A Pornified World
"What's a nice girl like you doing writing a book about porn?"
This was the first question editors asked when I initially proposed this book. And I was asked over and over again. Two months into my research, I was hunched over a worn paperback, making cramped notes in the margins, on a bench outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the well-dressed man seated next to me lean over and peer at the book cradled in my lap. "Why are you reading a book about pornography?" he asked in a gruff midwestern voice. His primly coiffed wife looked up. "A book about what?" she asked.
I had never discussed pornography with septuagenarians before. I saw myself through their eyes and wondered what they could possibly make of me, a young woman calmly flipping through a book on pornography in the middle of the day, smack out in public. "I'm writing a book about it," I said, somewhat abashed. "This is just research," I explained, realizing how defensive I sounded.
"Are there any girlie pictures in that book?" the man asked, squinting at the pages. I told him it was a collection of essays and he frowned.
"It's ruining this country," muttered his wife. "Just terrible. Pornography everywhere. Not like it was when we were young." She shifted in her seat and sighed, then suddenly became animated. "Do you remember your uncle Joe?" she asked her husband, nudging his side. "He had those special poker cards, with the naked girls, remember? That's what pornography was when we were young."
"Wolf cards," her husband responded with a slow smile, pleased at his recollection. "That's what they were called. Wolf cards."
"But it was so much tamer than what's out there today," his wife continued. "Nothing like what you have in Playboy or one of those magazines. We just didn't have that. Kids today are exposed to such awful things." She fingered her pearl necklace, staring at its clasp.
"So," her husband said, turning to me once again. "Pro or con?" I looked at him, confused, and he repeated, "Is it pro or con? Your book, I mean. What are you going to say about pornography?"
For most of my life, I gave little thought to pornography. It was not something I considered relevant to me, nor did I consider it--in the daunting spectrum of social, cultural, and political problems--a particularly pressing issue facing this country. Pornography had played a negligible role in my own life and, I assumed, had little effect on the lives of those important to me. Like many Americans, I believed pornography was no big deal. But on assignment to write about pornography for Time magazine, my eyes were blown wide open. During the weeks spent researching my article, I spoke with dozens of men and women about how profoundly pornography had affected their lives. I talked to male pornography users, female pornography fans and girlfriends of pornography fans, sex addicts and their wives, child psychologists and couples therapists.
One twenty-four-year-old woman from Baltimore confided, "I find that porn's prevalence is a serious hindrance to my comfort level in relationships. Whether it's porn DVDs and magazines lying around the house, countless porn files downloaded on their computers, or even trips to strip clubs, almost every guy I have dated--as well as my male friends--is very open about his interest in porn. As a result, my body image suffers tremendously. . . . I wonder if I am insecure or if the images I see guys ogle every day has done this to me." She later confessed that she felt unable to air her concerns to anyone: "A guy doesn't think you're cool if you complain about it. Ever since the Internet made it so easy to access, there's no longer any stigma to porn."
A thirty-eight-year-old woman from a Chicago suburb described her husband's addiction to pornography: "He would come home from work, slide food around his plate during dinner, play for maybe half an hour with the kids, and then go into his home office, shut the door, and surf Internet porn for hours. I knew--and he knew that I knew. I put a filter on his browser that would e-mail me every time a pornographic image was captured. . . . I continually confronted him on this. There were times I would be so angry I would cry and cry and tell him how much it hurt. . . . It got to the point where he stopped even making excuses. It was more or less 'I know you know and I don't really care. What are you going to do about it?'"
From the other side, from dozens of men, I heard about how something that once seemed fun was having unexpected side effects. A twenty-eight-year-old New Yorker wrote me an e-mail that said, "I used to view porn online, but I began to find it more difficult to stay aroused when having sex with a real woman. It's an interesting feedback loop, because I watched porn before I ever had sex, and in the old days, if I was having trouble staying aroused for other reasons (e.g., too drunk), I could visualize scenes from those movies and that would help. But later on, during a dry spell, I discovered i-porn, and the easiness of it made it easy to glut--to the point where now, even though the dry spell is over, real sex has now lost some of its magic. And that's sad."
Much of what I heard was not just news; it was revelatory. There was a story about pornography that had not yet been told, a story many Americans, male and female, don't realize is unfolding--in front of their eyes, inside their minds, on their family computer--at this very moment.
But instead of hearing these stories, we hear about the new craze for porn-star-penned memoirs and for the latest pornographic movies, TV shows, and Web sites. Still, no widespread public outcry. Men and women who came of age during the sixties, seventies, or eighties, or whose experience with pornography date to those eras, think of pornography in terms of gauzy centerfolds, outré sexuality, women's liberation, and the Hugh Hefner lifestyle. Back then, the lines between softcore and hardcore pornography were clear and distinguishable. Mainstream nudie magazines differed fundamentally from the tawdry interiors of adult stores and even from the pages of Hustler magazine. You could easily limit your consumption by selecting the desired publication. Likewise, the lines between the pro-pornography and the anti-pornography forces were distinct. To be for pornography was to stand in favor of civil liberties, sexual liberation, and science. Opposition to pornography was considered repressive, reactionary, and anti-sex. Dislike or disgust with obscenity could simply be reduced to some form of religious superstition, sexual shame, or fear.
Scroll back to the fifties, when pornography was relegated to dusty newsstand corners or to run-down adult theaters on the wrong side of town. Or even to the eighties, when pornography was surreptitiously obtained on videocassettes via mail-order catalogs or watched in the back rooms of video stores. People were ashamed of, or, at the very least, embarrassed by, the prospect of being caught looking at porn. It just plain wasn't considered nice to look at dirty pictures. (Of course, pornography's secretive nature contributed to its allure.) When confined to certain all-male circumstances--bachelor parties, army stints, auto garages, prep school dormitories--pornography gained a level of acceptability, but even then, it carried with it a tinge of embarrassment.
Today, pornography is so seamlessly integrated into popular culture that embarrassment or surreptitiousness is no longer part of the equation. How many eleven-year-old boys or girls would be ashamed or amazed to discover a copy of Penthouse or Hustler when the Internet regularly features full-motion pornographic banner ads, e-mail boxes overflow with messages marked XXX, and Christina Aguilera chants about the delights of being "dirty"? Would Playboy have the power to shock, scare, or confuse a preteen girl today? Would it even have the power to titillate a preteen boy, exposed to the "everything but" covers of men's magazines that bray from the local newsstand--magazines that would have once been considered softcore pornography but today have slipped into the mainstream media? Would it surprise in a world in which preteens read CosmoGirl! rather than Young Miss magazine? In a world where Monica Lewinsky is yesterday's female headline rather than Mary Lou Retton? In a world in which sitcoms like Friends make regular unmasked references to pornography, a far cry from the occasionally ribald--but couched--humor of Laverne & Shirley?
The all-pornography, all-the-time mentality is everywhere in today's pornified culture--not just in cybersex and Playboy magazine. It's on Maxim magazine covers where even women who ostensibly want to be taken seriously as actresses pose like Penthouse pinups. It's in women's magazines where readers are urged to model themselves on strippers, articles explain how to work your sex moves after those displayed in pornos, and columnists counsel bored or dissatisfied young women to rent pornographic films with their lovers in order to "enliven" their sex lives. It's on VH-1 shows like The 100 Hottest Hotties where the female "experts"--arbiters in judging the world's sexiest people--are Playboy centerfolds (the male experts are pop stars and journalists), and on Victoria's Secret prime-time TV specials, which attracted a record nine million viewers in 2003. Softcore pornography has now become part and parcel of the mainstream media. The majority of men interviewed for this book did not consider Playboy--once the epitome of the genre--to even be pornography at all, because it doesn't depict actual sex acts. "True" pornography today is confined only to the hardcore.
Pop music is intimately connected with the pornography industry as today's pop stars embrace and exalt the joys of porn. Eminem, Kid Rock, Blink 182, Metallica, Everclear, and Bon Jovi have all featured porn performers in their music videos. Trying to keep up, Britney Spears, Lil' Kim, and Christina Aguilera emulate porn star moves in their videos and live concerts. Pornography has not only seeped into televised music videos; musicians have crossed over into the adult film industry. Rock musicians regularly date porn stars, cameo in their movies, and invite them backstage. Rolling Stone, hardly a staid publication, notes, "Until recently, public fraternizing with a porn star was pretty much a no-no; now it lends the musicians an aura of danger and intrigue."1 Rap artists and hip-hop stars such as Snoop Dogg ("Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle"), Ice T ("Ice T's Pimpin'"), and Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz have all created pornographic videos. VH-1 offers a show called Porn to Rock and Rap, in which, its Web site breathlessly describes:
The worlds of music and porn link together perfectly. In the rock world, porn stars are seen as trophies, adding a coolness factor to a rock star's image. In the rap world, porn is another way rap stars can be entrepreneurs and make their paper. The stars in each genre of music go about it differently, but they all have learned that porn and porn stars are a GOOD thing. We will examine the history of the marriage, the current slew of musicians involved, and get behind the scenes of this interesting arena.
According to a report by Black Entertainment Television, "The Making of Sex Hop," the link between hip-hop and pornography began a decade ago when DJ Yella of NWA made a pornographic film in 1994. "I set about to change things," Yella explained matter-of-factly to Adult Video News. "By putting my name on it and associating it with rap, I'm bringing porn to the mainstream."2
Pornography has not only gone mainstream--it's barely edgy. On the recent fiftieth anniversary of Playboy, Hugh Hefner, seventy-seven, was treated like an elder media statesman, with a front-page profile in the New York Times Arts section and a Christie's auction of his personal memorabilia. A coffee-table book of porn star portraits published in the fall of 2004 featured essays by literary luminaries from Salman Rushdie to A. M. Homes and was accompanied by a documentary special on HBO. A wave of porn-infused fare is putting pornography on a par with family entertainment. Mainstream cable channels like HBO offer up series such as G-String Divas and Cathouse. A reality show hosted by porn star and California gubernatorial candidate Mary Carey, Can You Be a Porn Star?, launched on Time Warner's InDemand in 2004. On Bravo, a reality show called Private Stars features five men locked in a house with five porn actresses. The men are judged on sexual performance with the winner awarded a contract by a producer of pornographic films; the show crossed the Atlantic after a successful run in Europe and the U.K.3
Pornography is taking on Hollywood, too. In Regency Pictures' 2004 film The Girl Next Door, a love story unfolds between a teenage boy and his porn star neighbor played by Elisha Cuthbert, who played a teenager herself on the hit Fox TV series 24. The film celebrates pornography--its producers, its fans, and its very existence--even as it portrays its starlet as eager to escape the shame and degradation of the industry. Stars keep signing up for Hollywood's take on porn, keen to replicate the indie cool of the 1997 film Boogie Nights. Jeff Bridges recently joined an ensemble cast for the indie comedy Moguls, about a small town banding together to make a porn film--an update of The Full Monty? As Brian Grazer, whose 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat looks at the first pornographic film to move into the mainstream, explains, "We're experiencing in a much grander fashion porno chic. I think it's now entering the mainstream in a much more pervasive way than the fad surrounding Deep Throat. If you're going to spend the time or money to make a movie and you want it to be sexually charged, you're forced to go further because we've become somewhat sexually desensitized. Every poster and television ad, you get on the Internet and it's clogged on pornography. I think if a filmmaker wants to have impact or shock you--and that's what movies have to do--you have to find original images that shock."4
Meanwhile, pornographers have crossed over into the mainstream media. Hugh Hefner recently appeared in commercials for fast-food chain Carl's Jr. Jenna Jameson, the porn star who reportedly earned more than a million dollars in 2002, wrote a bestselling book entitled How to Make Love Like a Porn Star with former New York Times reporter Neil Strauss. In addition to her own Web site, Jameson makes regular TV appearances and writhes in music videos, and has appeared in Hollywood films such as Analyze That and--surprise, surprise--Private Parts, a Howard Stern vehicle. Ron Jeremy, the star of more than 1,800 X-rated films, has become a recognizable brand outside the X-rated film aisle. He starred in the WB reality show The Surreal Life and in his own documentary film, Porn Star--The Legend of Ron Jeremy, and has cameoed in mainstream films such as The Rules of Attraction, Detroit Rock City, and Killing Zoe. These days, Jeremy tours shopping malls and makes regular appearances on the university lecture circuit, where he is typically met by thousands of adoring fans, many of them teenagers charmed by his retro-cool "Starsky and Hutch" style. He also shows up at wet T-shirt contests, rock concerts, and other live and televised entertainment events. Kids love him. In May 2004, the ex-porn star was treated to a VIP pass at Disney World in Orlando, where he was mobbed by "clean-cut dads and moms and their kids [who] took turns snapping pictures with him all day," according to local reports.5
While pornography has seeped into mainstream culture, the images that remain confined to the porn world have become increasingly intense. Old school defenders of pornography may not be familiar with the direction in which Internet and DVD-era pornography has gone. They might not understand the infinite possibilities offered by online pornography and the intoxicating effects of the anonymity, accessibility, and affordability of the Internet. They have most likely not watched recent hardcore videos, such as Gag Factor 15, the latest in a popular series of pornographic movies in which the action takes place in a room full of men in head scarves and masks holding photos of torture from Abu Ghraib. They probably haven't heard the sound track of such a film, in which one man screams nonsensically in what is supposed to be Arabic while another translates, "We will do to your women what you have done to our men--you degraded our people, now we'll degrade yours. The streets will spill over with spit!" They probably have not continued to watch as the film shows the men standing over a woman dressed in military clothes and dog tags shouting, "I was only following orders!" Or seen the penultimate move where one of the "Arab" men brandishes a sword and threatens to slice off the girl's head before the film's true climax, multiple oral sex scenes in which the girl is shown to choke on genitalia and semen.6
Pornography itself has changed radically over the last twenty years, but outdated ideas about pornography have gone unchallenged and so-called eternal truths have been perpetuated without protest. Back in the seventies and eighties, pornography was a topic of much discussion. Both men and women debated its merits and harms, its legality and morality, its inevitability and its outcomes, but by the late nineties, the debate quieted down. In Christian corners and enclaves of the social Right, outcry occasionally emerges and is ignored by the mainstream as so many Puritans in search of the next Salem. Elsewhere, when talking about pornography today, one hears complacencies and certainties such as:
• "Porn is harmless; it's just looking at pictures. What's wrong with fantasy?"
• "If we women want to be naked and be proud of our bodies, what's the problem? We're in control, and it's our choice."
• "All men look at porn. It's human nature--men are biologically programmed to be visually stimulated."
• "If you believe in civil liberties and freedom of the press, you've got to be in favor of porn."
• "Women are objectified everywhere--advertisements, movies, fashion magazines. Pornography is no different--and there's nothing that can be done about it anyway."
• "Only scumbags use pornography. Who cares what a bunch of lowlifes do?"
We hear these arguments all the time. We hear them from men who do not view pornography themselves and from women who would be appalled to find out their boyfriends watch pay-per-view porn in hotels while traveling on business. We hear them from parents who would shudder to know their ten-year-old sons are clicking on Internet porn when they're allegedly doing homework.
Americans are nonetheless confident they already know everything there is to know about pornography. After all, pornography has been around in one form or another for as long as "the oldest profession" has been in working order. Men have always looked at pictures of naked ladies. Women have in turn often tried to sneak a peek at naked men (albeit somewhat more of a challenge). And couples have looked at other naked couples doing things they may or may not have wanted to do--or wondered what they were missing if they didn't.
It's difficult, therefore, to approach a subject like pornography from a fresh perspective. Both men and women have so many preconceptions: a person is either for pornography or against it, a prude or a player, a religious fanatic or a radical feminist, Larry Flynt or Andrea Dworkin. There is no middle ground on the playing field of consumers and abstainers, civil libertarians and Comstockian curmudgeons. Yet framing the debate in terms of distorted polarities ignores the vast middle ground where pornography plays a significant and growing role. One need not be a prude or a religious zealot to experience revulsion at the sight of certain pornography, just as one need not be a depraved pervert or a lefty activist to use pornography.
The fact is, none of the current assumptions reflect how pornography really affects people and their relationships--and to continue to abide by them would mean ignoring an issue that is transforming most Americans' lives. Instead of relying on political posturing and abstract arguments, I have sought answers to some simple questions: Who uses pornography and why? What do men see in it? Are more women indulging? How does pornography affect people? Will looking at online pornography at age nine affect boys and girls when they reach sexual maturity? What is the impact of a pornified culture on relationships and on society as a whole?
Countless other books have treated the supply side--the subject of pornography itself: the images and the industry, the players and the played with, the production values and profitability. This book will leave that subject alone. Only when it is relevant will I dwell on the particulars of pornography itself. Instead, this book discusses the demand--who uses pornography and how--and why it matters even to those who do not use pornography. This story is about how pornography's growth, ubiquity, and acceptance are affecting American society, told through the words and lives of the people who know it best: pornography consumers. To find out the private stories that people suspect but never hear, experience but never talk about, I interviewed more than a hundred people (approximately 80 percent male) about the role pornography plays in their lives. Perhaps surprisingly, men were quite willing to open up about a subject they rarely get to discuss seriously and at length. Both men and women were often relieved to have the opportunity to explore issues that are usually swept under the bedsheets.
While the scope of such qualitative research can never claim to be fully representative of all Americans, the people interviewed were expressly chosen to provide a broad spectrum. They ranged in age from twenty-one to fifty-nine; most were in their twenties and thirties. They were heterosexual (a whole other book could be written about gay pornography, an opportunity I leave to others). The men and women interviewed were otherwise diverse--ethnically, geographically, socioeconomically. They were from a variety of backgrounds and religions, educations, and occupations. No "profile" of the pornography user emerged because pornography cuts across all swathes of society.
In addition, I commissioned the first nationally representative poll of Americans to deal primarily with pornography. Unlike other polls referred to in this book, many of which were online surveys, this poll actually reflects what the spectrum of Americans think; the poll is weighted demographically and geographically to represent the actual ethnic, age, and socioeconomic composition of America. It's the first poll to ask many important questions, such as: Does pornography improve the sex lives of those who look at it? Is using pornography cheating? Do you believe all men look at pornography? How does pornography affect the children who view it? This poll, conducted by Harris Interactive, will be referred to throughout the book as the Pornified/Harris poll.
My point is not to outline a comprehensive overview of pornography users in America but to use individual stories to illustrate key themes and trends, and back them up with solid quantitative data. The comments of one interviewee were often repeated by multiple interviewees, but rather than reiterate exhaustively what I heard, I chose to highlight prevalent themes through a sampling of individual stories that were typical or representative. Few subjects are more private than sexuality, and pornography in particular is a sensitive topic. For this reason all of my interviewees have been given pseudonyms and any identifying characteristics have been obscured in the pages that follow; their words are rendered just as they spoke them.
I will show, through real-life experiences and evidence, how and why all of us--men and women, users and nonusers, advocates and foes--must rethink the way we approach pornography. The pornification of American culture is not only reshaping entertainment, advertising, fashion, and popular culture, but it is fundamentally changing the lives of more Americans, in more ways, than ever before. We are living in a pornified culture and we have no idea what this means for ourselves, our relationships, and our society.
Copyright © 2005 by Pamela Paul Pamela Paul is a contributor to Time magazine and the author of The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. Formerly a senior editor at American Demographics, she writes for such publications as Psychology Today, Self, Marie Claire, Ladies’ Home Journal, The Economist, and The New York Times Book Review. She lives in New York.