Damage on Parade

As we shed our inhibitions, we're shedding our humanity


| September / October 2006


In 2003 porn actor Ron Jeremy toured American college campuses and was greeted at every stop by fans, many of them teenagers. Few who clamored to see Jeremy were? likely to have rented his 1988 movie 21 Hump Street or 1996's Another White Trash Whore. They probably knew him instead through the reality-TV show The Surreal Life and the documentary film Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy, as well as his cameos in Hollywood films like Studio 54. At the University of Alabama, Jeremy participated in a series of debates with Canadian writer and antiporn activist Susan G. Cole. At one, students cheered Jeremy's boasts about the benefits of pornography and 'having a party' while booing Cole for her objections, reports author Pamela Paul in Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families (Times Books, 2005). 'What's your fucking problem?' one young scholar asked Cole during the question period.

Pornography peeled off its brown-paper wrapping only recently. The way it struts through popular culture these days, waving various small flags of faux liberation and a much larger banner bearing a dollar sign, you might think it had gone mainstream back in the 1960s, along with the pill. In fact, the porn parade down the boulevards of North American life is about a decade old, and many middle-aged watchers, unschooled in sex.com or Britney Spears, still may not be sure what those raunchy floats and teenage pole dancers represent. Younger observers, having grown up inside the Internet, and anyone attempting to raise children in the early 21st century know all too well.

The clever industry fluttering of those lesser flags-pornography as sexual liberation, as third-wave feminist assertion, as freedom-of-expression battleground-in the faces of concern seemed to temporarily stifle criticism. But today, Paul and other pioneering commentators are remarking not on the spectrum of porn that reflects a liberated relationship with sex, but on those activities that are symptomatic of a distorted and even abusive vision of human sexuality. Distinguishing the exhibitionist tendencies of giggly college girls from, say, dubiously consensual incest websites out of Eastern Europe ought to be easy enough. But extreme porn, especially the degraded forms that flourish in cyberspace, invites both conflations and a tendency to moralize.

Moral objections, however, more than legal or aesthetic ones, may be the most instinctive response to what Martin Amis calls 'the obscenification of everyday life.' Harm, observers assert, is being done here. Harm to those watching extreme porn and harm to those being watched. Harm as well to community standards, especially those concerning young people, who still deserve our protection and guidance. Finally, harm is being done to all our fragile sexual selves, which may be incapable of withstanding the relentless assaults of a multi-billion-dollar industry whose principal effect is to make a mess of our relationships.

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Ariel Levy began noticing the change several years ago. The author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Free Press, 2005) would switch on her television to find 'strippers in pasties explaining how best to lap dance a man to orgasm.' On the newsstands were fresh examples of the 'porny new genre' dubbed the 'lad magazine.' Publications such as Maxim, FHM, and Stuff fixated on 'greased celebrities in little scraps of fabric humping the floor.'