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Pornography, Main Street to Wall Street

Thursday, February 1, 2001

Pornography is not a subject one would expect to come up at a baby shower. But there I was when two Manhattan women of my acquaintance began discussing the web surfing habits of their husbands. It seems they had discovered the "history" folder on their spouses’ web browsers. That’s the folder that (unless you turn it off) maintains a list of web sites visited over the previous month or so. When they clicked, it popped open and revealed a list of porn sites running off the bottom of the screen.

What struck them most was the sheer astonishing breadth and variety of the porn trove. Tastes and fetishes that they wouldn’t have guessed existed are catered to by an endless universe of smut purveyors. They giggled over their discovery, disapproving but not terribly so. When one of the husbands came over, he giggled too. No harm done, right?

This came even as the presidential campaign was making a strange sidelong excursion into panic about sex and violence (mostly violence) in the mainstream media. The Federal Trade Commission had just issued a report blaming Hollywood for marketing R-rated fare to children as young as eight.

The cacophony was deafening. Hearings were held before John McCain’s Senate Commerce Committee. Hollywood executives were pilloried, denounced, and held up to public ignominy. Al Gore and Joe Lieberman promised that, if elected, they would give the entertainment industry six months to shape up — or else.

Of course, what "or else" meant was never clear. In quieter moments legislators admitted "or else" was nothing, because Washington wasn’t about to get into the censorship business. Within a month of the election, the same FTC that had started the blaze solemnly pronounced that it had no intention of doing anything about the "abuses" it had uncovered. Nor would it advise Congress to do anything. This utter failure to propose a remedy was all the more striking when considered against the rhetoric the politicians had been spilling out a few weeks earlier, implying that entertainment violence was responsible for everything from the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado to scholastic underachievement. Lieberman never missed a chance on the campaign trail to repeat his top applause line: "Parents shouldn’t be forced to compete with popular culture to raise their children."


Alarm over "sex and violence" in popular entertainment has been a recurring theme for at least a century. Yet it seems to recur without any progress in our understanding of the subject.

In fact, there is no reliable evidence of any causal link between imaginary violence in entertainment and violence in the real world. The nation has been witnessing a stark drop in the rates of murder, rape, and violent crime since the early 1990s. Does anyone suppose this was caused by a decline in violent themes in movies, TV shows, and video games?

Likewise, there has been a less striking but still significant decline in teenage motherhood, the spread of sexual diseases, and other indicators of promiscuity. We certainly can’t credit this to any decline in the number of plot lines on "Friends" and other NBC sitcoms extolling the desirability of frequent casual sexual relationships. There is no question that a long-term transformation of sexual mores has been underway for decades, thanks to the pill, sex education, and so forth. Yes, the media undoubtedly serve as a transmission belt for changing attitudes. But that’s a far cry from suggesting that people act on what they see in the media in a monkey-see, monkey-do manner.

Indeed, when you think about it, the assumption that sex in the entertainment media leads to sex in the world, or that violence leads to violence, is methodologically fishy. What foundation does this have except for a casual, intuitive belief that the imaginary must lead to the real? It seems just as plausible that imaginary sex might lead to violence or imaginary violence to sex. Or both might lead to shopping. The logic is not only questionable, but in a society as surfeited with every kind of entertainment as ours, the evidence that would allow any strong conclusion about the relationship between entertainment and social pathology is noticeably absent.

In fact, we know from the work of James Hamilton, an economist at Duke University, that the demand for violence in entertainment comes most strongly from young adults of both sexes. His study of Nielsen data shows that those most likely to tune into TV movies with violent themes are, first, males aged 18 to 34, then females aged 18 to 34. Both older and younger viewers are less interested in mayhem. Beyond doubt the big entertainment companies have figured this out, too. Young adults are their most prized demographic, the ones brand-name advertisers pay the most to reach. Yet if there seems to be a proliferation of violent entertainment, it’s mostly illusory. Violent shows are less a staple of prime-time network fare than they were two decades ago (having been replaced, interestingly, by lawyer shows). Instead there has been a proliferation of all kinds of entertainment, as the multiplication of cable channels allows programming to be targeted more narrowly at different audiences. Now violent fare can be served up with less fear of annoying the audience who find violence distasteful or offensive.

More speculative is the question of why young adults demand violent-theme entertainment. Dolf Zillman, a psychologist at the University of Alabama, has studied the question and proposed an answer: Violent entertainment is really about justice. A question that particularly concerns young people is whether good or evil triumphs in the world, whether virtue is rewarded and meanness is punished. And it doesn’t take a great deal of art (always in short supply in Hollywood) to encapsulate these themes in plots that make extensive use of violence. This makes sense, if only because the sheer prevalence of violent themes in popular entertainment suggests it needs some kind of explanation tying it to universal human concerns.


That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of room to criticize the entertainment media, but the focus ignores the proverbial elephant in the living room. While Republicans and Democrats were competing to see who could issue the most comprehensive denunciation of Hollywood depravity, they ignored an authentic and unprecedented phenomenon: the revolution in the availability of pornography.

Porn has moved out of a few segregated public spaces, the seedy book shops and triple-X theaters, and become ubiquitous on the web, on cable, in neighborhood video shops. Some consider this a good thing, since it promises to put the red-light districts of our downtown areas out of business (with mixed results, however; see, for example, the January 1 New York Times, "With John Wayne and Sushi, Sex Shops Survive a Cleanup"). But I’m not sure we’re going to be happy with the bargain in the long run. The more accessible the material, the larger the number of people who will be willing to consume it (because they can do so discreetly). And here’s where the consequences get worrisome: the larger and more scalable the market, the more it can supply material to dovetail with every individual quirk or taste. Given the way porn seems to act on those who are most susceptible to it, we may be surprised at the results.

Trying to point this out (believe me, I know) is to invite scorn from liberal entertainment crusaders who accuse conservatives of being more afraid of sex than violence. I wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal on the subject during the presidential campaign, and the letters that came in response more often than not criticized me for muddying an important national debate over the "serious" problem of violence in the media by raising irrelevant objections about pornography.

Yet these critics have it backwards, I fear. Nobody has heard of self-help groups for people claiming to be "addicted" to sexual innuendo on "Friends" or to violence in Arnold Schwarzenegger films. Yet in the past few years, not only have organizations popped into being to aid people who feel a compulsive "addiction" to view pornography; the subject has also begun to arise with alarming frequency in divorce and custody proceedings. Internet porn, at least in the collective mind of the counseling industry, has emerged as a major threat to marriages. What’s more, if you have access to a newspaper database, you can find story after story about some locally prominent person being disgraced, arrested, or fired because of the discovery of a cache of porn on his home or office computer.

Such was the fate that recently befell a Harvard Divinity dean, a Disney Internet executive, countless college professors and school teachers, and other once-reputable citizens around the country. This is to say nothing of the mass firings that have rippled through numerous corporations (including the New York Times) after employees were caught misusing company computers to receive and distribute porn.

Dr. Mark Laaser, a co-founder of the Christian Alliance for Sexual Recovery (and himself a recovering "sex addict"), had this to say at a congressional hearing last year:

Many in the medical community feel that for a substance or activity to be addictive it must create a chemical tolerance. Alcoholics know, for example, that over the lifetime of their addiction, they must consume more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect. New research, such as by Drs. Harvey Milkman and Stan Sunderwirth, has demonstrated that sexual fantasy and activity, because of naturally produced brain chemicals, has the ability to create brain tolerance to sex. I have treated over a thousand male and female sex addicts. Almost all of them began with pornography.

Whether the medicalization of the phenomenon is appropriate is a fair question. But if a significant number of people believe their lives are being disrupted by an addiction to pornography, that already puts porn in a different category from run-of-the-mill entertainment sex and violence. All by itself, the fact that some people are seeking help entitles us to conclude something new and different is going on.


That politicians would prefer to ignore the porn revolution and shout about a nonexistent crisis in media violence might seem a mystery at first. But media violence is a problem they’re not really obliged to do anything about — that pesky amendment stands in the way. Plus, Hollywood is a powerful trade group. And the public clearly votes with its pocketbook in favor of the product.

To be sure, unstoppable technology plays a role in the ubiquity of pornography. But another factor is the near-collapse of obscenity enforcement since the Reagan-Bush years. Remember the Meese Commission on Pornography? Well, times surely changed with the arrival of the Clinton administration.

In the New York Observer, Dennis Hof, an associate of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, gave as good a rendition of recent history as anyone could wish: "Here’s what’s happened. We’ve had eight years of lack of prosecution of a sex industry. Who’s Bill Clinton going to prosecute with all his stuff going on? Janet Reno doesn’t want any part of that. So the film industry has gone from 1,000 films eight years ago to 10,000 last year. Ten thousand pornographic movies. You’ve got Larry and [Penthouse publisher Bob] Guccione doing things that 10 years ago you’d go to prison for. Then you’ve got all the Internet stuff — dogs, horses, 12-year-old girls, all this crazed Third-World s— going on."

One reason the porn prosecutions dried up is that, shortly after taking office, Bill Clinton fired all the sitting U.S. attorneys. That wiped out an experienced cadre of prosecutors who had made obscenity a priority. Since then, the administration has focused exclusively on kiddie porn prosecutions, for all the obvious it-takes-a-village reasons. The Justice Department insists it’s merely making more efficient use of its resources: And indeed, while previous administrations had their successes, many garden-variety obscenity cases certainly did end badly for the government. Judges and juries have not always been friendly. But the threat of prosecution at least had the salutary effect of discouraging mainstream companies from involving themselves in the porn racket. That has changed in a big way.

Wall Street once wouldn’t have touched the business with a 10-foot pole. Now it may not brag about the association, but reputable brokerages have been glad to help porn-related companies win public listings on U.S. stock exchanges. Venture firms have been major backers of companies that provide billing and tracking services for on-line smut merchants. For that matter, Visa and Mastercard play a large role in the industry by processing its payments. (American Express recently stopped processing charges for "adult" sites, but the reason was the inordinate volume of "chargebacks" by customers who denied patronizing the sites when the bills came due.)

Though they don’t advertise the connection, respectable companies like AT&T, Time-Warner, and the Hilton hotel chain have quietly become major players in porn distribution. A few years ago the cable TV folks wouldn’t go near the stuff unless (as in New York City) the porn entrepreneurs managed to get on a mandated "public access" channel. The cable industry’s resistance has now completely crumbled. Consider the success of Hot Network, provided by Steve Hirsch’s Vivid Entertainment Group, the industry-leading producer of high-quality sex videos. Since its launch in 1999, Hot Network has taken the cable world by storm. As one cable executive anonymously told the Journal’s Sally Beatty, "The No. 1 complaint we get is that it’s not explicit enough."

America Online, in a sense, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Internet porn wave, even though it doesn’t consider itself "in" the porn business. Yet in private moments, people at the company will acknowledge that a very large part of their subscriber traffic is people who use AOL to gain access to the pornucopia available on the Internet beyond AOL’s own content sites.

So huge has the industry become that it now has its own glitzy award ceremony sponsored by its own glossy trade magazine, Adult Video News. The Defiance Haven resort, on the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean, has launched a new business hosting a procession of "adult travel" package tours. For a hefty sum, fans can spend three days partying and socializing with their favorite porn queens. Last October, the lineup included sex stars Taylor Wane, Julia Parton, and Bianca Trump.

Whole genres of pop music are now in the process of coalescing with the "respectable" porn industry, most notably represented by Vivid, whose stable of Vivid Girls is much in demand for autograph signings at Tower Records and local video outlets. The New York Times recently noted the "creepy" fact that rap music, professional wrestling, and porn "have aligned to shape a real audience, one that looks awfully hardened." And both Fox News and MTV have invested airtime in exploring what Fox called the "rock-porn connection" (though MTV was comparatively weak on disapproval).

Nobody knows how big the industry is, though the most quoted estimate is about $5 billion in annual sales (with another $1 billion for internet porn). Adult Video News claims sex videos, mostly produced in suburban Los Angeles neighborhoods like Chatsworth and Reseda, generate more in sales and rental revenues than legitimate Hollywood manages to earn at the domestic box office. Porn probably provides more employment for Hollywood’s army of film technicians and set personnel than mainstream film production does.


Yet for all the fiery denunciations of mainstream Hollywood during the election campaign, even an acknowledgement of the porn industry’s existence seemed almost taboo. This was strange. Wouldn’t denouncing the porn explosion be a potential home run for any politician who might be seeking to ride America’s renewed concern (as confirmed by every poll) with "values"?

One reason for the reluctance might be related to the cultural divide reflected in the election result (with Al Gore winning the heavily populated coasts, George Bush winning small-town and rural America). As Francis Fukuyama wrote in the Wall Street Journal shortly after the election, the division suggests that sexual mores after Bill Clinton have become a political minefield between two Americas that politicians have decided it’s better to avoid:

That conservatives held a losing hand in the culture wars became painfully evident during the Monica Lewinsky impeachment saga. There is hardly anyone in the country who approved of President Clinton’s behavior. But a substantial number of Americans disliked the Republicans even more intensely for what they perceived to be moralism on this issue . . . . [T]he perception remained that the Republicans were passing judgment on an area of personal behavior that was a matter of individual moral choice.

By acclamation, the one exception to the official blind eye is child pornography. Indeed, such is the enthusiasm to bust kiddie-porn miscreants that law enforcement has veered close to entrapment in some cases. The Disney executive’s first trial ended in a hung jury for exactly this reason. As with the attack on mainstream media sex and violence, campaigners can present themselves as protecting children rather than policing the behavior of consenting adults.

Whatever the reason, the porn genie won’t be stuffed back in the bottle. Yet this genie comes with a likely train of genuine social pathology whose limits we’ll just have to discover. One can only speculate here, but pornographic sexual images are quite different from entertainment sex and violence: They are real. They are processed differently. The "suspension of disbelief" has always been baloney: The essential question for healthy psychological functioning is the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. People watching a Schwarzenegger shoot-’em-up know it’s make believe. That’s why they can watch graphic depictions of murder and mayhem without flinching.

Likewise sexual quips on the typical TV sitcom, or even a steamy Sharon Stone scene, aren’t arousing in the sense that pornography is. The fictional media don’t play on the powerful chemical signals that real sexual stimuli activate, producing states of motivation so powerful they can temporarily overwhelm even strong sensations like hunger or fatigue. Now this stuff is coming into the homes of people who would otherwise never have encountered it. And porn lends itself to the power of digital technology, which can scale up a mass audience at virtually no additional cost per customer. Where it gets interesting, if that’s the word, is that the same scalability allows more varied and narrow tastes to be served. If you have a susceptibility to, say, African American lesbians engaged in "water play" that you didn’t know about, the web is the place to find out.

The people providing this material are a side of the business without the fixed addresses and scrubbed and healthy face of Vivid Entertainment and its Vivid Girls. In the early 1990s, the "mainstream" porn business got a black eye when one of its young stars, "Savannah," blew out her brains after a car accident. About the same time, another, Traci Lords, was revealed to have been underage when she made her films. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of her "product" had to be destroyed (and Lords, now reclothed as a "victim" of porn, went on to a career on network television, much to the annoyance of her former colleagues).

Since then, the "respectable" end of the porn business has made a point of hiring lobbyists, participating in charity, and campaigning for condoms against AIDS. There is no question that part of the industry has cleaned up its act. That, and its success at making celebrities out of a few leading porn stars, have made the industry increasingly acceptable company for the makers and marketers of mainstream pop culture.

But what about the other material, the "dogs, horses, 12-year-old girls, all this crazed Third-World s—"? To imagine that a great engine of exploitation and abuse doesn’t lie behind this imagery is to live in a fantasy world. Just last year, for example, French porn star and 22-time surgical patient Lolo Ferrari died of a drug overdose at the age of 30. Much of the material arises in developing countries (especially Thailand and the Philippines) and makes use of subjects whose participation is driven by abject poverty if not outright duress.


Though there has been little study of the subject, the conventional wisdom of the porn industry is that the typical customer is a reasonably educated and affluent male in his late 30s or early 40s. It’s not a business that has traditionally had any interest in marketing itself to kids. That said, the video revolution has made porn available on a scale and with an ease that didn’t exist when I was in school. I’m told now that at college-age parties it has become de rigeur to have a sex video playing in the background. Not long ago a Florida coed protested successfully on civil rights grounds when her university stopped her from projecting a sex tape on the side of a campus building for a party she was throwing.

The Internet makes porn imagery even more easily available, and in virtually limitless variety. It would be a miracle if kids weren’t finding this stuff, even if it means going around "filters" provided by their parents or their Internet service providers. A disabling obsession with porn is already frequently categorized as a paraphilia — a fetish, like pedophilia or coprophilia or an obsession with shoes. The standard view is that whatever causes someone to displace their sexual interest on a fetish object, it typically begins in adolescence or childhood. If exposure builds up tolerance, and tolerance makes the problem worse, having unlimited porn imagery within easy reach of every computer is likely to produce social effects that we haven’t yet reckoned with.

Holding back these tides might seem a losing battle, but giving up the obscenity weapon certainly hasn’t helped. Obscenity laws rest on the enforceability of a certain minimum "community standard." Where that minimum might lie has become a stumbling block for prosecutors, but the courts have generally upheld the right of communities to draw some kind of a line. Up until a few years ago, despite the unquestioned profits to be made delivering hard-core porn over cable lines, fear of political and legal repercussions kept the cable companies out of the business.

If the politicians want to launch a useful debate about the corrupting influence of the mass media, the place to start is not revisiting tired and unproven accusations about Hollywood sex and violence and public morality. For one thing, they’re not going to do anything about a "problem" that has been debated at least since Elvis swiveled his hips on Ed Sullivan in the 1950s. On the other hand, it would seem within the normal job description of our political leaders to discuss a genuinely new phenomenon, one with consequences that are likely to be substantial if as yet unknown, and one where their own unheralded change in law enforcement priorities has played an important role. If the universalization of access to hard-core pornography isn’t worth talking about, what is?