Sex & Relationships

The Zen of Porn: If Pornography Is Everywhere, Is it Nowhere?

The ubiquity of porn has rendered it invisible for most adults. But why has pornographic imagery become such an acceptable part of public culture?

When Vancouver mom Trina Campbell went public with her outrage over American Apparel adding a porn mag to a clothing display, I considered sending her my copy of The Porning of America, along with a good-on-you note. She deserves a prize for saying something no one else has the courage to utter.

Oh, the book won't help Ms. Campbell feel any better. Might even make her feel worse. Authors Carmine Sarracino and Kevin M. Scott, an academic duet from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, have overwhelming evidence that the most dehumanizing style of porn has infected every aspect of life, and they trace the history of just how this came to be.

Readers learn about all sorts of things they were probably lucky enough to have overlooked. Like "toilet cams." Apparently, not content with web cams documenting the action in dorm rooms, some enterprising folk started attaching them to public toilets and posting the results. Who knew?

The book is subtitled The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go from Here, and while they're short on ideas about the latter, the authors are brilliant at mapping out the former. In short: we have "normalized the marginal." Starting sometime in the 19th century, and with increasing enthusiasm and speed in the 20th, we have given over much of the public square to pornographic ideas and degrading, humiliating and gory sexual imagery. To the point that the non-stop sexualization of women and children is so common that our conscious minds just shrug it off.

What Are We Normalizing?

Most of us noticed the trend to skankwear, but unless you have children you probably missed the thongs-for-all movement. As the book relates, you can get your pre-schooler a thong emblazoned with cartoon characters, which serves to simultaneously impress upon her the importance of buying brands and being hot. She can also tart up her Bratz doll in streetwalker ensembles.

Do manufacturers even consider the implications of sexualizing children? Am I alone in thinking it gives pedophiles license when we normalize the notion of children in garments designed to inspire desire?

The authors cite Madonna for taking slutwear mainstream, and making huge leaps in getting us all to embrace taboos. Sometimes for the good -- in the U.S. she was among the first to talk about AIDS and safe sex -- but just as often she broke down barriers that would have been better left in place. Rounding out the half dozen cultural icons who led us down this path are pimpin' rapper (and professional pornographer) Snoop Dogg, literal porn star Jenna Jameson, crusading pornographers Russ Meyers and Al Goldstein, and yes, I'm sorry to say, we must always have Paris. That's Hilton.

Porn Baron with Regrets

In the surprisingly sweet rom-com Zack and Miri Make a Porno, the insightful Zack notes that Paris went from doin' it doggy-style on the Internet to selling perfume to tweens. Porn was a career-maker for the heiress, whose only talent seems to be for exhibitionism, and he plans to follow suit.

Of course, the movie's jokes rely on widespread knowledge of porn conventions. The mass audience has to know all about the cheesy imagery, the wooden acting, the boom-chuka-lucka music, the peroxide-hair and fake-tits aesthetic, and the fetishes and situations that lead to one of the movie's grosser gags, the frosting incident. (If you don't know, don't ask. If you do, well, there's no shame in knowing. It qualifies as cultural literacy now.)

We get the gags because, as Porning of America details, the blue movie went mainstream in the '70s with Deep Throat, which played ordinary theaters and was a fave reference for TV comics. A decade before, legendary racy-flick-maker Russ Meyers had made what was known as "tittyboom" -- the marriage of naked mammaries and violence that still graces our screens today. That bushwhacked the way to our current fascination with BDSM. Before that came graphic novels combining sex and violence -- only in the 1940s they were called comic books. (Yes, as long as comic books have existed, grown-ups have read them.)

The history of thin-edge-of-the-wedge techniques used to install porn in the public square is fascinating. Anyone who opposes its march is labeled a censor or worse, a prude. That's about as low a blow you can deliver in an era when every middle-aged mom supposedly aspires to be a MILF. Even more interesting is that some of the mid-century porn purveyors are now disgusted by the torture and degradation that characterizes the bulk of contemporary smut. (Gore-laden porno is so common it even has a nickname -- gorno.) Al Goldstein, a 1960s anti-censorship advocate who founded the magazine Screw, calls today's streaming video offerings a "fleshy catastrophe" that displays the "worst possible kind of sex."

" ... it desensitizes us, it makes [sex] more boring ... " Goldstein told the authors.

A Nation of Porn Stars

Today, at the click of mouse, there are hundreds of sites with names like pornhub.com, redtube.com, and youporn.com. The latter is one of a myriad of DIY sites aimed at enthusiastic amateurs who like to film themselves in the act and throw it up on the web.

Why, I ask you, why?

Well, the answer seems to be contained in Andy Warhol's ancient promise about us all having a future with 15 minutes of fame. Being a porn actor looks like an easy way to claim celebrity, especially if a happy childhood means you can't expose yourself as an Oprah guest or a Survivor contestant.

The genie is out of the bottle, but trying to stuff it back in isn't the solution. As the authors point out, things weren't so great when the genie was repressed. In other eras, only men got a glimpse of the darker side of sex -- well, men and their victims. Women and children, the usual targets, were still exploited and worse, blamed for their own bad luck.

The book is neither fer-nor-agin porn, as the authors point out it isn't a monolith. Gorno turns the average person's stomach, but the authors find amateur porn, with imperfect bods and real affection, engaging. They also argue something that sounds like a Zen koan: if pornography is everywhere, it's nowhere. Hitting the saturation point might be a good thing.

'You Should Not Have It in Your Face'

While it may be true that the pornification of life has rendered porn next to invisible for most adults, at least on a conscious level, is that true of children looking for cues on how to behave?

Probably not, the authors suspect, and they offer the usual lame self-defense techniques. Encourage media literacy, discuss the Bratz lousy clothing choices, introduce school dress codes, and teach kids to value something other than the mass-produced "hotness" of Paris and the other sex-bots.

Not bad advice, but not much of a solution, either. I think they need to meet Ms. Campbell.

She did what responsible adults are supposed to do: set limits. She stood up in public and said, no, this is not acceptable. Sexualizing children is crossing the line. And exposing underage kids to graphic sexual imagery, as Butt magazine does, is sexualizing them.

Does anyone other than a pedophile disagree?

Media played Ms. Campbell's tale as the archetypal "outraged" mother, but her interviews reflect what I suspect is a typical Canadian view. As she told the Globe and Mail, she wasn't opposed to pornography but it " ... is something you should have to go to yourself. It should not come to you. You should not have it in your face."

Too Young to Shop Here

Unfortunately, American Apparel thrives on sex-related controversy, so media attention only encourages them. Founder and CEO Dov Charney is notorious for collecting sexual harassment suits from female employees who object to his frequent self-pleasuring as outlined in Jane magazine in 2004, and other media. Charney likes to whack-off for the benefit of reporters, too.

So, bad press they love. But would the company be so thrilled if their stores were restricted to those over 18? Shoppers could be carded at the door, effectively denying them access to that oh-so-lucrative tween and teen girl audience.

It's not an unreasonable approach. As I followed the coverage, it struck me that porn is a lot like smoking: something that was once restricted to certain social gatherings or private quarters. Eventually smoking encroached on every aspect of life until it was no longer considered bad manners to smoke at your desk, to puff while people ate in restaurants, or to light up while walking down a crowded street.

So we introduced bylaws to keep disgusting and hazardous behavior out of the public square -- aimed particularly at the protection of children.

It wouldn't be difficult to make it a requirement of business licensing that retailers serving underage audiences keep tasteless-albeit-legal products away from public view. Now, no one thinks twice about tobacco being kept behind cupboard doors.

Extend that to TV advertising. No more ads featuring anti-social images for goods marketed at children. We did it with cancer-sticks and booze, why not limit ads for sex-and-horror thrill-kill films?

It was once considered a terrible affront to retailers, restaurateurs, and the nicotine-addicted to be told that they couldn't do whatever they wanted in public. They moaned about their loss of freedom. But most of us recognize that your freedom to swing your arm ends when it hits someone else in the face. If people aren't willing show some civility, I'm all for legislating it.

But it takes a lot of nerve to stand up publicly and say "No, you can't make a buck by exploiting children and robbing us all of our right to choose what we view," so don't expect government to weigh in anytime soon. That makes Ms. Campbell's willingness to take on the fight all by herself that much more admirable. Her outrage, and ours, is long overdue.

And there's a book prize at the Tyee, with her name on it.

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor at The Tyee. Read her previous columns here.