stern writes "Pamela Paul’s Pornified surveys the effects of pornography in America. On the basis of the book jacket, this might seem more appropriate material for iVillage than Slashdot, except for one thing: pornography pervades the Internet and drives the adoption of new technologies. You can’t fairly tell the story of one without the other." Read on for the rest of Stern's review.
Paul spoke with researchers and therapists, she surveyed the academic literature and commissioned her own study, and then, most remarkably, she tracked down more than 100 people who were willing to talk about their experiences with pornography. Men and women, detractors and fans, casual users and perverts. She arranges this material into chapters about how pornography affects men, on how it affects women, another on children, and so forth.
This is not a “gee whiz, look at all the dirty pictures” screed urging us to hang up our mice and go to church. It is more a summary of research than an opinion piece, and though the preponderance of the research presented is damning to pornography, defenders appear in most sections as well.
The book is remarkable in two ways. First, it presents a greater amount of hard data than I have ever seen on this topic before. Second, the interviews are amazing. Where does she find these people? The military man who masturbates by the side of the highway, the child porn addict who fantasizes about the girls he is teaching in Sunday school, the adult virgins with the almost clinically precise descriptions of what they expect in a woman (“I’m a big fan of full shaved,” etc.).
Pornified is worthwhile for this research and these stories, even if you disagree with the conclusions that Paul draws from them.
I found fascinating, for example, that a number of double-blind studies of the effects of pornography were completed over twenty years ago, but that the results were so damning that it has been difficult to follow up on them. The effects of dirty movies on the people who look at them were so profound that ethics boards at universities deny researchers the approval to show them to human subjects.
What are these effects? The book devotes chapters to this, and I can summarize only very briefly. For many people, porn has quasi-addictive characteristics, requiring escalation to maintain a constant level of stimulation. It dampens empathy, it changes expectations, and it damages relationships. The interviews in the book back this up; it contains example after example of people who started with modest porn searching online, then graduated to more heinous stuff.
And this is all about the Internet. Paul pays lip service to Playboy and smutty VHS tapes, but this is a story about X-rated websites, Usenet groups, and p2p file sharing.
Paul cites a study from 2000 that ties that the expansion of technological avenues for pornography to its growing more explicit, more dehumanizing, and more violent. In other words, alt.binaries.pictures.erotica was pretty tame. But then a.b.p.e.blonds and a.b.p.e.asians appeared, and these refined the expectations of their users, paving the way for the creation of a.b.p.e.bukkake and a.b.p.e.rape. And where the original newsgroup probably didn’t cause too much damage to anybody, the same can not be said for its increasingly brutal descendants.
Consider this — prior to the Internet, law enforcement believed that child porn had been basically wiped out. It was a crime from a previous age, like body snatching. But then came the Web. Between 1996 and 2004, child-porn cases handled by the FBI increased 23 fold. The research presented in Pornified argues that technology does not merely make it easier to serve an existing desire, it allows deep exposure that for many people results in stronger and more specific versions of the the original demand.
Paul presents most of this neutrally, but you can sense contempt for non-pornographic websites that link to porn sites, or endorse them. She doesn’t name any names, but the savvy reader will recognize Fark as one of her targets, and I suspect that Farkers figure among her interviewees.
Such “smut” can be defended, of course, and the book gives defenders their say. The obvious response is “porn has been around forever, so stop complaining that it is suddenly a threat to society.” But it seems to me that this response is disingenuous. You can’t compare an issue of Playboy and the Atari 2600 cartridge of “Custer’s Revenge” to the seamless infinity of smut that lives on the Internet today.
The second major response to the claims in this book follows the First Amendment. Regardless of harm, we must not start down the slippery slope of restricting access to objectionable material. Paul considers this, but her the book discusses concrete harm, and she argues that civil liberties are not absolute where one person’s rights hurt other people (not many argue for their right to cry “fire” in a crowded theater, for example).
Though Paul did not set out to explore the industry of porn production and distribution, in the course of her research, she did discover things I didn’t know. For example, she interviews one man who works in the oil industry and spends 25% of every working day surfing porn sites and submitting reviews to “porn aggregators” for a fee. It’s not about the money, though; he feels pride in his influence as a kind of porno tastemaker.
The material about pornography and children, and the chapter about sex addicts, were particularly strong.
Some of Paul’s interviewees play off the awkwardness of the topic, and one in particular starts something like a stand-up routine, criticizing the porn movies of the early 1980s for their lack of strong plotting. Personally, I thought it was funny that two women independently complained about the “cheesy... crappy” quality of black porn, relative to porn made for whites.
What’s bad?The topic is a difficult one, and perhaps impossible to approach without prejudice. Some readers will dislike Paul's conclusions and will dismiss the entire book as a result. Also, in the interviews, some stories leave out details the reader is bound to want to know. One of the interviewees is the “former CEO of a large international corporation,” who “lost his job due to pornography.” How? What happened? Did he dress in a leather teddy at a board meeting? The chapter about porn and relationships was less interesting to me than the rest, but your mileage may vary.
Paul comes to strong conclusions, and each reader will have to decide for himself whether or not he thinks her recommendations are wise. Her main goal, however, is probably to change the debate on pornography so that it is no longer simply about morality and free speech, but also includes a discussion of whether or not technology-fueled porn hurts people. In this regard, I think she is apt to be successful.
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