Pornified

At a gas station I noticed a pick up truck, formerly a Nissan Titan, re-badged (using the existing letters) to say “Tits.” Above the re-worked silver type was a bumper sticker adorning a pink ribbon that said “Save the ta-ta’s” It was not apparent that the driver had much interest in fighting cancer. What is more interesting is that such a rallying cry is the name of a trademarked charity for breast cancer research. The website is adorned with slender models with well-endowed chests, featuring a product (for a good cause of course) called “boob-lube.”

This might not be what Pamela Paul had in mind when she speaks of the “pornified” culture we live in, but it seems to be one more effect of a the vision Hugh Hefner has for America. The acceptability of selling sex for breast cancer charity includes all the contradictory messages that women are valuable as persons worthy of dignity and respect, because they have the necessary equipment that can be objectified by men. It empowers women because they can sell themselves for profit.

But that is only a tangential point of Paul’s book, Pornified (2005). The book has two covers to choose from; the first edition containing the subtitle, “How pornography is transforming our lives, our relationships, and our families.” The second edition substitutes the word “damaging” for “transforming, and it is more honest, as Paul uses most of her book to tell the stories of men and women who view and consume pornography to their detriment–whether they know it or not.

The virtue of Paul’s book is that it captures the habits of porn use by real people, and does not immediately take on abstract issues like freedom of speech, obscenity law, and defining what exactly pornography is. She interviews a number of people who are frank about their experience with porn ranging from largely positive to mostly negative. Paul retains their language and does not shy away from using their words and descriptions to capture the full effect of pornography on how people think and communicate about sex. Thus the reader is left to be shocked and shocked again by what becomes obvious if it isn’t obvious already: pornography is utterly vulgar.

Including vulgarity is very important for Paul who never really defines what pornography is, but gives the impression that whatever it may be it is something that inherently degrading. Vulgarity, however, doesn’t simply mean something “gross” or “offensive” is on display. It also denotes something stupid or low-brow, lacking refinement, class, or decency. Those that peddle it are rightly stigmatized and those that consume it are naturally ashamed of it at least to the point where they feel the need to keep it hidden from others.

Paul illuminates many contradictory attitudes about pornography held by both men and women that are maddening to contemplate. Men will say it doesn’t affect them, but will admit to using it 5 hours a week “to get off.” They say it doesn’t cost them anything, and yet the industry makes more money than Hollywood and professional sports combined. Its just fantasy, not reality, though there is an ever increasing demand for porn stars to be photographed in more and more degrading fashions. Women want to be “cool with it” and let “boys be boys” but they feel devalued when their partner brings pornified fantasies into the bedroom. They know that every man “looks” but that does not stop the feelings of inadequacy and betrayal. Men think women “should get over it” or that they will “never understand” but many feel ashamed of how much they need it and feel tormented over how out of control their use has become. Sex therapists advocate couples using pornography together to spice up the love life, but many couples experience a lack of intimacy and deadened libido afterwards.

Paul does not advocate censorship, but certainly does not see pornography as a form of politically protected “speech.” Such a notion is ridiculous when one considers that pornography is really a commodity of an industry that commercializes and sells its products with no regard to the social good much like the tobacco industry sells cigarettes. The effects of porn on children and teenagers, not to mention marriages, are ignored while huge profits are turned by amoral corporations. Regulation of industry does not contradict or mitigate the political rights every American citizen is entitled to under the First Amendment. Such confusion, created by the porn industry itself, could even be applied to prostitution absurdly making it a form of “free demonstration” protected by law.

While Paul’s book is meant to be a secular case against pornography, it does largely agree with Jesus’ teachings about lust. A much discussed topic in the book revolves around whether looking at porn or going to a strip club constitutes cheating. The relationship between fantasy and reality is not neatly bifurcated in Christian ethics, and Paul seems to share this conclusion. She calls for a new sexual revolution that imagines a world where men and women are devoted to cultivating a vibrant sex life together without the outside influence of pornography. Far from being prudish or Victorian, this would decrease the demand for porn and greatly increase human happiness and even human flourishing. In fact, she convincingly makes the ironic point that much of pornography is deeply Victorian and prudish in that its controlling metaphors and sexual mores buy into a culture where sexual favors are bought and paid for by women who simultaneously “deserve what’s coming to them.” What is most unfortunate is that many young people armed with videophones and YouTube are also taught to think this way.

Pamela Paul’s book is not for the faint at heart and is not recommended for anyone under eighteen or anyone trying to exit a pornography addiction. However, it is a much needed book for raising the awareness of anyone who is seeking answers to questions about what constitutes a true sexual morality and a truly good life.

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