Pornified by Pamela Paul
Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families
by Pamela Paul
Times Books. 320 pp. $25.00
If size really matters, pornography now ranks as one of America’s most prominent industries. Estimated to rake in as much as $14 billion a year, it is the nation’s most lucrative spectator sport, outperforming professional baseball, basketball, and football combined. As befits its success, porn (as it is familiarly known) has moved from the red-light district to the boardroom. It has its own lawyers, lobbyists, marketers, accountants, analysts, and trade publications. Hotel chains depend on it, the movie business grows fat on it, the Internet teems with it, and the universities give it high-brow respectability, with student magazines like Harvard’s H-Bomb or Boston University’s Boink and a growing cadre of professors of “porn studies.”
In Pornified, the journalist Pamela Paul forgoes most of what usually passes for serious discussion of pornography—its history, its relation to the free-speech debate, its implications for right-thinking feminists. Instead, through interviews, mostly with youngish heterosexual men, and her own privately commissioned polling, she tries to describe something more concrete: how our “pornified” culture has affected the everyday lives of actual Americans.
Pornography is nothing new, as anyone knows who has had the pleasure of examining the walls of Pompeii. What has changed in the U.S., Paul observes, is that images once relegated to the back of the newsstand now have been deemed ready for prime time. Pornography has become “seamlessly integrated into popular culture,” suffusing not just cable TV (think of the antics of Samantha on Sex and the City) and fashion runways but such apple-pie institutions as the Super Bowl half-time show and the middlebrow bestseller list.
The mainstreaming of porn owes much to technology. In the early 1980’s, the arrival of VCR’s took the stag film out of the seedy “art theater” and placed it in front of the den recliner. By the middle of the decade, one in five videocassettes was “adult” material. But this was nothing compared with the 1990’s, when the Internet made pornography as accessible as the nearest computer. Now, in Paul’s telling, pornography is routine. Young men drive to work listening to the radio show of the raunchy Howard Stern, circulate spreadsheets to coworkers accompanied by pictures of the hardcore queen Jenna Jameson, and then go off for an evening of beer and lap dancing. Today’s American male need never spend a moment apart from his dirty pictures.
All this is revolutionary enough. But according to Paul, the spread of porn has also meant defining deviancy down—way down. In the boogie nights of the 1970’s and 80’s, oral and anal sex were considered cutting-edge; today’s aficionados consider such activities yawn-worthy. Pornography now involves sexual variations that make Hugh Hefner look maidenly—S&M, double penetration, “fisting,” and a range of scatological tricks. It is also increasingly violent and nonconsensual, venturing into torture, mutilation, bestiality, and the exploitation of children.
So why are men—and Paul argues that the audience is overwhelmingly male—so attracted to pornography? She offers several answers. The first is what experts call “exemplification theory”: that is, men (particularly in their teens) look to pornography for tips. A second, favored by porn fans themselves, is that “it’s only natural” from an evolutionary point of view for men to crave sexual novelty. As one of Paul’s twenty-five-year-old subjects explains, it is like picking a flavor of ice cream. “I’ll sit down at the computer and say, ‘Hmm, I feel like Asian girls tonight.’ ” Some also argue that pornography gives feminized modern men a chance to exercise their inner Neanderthal. Still another theory has it that pornography offers men complication-free sex—no rejection, no demands, and no dissatisfied partners.
Whatever pornography’s allure, many people believe that it is simple fantasy, offering much pleasure and threatening no harm. Paul disagrees. Pornography, she argues, distorts expectations, leading men to imagine “endless variety” and perfect female bodies as the Way Things Are Supposed To Be. It also encourages men to objectify their wives and girlfriends. “The women in pornography exist in order to please men,” Paul writes, “and are therefore willing to do anything.” Finally, pornography desensitizes. As a thirty-one-year-old Texas surgeon tells her, “There are times when I’ve been so utterly bored while having sex with a woman, I’ll think of porn to hasten things along.”
As for women, some proudly embrace pornography as a way to claim “ownership” of their sexuality or as the “next stage of female liberation,” but most find the whole business a turn-off. They complain of male partners who do not understand foreplay and who are keen on “porn moves” that come off as forced and artificial. Many see an interest in pornography as akin to cheating. They feel hurt by the hours their men spend with younger or more perfectly endowed women, even if the women are digitalized. As Paul sees it, porn simply poisons relationships.
Children, too, are citizens of pornified America. Every sort of product, from snowboards to underwear to computer games, is marketed to them with increasingly explicit sexual images and innuendo. As for Internet porn, determined teenagers have the freedom and know-how to gain easy access. On a recent tour for her best-selling memoir, even the supremely jaded Jenna Jameson was taken aback when thirteen-year-old girls came up to her to declare that she was their role model.
Instead of recognizing these dangers, Paul laments, Americans try to play it cool. “Supporting pornography,” she writes, has become the “default” position not just of liberals and civil-libertarians but of Main Street too. The ACLU and the industry itself have successfully packaged pornography as an issue of free speech and open-mindedness, and people feel obliged to stammer apologies before saying an unkind word about it. This, Paul concludes, is a ridiculous state of affairs. Though pornography need not be criminalized, it should be described for what it is—not “hip and fun” but “harmful, pathetic, and decidedly unsexy.”
The great virtue of Pamela Paul’s book is that it deals with pornography at the level of human experience, something all too rare in the conceptualizing galaxy of the usual commentators on the subject. While civil libertarians fret about censorship, feminists argue about whether “sex workers” are empowered businesswomen or victims of exploitation, and academics yammer on about porn’s “transgressive” value, back on earth, Paul reminds us, there are more pressing issues, like how it feels to discover that your young son has been using the computer not for homework but for access to bigtits.com.
As Paul shows, pornography does not so much liberate desire as help to shape it into soul-denying, obsessively narcissistic forms. Thanks to its influence, the sexually outré has become the norm for many Americans. Paul’s subjects frequently describe how pornography has taken up residence in their brains and reshaped their expectations. As one avid consumer tells her, “I find that I look more for women who have the attributes I see in porn. I want bigger breasts, blonder hair, curvier bodies.” A twenty-four-year-old woman reports that all of her boyfriends since college have asked to ejaculate in her face, a favorite pornographic trope.
Still, especially given its promise, Pornified disappoints. Paul’s argument is repetitive, and her prose dreary, a result in part of her over-reliance on polls and surveys. She might have saved herself the trouble. As she herself concedes, most of the mind-numbing numbers she transmits are unreliable. Too often, they are also implausible. At one point she cites a Christianity Today survey in which 40 percent of clergy supposedly confessed that they were patrons of Internet porn—a figure exceeding that for the general male population.
Paul is also too quick to assume a direct connection between exposure to pornography and corrupted behavior. In her scheme of things, men click on “Live Asian Sluts” and then expect to make their experience imitate it. But surely this oversimplifies things. The obsessive, three-hour-a-day user or the callow teen may indeed develop a distorted view of women and sex because of pornography, but is that necessarily the case for the occasional curious web surfer? Paul shows little interest in such distinctions.
Finally, Pornified fails to recognize that the mainstreaming of pornography is part of a larger cultural problem. To listen to Paul’s subjects is to find the exhausted echoes of a revolution that has pronounced just about any desire worthy of cultivation and divested sex of much of its larger human meaning. Pornography, we have been told for decades now, encourages people to break free of fussy bourgeois convention; it releases pent-up desires, expands imaginative possibilities. By now, the litany is as tiresome to hear as it must be to live with, especially if one happens to be a woman.
Indeed, among the saddest insights of Pornified is how defensive many women, particularly young women, still feel in the face of this liberationist creed. To please their pornified boyfriends, they suggest going to strip clubs together or arrange breast implants for themselves. Those who are ambivalent fear being thought of as prudes. “I wanted to be a cool girlfriend,” one thirty-four-year-old tells Paul, explaining why she made a habit of watching pornography with her boyfriend, only to have him eventually refuse to engage in sex with her unless a video was running at the same time.
To this sort of shame-faced thinking, as well as to the “whatever-turns-you-on” ethos to which it is a cowed reaction, Paul has a refreshing and utterly correct response. There is no shame, no hint of sexual hang-up, and certainly no threat to free speech in censuring a culture that makes women feel inadequate if they dislike revolting pictures or that turns sex toys into a fit subject for university seminars. Not so long ago, fighting such a culture would have been considered the very definition of normalcy.