HBO has released a statement saying that it will be winding down its late night (read: soft porn) programming in order to develop more original shows like Game of Thrones. The reason for the change? Flagging viewership as footage of boobs becomes “available elsewhere” — a tortured euphemism for “the Internet.” That all makes sense (and it’s a bit baffling this didn’t happen a decade ago), but the announcement still represents bad news for adolescents, particularly adolescent boys.
For decades, HBO produced penetration-free porn that allowed kids to play peeping tom without risking seeing something more aggressively explicit. With few dads hiding elicit copies of Playboys in the garage anymore, HBO’s late-night offerings represented one of the few places where porn could be encountered in a semi-wholesome way. Losing that is bad not because kids should look at porn, but because they will. And now they will find it on tube sites that may show them more than they wish to see.
Many adults will shrug their shoulders in response to the HBO news, open an incognito browser and navigate to PornHub. And that’s their prerogative. The problem is what happens when kids follow their lead. Sadly, the content those kids find on internet porn sites will make HBO’s adult fare look like bible study. And if kids are blocked by parental controls, they’ll seek out, and likely find, darker and more hidden digital pathways to assuage their sexual curiosity. That will not only put them at risk for discovering truly horrifying pornography, but it will also expose them to the dangerous communities that share it.
Those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s, before the pornographic wonderland of the internet, have a soft spot in our hearts for premium cable adult flicks. We grew up sneaking peeks at films like the never-ending Emmanuel series, featuring sex that was never more explicit than a couple of naked adults panting luridly while furiously rubbing against each other. There was no penetration. Oral sex amounted to a bobbing head. There was no spitting, gagging, “anal annihilation”, or “barely legal teens”. At most there might be some light spanking mixed in with the full frontal nudity. It was all very vanilla. And as such, relatively wholesome.
Of course, some of us weren’t even lucky enough to get premium cable. Instead, we’d spend sleep-overs in front of a basement television tuned to a scrambled movie channel, hoping against hope to discern a breast or a nipple from the technicolored noise. Considering how satisfying it was, we might as well have stuck with our own crude drawings of naked ladies.
The loss of late-night cable porn is also the loss of a rite of passage. It was once very difficult to indulge in adolescent curiosity about sex. It required some planning, some light subterfuge, and perhaps a little luck. The payoff? Some breasts, some butts, and plenty left to the imagination to store away for a long shower at some later date. Now all a kid needs is a cell phone and some negligent parents in order to be scarred for life by raw sexual depravity like lemon parties and two girls sharing a single cup.
It might seem silly to mourn the loss of late-night cable smut, with all its augmented starlets and greasy chiseled dudes who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag. It might seem ridiculous to shed a tear for thin plot lines that bridged gauzy pans of candlelit bedrooms and awkward tussles as erotic as slamming together a naked Barbie and Ken. But consider what it’s been replaced by. Consider the thousand yard stare of a kid who just watched a video of a woman being violated, often violently, by rough, insulting men. Consider the child suddenly aware of the term “gang bang.”
Sure, it would be ideal if sex-curious kids could be guided through their curiosity by adults willing to engage in frank discussion. But, at least in America, that’s a more laughable fantasy than anything dreamed up by a soft-core porn producer. So, kids are left to fend for themselves. But as we lose tame avenues for exploration, adolescents are left to stumble upon the darkest visions of human sexuality. And that should scare us all.