All Porn, All the Time

According to conventional wisdom, pornography is the prime economic engine of the Internet. The metrics are enormous, with estimated sales of online porn up to $1 billion per year and as many as 50,000 separate porn sites. A survey of half of those sites calculates as many as 60 million unique visitors a day. In contrast, the five largest news sites -- including CNN and MSNBC -- have 2.5 million unique visitors a day. Porn is also credited with developing most of the e-commerce innovations currently used on the Web.

The result is that anyone with a computer can watch full-color, full-motion pictures of every sexual act imaginable, delivered to their home 24/7 -- much of it for free.

While the enormity of Web porn is an accepted fact, its impact on society is very much open to debate. Unfortunately, that debate has involved much more heat than light. In fact, the topic of porn online is an issue that shows the mainstream media at its hysterical worst, including so-called "trusted sources" like Time Magazine and the New York Times.

One example of porn media hype was a study by Martin Rimm, an electrical-engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University, whose findings were highlighted in Time Magazine. He claimed the Internet was overwhelmingly awash with filth, child porn and bestiality. Rimm's article provoked a huge reaction, including Congress passing the Communications Decency Act, a law which was eventually ruled unconstitutional.

Another unfortunate media moment was a pandering piece written by New York Times health writer Jane E. Brody, comparing Internet porn to crack cocaine. Based on a survey by Stanford psychologist Alvin Cooper, Brody wrote: "A brand-new psychological disorder -- cybersex addiction -- appears to be spreading with astonishing rapidity and bringing turmoil to the lives of those affected." Those hooked, the article said, "are likely to spend hours each day masturbating to pornographic images."

Fortunately, there is enough diversity in our media system for other voices to step in and provide a more sober judgement, unmotivated by the gains associated with creating hysteria around newfound sicknesses. In both these cases, experts came forward and debunked the science on which these frightening accounts were based.

Yahoo Internet Life (Y-Life for short, and not owned by but by Ziff Davis Media) is one magazine that recently challenged the hysteria. Y-Life decided to follow up on the overwrought media coverage and probe the porn question. The magazine had the inspired idea of hiring award-winning investigative reporter Gary Webb to do the scrutinizing. Webb, as many will remember, startled the world with a series of articles about the CIA's involvement in the spread of crack cocaine during the 1980s.

In terms of the porn situation, Webb offers no single epiphany, but offers a sage perspective.

"By a quirk of technology we have become guinea pigs -- America's first post-censorship generation," he writes. "In just five years, the Net has rendered 250 years worth of anti-obscenity laws as quaint as chastity belts ... Nothing is hidden; it is advertised, boasted about in banner ads with moving pictures and money shots. Want pictures of midgets fornicating? Click this moving vagina. Transexuals with lesbians? Click here. Dads 'n daughters? Right this way."

Thanks to the Net, Webb says, "We and our kids have become a living laboratory that scientists will plumb for answers to long elusive riddles: What does pornography do to people deep down inside? Is it addictive? Does it destroy marriages? Or does it, as some researchers fear, push unstable men toward rape and child molestation?" While Webb can't answer these questions fully, he takes us on a trail to help us decide for ourselves what might be porn's potential dangers.

After spending nine months surfing online smut, Webb is now a "sexpert." He recently took the time to answer some questions about his experience as porn chronicler.

Don Hazen: In preparing the Y-Life story, you obviously spent a lot of time cruising the Net. Did anything really surprise you?

Gary Webb: What surprised me was the vastness of the online porn world. You could literally spend days crusing the Net and see nothing but porn sites.

What also surprised me was the ease with which kids could get free porn. There's nothing to it, certainly nothing a kid who can navigate a Nintendo screen couldn't figure out.

DH: You cite extraordinary numbers of people viewing pornography -- 60 million people a day. Who is watching this stuff, when are they watching it and what aren't they doing that they did before the Internet?

GW: Who is watching this stuff? Everyone. I spoke to women who admitted finding it by accident and getting turned on; lots of teenage guys, lots of young and middle aged men. Older men without companions.

What were they doing before? It's safe to say that many of them were renting porn videos, or buying porn magazines, but now that the Net brings it to your home, there's no need to go the embarassing route of buying porn publicly. I also think many of them weren't involved with looking at porn before; they were probably watching TV.

As for numbers, it's hard to know for sure; even the webmasters aren't positive how much of the traffic is new or repeat business. That 60 million users a day figure is worldwide, but most of the porn site operators said 75 to 85 percent of their visitors were from the US.

DH: Like you, I discovered porn early as a youth: at 11 I found a cache of hardcore books and photos my father brought back from Italy after World War II. This material was very graphic -- I learned a lot at 11. Are today's teenage boys learning more or differently?

GW: Teenage boys are learning more, learning earlier and developing greater appetites for porn, mainly because there are no hurdles or obstacles to prevent them from doing so. The porn our generation saw, as you point out, was a chance find. Nowadays, on the Net, it's luck if you don't have porn sites thrust in your face.

DH: You cite some examples of "respectable" mainstream media using virtually indefensible findings that generated hysterical reactions about the Internet and sex addiction. Why do you think this happened?

GW: Because we live in a world of information overload where nothing gets noticed unless it's hyped to the extreme. I found amazing similarities between the hysterical coverage of Net "sex addiction" and the coverage of crack cocaine in the 1980s. That's why the New York Times story comparing Net porn to crack was such a delicious example.

DH: Is there any reliable research about the impact of porn availability on attitudes and behaviors? What are social scientists saying about the prevalence of some of the more extreme versions of porn?

GW: There is very little reliable research that has been done in this area. Most of the past research focused on traditional porn, and I think the underlying attitude was that one saw it so infrequently that it was a shock to the senses. One of the underlying themes of my story was that this will be changing in the next few years. We as a society will have far more exposure to this type of fare, and we will probably become more blasé about it as time goes on. It will also provide a greater pool of research subjects as a result. Some of the questions you ask along these lines are explored in more detail in the second part of the series.

DH: You end up highlighting four areas of concern about porn: one, that porn may give people unrealistic notions, such as that they must have huge penises or large implants to be attractive; two, that porn viewers' senses may be dulled, leading them to seek out more shocking fare and activities; three, that safe sex isn't depicted very often in porn films, perhaps leading to sexual irresponsibility and disease; and four, that so much porn will lead to less poetry in sex. How strong are these concerns, and what would you do to address them?

GW: The concerns are out there, obviously, but it's hard to say at this point if these fears will materialize. I think that in the absence of any countervailing information, they may become real problems. Parents and schools are going to have to get a lot more proactive in providing information that balances the image of sex we get on the Net.

DH: You seem to conclude -- and you mention your son and his friends as examples -- that there may not be significant danger in the porn profusion. In fact, checking out online porn may still serve the purpose of a "rite of passage" for teenage boys, since it still seems that fathers don't talk with their sons about sex. Would you ultimately let the marketplace take care of porn?

GW: I wouldn't, as a parent, let the marketplace take care of porn, because it desensitizes and dehumanizes sex and sexuality. But I don't think the solutions under current consideration will do anything to alleviate it.

On the other hand, kids aren't stupid; they will balance their own sexual experiences against those portrayed on the Net to arrive at their own equilibrium. Of course, without any parental guidance thrown into the mix, that will be more difficult for kids today to achieve.

To get the full Gary Webb story pick up Y-Life at your local news stand or read it online In future issues, Webb will take a close look at the inner workings of the porn industry.


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