The XXX factor

The culture of pornography is shaping our lives, for better and for worse

Content Tools

Pornography is a multimedia bacchanal of pleasures. Legs tangled in legs, tongues, toes; wet, dry, rough, or gentle; high tech or low: Gratuity is the order of the day, and the pleasure is all yours. Porn provides an endless spectacle of bodies, all shapes and sizes, partially clothed, bound, or bare, engaged in an uncomplicated end-getting you off-with an apparently infinite number of means.

A true product of consumer culture, pornography offers a parade of delights from which anyone can pick his or her poison (or pleasure). On the one hand, porn is a mighty testament to the infinite variety of human imagination. On the other, 'no pornographic niche market exists that is not being readily and lustily exploited,' according to the cultural criticism website (March 9, 2005). But when a quick survey of the online scene uncovers a carnival of sexual acts that would have the author of the Kama Sutra rolling in the grave, is it any wonder it can be a bit overwhelming? What does it all mean? Have we gone too far?


Let's pause before we get our panties in a bunch. After all, pornography is nothing new. Distinguished from erotica by the intention to arouse (and not simply to depict human sexuality), porn is more than 500 years old, thrust into mass production by the advent of printing at the end of the 15th century. Countless works now considered acceptable have pushed the limits of social comfort, and society has yet to suffer spontaneous collapse. Instead, erotic imagery and sexual sublimation have been recognized as vital parts of cultural and artistic expression, and there are those who argue for praiseworthy instances among the mire of seemingly insouciant skin flicks and provocative pictures.

Even so, there is a sense of urgency currently associated with porn, and it goes something like this: There's more of it; it's everywhere; it's out of control. In part, the anxiety reflects a mushrooming industry. In the 1970s, a federal study valued all hard-core pornography at $10 million. Today, the most common estimate of a notoriously difficult-to-track industry puts annual revenues around $10 billion, roughly equivalent to the 2005 gross domestic product of Ghana. But ubiquity is not the product of profit alone, and the level to which pornography has permeated culture is not a Photoshop illusion.

Two words: instant access. A trip to the roadside sex shop is as simple as turning on a computer; a visit to an X-rated theater is as easy as picking up the remote control. Understanding how this happened requires no explanation further than our obsession with technology. Just as porn quietly dealt a death blow to Betamax in the 1980s, adopting VHS as a standard and prescribing the future format of home video, porn stands in the curtains of many technologies we take for granted. DVDs that let us skip ahead to choice scenes; pay-per-view programs and on-demand movies; streaming videos, e-commerce, and high-resolution recording formats-all brought to you by the letter P.

In this Internet-ready age, technology tracks a highway to our living rooms, bedrooms, and offices. Cell phones, iPods, PDAs: There seems to be no limit to the places porn can appear, and the thought of explicit materials loitering in everyday portals demands a distinctly modern shift in attitude. Pornography is no longer simply out there for those who seek it; it is in here, inside computers, inside telephones, inside homes. It is innate in the way we live our lives.

This invasiveness has prompted a chorus of concern: What about kids? In 2001, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent national health organization, found that 70 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds admitted to stumbling upon pornography online, and 23 percent of them said it happens often. Much ink has been spilled over this 'cyperporn generation,' speculating on the social impact of a generation whose blanks have been filled in with explicit detail. Based on a study of 1,500 randomly selected children between the ages of 10 and 17, (Nov. 23, 2005) proposes that kids most commonly begin experimenting with pornography at 14, when, the study's authors say, young adults are 'age-appropriately curious about sex.'

Bear in mind that pornography didn't invent sexual curiosity (however tantalizing a Pandora's box it has built) and that there's a difference between pornography that is involuntarily encountered and pornography that is sought out by the curious. In either case, with a nationwide debate still seething over sex education and the renaissance of an abstinence-only approach, plenty of kids growing up in the information age lack resources to process exposure to pornography. The most pragmatic of advice givers fess up to the stakes: Prepare children for what they might encounter and help them understand it as a product, since no amount of Net Nanny software will allow us to pretend it isn't out there.

But are adults really any better prepared to handle all-access pornography?

Socially, we still seem to be hitting a few snags. At the 2003 meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, some two-thirds of attending lawyers said the Internet played a significant role in divorces that year, pointing a finger at online pornography. Seven or eight years ago pornography had an almost nonexistent role in divorce, reports author and journalist Pamela Paul in Time (Jan. 19, 2004). Keep in mind, legally married couples represent only a portion of the population. Jealousy, shame, mixed feelings, and mixed messages all speak to the difficulty of confronting evidence of desires we find in some combination confusing, elating, obscene, and terrific.

In May the Associated Press buzzed with the news that Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, had banned third-generation technology cell phones specifically to check the spread of porn. 'Maybe we can wait for another 10 years or so until we have done enough to strengthen the morality of our society,' he said in a speech in Phnom Penh. But if pornography is a 500-year-old phenomenon that's spawned a massive 21st-century industry and is responsible for technology that is now wrapped into the fabric of modern life, it raises the question: Will 10 more years really do the trick?


It's unlikely. Even as we attempt to delineate our relationships to modern pornography, the line between what is and is not pornographic is eroding, making the task daunting. 'Sex, or at least our dreams of sex, are allowed to permeate areas of life it never would have been permitted to enter until recently,' Rick Poynor writes in Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture (Princeton Architectural, 2006). When technology began delivering pornography into our homes, it also secured pornographic patterns of consumption into our technology-mediated lives, blurring the boundaries between porn and what becomes porn simply because of how we expose, experience, and consume it.

Even as antiporn and public decency coalitions try to maintain the distinction by pushing adult establishments into the periphery, the culture of pornography is present. We gobble up illicit video clips of the latest scandals; cooking show cameras lazily linger on luscious ingredients before making the baking appear to be seamless; video games nod to a classic porn format: little bit of plot followed by action-action-action. There's lifestyle porn, disaster porn, food porn, and more. At times, we scarcely notice. In place of XXX marquees, we see utterly predictable provocative billboards. Standing in the grocery store checkout line, we skim right over Cosmopolitan's explicit cover lines. You could say the culture of pornography has leaked into our lives, but it's more like a flood.

Just as technology demanded that we admit pornography as a given in wired life, the associated permeation of our culture by pornography requires another round of reimagining. So whether you'd prefer to dispense with the brown-paper wrapping or wrap porn back up with a truckload of duct tape, you're equally likely to be confounded: Porn clearly isn't waiting for us to sort these things out.