MY 15-YEAR-OLD SON has been watching sadistic porn—and ONLY sadistic porn—for a couple of years. He also tells us (husband and me) that, though he's not had sex (which he defines as penetration), he's had oral sex, handjobs, etc., and that he didn't "flash on" violent images at those times. But he says he thinks about this type of porn all the time—all day, every day—and fantasizes about doing sadistic things to the girls he dates. This all came out as we started having conversations about respect and dating! I proceeded to freak the hell out (though not around him). As the mom and as a woman, I'm upset. I want information, but it makes me sick to read about sexual violence. Particularly when I know there's an unwilling partner involved, as my son hints he prefers—gang rapes are an example. Though we try to be open and talk about relationships, sex, real-world stuff, this caught me completely off guard. My husband doesn't believe there's much reason to worry (yet?), because to us, his friends and family and girlfriends (as far as I know), he's a very different type of person. He's involved in school sports and his grades are good. He has friends. There have been zero instances of violence from daycare into high school. He has an extremely close relationship with his older brother. There's nothing I've seen that would have made me believe he was even capable of thinking about this stuff. I don't know if this is a huge red flag or if I'm making this a bigger deal than I should. I'm just terrified he's going to harm someone. I'm also shamefully awkward around him now. I hate that my view of him has changed. Are there signs—more signs—that I need to watch for? Is he already a danger to himself or others? Where did we drop the ball?
Parent Absolutely Needs Information Concerning Kid's Erotic Development
"FULL PROPS to PANICKED for not freaking out in front of her son, and for having always kept the door open for these conversations," said Dr. James Cantor. "I don't think she's dropped the ball: Fate just suddenly dropped her into a whole new game."
Before we get to Dr. Cantor's advice for you, PANICKED, here's why you should listen to him: He is one of the top experts in the world on atypical sexualities and has worked with thousands of sexual offenders—and thousands of perfectly healthy kinksters. He is a clinical psychologist, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, and the editor in chief of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. He knows what he's talking about. Now let's listen to Dr. Cantor...
"The chances of there being something serious to worry about here are very small," said Dr. Cantor. "It is true that psychopathic sex killers have violent sexual fantasies, but it doesn't work the other way around: Having violent sexual fantasies doesn't mean anyone is likely developing into a psychopathic sex killer. The great majority of people who enjoy violent (or violent-looking) porn are into healthy BDSM. Going just by the numbers, this is (by far) the most likely outcome."
What do we know about people who develop into psychopathic sex killers—or some other sort of sex offender—and what should you watch for?
"We don't know much," said Dr. Cantor. "Politicians will spend enormous sums on punishment but barely anything on research to prevent sex crimes in the first place. What is very clear, however, is that psychopathic sex killers are psychopathic: They have a callous disregard for the well-being of others and often have a long history of conduct problems, generally apparent before age 15. A history of good peer friendships, healthy family relationships, and a typical social and dating life all argue against PANICKED's son being a danger to others."
So it's unlikely that your son is the next Ted Bundy, PANICKED. The likelier scenario is this: Your son is really, really kinky. Some sons are. According to Dr. Cantor, not much research has been done into how people become kinky, but all of the healthy adult kinksters Dr. Cantor has worked with could list things they wish they'd known when they were kinky teenagers.
One day, he'll be able to explore his kinks with consenting adult partners—there are kinky women out there who enjoy bondage, erotic pain, consensual group sex (AKA "gang rapes"), pretending to be "unwilling partners"—but for now, he'll have to stick to vanilla sex, as his kinks aren't something he can spring on a high-school girlfriend. His kinks aren't something he can spring on any woman, ever. The stuff he's interested in can be explored only after a mutual interest is established, each and every item on the menu is carefully negotiated, and consent is obtained and sustained.
"It would help to find this boy some role models," said Dr. Cantor.
At 15, your son is too young to find kinky role models in the usual places—munches, classes, play parties—but he can find role models in books written about safe, sane, consensual kink by safe, sane, consensual kinksters. Suggested titles: The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play, and the Erotic Edge, a collection of essays edited by Tristan Taormino; Playing Well with Others: Your Field Guide to Discovering, Exploring, and Navigating the Kink, Leather, and BDSM Communities by Lee Harrington and Mollena Williams; SM 101: A Realistic Introduction by Jay Wiseman; and The Loving Dominant by John Warren and Libby Warren.
"Healthy members of BDSM/kink communities are essentially the opposite of psychopaths," said Dr. Cantor. "Although they are sexually aroused by violent (or violent-looking) images, they are very highly attuned to the feelings of their partners and very much want to take extreme care never to hurt them. Their arousal includes the idea that what they're doing is providing pleasure, even though it might not look pleasurable to vanilla folks."
So that's what the good doctor had to say, PANICKED, and I believe we should listen to doctors. (An aside: Vaccinate your fucking kids, you morons.) But we typically hear only from doctors—from the psychology, psychiatry, and sex-research varieties—when we talk about a topic like sexual sadism. But I always think it's a good idea to talk to the people you're talking about, so...
"I'm a woman," said Mistress Matisse, a writer, professional dominatrix, and sex-workers-rights activist. "I'm also a sadist. Within the context of a BDSM scene, I derive intense psychological and sexual pleasure from hurting people, and over the last 20 years, I have dished out a great deal of physically intense sensations to a lot of people. BDSM is not just about pain, but that’s the part I like best."
But Matisse is what you want your son to be when he grows up: an ethical sadist.
"Never in my whole life have I intentionally hurt someone without his or her informed, enthusiastic, and ongoing consent," said Matisse. "Inflicting pain is my pleasure, but it's a pleasure I'm in control of at all times. I feel respect, affection, and occasionally awe toward the people who let me push their bodies to the limit. We often laugh together as we play. There's a tremendous intimacy and trust on both sides."
"So it's entirely possible to be a happy, well-adjusted, loving person who's also a sadist," said Matisse. "The lesson PANICKED needs to teach her son is that whether it’s a tender kiss or a smack on the ass, he must have his partner’s meaningful consent. If whatever he does springs from that, he’ll be an ethical and responsible man."
Bonus advice for PANICKED from other doctors, shrinks, and sex researchers.
Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, sex researcher and adjunct professor at New York University:
I'm not a therapist, but here are my two cents based on (limited) published research and substantial personal/anecdotal experience with BDSM and its practitioners.
It seems to me that these fantasies might persist into adulthood—they've been going on intensely for two years, and this is consistent with the developmental trajectories of many BDSM practitioners (whether fetishists, masochists, sadists, etc.) whose strong urges for these activities emerged soon after they hit puberty, if not earlier. (It's kind of like sexual orientation for men—you hear very similar stories, and often these people will think of their kink as their primary sexual orientation.)
If so, the only way to deal with them constructively is to slowly and carefully introduce this kid to the BDSM world, where he can learn how to be a sadist and engage in gang bangs, play rape, and consensual non-consent scenarios to his heart's content, but in a way that's consensual and respectful to his partners. It doesn't sound like his desires stem from misogyny, hostility/anger toward women, or more general psychopathy (which is good), so I think channeling them in socially appropriate ways is possible for him.
But if people (parents, therapists, friends, etc.) freak out about it and try to deal with it by forcing him to suppress all his sadistic urges, the only outlet he may eventually find when he explodes (and more likely than not, he will explode at some point) will be in a misogynistic and non-consensual way.
I would recommend finding a kink-friendly (male) therapist/counselor who can guide him through this process, including connecting him with a TNG (The Next Generation, i.e., youth) kink group in his area where he can start to go to munches and meet and talk to other sadists and masochists. These groups also tend to be very adamant about consent and respect for women, so it'd be good for him to pick up those values, rather than the locker-room/varsity-athletics toxic masculine ideology.
Dr. Robin J. Wilson, a psychologist in private practice and a professor of psychiatry at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario:
My experience is that pubertal or immediately post-pubertal boys have all kinds of weird interests and fantasies. Big testosterone and little problem-solving skills (or prefrontal development) is a big part of why so many young boys get jammed up. Think death metal and goth stuff, among other things that make parents crazy. (My mother couldn't figure out my attraction to the Pistols.) Girls have some of this, too. (Remember what it was like to be 15?) I wonder about what else is going on in his life. General thinking is that most boys grow out of this stuff, but I would suggest setting him up with a sensitive (and sensible) counselor to let him vent about whatever, nonconfrontational and nonthreatening. If he raises the alarming stuff, the therapist should gently probe, but I would really warn against trying to strong-arm him into dealing with something he may ultimately find shameful. The worst outcome would be to entrench him.
David Prescott, licensed clinical social worker and clinical director of Becket Family of Services:
I would look upstream from sex and sexual fantasies and wonder how this young man can experience himself as more competent and be better able to relate to others in an empathic fashion. At his age, it is highly likely that his sex and fantasy lives will adjust themselves accordingly.
Rather than thinking in terms of model, approach, this-therapist-or-that-therapist, I would first want to know what the young man wants out of life. Here's what I mean: The initial case description should raise anyone's suspicion. There is a real sense of urgency, people freaking out (understandably), etc., and very little, if any, discussion of what strengths he brings to the table that he can use to build the best life that he can. Right now, the spotlight seems to be on the problem and not the goal. In these circumstances, my thinking is that the more people can slow themselves down, the faster they will arrive at a safe, healthy, and fun destination.
Based on the limited information, if he showed up in my office, I would simply want to listen to him with interest. After all, before he can make any changes to his life, he first needs to be able to observe his life and the processes currently happening in it. I would be interested to hear about:
What kind of young man did he used to be, and how is he different now? What kind of man would he like to be? What kinds of fantasies and relationships did he have a few years ago, and how are they different now? How would he like them to be in the future? Setting aside everything else, simply having these discussions reinforces the fact that life can and does change for people, and sets the stage for whatever might follow.
Beyond the sex and sexual fantasies, I would love to know what is missing from this young man's life that he wishes was there. What is he longing for? Certainly, there must be more to his yearnings than bossing girlfriends around and demanding immediate sexual access. Along the same lines, I would be interested to know how he has been wounded in his life (note that I am not asking about objectively measured trauma or childhood adversity, but thinking more about his perceptions of being hurt... I would try to couch it more in hero's-journey language since men get raised to be tough, etc., and don't often respond well to "Do you have a history of being victimized?").
I would also be interested to see how he has achieved certain states in his life, such as a sense of competence, autonomy, connection to others, meaning and purpose, and happiness and pleasure. It seems that he gets some pleasure out of these brutish fantasies, but what else can he do? And at what point does making himself happy through violent fantasies and behavior come into direct conflict with other goals in his life, such as being connected to others? While he may date women who will put up with aggression for a while, most will not put up with it for long. Obviously, pursuing pleasure through sexual violence is statistically associated with losing autonomy and independence (by going to prison). By broadening his perspectives in these areas, he may come to realize that his attitudes are not serving his larger best interests.
All of this points in the direction of "How are his thoughts and behaviors a solution and not a problem?" Yes, the thoughts and behaviors are at risk of becoming seriously problematic, but what are the larger problems that this way of being solves? What are his other options for sex, sexual fantasies, and being a man who can make a contribution to the world?
Anyway, in the absence of other case information, that's what I've got. Instead of expert-driven treatment, I would first focus on having the young man assess himself meaningfully and take it from there.
Dr. David Ley, clinical psychologist and author of The Myth of Sex Addiction:
I saw a similar kid a few months ago, very into facial abuse porn, violent "faces of death" type videos. My therapists were very freaked out and also concerned he was going to be a serial killer. He was very socially isolated, dysthymic, and had a lot of anger toward women in his life, all of whom had betrayed him. I helped him engage socially, decrease isolation, and actually get a girlfriend. As his connection to her increased, his interest in the violent porn diminished.
As I often say, porn can sometimes be nothing, and sometimes it can be a symptom of other problems. Unfortunately, this mom, like the therapists that brought this case to me, might be making the problem bigger and scarier through their response. Ultimately I'd recommend a psych consult, preferably with a male. If there are other issues, such as violence, crime, fire setting, etc., this should help identify them.
Dr. James Cantor gets the last word:
There's also the question of what violent porn means. Different branches of feminism disagree on this. Some feminists claim that images of humiliating or violent sex with a woman demeans all women. Others claim that BDSM sex is empowering: What women do in BDSM sex play is just a role, a role that they completely control and can put on or take off at will. There will never be a scientific answer to this question; it's entirely a value judgment. My personal experience, however, is that there are few women who are more empowered and few men who are more respectful than those within the BDSM community.
On the Lovecast, how to comport yourself at a kinky play party: savagelovecast.com.