Mike Clark figures he was just a little kid when he saw his first sexy pop-up ad on the Internet, and somewhat older when he saw his first sexy pop-up that he understood. First X-rated spam? Let's see -- when did he first learn to use e-mail? First videogame with sexy images? Probably the first time he played Grand Theft Auto. First glimpse of an online porn site?
"Right after my first sex ed class in seventh grade," the peach-fuzzed Orange County 16-year-old confessed one recent Saturday as his buddies burst out laughing.
"I mean, the minute they tell you that stuff is out there, you're like, 'Really? It is?' "
And it is, his peers confirmed, shouting over music during a lunch break at a conference of a teen service organization in Irvine. It's online, on cable, on cellphone cameras, in chat rooms, in instant messages from freaks who go online and trawl children's Web journals, on cam-to-cam Web hookups, on TV screens at parties where teens walk past it as if it were wallpaper, in lectures about abstinence in Sunday school and in health class, in movies, in hip-hop lyrics like the one blaring from the loudspeaker as they lined up for pizza and burritos.
"Pornography," shrugged Scott Timsit, a dark-haired 16-year-old in wire-rimmed glasses, "is just part of the culture now. It's almost like it's not even, like, porn."
The first generation to grow up with the Internet and all it has wrought in the cultural mainstream is beginning to come of age. It is a generation for whom 900 numbers and scrambled scraps of flesh on the Spice channel have given way, in a few short years, to bulk e-mail ads for the Paris Hilton sex tapes and porn subplots on "The O.C." It is a generation in which sexual frankness has become a permanent feature of the landscape, with uncertain long-term implications.
By definition, pornography is sexual material that is so beyond the pale as to be offensive for most people, said Gilbert Herdt, director of the National Sexuality Resource Center, a Ford Foundation-funded project in San Francisco. But as the Internet has made more extreme images more accessible to more people at younger ages, standards have shifted in other media outlets.
"What we once called porn is just mainstream sex now, and what we now think of as pornography has shrunk to a tiny, tiny area," Herdt said. "We've expanded the envelope of normative sex so much that there's not much room for 'porn' anymore."
X Loses Its Shock Value
Sex, of course, has always sold in American culture. And hand wringing about children's exposure to it is as old as civilization. But never has adult content had a platform as powerful -- and legitimizing -- as the one-two punch of cable plus the Internet.
Images and subject matter that were stigmatized a generation ago now flow and multiply from one mass medium to another, turning yesterday's taboo into today's in-joke. Adult film actress Jenna Jameson has moved from X-rated DVDs and downloads to the bestselling sex manual "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star" and, last year, a VH1 documentary. Dance moves once associated with strippers are as common on MTV as tight pants on rock stars. Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton are famous equally for their TV work and their downloadable bootleg sex tapes.
What this has meant for children has been a massive spillover of sexually charged content into the mainstream. Patricia Greenfield, director of the Children's Digital Media Center at UCLA, calls it "an all-pervasive sexualized media environment" that now throws sex at kids even when they aren't looking for it and hits them at an ever younger age.
Grade-schoolers doing their homework on the family computer, for example, now routinely start by deleting spam for impotence drugs from their e-mail. Middle school students clandestinely trade copies of such adult-rated videogames as "Playboy: The Mansion." Teen advice columns offer wisdom on porn addiction. Online chat rooms for adolescents lapse in and out of graphic sex talk. One TV ad for male body spray depicts a young teenage boy fending off the sexual advances of his date's middle-age mother.
On MySpace.com, an online site popular with teenagers and middle school children -- and one that expressly forbids explicit postings and participation by people younger than 16 -- teens inventing new screen names can nonetheless access an automated "name generator" whose ad offers, among other things, to come up with monikers for their genitalia and to answer the playful question, "What's your porn star name?"
Whether so much sex talk distorts children's views is only beginning to be researched. Dr. Lynn Ponton, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco and author of "The Sex Lives of Teenagers," notes that exploring sexuality is an important part of a healthy adolescence, but the usual outlets for that aren't what they used to be.