The worldwide popularity of music is fascinating in that the reason for it isn't obvious. By contrast, it's easy to see why food is so widely enjoyed and central to cultures the world over: animals have to eat to survive. If you find eating pleasurable, you'll be more likely to do it than those who don't, and will therefore be more likely to live long enough to have offspring that share this trait. Working with others to secure food makes it more likely that you'll be successful in your efforts. Sharing food with your tribe makes it more likely that your kin will survive to pass on the relevant genes even if you don't. That cooking would become an art form and that communal dining would become a major element of culture are therefore completely predictable. That a lot of people would be just as invested, if not more so, in abstract sequences of sounds? Less predictable. Music seems to be a low-level hack into the mechanisms of emotion. Watching a movie, you need your entire neural architecture of interpersonal relationship analysis and empathy to parse the narrative content and determine that you ought to be sad, but the moment the violins on the soundtrack play a few minor chords it seems to trigger a sort of opcode: @feel(1111), or whatever the electrochemical equivalent of that would be. And the ability to effectively deploy those opcodes also seems to be preconscious to a great extent — the dispatches I've read from some of my favorite songwriters suggest that they're not necessarily the world's brightest bunch, and yet they can pick up a guitar or a microphone and treat the world to something exquisite. At the same time, music could hardly be more cerebral! Even a relatively simple piece of music is constituted of patterns layered on top of patterns layered on top of patterns. People I've heard opine on the subject have been pretty much unanimous in saying that music is inexhaustibly rich to study, every bit as rewarding intellectually as it is emotionally. For all these reasons, music is often called the purest and noblest of the arts. Porn isn't.
There's nothing especially mysterious about porn. If I knew nothing of human cultures, I'd never be able to predict the existence of pianists or mezzo-sopranos, but could easily guess that there would be strippers for the same reason I could guess that there'd be chefs. They're a logical outgrowth of physiological needs. You can say that we don't need sex the way we need food, but the problem there is that you're thinking like an organism. Instead, think like a gene. What can kill you off? Lack of oxygen will do it in a few minutes. Depending on the environment, lack of protection from the elements might do it in as little as a few hours (and it therefore stands to reason that clothing would develop in parts of the world and evolve into the fashion industry). Lack of water will do the job in a few days; lack of food, a few weeks. And lack of sex will kill that gene in a few decades. Slightly less of a priority, but given that a gene is effectively immortal so long as it can hop from one generation to the next, still plenty of reason to be frantic.
Oxygen is important enough that breathing is involuntary. Everything else on the list requires deliberate action. Only recently did brains develop to the point that we could figure out that we need warmth and nutrition to survive, so natural selection provided physiological cues to force us to seek out those things without needing to understand why. If your body drops below an acceptable temperature, the best solution might be to move to a part of the globe where temperatures stay within the optimum range for human life, but the physiological prompt you receive is the sensation of cold and mainly what you want is to get warm. Firing up the space heater will do. If you're lacking some essential nutrients, the best solution might be to consume a healthful meal with the right balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats to keep your body working at peak capacity, but the physiological prompt you receive is the sensation of hunger and mainly what you want is to get full. A bowl of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs will do. And if the world is lacking in fresh copies of your genes, the best solution might be to have unprotected sexual intercourse with a robust mate, but the physiological prompt you receive is the sensation of horniness and mainly what you want is to get off. Masturbating will do, and porn helps.
Stone Age to 1971
Porn has been around since the dawn of history. Even if you don't consider things like the Venus of Willendorf and Adonis von Zschernitz porn, the scenes of intercourse on Greek vases and Peruvian pottery are pretty unmistakable. But, as with music, distribution was a problem. When you've handmade a single item, how do you reach an audience? A lot of sexually explicit art in the ancient world was put on public display, in the form of murals in Pompeii or friezes in Khajuraho, where it wasn't immediately useful as porn. Other pieces were commissioned by wealthy households, but even so, erotic statuary seems somewhat impractical as a masturbatory aid (though Pygmalion might disagree). Deeper diffusion into the populace became possible with the advent of printing. Pornographic woodblock prints were popular in East Asia long before Gutenberg, while in Europe the alphabet made moveable type possible and so smut tended to take the form of text with the occasional engraving by way of illustration: Pietro Aretino, the Marquis de Sade, Fanny Hill. Books were still expensive, but eventually pamphleteering and increasing literacy meant that porn could reach a mass audience in a form that allowed that audience to enjoy the porn privately. In some places it became a pretty important genre — in France, in fact, porn became one of the primary vehicles for political activism, with some citing anti-clerical and anti-monarchical porn as a contributing cause of the French Revolution. But up through the mid-19th century, all porn had one thing in common: it was all imaginary. Plays never to be performed, drawings of scenes that had never taken place. The next great transformation came with photography.
Photographs were initially so expensive that in the 1840s it was cheaper to fuck a prostitute than to take her picture. And why not? A sexual encounter lasts a matter of minutes while a photograph can easily outlast both its subject and its purchaser. A prostitute could service a neighborhood; a photo of a nude French girl — for in its vast supply of porn models, France was the 19th-century equivalent of Russia and Ukraine today — could wend its way from an underground studio in Paris to a frontier cabin in Missouri. And their price did drop quickly. The development of halftone printing meant that by the turn of the century you could even put photographs in magazines. They looked kind of muddy, though, and so porn in the first half of the 20th century tends to call to mind Tijuana bibles (proving that Rule 34 predates the Internet) and pinup girls. Photos finally became dominant following the 1953 premiere of Playboy, which broke softcore photography into the mainstream. "Mainstream" meaning that you could pick it up at your local newsstand. If you were brazen enough. And if you were of age. But while Playboy pitched itself as a lifestyle mag for the happenin' bachelor who had his own pad and could therefore get a subscription, this did not describe its entire distribution network. You've probably heard the lore of junior high boys finding stashes of Playboys out in the woods or hidden in the guest house or in a box in Dad's closet, bringing them to school, and swapping them around. This actually used to happen! As recently as 1986! I remember being scandalized beyond belief back in eighth grade when I learned that my buddy Jason Cheng was involved in a... a... a porn ring, overhearing him negotiating during P.E. to borrow the Playboys that some kid had found. But, yeah, he was just part of a long tradition. The Who put out a song about it called "Pictures of Lily" back in 1967. It tells the story of a sexually frustrated young man who, at long last, manages to get hold of some actual real life pornographic images: nude photos of a 19th-century French girl that his dad had hung onto since his own adolescence in the 1920s, porn being just that difficult to come by. The best I could do when I finally hit that age was to smuggle anatomy-for-artists books out of the school library while putting together prep books for OCAD. (And having now seen what Playboy centerfolds of the 1980s looked like, I think "girl archer" wins that battle.)
Meanwhile, by the late 19th century movies had been invented. Pretty much immediately this meant that porn movies had also been invented. For the majority of their history, however, they've been illegal (and still are, some places). That, plus the equipment needed just to take a gander at one, meant that seeing a "stag film" was far from an everyday thing. But the Hays Code that had governed the content of American films since 1930 came to an end on 1968 November 1. The following March, the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) was released in the United States. Its nudity, simulated sex, and scene of fellatio got it banned in Massachusetts. But on 1971 February 23 the Supreme Court gave the movie the legal thumbs-up.
this is where we came in
This was a very strange cultural moment. When I was doing research for my article on The Late Shift I happened across a video clip of Jay Leno back in the 1970s talking about his college days. He'd arrived on campus in 1970, just as the college had adopted a new policy instituting coed dormitories. Up through the end of the 1960s, this was almost unheard of: pretty much every school in the country had segregrated men and women into separate buildings, or at the very least, would take a high-rise and allot the top six floors to the women and the bottom six floors to the men, something like that. Visitors of the opposite sex were either banned or had to sign in, stay in common areas, all that jazz. Now suddenly you had students of opposite sexes living next door to each other, fucking in their dorm rooms, emerging from shower stalls together, shocking visiting parents, and the question was: This is the culture now? This is the way it's going to be for the next while, is it? And if my college experience twenty years later was at all representative, the answer was: yep, that's pretty much the size of it. At the same time dorms were going coed, on movie screens where in 1966 the word "screw" had been censored from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? you now had Swedish girls putting their mouths on guys' dicks. And, again, the question was: This is the culture now? This is the way it's going to be for the next while? Frank depictions of sexuality are going to be treated as perfectly normal? Wholesome young lasses like Gwen Stacy are going to ask their wholesome young boyfriends like Peter Parker to a night out watching people fuck?
|Amazing Spider-Man#101 (1971). Not Photoshopped.|
It's easy to look back at cultural transformations, knowing what the point of equilibrium would turn out to be, and think that people should have known that the new status quo was inevitable. At the time, as cinema took the trip down the alphabet from G (in 1968, Stanley Kubrick released the G-rated 2001, and the Oscar winner was the G-rated Oliver!) to X (the following year the Oscar winner was the X-rated Midnight Cowboy, and Kubrick's next film was the X-rated A Clockwork Orange), there was no telling how far things might go now that the censors had called off the dogs. Do you still depict sex with a meaningful glance and a fade to black? Let the actors strip down but shoot them coyly, like Playboy centerfolds? Or do you actually show penises sliding into vaginas? Vladimir Nabokov, whose novel Laughter in the Dark was made into an X-rated movie in 1969, noted at the time that there was "absolutely no tradition behind" what he called "the porno grapple." "The Swedes and we have to start from scratch," he explained, and he didn't care for the result: "the blotchy male shoulder, the false howls of bliss, the four or five mingled feet." Nevertheless, that's where mainstream film wound up stopping. For whatever reason, Hollywood seemed to decide that, no, real movies would not include real sex.
Those in the porn industry saw an opportunity. Why not grab that piece of cultural real estate from the other direction? Start with the sex, and then try to add a story and acting decent enough to qualify your production as a real movie? This notion inaugurated the so-called "porno chic" fad, when enough regular couples went to see the likes of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones and Emmanuelle to make them among their years' big winners at the box office. And then they stopped going. Boogie Nights suggests two reasons why. One is that the movies were terrible; more than anything else, Boogie Nights is an exercise in saying "ha ha, FAIL" at the notion of porn stars trying to act and porn directors trying to write. The other is that the mainstreaming of porn was short-circuited by the rise of the VCR, but here the movie's history strikes me as a little off. By 1977, when Boogie Nights opens, the porn-as-art ship had already sailed. Jack Horner's speech early in the movie about his filmmaking dreams sounds much more appropriate to 1971 than '77. And that very speech explains why!
As Horner relates, in the 1970s even as minor a cinematic undertaking as a porn movie meant spending money on cameras, light and sound rigs, lab costs, and a crew of fifteen to twenty guys, amounting to maybe $30,000 in 1977 dollars just to get started ($105,000 today). That made every movie a significant commercial enterprise. And unless Howard Hughes wanted to squeeze your latest feature in between private screenings of Ice Station Zebra, the only way to reach an audience and recoup your investment was, as in antiquity, through public exhibition. Herein lay the problem. People watch comedy movies to laugh, horror movies to scream, special effects movies to say "whoa." What do people watch porn movies to do? In theory, a public screening of a porn movie should lead to a sort of orgy, right? Jack Horner says quite matter-of-factly that the viewers of his films are, he expects, jerking off right there in the theater. So while Gwen Stacy might well be interested in watching something sexy with her gentleman friend, does she really want to do so with Pee-Wee Herman choking his chicken three seats away? And say that the movie does its job and our heroes do find themselves getting aroused. Then what? Is Gwen going to make like Alanis Morissette while the ushers give Pete a thumbs-up?
In the early 1970s, this wasn't necessarily a rhetorical question. Who was to say that public sex wouldn't become as acceptable in suburban movie theaters as it had been at Woodstock? With the culture unrecognizable from one moment to the next, couldn't it become standard protocol to ignore the couple quietly fooling around in the row in front of you the same way you ignore the "oh-oh-OH!-mmMMMmm" coming from the other side of the wall as you study for your o-chem midterm? But by 1977, we pretty much knew that the answer was no. People like Gerard Damiano had correctly ascertained that the Supreme Court, in striking down the porn ban, had opened up a brief window during which enough curious couples might check out a hardcore film to make it a hit, if it earned a reputation as one you could bring a date to. How those dates went would determine the future of the industry. And it turned out that when those movies did attract the right buzz and the couples did go, the orgy pit failed to materialize. Instead, most people got skeeved like Betsy in Taxi Driver and didn't come back. By the middle of the decade the porn theaters once again belonged to the Travis Bickles of the world. Nowadays it seems farfetched that anyone could have thought the result might be different, but that's hindsight. It's not as if it was unheard of for teenage couples at a regular movie to sit in the back row and furtively try for third base, right? But that was usually because it was the closest thing to privacy the poor kids could find. Adults had an alternative: home. And as the '70s gave way to the '80s, more and more people in the porn industry began to notice that those homes often contained a device that could play movies.
When I took Laura Kipnis's porn colloquium in grad school, that was pretty much the end of the story: VCRs had solved porn's central problem by making the consumption of pornography private. But of course they hadn't, not entirely! Porn movies had merely caught up with the skin mags, which effectively put them both in the Victorian period. You still had to leave your house; go to a video rental outlet; slip behind the curtain into the back room and browse the offerings while surrounded by other customers; take them to the counter where a clerk would look at you and your selections; show your rental card on which the clerk could see your name... and that's assuming that you were legally allowed to do any of this, and had the disposable income to afford it. The shy, the underage, and the broke were out of luck.
Unless they had a modem.
Internet porn 1.0
After I graduated from junior high, I transferred to another district to go to a high school with a computer science magnet program. This meant that I went from being surrounded by guys trading pilfered Playboys to guys sharing porn bitmaps they'd painstakingly downloaded from The Tiger's Den BBS. I was more into Sopwith and Flightmare at the time, but these guys would browse through their collections right there in the middle of Pascal class, so I got a few inadvertent glimpses: they were completely random images, scanned in glorious one-bit color. But they were free, they were unpoliced, and they could be anonymously accessed from home. That made them the wave of the future.
Enough time has passed since then that the future has arrived in two successive waves. The BBS pictures were the leading edge of the first one, when what is today called "Internet porn" was revolutionary for its distribution method but not its content. The content was the same stuff you'd find at any XXX shop, and in the very early days, quite literally so: the chief vehicle for online porn distribution was the alt.binaries hierarchy on Usenet, and the offerings were pretty much all scans of adult magazines of some variety. The advent of the web made browsing and acquiring pictures more convenient, but it was still the same basic stuff. In some cases, exactly the same: playboy.com, for instance, put up most of the magazine's monthly content for free from its debut in 1994 until it finally went behind a paywall at the end of the '90s, and was therefore a dominant player in the early web. In other cases the content was original to the net but indistinguishable from the scans. And the stories behind the pictures were often not too dissimilar to what we see in Boogie Nights. Someone would gather a small stable of young people who either really needed the money, or were acting out after a troubled home life, or thought it might be a road into showbiz, or lived in Eastern Europe and had no other options, and take a whole bunch of pictures of them. A few years back the Wall Street Journal had an article about one of these guys, not too different from the Burt Reynolds character in Anderson's movie — Steve Jones, his name was.
One reason is rooted in the past. I know where Dirk Diggler's money came from: it was his share of the box office and videotape sales. But how did Lori Bazzill make $200,000? You can see all her pictures for free by typing her alias into Google Images! You can get all her movies for free by doing a simple torrent search! I never really understood the economic model behind Internet porn. Sites tend to offer a few pictures for free —and by "a few," I mean "a few hundred" — and then hit visitors up for a membership fee. They also tend to make money off the pop-up ads and pay-per-click links with which they deluge visitors, but that just begs the question. Where do the sites paying for the ads get their money? I kind of figured that it was a sort of pyramid scheme that would collapse as soon as the sites paying for advertising couldn't find new suckers to pay them for advertising space. But I did a little research and apparently there is at least some money coming in through memberships... from people who paid for porn in the '70s and '80s and are therefore used to it. But even they won't keep paying for a membership unless they're getting new material. Once they have shots of a particular model's body from every conceivable angle, they're not going to pay for more of the exact same stuff. I'm guessing that the real story was that Lori Bazzill was told she had to go beyond solo work to stay employed, and she quit... only to become a wage slave and discover that there are worse jobs than licking a few clits. But I'm also guessing that there's another reason. And that one's rooted in the future. Jordan Capri's career spanned the mid-'00s, and it was right around that time that porn models doing simple nude shots got a new competitor: everyone.
Internet porn 2.0
In 1999, an 18-year-old programmer named Shawn Fanning coded up a service called Napster that put peer-to-peer file sharing on the map alongside email and the web as a primary Internet application. The late '90s had seen the MP3 format for music files take hold, but looking for MP3s on search engines such as Lycos nearly always resulted in a frustrating shuffle through page after page of dead links. Napster allowed users to offer MP3 files to each other directly from their hard drives, meaning that if you could see a file, you knew that it was live and you could grab it. But Napster was sufficiently centralized that the courts were able to shut it down. Popping up in its place were services such as Kazaa, Morpheus, and WinMX. These allowed the trading of not just music but all types of files. So you might look at someone's share directory, and there among the latest tracks by Coldplay and Outkast and whatever the hell else people were listening to in the early '00s would be files with names like blowjob_0027.mpg and analfisting.avi. (Also, that second one would be 869 bytes long, meaning that it was a virus.) Actually type in a pornographic search term and the results list would usually scroll right off the screen. But this time it wasn't just a digitized porn store. In Boogie Nights Jack Horner complains that the cheapness of videotape means that a lot more movies will be made, requiring producers to bring in "a bunch of fucking amateurs" to fill all the roles. And "amateur porn" sites have always been big on the web. But in these contexts "amateur" just means "doesn't have an established career as a porn star." New terms had to be settled upon to mean "not actually shot by a professional porn crew." One was "homemade." Another was "cam." This is the category that's changing the culture.
The cam clips that circulated on Kazaa fell into a couple of different genera. One was "spycam" material, in which a guy would stick a standard camcorder somewhere in his apartment or dorm room — sometimes secretly, and sometimes, despite the name, openly — and record himself having sex with his girlfriend. This was not markedly different from what Bob Crane was doing in the '70s. The big change was that, until 2001, you couldn't do anything with those tapes except watch them yourself or maybe pass them around your circle of friends. Now you could digitize them — albeit at some microscopic resolution like 240x180 — and share them on Kazaa. Homemade porn now had a channel for mass distribution.
The second half of the story was the "camgirl" stuff. You may recall that I wrote about Jennicam in my article on The Truman Show. Jennicam wasn't porn; yes, you might see a still of her masturbating, or sitting naked at her computer after a shower, but she wasn't putting on a show. She was just ignoring the camera and behaving like a normal person. The same could not be said for the hundreds of camgirls who followed in her wake, whose sites operated by the standard method: offer a little free content, such as galleries of stills or a webcam with a slow refresh rate, and put on shows for those who purchased memberships. Again, in a sense this was nothing markedly different from what had come before; these were simply young women who had decided to go into the porn business much as Rollergirl had a quarter century before. What made them noteworthy was that they didn't need the cameraman and the sound guy. A webcam rig meant they could enter the profession on their own initiative.
And now everyone has one.
In the mid-'00s adoption of camera phones reached a tipping point and suddenly every teenager in the Western world had a device in her purse with which she could take photographs. And usually one of the first things she did with it was take off her clothes and snap a picture of herself in her bedroom mirror. Or bathroom mirror. Or sometimes she'd just hold it at arm's length, point the lens in the vague direction of her body, make a stupid face, and hope for the best. Again, this was nothing unprecedented in and of itself. Polaroids had been around for a while. In Boogie Nights Rollergirl spends a scene skating around and taking a few. And I seem to recall that one of the plot points in Blame It on Rio involves the teenage girl taking a naked Polaroid of herself to give to her boyfriend. But a Polaroid was a single object. You could pass it around like a Picture of Lily but there were only so many people it could reach. Things are different now. Send a picture of your breasts to your boyfriend and there's a non-zero chance that they'll end up on 4chan. The same goes for video. The webcams that used to be a pricey add-on are now built directly into laptop cases. You can be doing homework in one window and in another be on Stickam or Tinychat playing "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" with someone across the world. You can also end up as a featured player on a caps site if your partner's saving the stream. Which you may have to be of a certain age to realize is amazing.
There came a point in 1987 or thereabouts when it suddenly occurred to me that of all the sights one could look at in the world, pretty women with their tops off were the best. It also occurred to me that the Los Angeles Times helpfully marked cable movies containing this sight with an N in its TV listings, and that I knew how to program a VCR. Thus, if such a movie happened to be playing around, say, 2 a.m., when the VCR could loudly spring to life without anyone knowing, I could tape it and then watch the tape when no one else was home. In this wise I could see some breasts as often as once every week or two. Score!
I can't even imagine how I would have reacted had someone told me that, fifteen years later, your average nerdy American boy going through puberty would have, right on his bedside table, a device with which he could call up pretty much any nude scene ever committed to film. I mean, that's crazy. To the youth of 1990 porn meant the three pictures stashed in your closet; to the youth of 2000 it was practically a public utility. How is this not a landmark in human history? It's like living through the transition from hauling buckets of water up from the bottom of a well to the installation of indoor plumbing. The difference between 1975 (porn must be purchased item by item, access is limited, movies must be watched in theaters) and 1985 (porn must be purchased item by item, access is limited, movies can be watched at home) pales in comparison.
Now consider the difference between 2000 and the current era. In 2000, porn was free with an Internet connection and essentially unlimited, but it still consisted almost entirely of performers: porn stars, aspiring porn stars, models, actors. So if you had told me in 1992, when I was eighteen, that by the turn of the century I would have a device with which I could call up all the porn I wanted, I might not actually have been all that impressed, because I didn't want much. I mean, I had a Tower Video card at that point. If I really wanted porn I could go get it. But I didn't, and it wasn't poverty or inconvenience or even embarrassment that kept me out of the back room — it was that I really had no interest in watching half-plastic Frankenstein monsters doing permutation problems with orifices while making noises that only context suggests are supposed to signify orgasm. I did occasionally rent videos from the main room that I did not expect to enjoy other than for the glimpses they offered of Jane March and Jennifer Jason Leigh, because of the categories of women who offered such glimpses, cute actresses were way more appealing than dead-eyed strippers and androgynous fashion models. But they were a poor substitute for the videos I really wanted, the ones featuring the girls in room 314, or my English 15 class, or my high school yearbook. "Anything like that in 2000?", I might have asked. And the answer would have been no. Of course it would have been no. I would have been asking for the impossible, like when I was in elementary school and we had to write letters for a "make-a-wish" organization and instead of asking for a bike or a trip to Disneyland I requested a talking penguin. The shocking thing is that to change the answer to that impossible yes I would only have needed to change the last digit of the question.
"How do we begin to covet?" noted psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter once asked. Note the phrasing. To covet means more than simply to want: the very word evokes the sidelong glance, the coiling of the spring. You might really want a swig of water when you're thirsty, but you can't really covet one unless you're lost in the desert and someone else has the only canteen. Otherwise water is just too easy to get. We can only covet things that we are denied in one way or another: the flashy car we can't afford, the whizbang gadget that isn't out for another three months, the corner office we're too low in the pecking order to even peek into. And, of course, we covet each other. Because we deny ourselves to each other.
There was a Canadian band called the Odds that got a bit of play on KROQ in the '90s with a song called "Heterosexual Man," whose verses began with lines such as, "I want to make every woman I see," "I want to have every woman I know," "I want to get every girl on the globe," and so forth. But despite my generally high levels of horndoggery I can't actually concur with this sentiment. Like Seymour in Ghost World, I can't relate to 99% of humanity, at least not nearly well enough to provide a basis for intimacy. While this number has fluctated from time to time, right now I can say that the only human being of my acquaintance with whom I am interested in having sex is my girlfriend. But how can I reconcile this assertion with the one I just made two paragraphs ago about wishing for porn of everyone I've ever met? Very simply: looking at porn of someone is not an attenuated substitute for sex with that person. Sex is a type of interaction. Porn is a type of information. The proof? They call the Internet the "information superhighway." They also say that the Internet is for porn. Therefore porn is information! The logic in this is perfect, exquisite, and absolute.
"Every boy is interested in trains," Bertrand Russell wrote in 1930. "Suppose we kept his eyes bandaged whenever he was in a train or on a railway station [...] the result would not be that he would cease to be interested in trains; on the contrary, he would become more interested than ever. [...] This is precisely what is done in the matter of sex; but, as sex is more interesting than trains, the results are worse." Yet even those of us who agree with Russell's point regarding sex education tend to be advocates of censorship where our own sexuality is concerned. We generally wear clothes, for instance, which is to a great extent just a way of bandaging people's eyes — we're simply adjusting the location of the visual barrier. And, as Russell points out, this has the paradoxical effect of creating desire where it might not otherwise have existed. It starts with a fleeting thought, a thought prompted not by libido so much as curiosity, as in childhood:
We usually don't get to learn the answer to that question. We usually don't get to learn much of anything we might wonder about the sexual side of our acquaintances — what their favorite moves are, the type of noises they make, how easily they come. In our culture this is all privileged information, only for our partners. Performers sometimes share some of it, and the conflict between the demands of their profession and those of the culture can really trouble them; I once read an interview in which Kevin Costner, asked about the worst part of being a movie star, replied, "What bothers me more than anything is now everyone knows how I kiss." And so the answer to these fleeting questions are denied us. In the case of someone we pass on the street, that might well be the end of it. But run into someone a hundred times, have that fleeting thought a hundred times, be denied a hundred times, and we start to covet that information. And so it is that Hannibal Lecter can answer his own question by saying, "We begin by coveting what we see every day."
I've read some naturist polemics that claimed that, in a clothing-optional society, we would dissociate nudity from sexuality and coveting each other's bodies would be a thing of the past. That's silly. There would still be bodies that we lusted after, just as in our veil-optional society there are still faces that turn us on. But it does seem less likely that the straightforward pleasure of gazing upon physical beauty would be all tangled up with the pleasure of sated curiosity. As it stands, the "Wow!" factor often seems to take a back seat to the "Finally!" factor. People flip out when a TV actress finally drops her top in some movie or other, not because she's actually any better-looking than those who've done similar scenes around the same time, but simply because after years of watching her on the WB every week they finally get to find out What's Under That Dress.
|Donna Michelle Ronne|
Miss December 1963
So far as I'm aware there is still not yet an app that allows you to point your phone at someone and get a clip of her undressing. But all you need is a web browser and you can find thousands of her counterparts undressing for their cameras in thousands of room 314s in thousands of dorms. To put it another way: In 1971 Gwen Stacy asked Peter Parker to take her to I Am Curious (Yellow). In the same scene set twenty years later, they'd have rented it from Kim's Video and watched it at home. In the same scene set ten years after that, they'd be ganking it off Limewire for free. And in the same scene set today, they'd be surfing the porn blogs in their separate apartments, using Skype to chat about their discoveries:
o tempora o mores
You hear a lot of tut-tutting from the over-40 set about the fact that, these days, by the time she gets to Empire State University a perfectly sweet and wholesome girl like Gwen Stacy might well have made a couple of bate vids for the boys she was dating. Some principal will confiscate a phone and the next thing you know (a) some tenth-grader is being hauled into court on child porn charges for taking pictures of her own body and (b) a million columnists will cluck about how, yes, the laws are Kafkaesque, but at the same time, why oh why must these foolish teens show such bad judgment?
You heard the same uproar in the '90s in response to another cultural shift. Teenagers of that era knew that true love didn't really wait, but at the same time, they'd been drilled with the message that sexual intercourse was terribly dangerous and that having it made you a slut. The unintended but eminently practical result was a generation that was markedly more casual than its forebears about oral sex. A good first date might end with a kiss and a good second one with a blowjob. Why not? Oral sex couldn't get you pregnant, it was easy to do — way easier than getting aroused at the same time, fiddling with contraception, lining up all the parts correctly when you'd never done so before, etc. — and you didn't have to offer quite so much of yourself to your partner. And yet you still had all the fun of sharing orgasms with each other. A perfect adaptation to changing times! But the chattering class was aghast. In my day, they said, oral sex was something extra! First you held hands, then you kissed, then you awkwardly groped each other for a couple of years, then you finally got lucky, then you got married and had kids and turned thirty and got bored with sex and finally tried oral as a way to spice things up! (That's how it worked in Alter Ego, anyway.) And it's like, okay, that's cool, but that was your day. This is a different day. Culture evolves.
Now technology has launched another shift in sexual mores. The first trip to second base now often comes in the form of a series of ones and zeroes. And why not? Taking off your clothes for someone is a big step. Doesn't it make sense that, given the choice, you might want to take that step in the comfort of your own bedroom, with your partner — still largely a stranger, which is both thrilling and a little scary — safely inscribed within a rectangle on a screen? It's the same logic that makes kids ask each other out through texts rather than in person: distance lends courage. Too much courage for their own good? Maybe, but this strikes me as a case of what in my classes I call Vegas Syndrome. That is, if you walk into a casino, it sounds like everyone playing the slots is winning because the machines only make noise when they pay out. If losing machines made a buzzing sound they'd totally drown out the winners. So what are the real chances that anyone's pictures will be made public? Yes, there are thousands of pictures on the net that weren't intended to be shared, but for each of those, how many thousands more remain safely ensconced on the phones they were sent to? Are any of these commentators actually doing a cost/benefit analysis, or are their accusations of "bad judgment" cover for a puritanical reflex?
I suspect that the argument that "young people shouldn't send nudes of themselves to their sweethearts because they might get out" stems from a misapplication of an obsolete cultural sequence. Again, compare the current debate to the '90s hysteria over oral sex. "Oh my God! The Washington Post says that my 15-year-old daughter is probably sucking her boyfriend's cock! Only whores do that! That makes her a whore!" Well, no. You're taking a cultural script that says "oral sex is super kinky" and applying it to a generation that sees it as pretty tame. (The pundits also tended to ignore the likelihood that she was receiving equivalent attentions from her paramour — that wasn't part of their script at all.) Now just change a few words. "Oh my God! Kaplan Test Prep Daily says that my 15-year-old daughter is probably sending her boyfriend pictures of her breasts! That's porn! That means she's doing porn!" Okay, maybe. But you're taking a cultural script that says "making porn is a shameful career choice for lost souls" and applying it to a generation that sees it as a fun way to flirt. Which it is.
then suddenly I lost interest
Many fields of inquiry must take into account the observer effect: watching something very often changes what's being watched. A simple example from subatomic physics is that to "see" an electron you have to bounce a photon off it and thereby alter its trajectory. In computer science, a program that monitors CPU usage might itself eat up a lot of processor time. And of course a great way to make most people behave unnaturally is to train a camera on them. The most trivial effect of this where porn is concerned is the one Boogie Nights delights in the most, the fact that the actors sound like defective robots as they recite their lines: "Some people told me the food in here is really good!" The more interesting one is the larger question: how does the observer effect alter the sexual behavior of an entire society?
Naomi Wolf lamented in 2003 that, thirty years earlier, "when Behind the Green Door first opened, clumsy, earnest, missionary-position intercourse was still considered to be a huge turn-on," whereas later, women "had to compete with video porn in the eighties and nineties, when intercourse was not hot enough" and "all mainstream porn — and certainly the Internet — made routine use of all available female orifices." We see this in the second half of Boogie Nights, in a brief scene in which Jack Horner is supervising one of his first shoots after the switchover to video. It's clearly intended as a parallel scene to Eddie Adams's first shoot, sort of a cinematic equivalent of those "what are the five differences between these two pictures" puzzles. One of the differences is that instead of actors who are presented as movie stars, with specific, memorable monikers — Dirk Diggler, Amber Waves — we have "Johnny Doe" (because, get it, get it, he's anonymous, get it) and a woman who doesn't even get a name — in the script she's billed only as "AMATEUR". Another difference is that while the scene with Dirk and Amber is an off-kilter version of a tender encounter — Dirk is touchingly concerned with making it "sexy," and Amber is sufficiently overcome with affection for him that she changes her mind and asks him to come inside her — the amateur actress's first line in the later scene is, "Is he gonna fuck me in the ass?" Jack asks whether that's what she wants, she says yes, and with a resigned sigh and wave of his cigarette, Jack turns away and says, "Fuck her in the ass."
It was in this era that Andrea Dworkin wrote her famous screeds against pornography, arguing that it taught viewers to equate eroticism with degradation of women. Certainly it seems to have had that effect on Tiger Woods, who used his fame to hook up with porn stars whom he serenaded with text messages like:
04:02 PM 08/29/2009|
I want to treat you rough. Throw you around, spank and slap you
04:06 PM 08/29/2009
04:08 PM 08/29/2009
But while Dworkin believed that the rise of porn would turn all men into wild-eyed rapists, Wolf countered that, on the contrary, the problem is that "far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention." Before videocassettes and Internet porn, she argued, "it was still pretty cool to be able to offer a young man the actual presence of a naked, willing young woman" and "you could get a pretty enthusiastic response by just showing up." Now, she continues, a woman can only get that sort of reaction in other cultures, such as in the Middle East, where sex still has "mystery," and a married man is forever turned on by his wife because he "never even sees another woman's hair."
But I grew up before the web. I know what it's like for sex to be a mystery. Bertrand Russell might have argued that "there is no rational ground of any sort or kind in keeping a child ignorant of anything that he may wish to know, whether on sex or on any other matter," but my mother wouldn't have agreed even if she'd heard of him. Her cultural script said that children are to be kept ignorant of sex until shortly before puberty, at which point all is to be revealed in a momentous facts-of-life talk with the parent of the same gender. When I was eleven years old she started to passive-aggressively pressure my father, who was usually not too involved with the child rearing, to give me The Talk, which finally happened one evening when I was trying to watch the Clippers game on KTLA. I think it was the beginning of the second quarter. He just came right out with it and asked whether I knew the basics of sex, and, having previously looked up "sex" in the online Groliers encyclopedia offered by the Dow Jones online service, I said that I did. He put me on the spot and made me explain; after demurring a couple of times, I finally came out with it: "The man puts his penis in the woman's vagina, then sperm is released and fertilizes the egg." My father said that there was a bit more to the story. For instance, he explained, first the penis must get hard, because a soft penis cannot enter the vagina. I said that I knew that. Then things took a turn from the moderately embarrassing to the mortifying. "Has your penis ever gotten hard?" he asked. I muttered that it had. "Is there a girl at school who makes it hard?" he continued. I said no, but he pressed the point. "When you look at her, or when you think about her? There must be someone!"
The thing is, there totally wasn't. I had never gotten aroused by a particular girl — I was too young for that, and for that matter, didn't even know any my own age. What turned me on was the thought of girls in general and sexuality in general, of the basic abstract quality of female and the quality of nakedness. And apparently, if Naomi Wolf had her way, my psychosexual development would have stopped right about there! Turned on not by the particular human being I was with, distinct from all others, but by the fact that I was seeing a woman's hair, a woman's body. I mean, if you can get an enthusiastic response just by showing up with the right parts, doesn't that imply that anyone with the right parts would do? Shouldn't a woman want to be more to her partner than just "access to sex"?
I do agree that imprinting on the grotesquerie that is professional hardcore is bad. If you've ever thought, "I need to get rigid basketballs implanted in my chest!" or "Any chick who isn't up for an anal DP isn't worth my time!" then your culture has basically ruined you. But, even if it were possible, I don't think that the solution would be to return to the days when access to sexual media was limited or nonexistent. When my brothers and I were small, our usual babysitter was a high school kid who lived down the street. He used to talk about all the awesome R-rated movies with hot naked babes that he'd seen on HBO, but my mother said that we were too young for that sort of thing: "That's the wrong way," she'd say — meaning, basically, anything other than marital sex in the missionary position solely for the purpose of procreation — "and first you have to learn the right way." And there would be a time for that, and apparently it would be during a Clippers game, and then I still wouldn't be allowed to see anything beyond a PG until I was out of the house. Anyway, this may be way too optimistic an interpretation of the current state of affairs, but I think that Internet porn 2.0 may be a big part of the solution to the dilemma. Flood the porn zone with the sort of material that would be great to imprint on: regular attractive people in all their diversity, with regular unmutilated bodies, having healthy interactions with one another. Boogie Nights ends with Dirk Diggler reciting, "I'm a star, I'm a star, I'm a star." Well, there are a couple of ways to keep people from noticing a star. You can try to block it out. Or you can surround it with a galaxy.
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