The XXX factor

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

| September / October 2006

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 PopMatters.com (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?

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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.