Living in Porn Culture

Does anybody care?

Posted May 07, 2018

WikiMedia Commons/Creative Commons, free image used with permission
Source: WikiMedia Commons/Creative Commons, free image used with permission

Heard enough about Stormy Daniels’ sexcapades with Donald Trump? Or his alleged nine-month affair with Karen McDougal? Or the Access Hollywood tapes about kissing and grabbing the private parts of women? 

Whoever thought we’d be listening to such stories night after night on prime time TV about the man who holds the highest public office in the land?

OK, there’s Bill Clinton and the subsequent media obsession with oral sex, but that seems an aberration in light of the sexually unremarkable presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. 

Just when did we realize (and acquiesce to) the fact that we live in a porn culture?

I confess that I was shocked to discover—from Peggy Orenstein (Girls and Sex, 2016) and Nancy Jo Sales (American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, 2016)—that adolescents form their ideas about adult sexuality from online pornography. 

Yet this news seems passé in relation to an article by Maggie Jones in The New York Times Magazine (February 7, 2018) that describes a high school class on “Porn Literacy,” where teenagers of both sexes view X-rated films and discuss them analytically. Is porn sex realistic? What elements are clearly staged: scripted, acted, directed? Are the partners having as much fun as it seems? Is pornography a useful learning tool, especially in the absence of parental guidance or sex education in public schools?

The above books and article were written by objective, sober-minded adults, and each attends to the voices of young people themselves, who seem achingly vulnerable in their ignorance: of the various means of contraception, the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases; and how girls and women most reliably achieve orgasm. And that is a short list of their questions and concerns.

How is hard-core pornography going to teach these kids to establish the kind of relationship that includes communication about their deeply felt wishes, hopes and desires, in addition to their sexual preferences?

Surely adolescent behavior is more complex than this, yet we are all aware of the upsurge of charges of rape and sexual harassment on college campuses, often involving the excessive consumption of alcohol.

Lest we feel complacent that such incidents occur only on the grounds of institutions of higher learning, we should consider the rise of the #MeToo movement, documenting the harassment of adult women in the workplace. And lest we comfort ourselves with the fiction that such behavior is confined to the world of Hollywood, Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein, witness the claims against such masters of commerce as Roger Ailes or Elliott Broidy.

My definition of pornography is not based on the imaging of specific sexual acts but rather on the portrayal of physical intimacy in the absence of emotional engagement. Pornography represents sexual encounter as a matter of arousal and release. It may cater to an individual’s wishes, fantasies or desires, but does not offer the pleasure or consolation of engaging with another person as complex and mysterious as oneself. Whether designed to appeal to men or women, it’s about “getting off.”

I agree with Orenstein, Sayles, and Jones that young people deprived of sources of honest conversation about sex need other avenues of information that can guide them into their adult lives. What I lament in this scenario of sex ed via porn is the loss of frank discussion of how sex and intimacy—our need to feel cared for, respected, and understood—are inextricably intertwined.    

Sex is a powerful biological urge, which no one would dispute. Who among us is willing to cast the first stone at a guy or gal who makes a hasty or irresponsible decision on the basis of physical attraction alone? Think about “Cat Person,” a story recently published in The New Yorker (that went viral on the internet) in which a young woman has sex with a man she hardly knows not because she wants to but because she’s a little tipsy and has let things go too far (she believes) to back out. 

Have I ever done such a thing? Um, well, yes.

Yet my own introduction to sex came not from Pornhub, much less from an X-rated movie in a seedy part of town, but from D.H. Lawrence’s classic novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Published first in Italy in 1928, it became the subject of a famous obscenity trial in the UK in 1960. Released in the US by Grove Press, it had the powerful allure of the forbidden. Reading this novel as a late teenager, what I learned to expect from sex was not just “getting off” but a magnificent communion of bodies and souls—a means of transcending the boundaries of individual selfhood--to connect in a manner that only religious mystics have dared to describe. 

I grant you that Lawrence was more interested in male than female gratification. Yet, as an adolescent, my ideal of sexual consummation was formed by a portrayal of physical and emotional involvement--not by the heartless and soulless imagery of pornography.

A porn culture, in my view, is one in which we do not seek to establish positive, mutually gratifying, relationships but rather to use one another for personal gain or satisfaction. Porn culture is not just about sex, and I’m not making a case for censorship. I’m arguing instead for reflection.

Here are some of the questions I ask myself.  

If Trump’s evangelical supporters are willing to give him a “Mulligan” (a term that refers to a kind of “cheating” in golf) on the Access Hollywood tapes and yet another on the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal allegations, when does their (and our) indulgence end?

Have we entered so deeply into porn culture, that we take it for granted that this is the norm not only for how we treat one another in bed, but also for how we may behave in the wider spheres of family, community, business, and politics? That is to say, you do whatever it takes to get what you want.

More chillingly, what if nobody cares?

Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain, free image
Source: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain, free image