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May 20, 2022

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Abcarian: Billie Eilish’s valuable lesson about kids, porn

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After her recent turn as host of “Saturday Night Live,” the pop star Billie Eilish sat down with Howard Stern for a long interview on his SiriusXM radio show.

As always with Stern, talk turned to sex. And then to pornography.

The ensuing conversation generated many headlines.

Eilish, who turned 20 on Saturday, told Stern she began watching what she called “abusive pornography” when she was 11 years old. She eventually got to a point, she said, where she couldn’t watch anything else.

“Unless it was violent, I didn’t think it was attractive,” she said. “I used to be like the person who would, like, talk about porn all the time. I would be like, ‘Oh, it’s so stupid that anyone thinks that porn is bad … I think it’s cool and it’s great.’ ”

One day, she said, she even complained to her mother about a friend’s mom, who would not let her child watch porn.

“And my mom was like, ‘What?! Do you watch porn?’ And I was like, ‘How else am I supposed to learn how to have sex?’ ”

This is one of the saddest commentaries on adolescence that I have ever heard. The idea that a child would learn about what should be among the most joyous life experiences by watching men demean and hurt women is depressing.

Her habit came with a cost; porn was so unsettling to Eilish that she said she developed sleep paralysis, night terrors and nightmares. That doesn’t surprise me. No one, especially a child, can unsee images of sexual degradation or violence.

“I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn,” she said. “I think it really destroyed my brain.”

I take her point, but her brain seems just fine. After all, she has been called the most important pop star of her generation. She has been lauded for what Vogue has called her “total lack of sexualization in her aesthetic and emotionally intelligent lyrics.”

“I never want the world to know everything about me. I mean, that’s why I wear big, baggy clothes,” she says in a recent commercial for Calvin Klein. Nobody can have an opinion about her body, she says, “because they haven’t seen what’s underneath.” (Irony alert: Yes, that is the same Calvin Klein who sexualized a 15-year-old Brooke Shields when he put her in a pair of skin-tight jeans in 1980.)

Here is another irony: At the very moment porn has become so easy to access or stumble upon — and some are using it instructionally — fewer adolescents than ever are receiving formal sex education at school.

That’s pretty depressing when you consider the barrage of sexualized content coming at kids from such sites as TikTok. In 2021, 63 percent of American kids between the ages of 12 and 17 used TikTok on a weekly basis. If you want to know where your middle-schooler learned to twerk, I suggest you check out her TikTok feed.

“I love TikTok, it brings me joy, it’s fun,” Eilish told Stern. But she is distressed by what she sees as “hyper-sexualization” on the platform.

“It’s horrible to me. People think it’s a kid’s app,” she said, but some of the content “is literally porn. That would traumatize me if I was a kid.”

In 2017, the journal Pediatrics published an article called “Sexual Media and Childhood Well-being and Health.” Its authors cited studies that found that 42 percent of all American 10- to 17-year-olds have seen pornography online.

Eilish deeply regrets her exposure to so much unhealthy sexual behavior, and the effects it had on her own relationships.

“I am so angry at myself for thinking it was OK,” she told Stern.

I think she has done us a favor with her candor. I mean, how often does a teachable moment about porn present itself?

Your kids know who Billie Eilish is. They probably admire her. Don’t let her valuable lesson go to waste.


Robin Abcarian is a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

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