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Knowing and Seeing


Is porn everywhere?
A few weeks ago when I wrote about Maureen Dowd and her dated take on dating, an editor at Times Books offered me a copy of a new book, “Pornified:How Pornography is Transforming Our Culture, Our Relationships and Our Families .
It’s by Pamela Paul, a Time magazine correspondent and well, it’s interesting but not in the way Paul or her editor envisioned. With the, er, Time-honored technique of anecdote/lesson/professional analysis to tell the story, Paul sets up – you guessed it – the Internet! as her fall guy. The book purports to be a report from the trenches but really, it’s the findings of a woman just realizing that Internet porn is very popular with men. And that it’s easy to get.
As Homer Simpson would say: Duh.
Paul spends a lot of time on how porn distorts men’s view of women and how it annoys women and makes them feel bad about their bodies and how the idea that consuming porn for couples is hokum and how there are – amazingly! – men who don’t like the stuff. All of which leads – again, in that Time magazine tradition – to the not-particularly revolutionary idea that porn is generally bad and not good for you. Most of which I agree with. But what I don’t agree with: Her basic idea that the Internet is the source of all this grief ’cause it makes porn so easy to see.
This is just another take on the Feminist Scold that Dowd likes to trot out with a nice techno twist. My God, say the feminist scolds, SEX! It’s everywhere! Aren’t we past that? Haven’t MEN learned? No. They haven’t. And what’s more, many young women are copying what we like to think of as “masculine” behavior when it comes to sex. What the feminist scolds are missing is that idea that economic and sexual parity are difficult to negotiation in any – actually, depending on your age, almost all – situations. That’s the challenge of 21st Century feminism and it’s one the old “girls” prefer to ignore. It’s easier – for them – that way.
There certainly a lot more porn out there. And a great deal of it hides coyly behind the freedom many men feel they now have to sexualize women in the name of “feminism.” But I’m a lot more bothered by Maxim – which calls itself a mainstream men’s magazine – or the Victoria’s Secret “special” on CBS with those undernourished but oddly buxom waxed and buffed “super” models or scrawny-ass Paris Hilton posing with a car, a hose and a dripping sandwich (yeah, like she’s ever eaten a 1,000-plus calorie hamburger) than I am by the idea of Internet porn and who’s consuming it. I can and do avoid porn. This other stuff, I gotta tolerate when it appears on broadcast television, on billboards and magazine racks. And in its coy attempt to pretend to be something else – a restaurant chain ad, a “backstage look” (Oh, I’ll bet!) at a world-class fashion show or an excuse to put a Hollywood starlet in a leather bustier – it strikes me as pornographic. (That’s another problem with Paul’s book, she doesn’t really define “porn.” And one of the reasons you really do know it when you see it is because porn is almost always pretending to be something else.)

It occurs to me that the technology that makes it easy to spy on your spouse or boyfriend might really be the problem Paul wants to talk about; how relationships are changed by technology and by the fast-changing status of women in our society. But that’s kinda boring and you can’t put an American flag thong undie on the cover in a knowing wink at the very ideas you’re trying to examine. But when Paul goes into such detail about the fights men and women have over porn – again and again – you have to wonder if it’s really the porn they’re arguing about. Maybe there’s something else going on that neither party wants – or knows how – to talk about. Which is just about as newsworthy an idea as the book’s main premise. If men and women knew how to talk about sex, Dan Savage would be living a much duller life.
A record – an easy to obtain record – of what your lover has been looking for and at – is a new kind of temptation, isn’t it? It’s perhaps not as obviously alluring as a naked, buffed and waxed whatever. But, well, the power to look into someone else’ mind is very tempting. Isn’t a record of what you’ve been doing on the Internet a peek inside someone’s interests and pre-occupations? A chance to see what they think – really think – of you? And the ability to tell someone what you want – or perhaps what you prefer – is just as handy, isn’t it? The ability to say – without having to talk – this pleases me. This does not. Watch your step or I will spend more time with this impossibly beautiful, compliant woman. Be like her and I will love you more. (And that’s another problem with Paul’s book; it’s exclusively hetrosexual. The rise of gay culture and its acceptance of sex and sensuality as a nature and healthy expression of personality has a great deal to do with our acceptance of porn in society as a whole and that has nothing to do with the Internet).
By now, every child knows that the “empty cache” button on a web browser is a privacy guarantee. And most adults have figured this out as well. Paul does a great job of trotting out the Internet boogie man and decking it out with all the trappings and fears of a less sexualized and in her case, somewhat muted feminism. But, well, I’m unmoved by her argument for a host of reasons.
The Internet does make it easier to see, get and purchase porn. It also makes it easier to see, get and purchase a new pair of shoes. What’s really interesting – particularly when you consider what’s going on in the media business right now – is that porn merchants understood the immediate advantages that the web gave them and got on the Internet, with their usually enthusiasm for a new distribution channel. Unlike mainstream media, TV stations or newspapers, pornographers didn’t stand around insisting that their way of serving their customers – on video, or paper – was the superior distribution system. They understood that the Internet was going to change their business, do away with the neighborhood video store and the need for them to ship tapes and magazines. They adapted. And for a time, they were everywhere.
But that’s no longer the case. There’s lots of other stuff on the web, now. Political sites, for instance. The technology that gives you porn can be used to block the stuff you find offensive. And it’s about time – as Stowe Boyd and David Weinberger and I all said last month – that we got used to it.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 9:39 AM | Permalink

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