America, sweet land of ... porn

A new book explores cooter flashing, X-rated advertisements and the rise of humiliation porn.

Published September 25, 2008 1:45PM (EDT)

We live in a time when celebrities check into rehab for sex addiction (or a porn problem, depending on your source) and accuse their ex-husband in a highly publicized divorce trial of indulging a $3,000-a-month Internet porn habit. They inspire unauthorized blowup dolls (most recently, the "Sarah Jessica Porkher" model) and star in leaked (or, sometimes, "leaked") sex tapes that they fight against or promote -- or both.

These are just a few of the things one could point to as evidence that the mainstream is thoroughly saturated -- I mean, mmm, yes, soaking wet -- with pornography. But Carmine Sarracino, coauthor of "The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go From Here," instead says that the most compelling evidence is the lack of evidence. Porn has become our "cultural wallpaper," Sarracino says. In order to consume porn, one no longer has to sheepishly ask the checkout clerk for a copy of "Barely Legal," or slump down in the back row of an X-rated movie theater, because porn is no longer marginalized. In fact, it's everywhere you look.

Broadsheet recently spoke with Sarracino by phone from his office at Elizabethtown College.

When, exactly, did this "porning" begin"?

Step one of this two-step process is that the people in porn imitate ordinary people, and then, in turn, ordinary Americans imitate the people in porn.

But how is it that we have come to a point where mimicking a money shot, in the case of a 2006 print advertisement for Clinique, is a successful approach to selling moisturizing lotion?

I have shown that ad to women in their 40s and they give it a puzzled look and ask whether it's a real advertisement, but when I show it to my college students they giggle. Porn is very different to young people in their teens and 20s than it is to those over 40. Clinique plays off that [comfort] and appeals to young women and girls by visually catching their attention with something that they recognize.

In your book, you mention Paris Hilton's leaked sex tape and how it represented the cliché of "The Gardener's Affair With the Rich Man's Daughter," where the gardener accidentally happens upon the rich man's daughter having sex with her boyfriend. The daughter becomes aware of, and turned on by, the gardener's presence. Can you explain that?

There is this class element. Paris Hilton being an heiress has a particular kind of status in the culture. We're the gardener, the lower-class voyeurs watching her, and there's a kind of disdain going in both directions.

Do you see that dynamic of mutual disdain reiterated elsewhere -- for instance, with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears "accidentally" flashing their private bits for the cameras?

Over and over again, we follow this cultural pattern of elevating sex symbols, especially blond bombshells like Marilyn Monroe and, lately, Pam Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith -- even Courtney Love was such a sex symbol in the '80s -- of elevating these women to exalted status when they are at the peak of their sexual allure, and then just trashing them when they begin to lose some of that allure. So we go from adulation to disdain.

It must be an incredible emotional and psychological roller coaster for the women themselves, to be so desired, so panted for, and then made into objects of ridicule and disdain, which started to happen a couple of years ago, on a big scale on the Internet, for Lindsay and Britney. Flashing their privates -- something unimaginable when they were Disney girls -- to me is pretty clearly returning disdain for disdain.

Why has the "porning" of society extended to kids?

There's been a general breakdown in the culture just in the distinction between children and adults. Robert Bly uses the term the "sibling society" -- what he says is that former distinctions among people in society have completely broken down, so it's as if we're all siblings now. Once you have this idea that we're all in it together, then children have no special status and they're up for grabs, literally sometimes.

Miley Cyrus' parents seemed really savvy, like they wouldn't follow that trajectory, but then there she is in Vanity Fair half-naked, pouting and looking like a nymphet. It's almost as if there's this cultural tide that can't be resisted -- the culture demands skin. Even those one might expect to resist it can't.

So pornography has generally been mainstreamed, but what about violent porn?

Violent porn is not yet mainstreamed, but you can see it seeping into the mainstream -- you can see that in Hollywood films now, like the "Hostel" movies.

There is this direction in the culture at large of porn of humiliation and torture that is not simulated. There's this whole thing where women drink "cocktails" made of bodily excretions, fluids and just the grossest things you can imagine. The grosser, the better is the idea.

Well, there was the viral video "2 Girls 1 Cup" [showing two naked women eating feces and vomiting into each other's mouths. It sparked a YouTube phenomenon where several tens of thousands of people filmed their response, or the response of other unsuspecting people -- including, memorably, a graying grandmother -- as they watched the video for the first time]. Those videos, just of people's reaction while watching, became hugely popular.

One of the essential things in an entertainment culture such as ours is that the shock bar just has to constantly be raised. You know, Evel Knievel jumps a few cars, but then how many times can you keep jumping a few cars and have people pay money to see you do it? It becomes so ho-hum that you have to jump buses and finally end up crashing in the Snake River Canyon.

People's heads turn only when you offer something like "2 Girls 1 Cup." That's what traditional porn used to do and that was just two people engaged in a sex act. You can't get attention with that now -- any more than Marilyn Monroe could get attention for showing her panties if she were to come on the scene in 2008.

You write in your book about the Abu Ghraib scandal. What did it reveal about American sexuality?

What it revealed is that when these people wanted to humiliate the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, they thought in terms of porn. That in itself is noteworthy. The language of humiliation is the language of sexual humiliation in porn. The upshot of it is that the prisoners were cast in the role of the "bitch" in humiliation porn.

Which is traditionally the female role, right?

That's really what they did. They turned them into females, knowing that it was one of the most horrible things they could do, culturally. It's a commentary on American identity in most cultures. Part of the Great Satan label is not only our military might but also our going into a culture that's very inhibited and very modest with a culture of porn.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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