Thursday, September 08, 2005


Eric Alterman posted the following text-lump on his Altercation site today:

Altercation Book Club

“The Liberal Argument Against Pornography” from PORNIFIED: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families, by Pamela Paul (published today).

It’s a very simple and very wrong political equation: If you’re liberal, you’ve got to be pro-porn. Being pro-pornography means you’re sex-positive, open-minded and progressive. You care about the First Amendment, women’s rights and sexual freedom. And you most certainly stand against the reactionary voices of the anti-porn movement – repressive, anti-civil libertarian, moralizing hypocrites, all of them.

Nonsense. More specifically, outdated and misguided nonsense.

The drawing of political battle lines over pornography dates back in large part to two conflicting federal reports designed to study and address the issue. In 1968, the United States President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography was charged with understanding the effects of pornography “upon the public and particularly minors and its relationship to crime and other anti-social behaviors.” After two years of research, the Commission issued a report that concluded, “In sum, empirical research designed to clarify the question has found no evidence to date that exposure to explicit sexual materials plays a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal behavior among youths or adults. The Commission cannot conclude that exposure to erotic materials is a factor in the causation of sex crime or sex delinquency.” [i] Sixteen years later, the Reagan administration commissioned what later came to be known as the Meese Report (for the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography), which came to the exact opposite conclusion: Pornography, the Meese Report explained, leads to sexual violence, rape, deviation and the destruction of families. Yet while the earlier report exonerating pornography was widely distributed and published by a commercial press, the Meese Report was difficult to track down, unpublished commercially and immediately distorted and vilified in a popular pro-pornography book published by Penthouse and distributed on newsstands everywhere.

As a result of these two contradictory reports, many Americans, especially liberals, came to the conclusion that the first report was accurate while the second was politically motivated hackwork, created to crack down on family values and promulgated by a man who was himself under investigation for corruption. Who was he to talk? While there may well be truth to the political motivation behind the second study, concluding that the results were inaccurate distorts the report’s findings. In truth, the second report contained valuable, nonpartisan data from reliable academicians and social scientists.

Regardless of the motivations behind and differing conclusions of each of these two major reports, it’s hard to argue with the fact that both reports are outdated. The first report was generated back when Playboy didn’t include full frontal nudity and before most hardcore magazines had even been launched. Penetration shots were rare. Hustler, for example, wasn’t created until four years after the first Commission issued its final report. Not only was the magazine world relatively tame at the time of the 1970 report, but both it and the Meese Report were drawn before cable television, the VCR and especially the Internet took pornography to a whole new level. Further, the 1970 report’s goals were narrow – trying to forge a link between pornography and sexual violence – without exploring the vast area of influence that stops short of violence. There was no effort to study or document other negative effects of pornography on men, women or children, an area that the Meese report took up to a greater, though still not complete, extent.

In the wake of the two reports and their distortion in the popular media, pornography became a politically progressive cause, a convenient tool in the culture wars. Pornographers successfully fomented a bogus fight between Victorian prudishness and modern sexual freedom that has been taken up by everyone from libertarians to Web-heads to feminists to liberal Democrats – and the battle lines haven’t budged for decades. Not surprisingly, given such politicization of the issue, one’s point of view on pornography often lines up with one’s political philosophy. While people identifying themselves as Republicans or Democrats show little difference in their opinions about pornography, those who self-identify as liberal are more likely to support pornography than those who consider themselves conservative. For example, liberals are more likely than conservatives to believe that pornography improves peoples’ sex lives and less likely to believe that pornography changes men’s expectations of how women should behave. In a new Harris poll, 54 percent of conservatives say pornography harms relationships between men and women and 39 percent see pornography as cheating, compared with 30 percent and 15 percent respectively of liberals. And when it comes to measures to control pornography, conservatives are more likely to advocate reforms: 45 percent of conservatives believe that government should regulate Internet pornography so that kids cannot access X-rated Web sites, compared with 32 percent of liberals who champion such measures.

Were pornography actually so sexually liberating, there would be little outré or taboo about it all. Hypocrisy and guilt still dominate sexuality in many ways, and pornography isn’t the cure for Puritanism or the sign of its defeat – it’s an emblem of its ongoing power to isolate and stigmatize sexuality. A truly liberated society would be one in which there were no need to “rebel” via commercialized images of sex. Moreover, pornography is hardly revolutionary. Indeed, pornography may be the ultimate capitalist enterprise: low costs, large profit margins; a cheap labor force, readily available abroad if the home supply ever fails to satisfy; a broad-based market with easily identifiable target niches; multiple channels of distribution. Pornography is big business, and it’s out to protect its interests in the face of what it sees as excessive governmental and societal interference. The industry even has its own lobbying arm, whose head, a former defense industry lobbyist told 60 Minutes, “Corporations are in business to make money. This is an extremely large business and it’s a great opportunity for profit for it…When you explain to [legislators] the size and the scope of the business, they realize, as all politicians do, that it’s votes and money that we’re talking about.” [ii] Pornographers distort pornography into an issue of progressivism and civil liberties precisely because they have millions of dollars of profit on the line. The industry--which in the face of a receptive audience likes to position itself as just another all-American enterprise trying to earn an honest dollar despite government interference, excessive regulation and taxation--isn’t different from any other large corporation, be it Halliburton or GlaxoSmithKline. The idea of progressives lining up to defend a notoriously corrupt and abusive industry would seem implausible.

But there’s more to the pro-porn “rebellion.” The latest wave of pornography crusaders is not only railing against moralizing on the part of the government and organized religion, the argument that dominated the family values-obsessed Eighties. Today, pornography advocates are also and perhaps equally rebelling against what it views as the excesses of liberalism and feminism of the early 1990s, in particular, the extremes of political correctness. Defending pornography seems to be a way for people who think of themselves as progressive, liberal and open-minded to revolt against the close-minded, PC police of university campuses and corporate human resources guidelines. Denouncing pornography is akin to what they derisively refer to as “sexual correctness.”

Yet it’s hard to find anything more retrograde, repressive, or closed-minded than the sexual clichés peddled by pornographers. Rather than a mark of escape from the past, the dominant morality of pornography reeks of Puritan and Victorian prudery; it creates a world populated by virgins and whores, by women who are used and then shamed for being sexually voracious. Their degradation is deserved, according to the prim sexual vision of the pornographer. Even when the woman isn’t overtly degraded, she is deemed lesser than the man watching her by dint of being paid to please him sexually in a public forum. Even when pornography is made specifically “for” women, as in the case of “indie” magazines like Sweet Action, the model often replicates that experience, unthinkingly substituting men’s bodies for women’s. In pornography, sexuality accompanies or provokes disgust and hatred – something to be done quickly and just as quickly, disposed of. In the world of pornography, sex is generally dirty, cheap, and in the end, not much fun. Surely it is this pornified version of sexuality that deserves denigration, mockery and rebellion. Surely any good liberal could in all good conscience, exercise his right to free speech and condemn porn for what it really is.

I sent the following reply:

Eric -

I haven't read Pamela Paul’s book, but as someone who's made his living at least partly from porn for the last half-dozen years, I must speak up. (I’m not surprised to see a Lieberman Democrat like you loaning her your soapbox, of course.)

There is nothing currently available online or otherwise that is any worse than that which has always been available to those who sought it. From cave paintings to de Sade, the human imagination has always run to graphic depictions of human sexuality, and frequently in its most perverse forms. This is just The Way We Are, and the flipside is the ever-present sanctimonious denial: no one I know has those thoughts, no one I know likes this sick stuff. Well, that “sick stuff” sells awfully well, and as long as it’s been available, it always has. As the comedian says, it's a four-billion-dollar industry - that's not one guy with two hundred million DVDs in his basement. Three big canards need to go by the wayside right now. The first is that being “pro-porn” is more about political statements than raw consumerism, because anybody in the industry will tell you that porn sells best in the reddest of states. Those Bible-thumpin’, Bush-lovin’ exurbanites and hicks out in David Brooks’s beloved country are the biggest porn freaks of all. The second is this scare tactic crap about horrifying obscenity being “a click away” at all times. I spend most of the day online, and I have NEVER encountered a porn site without wanting to do so. All the stories anti-porn crusaders are telling about little kids stumbling on bestiality images while searching for pictures of fluffy bunnies to print out for Mommy are as dishonest as the meth hype Jack Shafer’s been debunking over at Slate. And the third is, as I mentioned before, the idea that things were better before. At the same time Hugh Hefner was mythologizing himself as a daring pioneer, black-and-white stag movies were rolling in men’s clubs across the country – as they had been since the advent of cinema. Every time a new medium (print, photography, film, whatever) has been invented, people have used it to make porn. That is The Way We Are. Deal with it.

You don’t like porn? Fine, don’t watch it. But don’t try to tell me that the porn industry’s evil minions are kicking in helpless Americans’ front doors and taping their innocent little children’s eyes open like A Clockwork Orange. I know all the good and bad things about the business, and if anti-porn crusaders spent half the time investigating the rest of corporate America that they do worrying about what other people jack off to, the world would be a lot better place. Ms. Paul’s book will likely spark much conversation, replete with tongue-clucking and sad shakes of the head over the moral depravity overrunning our fair land, but it’s a bunch of crap, rooted in false assumptions, bad methodology (she interviewed 100 people, 80 of whom were young straight men? Wow, what’d that take her, a week?), and nostalgia for an Age of Innocence that never existed.


Anonymous said...

Wow, you're awfully upset and defensive about a book you haven't even read! And clearly you're not a writer. Do you have any idea how long it takes to do serious qualitative research? Most interviews for a book like PORNIFIED (which I've read, and I think you should too -- it may just open your eyes to things you haven't seen, even though it sounds like you think you've seen everything there is to see) take at least 3 hours, and can run over the course of several days alone. Having read the book, I could pick apart your argument here bit by bit, but I think you would be far better off reading it yourself and then making up your own mind. It seems like what you like to do anyway.

Phil Freeman said...

I've written two books, and am editing a third right now. I reiterate that any survey with only 100 people in its sample is meaningless.