PROLEGOMENON ON PORNOGRAPHY.

Author:Bradley, Gerard V.
 
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  1. Reevaluating "Porntopia" II. History A. 1954 1. Concerns About Comics 2. Butler's Book and the Supreme Court as Obscenity Arbiter B. 1970 1. The Commission's Findings 2. Stanley's Influence C. 1986 1. A Changing Landscape 2. Means of Enforcement 3. The Legacy of the Meese Commission in. Dystopic Seeds IV. Conclusion I. Reevaluating "Porntopia"

    It is no longer surprising to walk along a bookstore aisle and see volumes, not of pornography, but about pornography. It is still a bit jarring, though, to encounter seriatim the likes of Pornified, (1) Pornification, (2) Pornland, (3) Porn.com, (4) The Porning of America, (5) The Pornography Industry, (6) and (simply) Pornography. (7)

    There is even an interdisciplinary scholarly journal dedicated to Porn Studies. (8) In its 2014 inaugural issue the editors claimed that it "garnered more news interest prior to its launch than most academic publications receive over decades." (9)

    These titles indicate the ubiquity of pornography. The range of data supporting that proposition is stunning. For example: up to one-quarter of all search engine requests relate to pornography; (10) pornography sites attract more traffic monthly than Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter combined; (11) and a 2017 survey by a University of Texas research team found that fortythree percent of men intentionally accessed pornography within the previous week. (12) Estimates of the annual revenue of the pornography industry in the United States hover around ten billion dollars--and that takes into account that much online pornography is either pirated or free. (13) Then again, perhaps the ubiquity of pornography is one of the few propositions which law-review student editors would agree requires no supporting citation.

    These titles also point to something more remarkable, and more important, about pornography, namely, its mainstreaming. What could also be called (with some caution) pornography's normalization, is comprised of two interrelated developments. One is the widespread acceptance of an increasingly bizarre pornographic oeuvre (14) as indelible background wall paper, as a constant--if worrying--presence in our society. This is not just ubiquity. It is resignation, or learning to live with pornography. For some it is more. Brian McNair's Porno? Chic! explores the "process whereby the once heavily stigmatised and marginalised cultural form we call pornography has become not only more plentiful, and more visible, but also fashionable." (15)

    The other development is how pornography influences the non-pornographic. As one pair of clinical psychologists put it: "What happens on the screen may implicate life off of it." (16) The authors of The Porning of America wrote that pornography "has so thoroughly been absorbed into every aspect of our everyday lives" that "it has almost ceased to exist as something separate from the mainstream culture." (17) Though I think that they overstate the matter, these authors express the truth that pornography is now a force in enough persons' lives that it affects the social customs, expectations, and prospects of nearly everyone in or looking for a romantic relationship, including those who have no traffic with pornography. (18) Pornography's ubiquity and its acceptance have combined to shape cultural expectations of sex and sexual relationships, to shape our social opportunities, choices, and commitments--and thus to shape us.

    "Pornotopia" is an apt description of our peculiarly sexualized culture. Although it could be imagined by anyone today who logs onto the Internet and who knows the meaning of the word "utopia," Steven Marcus presciently coined the term in 1966 when he described the hidden pornographic world of "The Other Victorians." (19) Four decades later Rick Poynor used the word (with an appropriate nod to Marcus) in his own book Designing Pornotopia, denoting a fantastic (or fantasy) society come nearly true. (20) Poynor correctly observed that Marcus could never have foreseen how technology was "mak[ing] pornographic images available to anyone at any time." (21)

    But "pornotopia" is ambiguous. It is easy to see that pornography is flourishing. The question is whether we are.

    It is a question many people are asking. Pornography is "unique among sexual behaviors today," wrote Mark Regnerus in his important 2017 book, Cheap Sex, "in that segments of both Left and Right are now openly expressing concern about it." (22) Regnerus catalogs worries that range far beyond traditionalists' objection that pornography is disintegrative of moral character, and some feminists' assertion that pornography is incorrigibly misogynistic. (23) In 2010 scholars from fields as diverse as clinical psychology, law, economics, neuroscience, marriage counseling, psychotherapy, and politics brought out a volume--The Social Costs of Pornography--detailing some of these concerns. (24)

    Popular majorities share them. Two recent studies, one by the Austin Institute and another by a Pew research arm, report similar statistics: roughly two-thirds of Americans regard pornography consumption as immoral. (25) Fewer than three in ten think that consuming pornography is morally acceptable. (26) These figures do not precisely confirm that there are grave social costs of pornography, or that these effects call for a governmental response. But a deeper dive into these data shows that the salient "immorality" of pornography is not what it once would have been thought to be, which was a semi-paternalistic worry about masturbation and sexual disorder within the consumer's psyche and soul. (27) The main worry now is social and cultural, and it encompasses the well-being of people who do not themselves engage pornography.

    That people think these social effects are beyond the capacity of the private sphere to cure is confirmed by another statistical finding: according to one survey only thirty-nine percent of the American people oppose legal restrictions on pornography. (28) According to another, eighty-one percent believe federal laws against Internet obscenity should be vigorously enforced. (29) These findings acquire greater cogency when mapped over the statistics of intentional pornography access, for that composite indicates that many of those who disapprove of pornography and who support legal restrictions on it, regularly use it.

    The disquiet and these felt social costs owe much to the quality (if you will) as well as to the quantity of pornography today. Digitalized pornography is not just a more efficient delivery system of the pornography we remember, perhaps, from our youth. Consuming it is not just like gazing at a centerfold (or even a lot of centerfolds). Engaging with digital pornography is a new kind of sexual experience, one which is in some ways radically discontinuous with, say, going to a XXX movie. But neither is it a sexual relationship with another person. Digital pornography "replaces sex (for some), augments it (for others), and alters real sexual connection with real persons. It has changed sex and altered relationships in ways that iTunes has not changed music." (30)

    Digitalization is not, however, a sufficient explanation for "pornotopia," as if our "pornified" society were an implication of the microchip or the unavoidable entailment of putting a smart phone in everybody's palm. No culture is enslaved to technology or marches in lockstep to it. A particular, and particularly hospitable, cultural setting is another essential component of "pornotopia." No doubt the pornography industry seeks and shapes a suitable host culture, bending the status quo to its own peculiar ends. But culture always remains a more or less autonomous expression of a society's understanding of, and its moral judgments about (in this case) sexual matters. Maybe (as Gail Dines suggests in the sub-title of her Pornland) "porn has hijacked our sexuality." (31) But that does not mean that, if properly informed and motivated, we cannot take it back.

    The stubborn independence of culture from technology is evidenced by the majorities of Americans who call for some legal regulation of pornography despite being awash in it. The autonomy of culture is also clear from our country's criminal prohibitions on even at-home possession of child pornography, notwithstanding that technology enables its production and distribution just as it does pornography portraying adults. There is nothing inevitable or naturally necessary about banning child pornography. (32) Many societies have tolerated adult sexual access to children. (33) A few have celebrated it. (34) And one need only think back twenty-five or so years to see how our own society might have taken a more benign view of the sexual display of children for the pleasure of adults. (35) Even now that appetite is a matter of legal indifference: according to the Supreme Court, the cognizable harm in child pornography is the abuse incident to its production and not adults' interest in viewing it. (36) Unfettered adult access to "virtual" child pornography or to pornography featuring adults who look like children, remains constitutionally protected. (37)

    Our cultural and legal norms paved the road to "pornotopia." They could be changed to lead us out. We are heirs to a cultural mainstream of thought that sprang up in the late 1960s, which regarded pornography as harmless entertainment for those who had a taste for it. (38) Criticism of pornography was thus implicitly reduced to an expression of a subjective, usually emotional, aversion to it ("disgust" or "offense"). (39) We settled upon a regime in which the only legitimate public interests about pornography had to do with keeping public spaces reasonably free of lewd images, and limiting the anti-social consequences of pornography use--most notably, sex crimes. (40) Now we know that pornography does not lead to rape. (41) The Internet has largely privatized the consumption of pornography, which is transmitted...

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