Several weeks ago I was in a bookstore, where I noticed a boy of 10 or 12 thumbing through the most recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. His mother stood nearby, her boy and his newfound reading material in full sight. She seemed not to care. It's a sign of something-decayed community bonds, perhaps, or moral cowardice-that the thought of speaking to her about this made me cringe. Then the boy put down the magazine, and they wandered to another part of the bookstore, and that was that.
Of course that wasn't really that, because the entire purpose of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and indeed of most pornography choking the stream of popular culture-be it sexual or violent-is to cast images that are unforgettable. Whether it's a woman arching luridly, or a film villain carving up his screaming victims, their creators and especially their profit-seeking marketers want you to remember what you've witnessed.
And boys do remember. I remember discovering my stepfather's stash of pornography as a child, and the heart-thumping realization that here was something secret and forbidden. There's no regaining your innocence once you've looked upon obscenity. That's one reason for obscenity laws, not so much that we might transform the onanist or pornographer, but because once a child sees the vulgar T-shirt or cast-aside magazine, he is forever changed.
The sophisticated will snicker. What's wrong with a boy looking at women in bathing suits, after all? It's hardly hardcore pornography, after all. And besides, boys will be boys.
Boys will indeed be boys, but there are a great many varieties of boys, and of men. The person who pretends that seeing women as items of sexual consumption doesn't shape a man's behavior is, in fact, the one who is being simple-minded, for all his feigned urbanity.
But we don't want to talk that way, because it smacks of puritanism, and besides, these lovely women are just proud of their bodies, as are their families. This year's SI cover girl, semi-topless Brooklyn Decker, reports that her mother cried when she made the cover. Out of pride. Her husband, tennis player Andy Roddick, tweeted his pride as well.
I once saw a talk show on which a porn actress insisted that she wasn't cheating on her husband because the sex she performed for paychecks was "different." This personalized truth is inevitable in a world more inclined to follow Pilate ("What is truth?") than Christ ("Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice").
It's distortion that's essential to the self-esteem of people inclined toward pornography but not yet liberated enough to call it such. Thus are the nearly naked women in Sports Illustrated, or the college girls who pose in Playboy's periodic college campus issues, simply proud of their bodies. How dare anyone deprive these women of their self-esteem by telling them that, in blunt terms, they're simply taking off their clothes for money and applause?
One might be tempted to think the damage is limited to the girl who exposes herself for cash, the boy learning to look at women the way a butcher eyes a cut of meat. But the damage is never limited. The compromised woman has taught countless girls that this is how to gain the admiration of men. The boy, meanwhile, has been weakened, and the seeds of a hunger have been sown, and he has started down a path toward the perversion of a man's natural desire for women.
The libertine scoffs, but I know too many men for whom this is true. I am one of those men. Images are etched into my mind, and they spark a perpetual struggle. Many of my sins, especially those against my wife, are rooted in those illicit hours learning to see women as playthings.
The eyes and ears of children must be guarded-this is common wisdom garnered over centuries and across civilizations. Only recently has it been cast aside. "Guard your son" is what I should have told the mother in the bookstore. "It doesn't end with this," I should have said. God help me, I know.