As we shed our inhibitions, we're shedding our humanity
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.
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.'
The New York journalist observed teenage girls walking the streets in jeans that exposed their 'butt cleavage,' cheerfully stripping for the Girls Gone Wild videos, going to strip clubs, and buying the memoirs of porn stars Jenna Jameson and Traci Lords, which both graced the New York Times best-seller list. 'When I was in porn,' Lords said in 2003, 'it was like a back-alley thing. Now it's everywhere.' How, Levy wanted to learn, had the 'tawdry, tarty, cartoonlike version of female sexuality' of Pamela Anderson or Paris Hilton come to be promoted as progress for women in a postfeminist world? 'Because we have determined that all empowered women must be overtly and publicly sexual,' she writes, 'and because the only sign of sexuality we seem able to recognize is a direct allusion to red-light entertainment, we have laced the sleazy energy and aesthetic of a topless club or a Penthouse shoot throughout our entire culture.'
'Raunch culture,' as Levy calls it, may be hardest on adolescent girls. Blitzed with images of how to be 'hot,' young women, already prone to insecurities, have a difficult time distinguishing the fake from the real. Their mothers, at least, could summon an era when the politics of feminism were ascendant. Not so for their new-millennium daughters. 'They have never known a time when 'ho' wasn't part of the lexicon,' Levy contends, 'when 16-year-olds didn't get breast implants.' Nor do most teens possess the sense of irony needed to negotiate a cynical, commerce-driven pop culture.
If Female Chauvinist Pigs offers a PG-13 critique of the mainstreaming of pornography, Pornified heads with grim determination for the XXX websites. The digital proliferation of porn on the Internet is where the colossal profits are being made, and, in Pamela Paul's view, it's where the lasting damage is being done.
'Old school defenders of pornography,' she writes, 'may not be familiar with the direction in which Internet and DVD-era pornography has gone.' When an entertainment analyst is asked to define 'acceptable adult programming' for specialty cable TV, his list includes penetration, oral, anal, and group sex, along with lesbian and gay sex. Such material, the analyst acknowledges, 'used to be called pornography, but a lot of that has become socially acceptable now.' What is pornographic these days? The bar, especially in cyberporn, has nowhere to go but up. 'Pregnant women become pornified,' Paul reports, 'their naked torsos wrested from personal Web sites onto 'pregnant porn' Web sites, incest becomes fetishized, child pornography blends with adult pornography into an ageless 'teen porn' middle ground. Any sense of taboo dissipates in a free-for-all porn world.'
Much of Pornified is devoted to cyberporn addiction. Interviewing American men and boys, she learns how obsessive porn surfing wreaks havoc on their conceptions of women and sexuality. They become impatient with their real-life partners and numb to the pleasures of conventional sex. 'Pornography leaves men desensitized both to outrage and to excitement,' leading to dissatisfaction with the emotional tugs of their own lives, Paul writes. Their cravings encourage greater expansion of the global online 'pornotopia': more gonzo group-sex sites from Russia, wilder teen stuff from Japan.
For all its moral outrage, Pornified advocates a tempered 'censure-not-censor' response aimed at moving society away from viewing pornography as 'hip and fun and sexy' and toward recognizing it as 'harmful, pathetic, and decidedly unsexy.' Here, one suspects, is the Rubicon none of us should seek to cross. What cyberporn permits isn't so much boundless tawdry choice and glum stimulation as too effortless an absolution from the reality of what is being observed. Flickering across a million monitors in a hundred countries at this moment are images of women and men, most of whom are performing lewd sexual acts before a camera because they are poor or damaged, or because they have been coerced into doing so. It shouldn't be so easy to ignore this while we are pleasing ourselves.
Paul cites a 1998 study that concludes that two-thirds of prostitutes suffer from symptoms identical to those of posttraumatic stress disorder-twice the percentage that was found among American soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam. 'There is something twisted about using a predominantly sexually traumatized group of people as our erotic role models,' she writes. 'It's like using a bunch of shark attack victims as our lifeguards.'
There is no end to the obvious damage on parade in extreme pornography, should one wish to acknowledge it. But a consensus about 'community standards' may no longer be available. Sex remains a moral issue for most adults, but not in the way it once was. The movement has been away from the morality of sex itself-no premarital sex, the proscription of homosexuality-to the issue of harm: people getting off on the acts of those who are themselves traumatized and are being traumatized by what they are doing. Maybe terms like obscene and pornographic have lost their nuance. Words such as dangerous and humanly disastrous might be more to the point.
In an essay about the porn industry in California, Martin Amis wrote that 'porno is littered-porno is heaped-with the deaths of feelings.' To be more specific, in its exploitation of personal tragedy and na?vet?, its misrepresentation of human erotica, especially among newly sexualized youths, who may never recover from being consumers of its distortions, in its indifference to consequence, to the causality of action and effect, both on screen and in real life, extreme pornography may be stalking one emotion more than any other. That would be the shared feelings we have for fellow humans, along with the inclination to recognize kindred suffering and even lend aid. Porn may yet be the death of empathy.
Charles Foran is a Canadian writer whose latest novel is Carolan's Farewell (HarperCollins, 2005). Reprinted from the Walrus (March 2006). Subscriptions: $39.75 Canadian/yr. (10 issues) from Box 26405, Station B, Toronto, ON M7Y 4R1, Canada.
From the Mouths of Babes
The women of pornography on what the industry's done for them and others
The ladies of porn have some stories to tell, and they found their venue in Carly Milne's Naked Ambition: Women Who Are Changing Pornography (Carroll & Graf, 2005). From the industry's biggest stars to the women who are hawking, reviewing, and airbrushing DVDs, the book depicts a business culture that's not always a bed of roses, but isn't a one-dimensional world of exploitation either. Pornography is their chosen profession, and it's been financially and emotionally rewarding. Here are some of their voices.
'Porn has been therapy for me. It has validated my
desires and helped me accept them.'
Mason, director of hard-core films including Dirty Trixxx 1 and 2 and Riot Sluts
'Feminist porn is porn that empowers women and men: It
gives them information and ideas about sex. It teaches. It inspires
fantasy and adventure. It validates viewers when they see
themselves or a part of their sexuality represented. It presents
sex as joyful, fun, safe, and satisfying. It counteracts the other
messages we get from society: Sex is shameful, naughty, dirty,
scary, dangerous, or it's the domain of men, where theirs are the
only desires and fantasies that get
Tristan Taormino, Village Voice columnist, director, and author of The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women (Cleis Press, 1997)
'The world is a much better place when men learn how to
have multiple orgasms and get penetrated and women learn how to
ejaculate. Balancing power is a good thing for this planet, and
playing with power is a sexy thing when it comes to fantasy and
Jackie Strano, singer-songwriter, director, and creator of the lesbian-owned and -operated S.I.R. Productions
'The Internet is mocked, and not without reason, as one
big porn show. But buried underneath the crass commercial excess
that makes up so much of that is this wonderful by-product. The
Internet is the best possible continuation of Kinsey's work, which
was to show us ourselves and tell us we're really
Hester Nash, online curator of the vintage pornography site RetroRaunch.com
'I have something to say to men about sex, about
feminism, and about queer culture, and I discovered that if you're
naked, people listen more.'
Nina Hartley, sex educator and porn star