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The Pornographic Revolution

By Ross G. Douthat

America is still a youthful nation at heart, a fact reflected in the welter of youth-worship that invariably accompanies the election season. Everything, the various candidates relentlessly insist, is to be done in the name of "our young people" and "our children." And these days, post-Columbine and Eminem, the popular culture seems to have become the principle "enemy-of-the-children," with everyone from Lynne Cheney to our would-be moralist-in-chief, Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, inveighing against the filth and obscenity peddled to America under the cloak of "free speech" and "artistic expression." This rhetoric, self-serving though it may be, is at least a sign that America still possesses the capacity for outrage. And outrage is an appropriate response to the brutal misogyny of Slim Shady--or the John Rocker-esque "songs" off Sixers star Allen Iverson's rap debut--or the excesses of slasher flicks and shoot-em-ups. But it is also an easy response. It is easy to demonize the purveyors of smut and violence when they target children--easy to muster outrage at the image of six-year-olds attending test screenings of the latest Schwarzenegger offering. And it allows us to turn our minds from matters that no one wants to discuss, matters in which we are all complicit.

Matters like the absolute and total triumph of pornography in American life.

When it comes to the corruption of our pop culture, everyone talks about Eminem and Li'l Kim and Limp Bizkit. Nobody talks about the fact that every year, according to The New York Times, Americans spend $4 billion buying or renting pornographic videos. Or the fact that the 8.7 million subscribers to DirecTV buy nearly $200 million in pay-per-view adult entertainment, while one in five of AT&T 's broadband cable customers plop down 10 bucks a film to watch "real, live all-American sex--not simulated by actors." Or the fact that almost half of all hotel rooms across the country come equipped with little black boxes that enable business travelers to relax with a helping of hard-core copulation.

Everyone talks about the role of record labels like Time Warner in pumping out vile and violent music albums. Nobody talks about the fact that corporate America is heavily invested in the porn business--"the crazy aunt in the attic," as one AT&T mogul called it. Forget Larry Flynt or the low-rent types from Boogie Nights. When Americans turn on pornography, chances are their money is flowing into the pockets of mainstream companies like Time Warner, GM, AT&T, Marriott International, Hilton and countless others.

Everyone talks about how the boys in Columbine learned to make bombs on the Internet and whiled away their unhappy hours on neo-Nazi websites. Nobody talks about the fact that the Web's most profitable sites are not Yahoo!, Amazon or Priceline, but sites that peddle what, in a more innocent time, used to be called "dirty pictures." Or the fact that sex websites generate a billion dollars in revenue every year, thanks to the 20 million (and climbing) Americans who frequent them.

No one talks about these things, in part, because we assume that pornography has always been with us--from the cave paintings of Lascaux through the priapic statues of Greece and Rome and the fevered scribblings of the Marquis de Sade. But what we are witnessing, in the age of the VCR and the Internet, in nothing less than a revolution in smut. Pornography 30 years ago was a $10 million industry, a seamy demi-monde of adult theaters and run-down bookstores. For most people, porn meant Playboy, pin-up girls and maybe a deck of dirty playing cards for stag parties. Nothing else was available.

Today, everything is available, to everyone, at any time. Every deviant desire, dark fantasy and sordid dream can be realized, at a reasonable price. Forget "normalizing homosexuality"--something the Right has been worrying over since the advent of gay liberation. Today, the Internet and DirecTV are normalizing everything, from group sex to bestiality to darker things that decency forbids mentioning. And as for pedophilia--why, any erotic website worth its salt promises links to images of the "barely legal," "young teen sluts," and all the rest. Today, Nabokov's Humbert would need not be a tragic figure; instead, he could have spent his years ensconced in front of a glowing computer screen, with a thousand Lolitas for his delectation.

As for the pornography that is not "deviant" or "perverse," the stuff that supposedly caters to normal, red-blooded, all-American types looking for a little heterosexual stimulation--well, even there we have come a long way from the days of Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe. Playboy at least pretended to be high-class, offering "erotic art" to "gentlemen." Today's on-line stuff has none of those gauzy illusions. Gone is romance, gone is art, gone even are flattering camera angles. What we are left with is stripped-down sex, prostitution in all but name, with women captured in the most degrading positions possible, servicing their partners--and us--via .mpeg and streaming video.

Nobody talks about it. Nobody wants to. We are all complicit, and so we natter on about "privacy" and how looking at porn is "natural," and then we retreat to our private paradises where everything is normal, where no desire is questioned, no fetish forbidden. We go into the darkness, and the question that we should ask ourselves, as pornography takes up permanent residence in the basement of American life, is whether the darkness goes into us.

Ross G. Douthat '02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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