. I told her the extent of it and she sighed—poor little guy, she’d said. And then I reassured her I would be talking to him about it and she exhaled in relief. We discussed what ought and ought not to be said. I told her I was going to wait a week or so, partly because I wanted to see if he’d go back and look at it again—he didn’t—and partly because I was terrified of the conversation. She laughed and expressed how happy she was that it happened at my house. I laughed and said our daughter’s eventual menstrual cycle was now officially her responsibility. A week later, Oscar was waiting nervously in the car for me to say something else.
I tried to think back to my own childhood, and how my parents would have handled such a conversation. I was a year younger than Oscar when I got my hands on my first Playboy, which I’d kept stashed under a messy pile of Archie comics on a shelf in my closet. The problem was, my folks never found my secret—never had reason to suspect I even had the thing, since it wasn’t exactly easy for an 8-year-old to procure such “Entertainment for Men”—and so we never had anything like the conversation Oscar and I were about to have. The internet has changed all that, with adult websites always a single click away. The content is far more explicit than what was in Playboy, too, and sites like bimbos.com aren’t exactly attracting an audience that claims to visit for the articles.
In some respects, though, this might be a change for the better. Without anyone to provide context to my 8-year-old self for photo spreads like “Campus Cuties,” I was left to formulate my own ideas and impressions of women and how to regard them. I suspect I was not alone in this experience; many men my age still hold on to their adolescent attitudes toward sex—with women playing an almost secondary role—as a badge of their manhood, rather than an experience shared. Technology has allowed our 21st-century boys to more easily access the kinds of things boys have always wanted to see, but it’s also enabled the more vigilant parent to confront these topics head on. Parents never could, and never will be able to, shield their children from the things they’re curious about. Plenty of kids are crafty enough to cover their tracks online. But the browser history may be the single best tool we have to start these conversations, to execute a kind of parental jiu-jitsu and turn these curiosities into something that strips taboo of its power.
“I guess the first thing I want to tell you,” I continued, “is that you didn’t do anything wrong. But you also can’t look at that stuff again, at least not now while you’re so young.”
Oscar, ever vigilant for continuity errors in a rule, asked why he couldn’t look at it again if it wasn’t wrong. I explained that “wrong” maybe wasn’t the best choice of words before clarifying that he didn’t do anything unusual or unexpected. He explained that he wasn’t even looking for that. The basement-dwelling gamer whose GTA video Oscar had been watching mentioned a website called bimbos.com, and he was curious what a bimbo was. He thought maybe it was a wild dog, or some kind of small monkey. When he’d found out the true meaning, though, he confessed to becoming much more curious.
“That’s totally normal,” I told him. “But you’re not ready for what you saw.”
Again, I was ill prepared to explain myself, and I asked him to give me a minute to figure out the right response. Did he need to know the seedy underbelly of the porn industry, the one that has former starlets telling horrible stories of being lied to or even forced on camera? Did he need to know how many billions of dollars the men behind the cameras generate while leaving those same women broke and alone, ostracized by a society that demands the product but shames them for participating? Should I confess my own history, regale him with stories of the olden days, when I’d tie up a phone line overnight so my 28.8-kilobit modem could download maybe 10 still pictures that I'd view the next day? Should I even use the word “history,” with its dishonest implications of some long-ago past?
“What you saw isn’t really sex,” I told him.
“It sure looked like—” he started to say, but I held my hand up in a way that he understands means “Let me finish.”
“Look, you and I can go to the park, bring a baseball and our gloves and a bat. I can throw the ball and you can hit it, and then I can catch it, and we’re playing baseball, right?”
“Right … ”
“But then we watch a Sox game, and we see that they’re playing on a completely different level. They’re hitting 100-mile-per-hour fastballs, and leaping over fences to make catches. That’s not the baseball you and I play, but it doesn’t make our game any less fun.”
Oscar just stared at me, quietly waiting for something that resembled a point.
“Those people you saw in the videos, they’re playing a whole different ball game. It’s like Olympic-level sex, and I guess I don’t want you to expect that that’s what most people are doing.”
I told him that someday he was going to have his own sex, and I didn’t want him to be disappointed because his partner didn’t jump right into the things he saw in those videos. That taking it slow and having a connection were important pieces of the process. I also didn’t want him to hold himself to impossible standards that would only diminish his enjoyment. He needed to understand that there were lights, cameras, editing, and Viagra, all creating the illusion of nonstop action. A feeling of pride began to bubble up inside me; I was Superdad, able to leap impossible subjects in a single bound. He could tell me anything, and I’d listen without judgment, respond with patience and, above all, honesty. We didn’t have to hide from each other, I decided.
“Real sex is so much better than that,” I told him. “I enjoy watching the Red Sox, too, but I’d much rather play the game myself. It’s way more enjoyable, and nothing compares to the real thing. Make sense?”
Oscar nodded quickly, almost frantically, then added, “Can we stop talking about this now?”
“Sure, we can stop. Are you embarrassed?” I asked.
“A little,” he said, “But mostly I don’t want to hear how much you like sex.”