- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

OK, I admit it — I’ve been on a porn site. Not as a visitor. I mean, I was included in its content. Before you decide I’m a big phony, though, let me explain.

My older daughters and I decided to do a vanity search of my name on Google to see if my Web site was gaining ground on the search engine. Sure enough, my newspaper column and Web site came up, along with many other sites where my material is syndicated.

What also came up was a porn site where my full name and the title of one of my columns had been lifted and placed on a page, a trick used by perpetrators to draw unsuspecting visitors like me.

When the image on the screen appeared, my daughters literally ran from the room as if the computer were about to explode.

It cost me a bundle in legal fees to get my name off the offending site, and in the process, I learned a lot about Web crawlers and intellectual property. What I learned about how children are exposed inadvertently to pornography was worth the investment.

Earlier this month, a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics said 42 percent of Internet users age 10 to 17 have seen online pornography during a recent 12-month span. Of those, 66 percent said they did not want to view the images and had not sought them out.

My own experience attests to the validity of the study’s findings, but to be fair, the notion that youngsters sometimes are unwittingly exposed to porn isn’t exactly new.

I’ll never forget the first time I inadvertently was exposed to pornography. I was 13 or 14 years old and had taken a baby-sitting job at the home of a new family. While I was putting the children to bed, the phone rang, so I answered it in the parents’ bedroom.

There, on the bedside table, was an open copy of Playboy magazine. (No doubt someone intended to finish reading the article — isn’t that what men always claimed?)

I remember taking a cryptic telephone message and then making a hasty exit from the room, drawing a bunch of quick conclusions about the couple that had hired me (not the least of which was that I wouldn’t be baby-sitting there again).

Back then, so-called “girlie” magazines — the “soft core” kind and worse — were sold in brown wrappers at the far end of the magazine rack. If you saw men leafing through the pages at the 7-Eleven, you got your copy of Seventeen and made a hasty exit.

Oh, how times have changed.

If you go by the numbers, exposure to pornography on the Internet is not just a risk for children, it’s a given. And let’s be clear — this isn’t your garden-variety Playboy porn. The Internet allows easy access to really disturbing, perverted, violently pornographic images that are meant to shock porn consumers.

Pornography is the largest and fastest-growing industry in cyberspace, and those who deal in this stuff are as sophisticated in their use of technology as anyone in Silicon Valley. They know how to get around firewalls and filters, and they will reach down to infect the minds of any willing (or unwilling) Internet user. (Or IPod user because video IPods can download porn-on-the-go. It even has a nickname: IPorn.)

The sheer number of children who report unwanted exposure to online pornography made for some shocking headlines, but a careful reading of the news about this survey revealed an even more disconcerting fact: The author of the study said many teen participants were not disturbed by the pornographic images they saw and that further study was needed to determine how exposure to this material impacts young people.

It strikes me that our culture has desensitized children to pornographic images in the same way it has jaded them about violence. If you see something often enough, it just doesn’t shock you anymore. The problem is, the whole purpose of porn is to generate a visceral response, which means the people who make it will continue to create more — and more graphic — material.

Another possible reason the teens surveyed weren’t disturbed by the images they saw could be the “normalization” of porn in our culture. The late Anna Nicole Smith routinely is described as a former Playboy Playmate of the Year — a distinction that sounds as much like an honor as Miss USA. (Oh, wait — that might be too similar to be an ironic comparison.)

Portraying the Playboy model as even more appealing, the magazine next month will feature Erica Chevillar, a former Florida high school history teacher who left the classroom to pursue a more lucrative career wearing nothing (or next to nothing) in front of a camera. News accounts of this story focused on the great opportunity she had to make more money modeling than teaching.

In a Fox News interview, Miss Chevillar said she had always wanted to be a teacher but that “like all little girls,” she also had dreamed of modeling.

I don’t know about that. I think most little girls who dream of modeling imagine themselves wearing clothes.

Exploitation of children through exposure to porn is a sad fact of life. At a minimum, protecting our children’s innocence demands our awareness and our vigilance when it comes to Internet use. At best, it means teaching them that human dignity is only preserved when we choose not to exploit others — even people who seem to seek a twisted kind of celebrity.

After all, if this suburban mother of four can land on a porn site, anyone can.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 19 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of “The Perfect World Inside My Minivan — One Mom’s Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia,” a compilation of her columns. Visit her Web site (www.marybeth hicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth. [email protected]

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