We May Be Approaching Peak Porn

We May Be Approaching Peak Porn

Pornography is one vestige of sexual liberation that, despite wide use, people still aren’t willing to condone.
Brandon McGinley
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As with any revolution, we who are experiencing the sexual revolution are ill-placed to judge when it has run its course. Have we reached the natural conclusion of the usurpation of traditional norms, or is it still to come? Or will there never be an identifiable conclusion? We can try to divine answers to these questions, but they are elusive.

On one surprising aspect of the revolution, though, we may be able to discern a trajectory. There’s a chance we’re approaching peak porn.

It’s difficult to gauge just how pornographic contemporary American culture is. Reliable statistics are scarce (more on this later), but it seems clear that the vast majority of Internet-savvy men use online pornography regularly, along with a strong minority of similarly situated women. I suspect most readers will find these estimates credible and in accord with their experience.

The Stigma Remains

Yet, according to Gallup’s recent moral acceptability survey, pornography still rates as “largely unacceptable,” a category that includes teenage sex and cloning animals. With only 33 percent of respondents affirming its acceptability, fewer people consider viewing porn morally acceptable than say the same about abortion (42 percent), physician-assisted suicide (52 percent), and the death penalty (61 percent). Over time, porn’s moral acceptability has barely budged even as accessibility has soared, shifting from 30 percent to just 33 percent over the past four years.

This means that a great many people are using porn while simultaneously believing it is morally odious. In this regard, porn is comparable to extramarital affairs, which are considered morally acceptable by 7 percent of Americans, while the percent of Americans who admit to infidelity is in the high teens. We may crave porn, but many remain ashamed of it.

Over time, porn’s moral acceptability has barely budged even as accessibility has soared.

All the while, however, popular culture reinforces porn’s ubiquity. Pornography is mentioned with some regularity on talk shows and sit-coms, usually with a flippancy that affirms that, for men at least, viewing porn is normal—both culturally and psychologically. On the popular show “30 Rock,” for instance, which was created and written by self-described feminist Tina Fey, pornography is mentioned by the male staff in the way one might mention sports—just a regular part of life for a 21st-century guy.

And then there are schoolchildren. It’s said that the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11, but the source of that figure is elusive. (I was able to track it to a vague “2006 study,” but no further. If it is an accurate figure from that year, we can expect the average age of first exposure has decreased in the interim.) My experience teaching religious education to eighth grade boys suggests that a substantial majority of nearly-teenage boys have either seen porn, or (just as troublingly) have views of sexuality and of sexual practices that are informed by porn. This only makes sense. Whereas a surreptitious edition of Playboy can be shared with only a few classmates at a time, a titillating video can spread via smartphone nearly instantaneously around an entire school.

It’s a truism of the digital age: the Internet has made all manner of pornography accessible to anyone, anytime and anywhere. It is discreet and easy to find. It can be held in your hand. It has become part of our mainstream culture more than ever before.

But porn’s cultural position is about more than accessibility; it’s also about acceptability. We would expect that as accessibility grows, so would acceptability. As we become accustomed to the conspicuous enjoyment, by ourselves and by others, of a one-time stigmatized practice, we would expect that stigma to collapse. But, as the Gallup data shows, this has yet to occur.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Now, it may be that we are on the cusp of a surge in the acceptability of pornography. This is certainly what porn companies are betting on, and it would fit with the continual loosening of sexual norms. And that very well might happen. But there’s also good reason to believe that porn’s cultural prestige is much weaker than we are led to believe. Peak porn may soon come into sight.

We don’t like to talk about porn—really to talk about it. We like to joke about it, for sure, and to discuss it in the abstract. But there’s a kind of cultural denial about what porn really entails. When feminist journalist Pamela Paul wrote “Pornified,” she was shocked by the depravity of what she found lurking just beneath the surface—popular content that I cannot begin to describe in this publication.

We don’t like to talk about porn—really to talk about it.

Last year, the literary journal n+1 published a remarkable and grotesque essay detailing a popular porn shoot in San Francisco, the theme of which was the public abuse of a woman. A fan of the porn studio volunteered to be the abused, and other non-professional men and women delighted in performing the abuse. The spectacle was broadcast over the Internet to homes and offices and smartphones around the world. The essay, entitled “What Do You Desire?” (NSFW), is one of the most disturbing windows into the human psyche I have ever encountered. As much as I would like to forget the imagery evoked in the essay, I doubt I will—a fact which throws into relief just how deeply the actual images sear themselves onto the brain.

No, we don’t like to talk about porn. This is, I suspect, why accurate statistics about Internet pornography use are impossible to find. We don’t want to know the extent of our reliance on porn. Whereas we at least try to have serious fact-based conversations about other fruits of the sexual revolution, even on charged issues like the definition of marriage, we conspicuously elide the reality of porn through humor and euphemism. The lack of credible popular apologists and evangelizers places porn in a weaker cultural position than other innovations in our sexual culture.

Money Talks, and It Disapproves

But even if this shame and accompanying denial begin to be lifted, another even stronger force is lining up against porn, wedging it away from other issues associated with sexual liberation: capital. In our capitalist, consumerist society, cultural shifts aren’t official until they’ve been ratified by business. Corporations both respond to and, in turn, create culture.

Google’s porn ban is a cultural censure of pornography more important than just about any legislation or court decision could ever be.

Nowhere has this been more clearly displayed than in the cultural shifts with regard to marriage and sexuality. In February’s brouhaha over Arizona’s proposed religious freedom bill, billions of dollars in capital was marshaled at the behest of LGBT activists. Intel, Marriott, Yelp, Delta, Bank of America: just about any major corporation with significant operations in Arizona stepped up to condemn the modest religious freedom expansion.

But on porn, some of the same corporations that have been outspoken in favor of LGBT issues have pulled the reins. Three years ago, Marriott joined Omni (which has had a no porn policy since 1999) in eliminating pornography from its in-room entertainment line-ups. But the most significant corporate broadside against the porn industry came just a few weeks ago, when Google banned ads for sexually-explicit content from its flagship AdWords program.

Google is arguably the most powerful corporation in the world, and in the online advertising space it is inarguably the behemoth. This move is a cultural censure of pornography more important than just about any legislation or court decision could ever be.

This marks the first time in recent years that a corporation of such power and prestige has arrayed its forces against those of sexual liberation.

Now, pornographers will always find creative ways to drive traffic to their product, so the impact of Google’s decision on the accessibility of porn will not be great. It is what this move signals about acceptability that is important. By specifically isolating it from all other online content, Google is affirming what we desperately don’t want to be true, but suspect is true: porn is qualitatively different from other forms of digital entertainment.

You may resist this conclusion about pornography. You may be able to mold an argument that shows that porn is morally, philosophically, or psychologically no different from other forms of entertainment. That’s delightful, but it doesn’t matter. In segregating porn from other content, Google has made this distinction a reality, whether you agree with it or not. This is their power, and it is being marshaled against porn’s march to the mainstream.

This marks the first time in recent years that a corporation of such power and prestige has arrayed its forces against those of sexual liberation. Whether Google’s power will be sufficient, or whether the decision will encourage other corporations to move against porn, remains to be seen. But, in combination with porn’s surprisingly fragile cultural position, Google’s move against the industry allows us to speculate that peak porn just may be on the horizon.

Photo By: andronicusmax
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