Reviews > Culture

The pornographic culture

Culture | A lack of prosecution allowed porn to become mainstream

Issue: "Untouchable?," April 7, 2001

The sexual revolution that began in the 1960s has entered a new phase. Just as other kinds of objective reality-truth, morality, aesthetics, religion-have been drawn into the black hole of subjectivity, now it is happening to sex. First, sex was divorced from marriage; now, it is not even necessary to have a partner at all.

In contemporary culture, sex has become largely a matter of the imagination. In just a few short years, pornography has exploded in popularity and has found its way into American homes, video-monitors, and computers in an unprecedented bid at being considered normal and respectable. This new voyeurism is symptomatic of a wider mindset, a culture of self-gratification and self-abuse.

In 1973, Americans spent some $10 million on pornography, according to U.S. News & World Report. In 1997, Americans spent $8 billion on porn. As Roberto Rivera of the Rutherford Institute points out in an article for Beliefnet, this is nearly a thousand-fold increase. Porn now takes in more money than rock and country music combined, he points out, more than Hollywood's box office receipts.

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Today, nearly every family motel chain offers on-demand "adult movies." Digital cable and satellite TV services offer hard-core porn on pay-per-view, not to mention the soft-core fare on the premium channels. And though the old-fashioned "adult entertainment" businesses seem to be in a renaissance-bolstered by hundreds of new stripper and lap-dancing clubs-the sexual medium of choice is the Internet, which offers pictures, videos, and live streaming web-cams for every perversion.

And all of this has seeped into the mainstream culture so quickly that it has hardly attracted notice, as Holman Jenkins writes in the journal Policy Review. Much of the mainstreaming of porn has taken place within the last eight years. He points out that the Clinton administration virtually stopped prosecuting obscenity cases. During the Reagan-Bush years, the Meese Commission on Pornography studied the problem and the Justice Department prosecuted the worst offenders. Though convictions were hard to come by, the threat of litigation served as a restraint. Under President Clinton, though, the floodgates were opened.

Mr. Jenkins quotes porn-insider Dennis Hof, an associate of Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine: "Here's what happened. We've had eight years of lack of prosecution of a sex industry. Who's Bill Clinton going to prosecute with all his stuff going on? Janet Reno doesn't want any part of that. So the film industry has gone from 1,000 films eight years ago to 10,000 last year. Ten thousand pornographic movies. You've got Larry and [Penthouse publisher Bob] Guccione doing things that 10 years ago you'd go to prison for. Then you've got all the Internet stuff...."

Apologists for pornography hail voyeurism and self-gratification as the ultimate safe sex. No one is hurt, they say. No one can get pregnant. No one can get AIDS from watching a video. Porn makes possible a kind of sexuality that is available for all, even the unattractive and socially inept. Porn allows sex to transcend the body, locating it instead in the mind. It frees sex from every moral constraint, without the limitations inherent in real-world entanglements. Porn makes it possible to have sex without any of the messy complications of a relationship with another human being.

That is to say, it is the ultimate de-humanizing of sex. It is sex wholly and purposefully void of love. It takes what is designed for engendering new life and makes it sterile. It is gnostic, like the old heresy-which combined permissiveness with contempt for the physical world-an assault against the body itself.

And Christians are not immune. A Zogby poll sponsored by Focus on the Family found that 20 percent of American adults have patronized pornographic websites, with that percentage holding true for both Christians and non-Christians. Focus sponsors the Pure Intimacy website (www.pureintimacy.org), designed to offer biblical counseling for Christians addicted to porn.

Some Christians, though, are rationalizing the issue, as in a recent article on the online religion site Beliefnet that claimed "porn saved my marriage." The anonymous author took the tack of many culture-emulating Christians, whose response to sin-instead of repentance and being forgiven-is to insist that their vices are not bad after all. The "I am really a good person" line denies that all of us are sinners who need God's grace.

Jesus Himself addresses the moral and spiritual consequences of pornography: "Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully"-perhaps the best description of what pornography entails-"has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Pornography is a type of adultery. What we do in our imaginations is the moral and spiritual equivalent of what we do in our actions.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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