I will be called names for writing this column. It always happens. Raise the issue of the pornification of the culture and its fanatical devotees will come gunning for you. If they hope to be intimidating, they've forgotten what delete keys are for.
It's Christmastime and the Fox News Channel, the most conservative of the major media outlets, is running an ad for PajamaGrams, "the only gift guaranteed to get your wife or girlfriend to take her clothes off." The ads feature soft porn images of women disrobing and tossing slips and bras to the floor. The ads run at all times of the day and night. Thus do we usher in the season supposedly devoted to the Prince of Peace and the Festival of Lights.
We all know how far the pornification has gotten. A mainstream movie apparently treats the subject as cute and fun ("Zack and Miri Make a Porno") and it runs at the multiplex next to "Four Christmases" and "Madagascar." Hotels offer pornographic movies and omit the titles from the final bill. Victoria's Secret graces every mall and its windows resemble the red light district of Amsterdam. Viagra and its imitators are hawked ceaselessly. Television, music videos, and supermarket checkout magazines contain the kinds of suggestive words and images that would once have been labeled soft porn.
We know this. But what is less well understood is the world of hard-core porn that was once the province of dingy "adults only" stores in the harsher parts of town but is now available to everyone at the click of a mouse.
Last week the Witherspoon Institute (http://www.winst.org) convened a conference on pornography at Princeton University and invited scholars from a variety of fields to contribute. The statistics are mind-numbing. Pamela Paul, author of "Pornified," reported that "Americans rent upwards of 800 million pornographic videos and DVDs per year. About one in five rented videos is porn. … Men look at pornography online more than they look at any other subject. And 66 percent of 18-34 year old men visit a pornographic site every month."
They are not, Paul and others explained, looking at Playboy magazine-like images of naked women. Instead, they are descending into darker and darker realms where sadism, fetishes, and every imaginable oddity are proffered. Sex and violence are offered together. Women are presented in a degraded not to say disgusting fashion.
Surely only people with peculiar sexual tastes are drawn to this sort of thing, right? Not exactly. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge, author of "The Brain That Changes Itself," noted that pornography use actually changes the brains of consumers. Like other addictions, pornography use breeds tolerance and the need for more intensity to get the desired result. He quoted Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons," in which a college kid asks casually, "Anybody got porn?" He is told that there are magazines on the third floor. He responds, "I've built up a tolerance to magazines … I need videos." Tolerance is the medically correct term, Doidge notes, which is why pornography becomes more and more graphic.
The men (and they are overwhelmingly men) who become hooked on this bilge are often miserable about it. They know that it affects their capacity to love and be loved by real women. As Doidge explained, "Pornographers promise healthy pleasure and a release from sexual tension, but what they often deliver is an addiction, tolerance, and an eventual decrease in pleasure. Paradoxically, the male patients I worked with often craved pornography but didn't like it." Hugh Hefner, the godfather of mainstream porn, apparently does not have normal sex with his many girlfriends. Despite the presence of up to seven comely young women in his bed at a time, he uses porn for sexual satisfaction. Think about that.
Internet pornography truly is, as one researcher put it, "a hidden public health hazard." It isn't cute or funny. Relationships are crashing, women are suffering in silence, and men and boys are becoming entrapped by it. The Witherspoon Institute has done a valuable thing by starting a more public conversation about this cultural poison.