09/20/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Seen Often Enough, the Unusual or Bizarre Can Seem Usual

The new film Lovelace recounts the days when viewing porn meant looking both ways before slinking into a dark and dubious establishment. These days, of course, there are no dark rooms required. A widely-reported University of Montreal study concluded 90 percent of all pornography comes from the web; boys, the study reports, seek out porn by age 10. And as for breadth of content, a few quick search terms can direct you - often unintentionally -- to a hardcore porn site that proclaims itself "the largest bestiality" source online. You might want to be there when your child searches: "My Little Pony."

While usage numbers vary, it's clear that the supply of porn is bountiful, and much of it is free. Predicted consequences, however, tend to depend on agenda. For boys (still the prime consumer), porn use may poison attitudes toward women, create confidence-sapping comparisons of dimensions and performance, crowd out actual relationships and even carve new neural pathways. Seen often enough, the unusual or bizarre can seem usual, setting up new expectations for both genders. Recall an early episode of HBO's Girls in which Hannah passively allows herself to be flipped over while her partner performs anal sex until he's satisfied. Boys see rougher, less mutually agreeable sex through porn and act it out in real life. Girls acquiesce.

Is it any surprise? Excessive violence in films and on TV has been joined by excessive sex, much of it acted out according to porn-established norms: The girl dresses up like a porn star; the boy ejaculates immediately. Even Disney films contain veiled references and insinuations, never mind what they're seeing on cable TV. Even if much of this is artistic commentary, without discussion, kids begin to believe this is how sex really works. As for porn, blocking and filtering are simply denial. Kids are naturally sexually curious, and will find their way to it. Parents should know how to respond before the questions are even asked.

Questions like: What is porn? Is it the Victoria's Secret catalog? Am I 'bad' if I like looking at porn? What does 'normal' sex look like? For parents, the job is to keep the answers frank and honest. And frequent. Say that porn is part of sexuality, but it doesn't define it. It's a commercial enterprise that makes money by taking a natural and beautiful part of being human to the extreme, saturating it with lurid excess. Watch it if you want to, but remember: What you see has nothing to do with who you are, or how you'll interact with a partner in real life. Teenagers in particular have a need to understand what is real and what is made for entertainment. Help them figure it out -- which includes watching it yourself to find out what, exactly, they're seeing. (Chances are you'll be surprised.) Break down scenes and relay truths: No, stamina is not a measure of manhood; yes, both partners should experience pleasure from the act. Let kids of all ages know that porn is not a taboo topic; that they can, and should, ask you about anything they might have seen, or think they want to see. Then direct the conversation to their feelings -- how did you feel about what you saw? -- and assure them that all feelings are normal.

And if kids don't have questions, or seem too shy to ask, it's the parents' job to both start and continue the dialogue. Silence doesn't mean lack of curiosity. Let them know that sexuality is complicated, and that people often have complicated feelings about it that may take years to understand. Keep in mind that girls are just as curious as boys, so don't leave daughters out of the conversation. And most of all, don't freak out when you walk in on them watching. Their interest is normal, and they shouldn't be made to feel otherwise. Remember that the way to live with porn is to help kids put it in perspective and to develop a critical eye towards what they're seeing.