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Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families

Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families

By Pamela Paul

Pornography "is where hip hop was ten to fifteen years ago," according to one Hollywood marketer -- visible, sassy and here to stay. Watching porn together is now on Glamour magazine's "ultimate milestones on any relationship resume." Pornography has somehow become interlinked with America's carnival of functionless celebrities, so that network reality TV star Paris Hilton becomes -- in the lurid, green gaze of a camcorder -- a porn star, while porn star Ron Jeremy is cast in the "The Surreal Life," a cable reality TV series. In fact, swaggering by Space Mountain or the twirling teacups on a trip to Disney World in March, Jeremy was frequently stopped to pose for pictures with families of four, his adoring fans.

But porn's pop image has nothing to do with the stuff many people are actually watching, films such as "Gag Factor 15," a gang-banging dumb show based on the slayings on video that came out of Iraq, which shows "Arab" men "standing over a woman dressed in military clothes and dog tags shouting 'I was only following orders!' " Nor does our flippancy about pornography in public reflect the anxiety it can create in private life.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., told a congressional hearing on porn addiction last fall that, when traveling, some men he knows avoid their own hotel rooms, wary of the siren song of pay-per-view nudie flicks.

Brownback's remarks might sound like a typical Christian conniption fit -- as might the very idea of a congressional hearing on porn addiction. But with the political right bundling pornography with "family values" issues like gay marriage and abortion, and the left unconcerned or even embracing porn as a token of sexual liberation, a more serious conversation about how porn may be quietly warping our attitudes and relationships has yet to happen.


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Pamela Paul, a frequent contributor to Time and author of "The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony," has stripped porn of its culture-war claptrap by interviewing hundreds of people across almost every demographic. The results are sobering. Remember the guy who, halfway through "Fast Food Nation," pledged to stop eating meat but was back at McDonald's within days? "Pornified" is likely to inspire similar histrionics and -- let's face it -- similar fickleness.

The ease of Internet porn means, ironically, that people get bored with it more quickly. The possibilities seem infinite, but all ultimately unsatisfying.Paul makes it clear that to discuss porn today is to discuss Internet porn. With its infinitely various acts, ethnicities and nipple sizes, the Web has quickly become the so-called "crack cocaine" of smut. It's a hassle-free delivery system heightening something that never "veers from the automated path to pleasure" to begin with. It's amazing anyone can still leave home and hold a job, except that people are looking at porn at their jobs too, often openly. At Kentucky's state transportation bureau, more than 200 computers were found to access porn on a given day. And Paul discovers one Houston oil company employee actually sidelining for an adult Web site from his desk.

But the ease of Internet porn means, ironically, that people get bored with it more quickly. The possibilities seem infinite, but all ultimately unsatisfying. Tastes get "refined." (One connoisseur interviewed in "Pornified" kvetches about "stringy inner-thigh tendons that seem to show up on a lot of these anorexic-type models." Another says, "I'm sure I could find 50 more interesting versions within a few keystrokes.") Then tastes skew, more dramatically and faster than most people realize. Many men Paul speaks with are surprised at how an innocent fetish for, say, freckles or teachers can slip into a drive to see more abusive, degrading sex acts. An interview with one 21-year-old begins, "At first I was just happy to see a naked woman," and concludes, "Recently ... I've found that I like to see a guy pissing on a girl."

Whether or not it's OK to enjoy a tasteless or politically incorrect fantasy is almost beside the point. Heavy porn users -- as much as 19 percent of respondents to one poll say they look at it every day -- are effectively having more sex with these images than with other human beings. Over time, studies and Paul's interviews show, the normalcy of what's on the screen is taken for granted. Porn begins to cleave a troubling distance between the porn watcher and everyone else around him. It's this estrangement Paul laments, rather than simply a rash of kinkiness.

One man, for example, can't get off unless his girlfriend shouts at him that she'd rather be having sex with a black man and, well, she's not so into that. A preteen daughter discovers photos her father has taken of himself in her underwear. "I spent a lot of time lusting after my niece," another man concedes.

It's not always so extreme. It turns out actual women don't always like to have sex or talk about it the way women in porn do, and Paul finds many a young man unwittingly alienating his girlfriend with his polished, porn-star moves. Women may not like to yelp and moan, or coif their pubic hair just so -- which in the bizarro world of porn is made to appear like things even the Amish must do.

Moreover, rifling through porn is time-consuming and easy to get lost in. Many men in "Pornified" describe -- with less guilt than regret -- hours spent looking at porn even after the thrill is gone; "just going through the motions," one says. They wish they'd been doing something useful. Like corporate workaholics, here are men who spend less time with their families than in holing up in their broadband-wired dens and getting jiggy with Filipino schoolgirls, taking, as one put it, an attitude with their wives of "I know you know and I don't really care."

Apparently, another of the perceptions skewed by looking at lots of porn is that your girlfriend should be totally cool with it. Often she's not, and that's another source of trouble. One-third of women see online porn as cheating; only 17 percent of men do. More than half the users of one Internet filtering software were women monitoring or blocking their partner's Web activity, not their children's. Several lawyers tell Paul that Internet porn is at the root of more and more divorces. One midsize Virginia law office claims it's always got at least one such case going. But this may not even matter, as studies show big-time porn enthusiasts are less likely to want families in the first place, and particularly less likely to want daughters.

With all these unsettling stories, it's almost a surprise to find that there are cases of perfectly healthy, casual users, or those who simply choose not to look. (One Gen-X film buff complains, "They're not concerned about whether the Swedish plumber actually fixes the washing machine. The outcome is always inevitable," bless his artsy heart.) Paul is not immune to exaggeration or questionable assumptions. (Is it fair to characterize all porn stars as victims, or to include browsing online personals as using pornography?) Yet while there are arguments to be made, "Pornified's" stream of anecdotes and surveys breaks important ground.

Surprise! Sen. Sam Brownback might be right -- though the situation's more nuanced than he could ever imagine.

"Pornified" may stand as a Kinsey Report for our time, when there's little intrigue left to be pried loose from the matrimonial bedrooms of suburbia. People are having sex in front of their computers now, alone, and it's time someone acknowledged that shift in a levelheaded way.

Jon Mooallem has written recently for Harper's and the Nation.

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