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I Can't Get that Penis Out of My Mind

The children are sending out pictures of their penises over the computer. Did you know this? Enterprising youth! Only one penis that I know of has come into our house this way, but there may be more.
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The children are sending out pictures of their penises over the computer. Did you know this? Enterprising youth! Only one penis that I know of has come into our house this way, but there may be more. Oh Lordy Lordy Lordy.

I'll be blunt: the penis I saw was at full attention. I'm sorry to have to tell you that. Is this funny? I don't know. I really don't know what to think. I'm kind of beside myself.

Here's how I know about the penis: I sit down at my daughter's computer, my barely-a-teenager daughter's computer, one recent afternoon while mine is in the shop, and here on my daughter's computer screen is her email Inbox. I hardly ever see her email Inbox except very fleetingly, as I pass through the little nook in the hallway where we have moved her computer from her bedroom. Our school, and the entire parenting industry, tells you to have the computer not in the child's room but in a more public, "well-trafficked" zone so that they aren't seduced into dirty Websites where strangers might try to send) them pictures of, oh, say, their genitalia. If I happen to glance at her email Inbox, if I happen to even cast my eyes to that side of the well-trafficked little nook, my child scolds me for privacy invasion.

But she forgot to log out last night. It's such a novelty to be alone with her email that I cannot help myself: I scroll through her Inbox. I do not open the emails. (Although not long ago on the "Today Show," I heard a parenting expert advise parents to read their children's email, but not in secret. Your child, he said, should be writing nothing that you can't read "while standing over their shoulders." Has this man ever met a teenager? Is he aware that they do not like to be observed doing anything, including eating an English muffin or waiting for an elevator? That even the squeakiest clean teenagers in the land are allergic to having an adult standing over their shoulders? That even Mormon teenagers, when emailing their pals-- "See u in Temple Square! I am sooooo psyched 4 the Tabernacle Choir!!!!"--slap their hands over their computer screens when their parents pass by, protesting, "Mother! Dad! This is so my own personal business!")

Most of the parenting industry tells us parents that civil liberties do not apply vis a vis our children and the computer. But these computer recreations--Facebook, YouTube, IM, iChat, Video Chat, MySpace--were already out of the gate, galloping away with my daughter long before I learned what they were; I was too late to make any privacy policies about them even if I'd wanted to. By the time I started hearing about them, she already had her secret passwords and an entire hidden, soundless world of friends and friends of friends and friends of friends of friends, on two continents and in Minnesota, for some reason.

Facebook, IM, iChat, and the rest were uninvited guests in my house. I thought I was buying her a computer, I didn't know I was buying her a 24-hour party. If a telemarketer had called me and said, "Hello, how are you today, we're selling features for your computer that will enable your child to be in touch at all times with every teenager in New York City-- in every developed nation, in fact--all of whom can contact her at any time. You will bicker over these features incessantly, and you will worry, given the ferocious concentration she exhibits while she types away, whether these pastimes have in fact 'possessed' her. May we interest you in a free one-month trial?"

I could have been more on top of these ever-changing computer entertainments, but I was still making rules about television-watching and cell-phone use and text messaging. I was behind the curve. I never know anything about the latest computer attractions. I can type and send email, that's it. The whole computer-and-teenager thing was way, way out of my league.

I tried to be a spy. I asked the young computer guy who comes over to periodically not solve the you-keep-getting-kicked-off-the-Internet-in-certain-rooms-of-my-house problem if I could get parental controls on the computer. He said the controls were very crude and dumb: for example, they would block anything coming in on the Internet with the word "breast" in it, even if you were trying to research "breast cancer." This did indeed sound dumb, so we didn't get the controls. But he offered to install a function on her computer that would tell me what Websites she had been visiting. That seemed like a good idea, and I got the function but I've never used it. I really do have mixed feelings about spying on children.

It doesn't seem to be any kind of solution anyway; being a parent of a teenager in America is now more than ever like being the Dutch boy with his finger in the proverbial dyke--stick your finger in one hole, thwart one feature, and they've invented a new one while you were plugging up the first--or like someone in a horror movie. I keep picturing Facebook/IM/YouTube as a huge sci-fi monster whose tendrils keep wriggling through the cracks under the front door that I have locked and bolted and shoved dressers in front of.

Even if you have your child's email password, they can just get a Gmail account, or seven, for all the mail they don't want you to see. I have a friend who told her son he could not go on Facebook unless he allowed her to be one of his Facebook friends (she had to promise never to contact any of his friends herself, just to be present in the room, as it were) which seemed like a good way of keeping track of what he was doing on Facebook--but then my older daughter told me that there's a secret level of friends, a sanctum sanctorum for your closest friends, that she is sure he did not let his mother into.

So this afternoon I do read the opening line of my girl's emails, because they are right there for me to see next to the sender's name. They seem innocuous enough, if schizophrenic--sometimes the children write childishly ("I am so xcited for Dunkin' D's!!!") and sometimes they write like gang members, sort of ("Yo, bitch, dat sucks u have yr math tutor now").

But here is an email from someone whose email address has no letters, only numbers, many numbers. And there's no subject in the subject line. The numbers seem at once both so technical, junk mailish, that I think the email couldn't have anything personal in it and therefore it is all right for me to read; and, at the same time, it seems, possibly mercenary, possibly something that is going to cost me money. Has she ordered something from a catalog and this number is somehow her order number? Or has some online catalog found her and is going to charge her for something she didn't order?

I open the email.

Oh my word. This is not a professional photo, not a porn site photo. It's an amateur close-up, and you can see it's been taken in a bathroom--you can see floor tiles, and a what looks like a used towel on the floor, and a partial view of two large-cupped bras hanging from hooks on the back of a closed door.

Some amateur sent this picture. Somebody my baby probably knows. Oh my God, are we about to be a statistic? Will someone from "Newsweek" be calling our house in the near future looking for a quote on Babies Having Babies? My baby! My baby who is still young enough to get the child's fare on Amtrak, who likes strawberry milk, and horses, and skipping stones and making brownies? What is going on here?

Of course she knows a huge amount about sex. At our school, eighth grade is short stories, sines and cosines, Social Justice, protons and neutrons, and Sex Education. At our school they have sex education every five minutes. They have so much sex education that kids write "Don't get any STDs!!!" in their friends' yearbooks instead of "Luv ya, babe! And I don't believe you never liked Steven!" They have so much Sex Education that they each brought home three condoms right before summer vacation this year. After my baby showed me the condoms, I ran into the woman who is our school nurse and sex educator. I asked her -nicely!--why, since I get emails from school every day about the next bake sale and the year-end gift for the teachers and the many unclaimed items in the lost and found, why, if these things are deemed important enough to stuff my email Inbox with, why did sending my child home with condoms merit not one email message?

"We already show them how to put a condom on a banana at school," the nurse told me. "And they've all seen a dental dam."

I have heard of dental dams, I have asked my friends what they are and they don't know either, beyond having something to do with oral sex. I'm sure they're good idea, but I'm sorry, I just don't want to know what they are.

"All the studies show that kids who have all of the information well in advance of having sex--and a lot of them start when they're fifteen--will make better choices," the nurse said to me.

"Teaching abstinence doesn't work," my baby told me when she showed me the condoms and saw my mouth hanging open.

"I too believe that," I said. "But I just think thirteen is really too young to think about needing condoms, much to young to be even contemplating having--"

"Ewwwww! Don't be disgusting!"

But now, when I see the penis picture, I think, Did she not mean it about ewwwww and disgusting? Could she have thought that the nurse was sending her home with condoms in order to have a funner summer?

Just then, my older daughter, who is twenty-three and lives in her own apartment, stops in with her old high school friend, another lovely young woman, for a visit. Gravely, I hold forth the picture of the penis I have printed out on the printer. Look. Look at this.

They are both speechless at first too. Then one of them remembers something: it's a fad, a teenage thing. They've heard about it. The boys are sending around pictures of their penises that they have taken using their iPhones. Those numbers I saw on the Inbox that were the emailer's address are actually his iPhone phone number, they tell me. And, yes, they say, they have heard that the girls are sending around pictures of their vaginas.

It's probably just some boy she knows, says my older child, some boy just trying to be funny.

But Mother wants to know more. I call the iPhone phone number. A boy answers. "Hello?" He sounds wary; he doesn't recognize my phone number on his iPhone screen.

"Hi! Who's this?"

"M-----," he says, giving his name. I have a crazy parental urge to say to him, Don't you kids listen when the grown-ups tell you not to give strangers any information? You don't have to tell a stranger anything! You'd probably tag along after a man who tells you he has a hurt puppy in his car!

"Hi, M! This is R-----'s mother."


"R," I say. "Are you a friend of hers?"

"I guess. Sort of."

"Where do you go to school?" He tells me, silly boy. It's not my daughter's school. I'm pretty sure she doesn't know him that well. On the other hand, if I do decide to exact retribution at some point, it will now take me about ten minutes, from the information he has given me, to find out who he is and what his parents' home phone number is.

"I see," I say. "I was just calling because your phone number showed up on my cell phone screen and I didn't know who'd called me."

"Oh." Nice to know that I have, for once. confused someone else about technological matters instead of the other way around.

"Okay, well, nice talking to you. Bye," I say.

"Bye." He could have hung up, but he's speaking to an adult. He's polite.

So. This seems to be a boy my girl kind of knows who is indulging in a disgusting fad. It's disgusting, but it's so disgusting it suddenly seems funny. Also, I'm so relieved that the possible other, darker scenario isn't true--we are not going to be a statistic in "Newsweek," it seems--that I'm practically giddy. My older daughter and her friend and I spend the next twenty minutes laughing ourselves silly about M and his member and the possible future conversations we might have with him about it.

My baby arrives home from school. Her appearance at the front door sends my older daughter and her friend and I into fresh fits of laughter. "What?" she says, eager to be in on the joke. I say, playfully, "Did you get a little something in your email from someone named M?", and I show her the picture.

Yes, ewwww, it's disgusting!" She is giggling too.

"Honey, do you know this boy?"

"Barely. I met him, like, twice."

"Well, what's his point? Is he trying to be funny? Does he want to be your boyfriend?"

"I don't know! He's disgusting! Why are you reading my email?" She is still smiling, though, so I know that she will forgive me.

In the days that follow, M and his penis are reduced to a funny anecdote in our family, included in the category of penis humor that my girls and their friends have developed over the years (one enduring penis song, the product of a long car ride in Italy: "Wanahini wanahini, Hello, is that your peenee? Wanahini wanahini, Does it drive a Lamborghini?")

I keep trying to keep what M did down at fad status: just funnin', a latter-day version of goldfish-swallowing or cramming all of your friends into a phone booth. I don't know why these antique examples come to mind, but I've always been kind of retro, kind of behind my time. I didn't participate in the naughty fads of my day so much as read about them in Life magazine while sitting in the kitchen in my flannel nightie, drinking a glass of milk and eating a box of Nilla wafers and watching "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Streaking, that was big, and skinny dipping at rock concerts, and mooning. All of these things involved nudity and exhibitionism and flaunting your privates, didn't they? What's the difference between that and sending a picture of your penis over the Internet?

This interpretation refuses to sit right. Those other fads were all about being with other people, they were convivial group romps. I think of M alone in his bathroom, looking at Mom's bras and the used towels on the floor, taking pictures of his lonesome penis. Get out of there, son! Go outside and get some air!

But just as grieving has its stages (Denial, Anger, etc.), I now enter a new stage of Reacting to Seeing a Penis Picture in your Daughter's Email. I have passed through Shock, Panic, Hilarity, Pity; now I enter Shock Again.

My God! It is not all right, sending a picture of an erect penis to my 13 year-old! What effect has it had on her? Has this been a traumatic event? I can't believe how many days it has taken me to get truly concerned about this. Surely she has seen pictures of penises before, maybe even erect ones--they probably sketch them from live models in Sex Education--but this one was personal, this one was meant for her (and however many other girls on M's list.) This one was in big, veiny close-up.

"Honey," I say to her one day when we are in the country, on vacation, "Were you shocked when you saw the picture?"

"Yes!" She's smiling, but she says "Yes" in the same tone that she might say, "of course" or "duh." She was shocked. I am a terrible mother.

"What he did was send an assault over the computer, and that's wrong, and--"

"'Bye-bye," she says, and walks outside. My baby has always been a private person, and not loquacious.

I try to talk to her about it two more times, but I'm rebuffed. She hates Talks. I don't blame her.

One afternoon I see her at the far corner of the yard, swinging on the swing set. Her older sister did the same thing when she was a teenager, on the swing set we'd bought for her when he was little. She'd go out there and swing gently back and forth, rocking herself into a kind of reverie.

Ten years later, the new baby came, and we bought a wooden swing set to replace the rusty old metal one. And now the baby has the same habit as her sister. Now, when there is absolutely nothing else to do, she goes out there and swings slowly, the wood making little creaking sounds like a sailboat's mast in the sea.

I watch her. Has she forgotten about M's penis? Will she ever?

She's not telling.

Back and forth, back and forth, my baby swings and swings.