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Friday, April 13, 2012

Talking to Your Son About Pornography

If only it were as easy as farting.
Fighting sensual and sexual temptations, I mean. Martin Luther, quite the earthy theologian, believed and taught his students that farting would ward off the tempter. That’s an interesting angle on “get behind me, Satan!” is it not? Temptation comes up from within (James 1:13-14), the tempter attacks from without (1 Thess. 3:5), and Taco Bell cuisine is “a very present help in trouble” (the fractured version of Psalm 46:1). I’m sure it would have been Luther’s favorite eatery for this reason.
So it was fitting, in a loose Lutheran kind of way, to have a discussion last Saturday with my teenage son about pornography in that filling station of flatulence, Taco Bell. (I eschew fast food in general but make exceptions for the occasional beefy 5-layer burrito.) Caleb, who turns 16 this summer, had been to an overnight birthday party with half his football team. I picked him up at his buddy’s house. We delivered a mattress with my truck to Goodwill before ducking into a Taco Bell on the way home for a quick lunch. Typical Saturday stuff.
Over lunch, I asked him about the weekend and how his friends were doing. He is used to me plying him with questions though I try not to interrogate. My questions are to stoke conversation and so I generally proceed congenially. I want to hear from him, about his life, and I’ve learned taking him out for a meal is a good means to that. But last Saturday, having stayed up most of the night before, he wasn’t very talkative. He wanted to get home and nap, which food from the Bell also induces: sleep as well as Beelzebul-busting gas.
However, we got onto the subject of pornography because I asked him how his friends are doing with it. Having just come from an overnight with a bunch of hormonal teen boys, I figured someone might have searched on his phone for titillation and shared his discoveries with the rest. The first time Caleb saw Internet pornography was just that way on just such an excursion with many of the same boys a couple of years ago. I’ve come to believe this might be a bigger problem in Christian schools such as Caleb’s in that Christian young men have an added pressure put upon them to seek purity. That’s a good and noble pursuit of course, but I think too many Christian parents and leaders stress it in ways that functionally deny our young men’s humanity. Evangelicals don’t do a good job distinguishing between earthliness and worldliness. Having sexual desire and interest is earthly and good. We were made so by God. Seeking to satiate those desires via porn or varieties of pre-marital sex is worldly. That we’ve obscured and/or confused this important distinction is for a lot of our young men bad and too bad at the same time.
Caleb told me a little of what he knew of a couple friends’ struggles. Then I asked about him. How was he doing with it? He thought for a second and answered between bites that while he’s seen it, he doesn’t see it often or take himself to it, but even if he did, “I’ll never get addicted to it,” he said.
Dear evangelical reader: When your son tells you this, it’s important not to react. Yes, he’s just said something unrealistic. But he’s 15 and he’s talking to you about it. So keep it conversational more than correctional. The first thing I said to my son was, “You know, buddy, I understand that. I’ve seen it too and I have weak times when I’m tempted to see it again. Most every guy I know has this struggle to some intensity. And I want you to know that you have nothing to fear from me for an honest struggle. This is every man’s battle.”
I remember what was on my mind when I was 15, and I’m a realist. Our society is even more eroticized today than when I was Caleb’s age. Back then one had to procure a Playboy magazine or try to sneak a nudie R-rated movie rental, which risked being caught, to see pornography. Ubiquitous Internet access has changed the game entirely for the generations behind me. They see almost omnipresent pornography much earlier and much easier such that it’s become part of the wallpaper of everyday life.
The second thing I said to my son was, “If it ever does get problematic for you to where you cannot control the compulsion, I hope you’ll let me help you.” He nodded. Saying this to him was purposeful: I don’t think porn is a problem for him now but I don’t want him ever thinking there is something he could not bring to me. From there I told him—names withheld, of course—about guys I have helped work through issues with pornography. I also told him about guys who help me; men I have intentionally placed around myself to keep me in check; men I have tasked with asking me how I’m doing as well as getting automatically generated reports on my Internet usage from Covenant Eyes and XXX Church accountability software.
I told him too of a recent article one of those men sent to me, from the April issue of First Things, entitled “Pornography and Acedia.” (One can buy this excellent essay for a Kindle for $1.99 here: Putting the essay in terms a 15-year-old could follow, I told Caleb that pornography is often sought to fill the empty space hollowed out by a kind of deep boredom (acedia), boredom routinely common to affluent Westerners. Filling our boredom this way wastes our available energies for good and for God. This connection made sense to Caleb. He could recognize how the appeal of porn is usually greatest when one thinks there is nothing else to do. In other words, raw lust is not always the trigger for this as much as regular boredom is.
After talking through the topic in these ways, I then gently corrected his sense of invincibility to addiction: “Caleb, you said you don’t think you’d ever get addicted. Addiction is the inability to control compulsion.” Once he understood the contours of that definition, I continued. “Here’s the thing, son: Most guys who finally realize they are addicted to sex and/or pornography—that is, they can no longer lastingly refute or resist the temptation when it comes—most of these guys thought they never would be addicted. I can promise you won’t be the exception to that. Saying you’ll never get addicted to it is actually a first step in that direction in that you overestimate your strength and underestimate your weakness. It’s the guys who say, ‘I won’t fall into this,’ who do.”
Farting it all away would be easier, yes. But what I was trying to do for my son was give him a sense for the work involved in fighting a good fight with the conspiracy of his own appetites, the world’s menu, and the devil’s catering. Fighting a good fight is a careful, deliberate, continual, circumspect, teachable work that one can never consider “done.”
Last Saturday wasn’t the first time we’ve talked about these matters, nor will it be the last time. As I’ve written in previous posts, Lynn and I decided years ago to be open and direct with our children about themselves as sexual beings, proactively as well as reactively. I’ve long been impressed with the teaching process of the father in Proverbs 7, who takes his son over to a window and shows him a young man on the street below walking into an adultery snare. Can I do less with my sons and daughters?
And so we regularly ask our kids questions, we engage them in conversations, we make observations about them and their peers and their world, we invite their disclosures and confessions to us for “what’s really going on” because our kids know two things about their parents in this. First, they know that we know they are embodied and live in a fallen world where the desires to obey God and indulge self are often in conflict. And second, they know we are FOR them in this and everything, but God is FOR them even more.
The girl at the register sure looks at me funny when I tell her to put our lunch on Luther’s tab.

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