By James B.S. Riley
We're all familiar with the experience. Log on to the internet, click the mouse a couple of times, and suddenly you're viewing the vilest sort of pornographic filth imaginable, whether you want to or not. Although I suspect in your case it's the former.
The recent upsurge in the popularity of sexually-explicit entertainment has not gone unnoticed by the sorts of people who seek out things to be disturbed by and then write books about how they were disturbed by the things they saw because they're emerging cultural trends, just so everyone understands it was research. The fact that the authors of these semi-scholarly tomes seem to have a good deal of time on their hands should not be taken to mean they do not personally enjoy such satisfying, emotionally well-balanced sex lives as to be able to advise the rest of the planet, though the fact that they seem mostly to understand what bad sorts of sex other people should not be having might raise a question or two among our more cynical observers.
Then there's the issue of youth. As regular readers already know, BLTR not only refuses to accept advertising from products we review, we also uphold the principle of not actually reading books before we write about them, the better to maintain our unsullied editorial stance. So the youth of the authors in question is a mere extrapolation based on anecdotal evidence, the methodology favored by the books themselves. First, these authors, while somewhat confused over the point, are mostly in agreement that if pornography was not in fact invented by a couple of internet entrepreneurs in the mid-1990s, earlier appearances were mere curiosities, like Leonardo's helicopter. And all seem firmly convinced that sex itself was discovered in the 1960s by people who didn't know any better. Whether any of them recognize the historical truth, that sex and pornography were both discovered during WWI, when we sent our Doughboys to France, will have to await the findings of somebody who actually reads this stuff.
The other great Internet discovery, namely that jibber-jabbering is an excellent way to pass the time between porno downloading sessions, manages to salvage this post's near absence of content. Slate, the cutting-edge electronic news and feature daily, this week turned over its popular "Book Club" column to a freewheeling discussion of two books on the inherent ickiness of sex, the inherent wanker-ness of men who love wanking, and the search for an answer to the eternal question, "How many statistics about teenaged oral sex do we need to discuss before the collective heads of everyone in the country explode?" Pardon the metaphor.
This week's books are Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, by Pamela Paul, and Ariel Levy"s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. In brief, Ms Levy has, through meticulous research, discovered that a) the "girls" in the Girls Gone Wild series expose themselves to the camera and b) that she, Ariel Levy, has an opinion about this. Ms Paul, who has inflated her own Time article on the topic, takes on the heterosexual masturbation community, which, I believe we all agree, wields a disproportional amount of influence in the upper levels of government and has had things its own way for far too long. As modern science has freed this group from fears of blindness and tell-tale excressance of the palm, so has readily available internet pornography convinced many of them to actually do without the real, live women who want nothing to do with them in the first place. Such is the deadly cycle of wankerism.
The panel consists of Laura Kipnis, professor of media studies at Northwestern and author of Against Love: A Polemic; Wendy Shalit, the author of A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, and the founder of ModestyZone.net; plus Meghan O'Rourke, Slate's culture editor.
Let's begin, some 600 words after we actually began, by saying that this looks on paper like a pretty good line-up for such a discussion. Professor Kipnis is funny, insightful, and iconoclastic. Ms O'Rouke operates a website that features interviews with Rebbetzin Leah Feldman, who complains that a rude minimum-wage slave did not answer her question once, and that Americans take too much vacation time, thereby confronting the other two Great Problems facing the nation; and David Horowitz, who is probably included in an effort to turn her young readers off sex permanently.
In reality, this is a thorough mismatch the good Professor is simply to polite to exploit. She says:
Let's start with Pornified. I must confess that this book made me very cranky. Not about the rise of porn, but about the decline of cultural criticism: Paul's analysis is as compartmentalized and shallow as the sex lives of her subjects. She has her nose pressed so firmly against porn culture that she's utterly blinkered about the rest of society, or history, or politics; it's as if sexuality occupied some autonomous world of its own. (Like a porn set.)
And O'Rouke can only sputter in return.
Elementary-school boys are getting porn from libraries. Thirteen- and 14-year-old girls are being pressured to get more "hardcore" in their sexual encounters lest they be called "prudes." A Baltimore 24-year-old is hurt that her boyfriend's so "open about his interest in porn," but she can't share her feelings because "a guy doesn't think you're cool if you complain about it." Husbands are ignoring their children to watch porn for hours on end. Thrice-divorced Luis, a porn enthusiast since age 10, doesn't get why women need foreplay: "It usually takes longer in real life … I get pretty impatient."
Yes, anecdotes...always your best defense against the charge that you're using anecdotal evidence! Especially since it leaves one free to question actual citations from real studies when the need arises:
I've read all 56 pages of that CDC study, and the interesting thing is that respondents were simply asked, "Have you ever … ?" This says nothing about the frequency of oral sex.
Although a close runner up may be the "you're just saying that because you used to be a hippie" gambit:
Laura, you went to college in the late '70s—Levy and I both graduated in the late 90s (we are both 30, and Paul is 34). Meghan, you're 29 and you agree that "we … need to examine closely the effects of the new wave of porn." To be honest, I think the biggest difference here is generational. To boomers, pornography is ideological, associated with other aspects of women's liberation. But now porn plays an oppressive role for young people seeking more than superficial relationships.
The rather remarkable similarity of this argument to Andrew Sullivan's "sure, civil rights may have been a big issue in the 60s but by the time I was in school the really big problem was reverse-discrimination" was so eerie I actually checked to see if they might be the same person.
And if those of us who were actually enjoying sex in the 60s had realized we were ruining it for later generations we might have thought twice about our actions. Probably not, though.
O'Rourke was granted the rebuttal position for both days of the exchange, though it didn't do her any good, so in fairness Professor Kipnis gets the last word here:
It was the tone of the books that set me to thinking about this: Even when I agreed with them, the self-certainty about what correct desire is made me want to jump out of my skin. Or go watch some porn.
I would, like, so do her.
I had a little analysis of my own to add, but I have to hide the research before my wife gets home.