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Porn in the USA

Examining Our National Addiction

by John Coleman

Smiling over a John Belushi-like paunch and through a thick mustache, Ron Jeremy looks more like a Super Mario Brother than the world’s biggest porn star. His mane of black hair billows back from a squat face and dark, tweaked eyes that leave you with the impression that he has just cracked the punch line to a very dirty joke. At 5 feet, 7 inches, and a hedgehog-like 200 pounds, Jeremy wears his shirts open and sports thick gold chains nestled in a dark pelt of chest hair. He is hardly the aesthetic ideal of a sexual icon, but at 53 Ron Jeremy is porn.

Back in the 1970s, Jeremy was just a regular guy. A special education teacher with a master’s degree from Queens College, his stage career started rather innocuously in the Catskills where he tried his hand at stand-up comedy. But when a girlfriend sent his picture to Playgirl magazine in 1978, Ron Jeremy (formerly Ron Hyatt) shifted gears. Moving to film, Jeremy went on to act in more than 1,600 pornographic movies. Transcending the genre, he soon began to play himself (the comically repugnant male porn superhero) in music videos and mainstream television shows. As pornography—once the quiet stuff of R-rated magazines—ascended to its place as a more than $12 billion US industry, Ron Jeremy rose with it; and the result is a mainstream cultural icon who’s both the spokesman for our hyper-sexualized society and the proof of its bloated, dark underbelly.

So how did we get here? Only 40 years ago Elvis Presley made rock history with a few well-placed pelvic thrusts, and Marilyn Monroe shocked our sexual sensibilities with modest bathing suits and demure glances. Now Carmen Electra’s stripper workouts are a staple of household aerobics, and 12 percent of the worldwide web is devoted to pornographic sites. Pornography is in our living rooms, on our computers and television screens, and buried deep in the experiences of our spouses, children, and siblings. And, by all accounts, it’s here to stay.

Recent History

Pornography is nothing new—it’s just never been as pervasive or readily available as it is now. Derived from two Greek words, porne and graphein, pornography’s component parts mean, literally, to “write about prostitutes.” In ancient civilizations this drive to represent sex and sexuality bled into an affinity for nude sculpture, painting, and the theatrical representation of sexual acts. In modern Europe, it took a more literary bent. UKTV’s Pornography: A Secret History of Civilisation traces the origins of European pornographic writing on a line that stretches from Pietro Aretino’s 1535 dialogue School of _Whoredom to the eighteenth-century works of the remarkably violent Marquis de Sade; but pornography has always been limited by technology’s ability to simulate true sexuality. Wood carvings and erotic novels are poor substitutes for real sex, and it wasn’t until the twentieth century that technology caught up with human desire.

From dirty theaters to Masonic lodges, soft-core pornographic movies were an integral part of the motion-picture movement that brought silent films to the Western world, and photography put the likenesses of naked ladies (and, one might assume, naked men) on everything from playing cards to matchbooks. For decades, this was an undercover enterprise, but in 1953 Hugh Hefner launched Playboy magazine with the inimitable Marilyn Monroe as its primary attraction, and—almost immediately—American pornography was a mainstream phenomenon. By 1972 Playboy was reaching one quarter of all college-age men, and a plethora of harder and softer knockoffs—from Hustler to Maxim—followed. Porn stars like Ron Jeremy and John Holmes became household names, and centerfolds like Pamela Anderson became reputable national celebrities. By 1986 two different presidents had set up special commissions to investigate the social ramifications of pornography; and if all this hoopla convinced everyday Americans that they had seen and heard it all, no one was ready for the rise of the internet. VHS technology had taken porno movies out of shady theaters and into the bedrooms of lonely bachelors and adventurous couples, but the internet, perhaps the greatest democratizing force in history, put ever more explicit pornography at every computer user’s fingertips, and the result was revolution.

As a nation, we are addicted to porn. According to a 2004 web traffic report published in World Watch, there are 23 to 60 million unique visitors to pornography websites every day. Fifty-one percent of all videos shared on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks are pornographic in nature, and 73 percent of all image searches on the popular P2P engine Kazaa are for pornography—24 percent for child pornography. In 1998 there were about 14 million pornographic web pages online. By July 2003 that number was 260 million, and by the end of 2004 there were 420 million. Fully 70 percent of in-room movie revenues at hotels come from the viewing of pornographic films, as do 25 to 30 percent of all Pay-Per-View revenues. In Western Europe, cell phone pornography (yes, cell phone pornography) is a $1.5 billion industry. By the time you read these statistics, pornography’s exponential growth will have rendered them outdated; and if you think all of this consumption is harmless or the obsessive work of a small pocket of individuals, think again.

Pornography consumers are your parents, professors, husbands, pastors, colleagues, children, and friends; and some modern pornographic offerings make Hustler layouts look like Norman Rockwell spreads in The Saturday Evening Post. Jerry Ropelato of Top Ten Reviews notes that 40 million US adults regularly view pornographic websites. Twenty percent of men admit to viewing pornographic materials at work, 53 percent of Promise Keepers (members of the prominent Christian men’s organization) view online pornography on a weekly basis, and 37 percent of Christian pastors identify pornography as a current struggle. Far from being immune, women account for as much as one-third of all pornographic consumption; and children are some of the heaviest users online. The average child is 11 years old at the time of his or her first exposure. Twenty percent of all children have been sexually solicited on the web; more than 90 percent of 8 to 16-year-olds have viewed pornography online, and 80 percent of 15 to 17-year-olds have had multiple exposures to hardcore pornography.

Not sure what “hardcore” means? In the 1970s it may have indicated the full-frontal nudity of Hustler magazine. Now it often means gang rape, multiple penetration, violence, child pornography, group sex, Bukkake, and bestiality. As of December 2005, child pornography was estimated to be a $3 billion industry; and users lured in by traditional pornography often progress quickly to these ever more intense forms. The very definition of pornography adopted by the US Supreme Court in 1966 declares pornography to be material that “appeals to a prurient interest,” implying what Professor T. Walter Herbert has called “an itch that gets worse when it is scratched.” And in many ways, it is addictive. As one hardcore pornography user put it, “Once you become addicted to it . . . you look for more potent, more explicit, more graphic kinds of material. Like an addiction, you keep craving something which is harder and gives you a greater sense of excitement, until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far.”

Of course, that quote came in 1989 from a man who would not see the never-ending fetishism of the internet and so couldn’t even imagine the mind-blowing range of offerings that would someday be available at the click of a mouse. It was his last message to the public. His name was Ted Bundy.

The Problem of Porn

It’s not hard to see why porn is popular. Sex is fun but hard for some people to get, and it’s tangled up with all sorts of real-world complications, like emotional attachment, lengthy dating rituals, love, sexually transmitted disease, performance problems, regret, and Marvin Gaye music. Porn eliminates the middleman and connects a consumer directly to his or her deepest fantasies without the possibility of failure or rejection and with seemingly little real-world impact. But porn consumption isn’t as devoid of consequences as it seems. It doesn’t just satiate our sexual appetites in a safe and efficient way. It expands those appetites and brings with it a different basket of problems—dangerous because they are subtle.

Some of porn’s problems are straightforward. Child pornography is bad because it depicts children in sex acts—something the U.S., thankfully, has criminalized. Some porn depicts violence worthy of prosecution, or constitutes “peeping” that violates the privacy of unwitting citizens. But other problems are less obvious, and the opposition to pornography falls into at least three camps: the practical opponents of pornography, feminists, and the religious faithful.

The practical opponents point out that apart from ideological or moral objections, pornography carries with it a number of real-world consequences. In her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in November 2005, scholar Jill C. Manning, the Social Sciences Fellow in Domestic Policy at the Heritage Foundation, focused on pornography’s impact on marriage and the family. In an exhaustive literature review, Manning identified a number of demonstrable problems with pornographic consumption, including increased risk of separation or divorce, decreased marital intimacy and sexual satisfaction, increased infidelity, and increased compulsive or risky sexual behavior.

Children suffer from decreased attention as their parents withdraw, and they endure the hardships of an increased risk of parental divorce or job loss. Children exposed to porn are more likely to engage in sexual intercourse at an earlier age, develop addictive or compulsive sexual behaviors, devalue marriage and monogamy, and overestimate the prevalence of such sexual behaviors as group sex, bestiality, and sadomasochism. Manning testified that all the literature led her to believe that pornography was hamstringing our ability to relate to one another in the family context, as well as crippling the mindsets and behaviors of future generations.

Author Pamela Paul took this a step further in her 2005 book Pornified, where she noted that statistical and anecdotal evidence shows that pornography is destroying our very ability to relate to one another and ourselves. Through extensive statistical research and hundreds of interviews, she found that regular viewers of porn were less happy in relationships, more likely to suffer from problems with impotence, more likely to engage in risky or illegal sexual activity, and more unhappy with their partners or themselves. She found women devastated by their husbands’ and boyfriends’ addictions. She found men whose otherwise normal sexual appetites progressed to violent and criminal behavior after being numbed by “fantasies” on the net. The men she interviewed wasted hours online at work and at home cruising the net for porn, often letting their dating prospects, professional opportunities, and self-images wither and die in the process. And everywhere she found a culture of “pornification”—behaviors being normalized that, 20 years ago, would have seemed nearly criminal: young girls sexualizing themselves to impress younger and younger men obsessed with the porn-star persona; people who preferred pornographic fantasy to sexual reality; and a disconnect of sexuality from intimacy. As one of Paul’s interviewees put it, “[porn] takes a three-dimensional human being with feelings—someone who could be your daughter, sister, or mother—and basically says, this is a creature that is only intended to satisfy your sexual desires. It becomes your natural way of thinking. . . . You’re no longer conscious you’re even doing it. It just happens.”

Unsurprisingly, some feminists oppose porn because it is “speech” that, as Professor Catherine Mackinnon puts it, both subordinates and silences women. It is “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women, whether in pictures or in words.” And as such, it is seen as an inherent tool of the patriarchy—one that leads to further objectification, subjugation, and degradation. Other feminists disagree with this proposition, viewing pornography as a likely contributor to the sexual revolution, which they claim has furthered the liberation of women from male domination; but most of them would also concede that certain forms of pornography (rape, humiliation, violence against women) are misogynist and all-around bad. Pornography often relies on the degradation of women—whether presenting them with un_realistic, airbrushed standards as Playboy does, or through violent subjugation as seen on various rape-porn sites—and such degradation can be emotionally damaging to women and serve as an encouragement to men who are prone to realizing such debased fantasies.

Finally, religious opposition complements these criticisms and takes them a step further. Such opposition is likewise diverse (encompassing all three monotheistic religions and a smattering of others), though it is stated somewhat succinctly and universally in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.

To Catholics, pornography is a sin because it strips sex of its intimacy. Whereas feminism claims that pornography degrades the dignity of women, religion—Christianity, specifically—claims that it violates the dignity of all parties and perverts a sacred and intimate act into something detached, objectified, and spirit-less. At the most superficial level, this objection is rooted in a religious code; God is generally not a fan of lust or extramarital sex. But looking deeper, we can see that it is also rooted in the human heart. We human beings simply aren’t meant to detach this physical activity from emotional or spiritual intimacy. We struggle when we objectify and commodify others because we end up degrading and objectifying ourselves. We are tempted by the idea of sexual pleasure without strings, but to thrive in a fully human way, we need something deeper. We need connection. We need meaning. We need emotion—long and tearful nights working out problems, fights over improperly squeezed toothpaste, the joy of childbirth, the embarrassment of bad hair days, and so on. We need more than fantasy. We need relationships. We need reality. We need intimacy.

Two Paths

And that’s where we stand. Today, we are not just a society addicted to pornography; we are a society addicted to the “pornification,” the sexualization, and the commodification of just about everything. But we have a choice.

What if Ron Hyatt (Jeremy) had chosen a different path in 1978? In this alternate universe, Hyatt would have remained a special education teacher, and his girlfriend would have kept those pictures. As an occasional stand-up comic, Ron probably wouldn’t have had sex with so many beautiful women. He wouldn’t have movie credits. He wouldn’t have so much money. And in a lot of ways, his life would be more difficult. Special education kids are some of the most vulnerable in society. They need love. They need attention. They need encouragement. But in spending time with those kids, Hyatt would have changed their lives—taught them that human worth is not based on the intellectual or the physical but on something deeper and stronger—and he might have learned something in the process about vulnerability, dependency, intimacy, and himself.

Right now, a lot of us face a similar choice. Pornography—the very culture of “pornification”—is tempting. It is easy. It seems costless. It lets us indulge our fantasies—even our darkest fantasies. But it doesn’t help us reach people. It doesn’t cure our loneliness or emptiness. It only bandages those things, while the love that might otherwise fill our lives quietly drains away from disuse. And it would be easy to sell out to a culture that tells us everything is material, everything is theatrical, and everything is superficial. But selling out would be selling ourselves short on the biggest thing a “pornified” culture can’t offer: the other path, a human connection—intimacy. 

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