Damage on Parade

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
fulfilled.’
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
role playing.’
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
okay.’
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

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