The XXX factor

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?

?

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, Forbes.com (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.

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