[29 October 2008]
I realize that this may be something that I lack the proper perspective on, not having even been alive during most of the decade in question, but it occurs to me that the key factor distinguishing the sexual revolution of the 1970s from the post-AIDS concept of freewheeling sexual liberation that we seem to currently be enjoying is innocence.
As Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato observed in their 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, a fraction of the initial gasping fascination with the triple-X breakthrough film Deep Throat was undoubtedly rooted in the fact that, as late as the film’s 1972 release, there still existed a number of American adults who did not know what oral sex was.
Suddenly, what remained a taboo act in much of the country (many states still classified oral sex under their sodomy laws) was now a punch line on The Tonight Show, not to mention the soon-to-be code name for the definitive political scandal of the era.
Of course, pornography existed well before Deep Throat’s Trojan horse stormed the gates of the mainstream, but the 1970s earned its reputation as the Golden Age of Porn by admitting it into the popular conversation for the first time, offering it not only a larger audience but also serious academic consideration and artistic legitimacy (film critic Trevor Steele-Taylor even included Deep Throat on his list for the 2002 Sight & Sound poll of the best films of all time).
More immediately, though, it began a wave of “porn chic,” sultry hardcore as the new fashion statement of the freshly liberated, a movement now recognized as being as much a part of the bizarre fabric of the decade as such other artifacts of excess as disco, cocaine, and bell bottoms.
Awash as it may be in kitsch memorabilia and day-glo sunniness, at the heart of our collective nostalgia for the 1970s is not a longing to return to any kind of prelapsarian sexual innocence, but rather a desire to experience the excitement of feeling that innocence shattered anew.
Fast forward 30-some years and find that the very qualities, the behavior and attitudes that we associate with pornography have only become more omnipresent in American culture in the years since porn’s heyday. Replacing the naughty liberation of sexual innocence at its terminus, however, is a newfound cynicism, an overwhelming jadedness about sexuality that suggests that while porn itself may or may not have changed, we certainly have.
Whether it is all a product of the fallout from the AIDS crisis, the easy accessibility of the internet that affords everyone the opportunity to be a porn consumer (or star), an overall loosening of sexual morality or a mass pendulum-swinging reaction against the recent rise of religious Puritanism in the political sphere, porn has by now evolved so thoroughly out from the underground that its presence in the mainstream can no longer even be called a mere presence. Porn is the mainstream.
Carmine Sarracino and Kevin M. Scott’s fascinating The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go From Here traces this development from earlier in the 20th Century on through porn’s coming out party in the 1970s before arriving to study the present day, where porn has become, as the author’s posit at the outset, “the dominant influence shaping our culture”. This comes off at first as a bold and possibly even paranoid overstatement, but as Sarracino and Scott go on to demonstrate throughout, porn is no longer limited to triple-X hardcore but rather has come to describe an overriding aesthetic, one that currently infuses everything from advertising (“Would You Like Porn With That Burger?” asks one chapter title) to pop music to children’s toys and clothing.
Their thesis—that where porn once sought to ingratiate itself into the mainstream, the mainstream now imitates porn—finds legitimacy by focusing less on actual pornography than on the variety of cultural institutions that have come resemble the attitudes and fashions of porn.
Neither a finger-waving anti-porn diatribe (Sarracino and Scott are resolutely pro-sexual expression, if not quite explicitly pro-porn) nor an all-encompassing tirade in favor of limitless freedom of expression (they openly admit the destructive potential of some pornography, though are appropriately ambivalent on how to deal with it), The Porning of America instead seeks to understand how we got here and to survey the implications of what it means to live in a society where the attributes of pornography have been rendered so commonplace.
Approaching the material with a particularly clearheaded sociological gaze, the authors map out the ways in which porn’s rise and eventual cultural dominance serves as a microcosm for our sexual liberation, while at the same time indulging in and making literal what are frequently our most shameful desires.
Even then, Sarracino and Scott are not out to condemn us for occasionally wading in the darker aspects of our sexuality, but rather mean to suggest that a fully “porned” culture is one that will inevitably lead into some dangerous territory. Most disturbing, perhaps, is when it is manifested into products aimed at children: Abercrombie & Fitch’s line of thongs for kids, each decorated with comely slogans (“WINK WINK”, “EYE CANDY”), or the popular Bratz dolls, glammy youngsters who much more closely resemble Traci Lords than Strawberry Shortcake. The implication here is not so much that porn culture is directly seeking to corrupt children but rather that a culture that takes its cue from pornography will eventually fail to make any such discrimination.
The elephant in the room, however, always remains the “blockbuster question,” as the authors call it, of whether porn causes violence towards women. Results are typically inconclusive, if reassuringly so (“pornography will not transform a psychologically healthy man into a sexual abuser [but] porn does play a disturbing, if uncertain, role in the lives of men predisposed toward sexual violence”) but it is mainly the concern over this issue that drives the debate throughout the entire charting of pornography’s history.
Sarracino and Scott draw this connection early on in their study, pointing out how, in the days when actual hardcore was still out of the public’s eye, the collision between sexuality and violent misogyny was on full display on America’s newsstands. Covers of comic books and men’s magazines from the immediate post-WWII era frequently displayed animations of scantily clad and visibly frightened women in immediate peril, usually from hulking Nazi villains or phallic-shaped monsters.
These images of women in need of rescue (the male heroes were often, tellingly, either marginalized on these covers, or out of the picture entirely) bristled uncomfortably against the new image of the self-sufficient working woman, the iconic Rosie The Riveter, immediately establishing a correlation between the rise in women’s liberation movements and the increase of pornography that subjects women to violence and humiliation.
The parallels make all too much sense: if pornography, after all, serves as a reflection of our sexual liberation, it is also a mirror held up to the fear and resentment of those whose spot at the top of the sexual food chain is threatened as a result.
Nevertheless, it is quite a jump from a time when pornography only existed in the mainstream in such (however unsubtly) coded form to our current one, which sees everyone getting in on the action. A quick survey of such trends as the collegiate amateur porn circuit—university students participating in or even producing their own pornographic movies and magazines on campus to very little public or administrative outcry—and the onslaught of amateur porn websites (most of which are modeled off of YouTube—see YouPorn, PrivatePornMovies, etc) suggests that the natural outcome of a nation weaned on porn is a nation of wannabe porn stars.
One chapter, entitled “Porn Exemplars”, sheds further light on how this came to be by spotlighting six notable personalities who typify, in various ways, a culture steeped in porn: Russ Meyer, Al Goldstein (basically standing in as a composite of himself and the far more well documented Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt), Madonna, Snoop Dogg, Jenna Jameson, and Paris Hilton. Note that of these six, only half of them—Goldstein, Snoop (remembering his foray into the adult video market) and Jameson—can technically be called pornographers (Meyer, though deemed “The King of the Sex Film” by biographer Jimmy McDonough, loathed hardcore and made primarily single-X “skin flicks”).
What is much more important than what these people actually do is how they present themselves as icons of various sexual types, from the pimp (Snoop) to the dominatrix (Madonna) to the coquettish party girl (Hilton). The inclusion of Jameson is particularly revealing; the only actual porn star on the list, her Madonna-like control over her own career and business empire is a long way from Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace’s claims that she was coerced and threatened into a career in pornography.
For whatever it may imply, the success of Jenna Jameson and her power within the industry serves to strip away the “I was young and needed the money” stigma from performing in porn, rendering it a nearly respectable career choice in the 21st Century.
But the further that The Porning of America delves into the carnal playground of 21st Century America, the more it is revealed that for as much as porn may occasionally serve as an expression of sexual, even political liberation for certain minorities (women, in some instances, and homosexuals), the mainstreaming of porn also has the unfortunate side-effect of pushing its seediest elements to the forefront right along with it.
This where the relationship between pornography and violence against women warrants the most exploration (the authors supply a handy mini-history of the anti-porn feminist movement as it falls in and out of fashion), but the various forms of today’s violent pornography are not limited to women. This becomes most culturally visible, at least, in the success of the “torture porn” genre, a critical term aimed at the recent glut of mainstream horror films like the Saw and Hostel franchises, which largely eschew the traditional jumps and scares of horror for a terror based around a nearly clinical fixation with showing pain being inflicted on the bodies of victims of varying genders, races, and age groups.
The most concentrated study of this issue in the book, a chapter entitled “The Nexus of Porn and Violence”, finds disturbing traces of this movement in one of our decade’s most prominent news scandals, the revelation of prisoner abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib. Far from wishing to join in on the alarmist fray that found porn once again inevitably thrust under the microscope following the story’s break, Sarracino and Scott rather wish to illustrate how the manner in which the detainees were abused (the chapter includes a thorough list of the variety of sexual humiliations inflicted upon prisoners) could so easily emerge from the imaginations of soldiers spending many bored hours looking at pornography on the job. Once again, pornography does not cause the abuse, but in this case, it all too clearly mirrors it.
As The Porning of America ventures deeper and deeper into the murky waters of violent pornography, it threatens, at times, to become all too easily read as an anti-porn tract. Descriptions of such online phenomena as Pinkeye or ATM, which I will not replicate here, are certainly disconcerting (one assumes that the book went to press before the “Two Girls, One Cup” phenomenon broke), as is the growing emphasis on humiliation and brutality both in porn and on popular culture’s reflective surface (a brief aside on the emergence of these qualities in the realm of politics and punditry is particularly worth minding).
In the end, though, these more worrisome aspects of Sarracino and Scott’s study serve as the detritus of living in a society where freedom of expression is accepted with all of its ugliness intact. For this suggestion alone, not to mention the wit, depth, and sheer readability of Sarracino and Scott’s prose, The Porning of America comes pretty close to being the definitive word on the matter.