By Jefferson Flanders

The question of pornography—and its intrusion into mainstream American culture— has been front and center this week.

There was country music singer Sara Evans withdrawing from ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” because of her failing marriage; she alleges that her husband has a pornography problem (an accusation he denies, saying they watched “adult films” together as a couple).

On CNN, Glen Beck featured the problem of pornography in a series “Porn: American’s Addiction,” and the self-described “religious, family values conservative” made this admission:

“It takes every ounce of willpower I have as a guy not to give into the constant stream of porn that you come into contact with every single day! It is a struggle for me. And I don`t know if it is for you. You`ve got it mastered. I don`t. Porn is a very powerful, seductive and, as you will see, a very lucrative business.”

There are signs that the “mainstreaming of pornography,” a trend documented in Pamela Paul’s Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families is gathering momentum. More proof? Look no further than a recent Forbes.com piece on “Mad. Ave goes (Soft) Porn” or the recent (much e-mailed) New York Times article on the sexualization of the Halloween costumes women and girls are wearing (outfits described as more suitable for strip clubs than for trick-or-treating…)

Porn attracts—some observers estimate that it accounts for some 25% of Web searches—and it sells, witness the multi-billion dollar industry revolving around it. (Because of its subject matter, this brief essay will most likely reach many more Web readers than anything I might offer on literature, politics, journalism, sports or more mundane topics.)

The porn problem is attracting the attention of both social conservatives and feminists. One disturbing cover story in New York magazine by Naomi Wolf, “The Porn Myth,” (with a sub headline: “In the end, porn doesn’t whet men’s appetites—it turns them off the real thing”) particularly caught my eye. Wolf, a 21st century “Sex in the City” feminist, has a simple argument to make: “The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy.'”

Before considering Wolf’s viewpoint, some definitions are in order. She is talking about pornography post-Larry Flynt—that is to say, the hard-core variety, not the Hugh Hefner “girl-next-door” Playboy pin-ups of yesteryear. Wolf notes the pornification of the mainstream, citing the predictions of Andrea Dworkin, the anti-porn feminist activist:

“… pornography did breach the dike that separated a marginal, adult, private pursuit from the mainstream public arena. The whole world, post-Internet, did become pornographized. Young men and women are indeed being taught what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by pornographic training—and this is having a huge effect on how they interact.”

But, Wolf argues, Dworkin’s fear that men “would come to objectify women as they objectified porn stars, and treat them accordingly” and resort to “rape and other kinds of sexual mayhem” has not materialized. Instead, Wolf writes: “Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.” Wolf offers a grim view of the psychic impact of porn on the young:

“The young women who talk to me on campuses about the effect of pornography on their intimate lives speak of feeling that they can never measure up, that they can never ask for what they want; and that if they do not offer what porn offers, they cannot expect to hold a guy. The young men talk about what it is like to grow up learning about sex from porn, and how it is not helpful to them in trying to figure out how to be with a real woman.”

“Mostly, when I ask about loneliness, a deep, sad silence descends on audiences of young men and young women alike. They know they are lonely together, even when conjoined, and that this imagery is a big part of that loneliness. What they don’t know is how to get out, how to find each other again erotically, face-to-face.”

This concern—that pornography can damage in many different ways—isn’t limited to the young. A growing anti-porn movement in the fundamentalist Christian churches targets men, including pastors, who have been drawn to pornography.

As a First Amendment advocate I can’t support those who wish to criminalize or ban pornography (just try defining it, and you’ll see the first problem with suppression). But I also think that the libertarian position on porn ignores the costs to society and to individuals. There are some legal responses that make sense: Laws that target child pornographers for their abuse of those photographed or filmed, for example, focus on illegal actions and not on expression.

You don’t have to be a social conservative (like Beck), or a feminist (like Wolf), or religious, to recognize something has gone very wrong. When growing numbers of men prefer fantasy to reality, to interact with cyberporn females instead of real women, there’s a sad distortion occuring of one of our most elemental of drives.

What to do? The first step is to recognize that there is a problem, that the incursion of “raunch culture” into the mainstream has negative effects. There is nothing cute about pornified Halloween costumes; pole-dancing contests for college women aren’t “sexy” but sordid.

Pamela Paul has it right when she argues that we should stigmatize porn, that it should be made socially unacceptable. Her approach—“censure, not censor”—preserves free expression while making it clear that rejecting pornography—voluntarily—or keeping it in adults-only spaces, says something about what we value as a society.

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue
Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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