The Trouble With Smut

Reviewed by Megan Rosenfeld
Sunday, November 13, 2005


How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives,

Our Relationships, and Our Families

By Pamela Paul

Times. 304 pp. $25


Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture

By Ariel Levy

Free Press. 224 pp. $25

These two books by young female journalists offer a depressing view of modern sexual mores in which it is increasingly acceptable for men to sit in front of their computers, watching pornography and masturbating, in lieu of having relationships with actual women, and in which women are desperately trying to please these guys by looking as much like porn stars as plastic surgery and skimpy clothing will allow.

Both Pamela Paul, a contributor to Time, and Ariel Levy, a staffer at New York magazine, write that the underlying issue is self-deception -- for the men who think they are "just fantasizing," for the women who think they are "empowered" by becoming sluts and for the free-speech advocates who protect speech and behavior from pornographers that they do not accept from racists, tobacco manufacturers or even purveyors of fast food.

Paul's book, the more serious of the two, makes a persuasive argument that today's pornography is not the Playboy centerfold or the "Deep Throat" of yesteryear. Fortunately, I cannot describe in this newspaper some of the examples she cites, all of them apparently easily accessed via your friendly local Internet provider. You'll have to take my word for it: This is not erotica, it's not sensual, it's not even funny. It's "increasingly violent and nonconsensual" and beyond whatever pale we may think exists. It generally portrays women as docile receptacles whose only purpose is to sexually satisfy men, no matter how degraded they must be, and more men are spending many hours watching it. The more they watch, the less likely they are to enjoy real sex, she says, and the more likely they are to denigrate real women.

Her thesis is convincing, but Paul cites so many studies and surveys and polls that I got a little confused about exactly how many men are so consumed by pornography that they are losing jobs, partners and all sense of reality. She points to a 2004 MSNBC/Elle magazine poll of 15,246 people that found that about 75 percent of men and 41 percent of women "said they had viewed or downloaded erotic films and videos from the Internet." Well, how often? She convinced me there is a problem out there, but before I despair utterly about the future of male-female relations, I'd like to know more precisely how many have a serious problem.

I also wish she had spent less space on repetitive examples of how the porn industry has ruined lives -- as compelling as they are -- and more on the corporate juggernaut that reaps billions from smut, according to other sources cited in her book. Indeed, both books would have benefited from more original reporting in that area and less culling from newspaper stories. Neither the research nor the argument is well-served by the use of so many secondary sources.

Paul's remedy charts a sensible middle ground between restraints and free speech. "Banning pornography would be like banning stupid television shows," she writes. But she argues persuasively that legal restrictions (on child pornography and sexual abuse, for example) and social sanctions (like disgust) have failed to keep pace with either the omnipresence (porn videos in your car! on your cell phone!) or the grossness of contemporary porn. So she advocates the return of the brown paper wrapper for skin magazines and the bolstering of Internet filters and sex education. Marriage counselors should get a look at what's really out there and stop telling wives in troubled relationships to watch porn for sex therapy. Consumers who don't want this trash turning up on their computers or in their children's classrooms and libraries have rights too, and they shouldn't be accused of being uncool opponents of free speech. If we can agree as a society that the sale of tobacco should be regulated, she argues, we can do the same thing with porn.

Ariel Levy's book on "raunch culture" also looks at the coarsening of society but focuses on the behavior of women rather than men. Her writing is lively, but she too often seems to believe that if you can give something a catchy name (like Female Chauvinist Pigs ), you've got a social trend.

That said, I'm with her. "A tawdry, tarty, cartoonlike version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular," she writes. She interviews, for example, a 19-year-old who happily pulled down her underwear and performed a sexual act for a camera crew from "Girls Gone Wild," a profitable video series. "People watch the videos and think the girls in them are real slutty, but I'm a virgin!" this young woman said.

Are you confused yet? Obviously she is, but she doesn't think so. "A baseline expectation that women will be constantly exploding in little blasts of exhibitionism runs throughout our culture," Levy notes, and anyone who's had to walk behind a woman wearing a thong under gauzy clothing will know what I mean. The last time this happened to me in the Metro, I felt like walking up to the woman -- and the two daughters with her -- and saying, "Did I ask to see your rear end?" Levy warns that women have essentially given in and joined "the frat party of pop culture."

The notion that being raunchy is about being progressive is hogwash, Levy writes. It's just about being brainwashed by a skillful and profitable industry that has been promoting a very narrowly defined, teenage boy's vision of female beauty and behavior. For example, between 1992 and 2004, the number of breast-augmentation procedures in America increased more than 700 percent, she writes.

Levy's catchphrase and title, Female Chauvinist Pigs , refers to what she says is the key to the success of raunch culture: Women have bought the idea that looking like bimbos, going to strip clubs, doing a pole dance, and getting or giving a lap dance is cool, not compliant.

Levy's thesis was pretty much summed up by Erica Jong when Levy interviewed Jong on the 30th anniversary of the publication of her sexy novel Fear of Flying . "Let's not kid ourselves that this is liberation," Jong warned. "The women who buy the idea that flaunting your breasts in sequins is power -- I mean, I'm for all that stuff -- but let's not get so into the [body parts] that we don't notice how far we haven't come. Let's not confuse that with real power. I don't like to see women fooled."

Megan Rosenfeld, a former reporter for The Washington Post's Style section, is a freelance writer in Washington.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company