The celebrity sex tape jumps the shark

So the former Miss USA contestant has one. Big whoop. Remember when those videos used to actually mean something?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 10, 2009 8:45PM (EST)

Carrie Prejean on the "Today" show Tuesday.
Carrie Prejean on the "Today" show Tuesday.

The once-scandalous celebrity sex tape took its fatal jump over the shark this week, after gay-marriage-opposing, famously breast-implanted author and Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean confirmed the existence of a naughty tape of herself.

The tape came to light last week, when reported that the dethroned Miss California abruptly dropped her suit against pageant officials after a video of the self-described "prude" enjoying a little solo pleasure emerged. TMZ reported today that Miss Prejean's mother has been treated to a viewing of this private tape -- she was allegedly present when California pageant officials trotted out their proverbial ace in the hole. 

Flogging her book "Still Standing" on the "Today" show this morning, Prejean brushed off the term "sex tape." She described the footage as "me by myself, there was no one else with me. I was not having sex," failing to consider that "me by myself" qualifies as sex for roughly 80 percent of the Internet population.

The news of Prejean's one-woman show comes the same week Jennifer Lopez hit her ex-husband with a fat $10 million lawsuit over his attempts to peddle footage from their 1997 honeymoon and Colin Farrell's antics with a Playboy model have resurfaced. In a world where Fred Durst has a sex tape, is there anybody left who doesn't?

Kids, back in the day, a sex tape used to mean something. There was expensive equipment to set up and hide, cassettes to load, storyboards to be drawn. It was a big freaking deal when Rob Lowe had a romp with underage girls or Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee enjoyed connubial bliss (if that's what you call it). Sex in front of a camera was still considered something porn stars did, and breaking that barrier was exciting -- and blurry.

Today, anybody can just aim the phone at the interesting bits and upload the results before they even finish. So much for our happy ending. 

The celebrity sex tape -- as well as its close kin, the much forwarded naked snapshot -- started veering toward that fabled shark tank in June of 2004. That's when "1 Night in Paris" made its Web debut. Unlike other stars who'd been caught knocking boots, Paris Hilton didn't adopt a demeanor of scandalized abasement when her video emerged. Instead, she shrugged it off with the same bored lack of interest she'd displayed during her coital performance. Her career didn't suffer. Her fame didn't abate. On the contrary -- it skyrocketed.

In the ensuing years, compromising footage of the quasi-famous has become as commonplace as conspiracy theorists at a town meeting. And amazingly, it's proved an effective way of giving Hollywood has-beens a jolt of, well, exposure. Are you a Dirty Sanchez-dispensing, former "Saved by the Bell" cast member? Are you a man whose most famous role is playing a character called "McSteamy"? Smoke a little weed, head for the hot tub and don't forget to invite a friend. (Sweeps week crossovers await! ) Is your last name "Kardashian"? That and a little raw footage can get you your own perfume line. Excuse me, I have to go roll my eyes and yawn in an exaggerated manner now.

With each new revelation of a dirty video lurking in a famous closet, the shock at the genre itself dies a little more. Had honeymoon movies of J.Lo emerged when she married her ex in 1997, it might have been a cause célèbre. Now? Big whoop. The explicit sex tape and the compromising photo are no longer potential career ruiners, nor are they the hallmark of a wild, anything-goes character -- not when so many of us, famous and not, have been there and done that. It's a fair assumption that if there aren't explicit images of you floating around somewhere, you may not have a sex life. Or a phone.

While it's easy to enjoy a moment of delectable schadenfreude watching right-wing sweetheart Carrie Prejean, who says in her new memoir that "We should earn respect and admiration for our hearts, not for showing skin to look sexy," tell Meredith Vieira about "the biggest mistake of my life," it shouldn't really come as any surprise. Prejean may be a smug, backward-thinking idiot, but she's not the whore of Babylon. So when Prejean kvetched on the "Today" show that "nothing is private," she may have sounded whiny -- but she wasn't wrong. Some people learn it in more public and embarrassing ways than others, of course (like having your mom and some lawyers watch the footage you made for her boyfriend). But what Prejean did isn't different from anything many, many people are doing in their homes and hotels and dorms right this minute, alone or with a friend or two. Deviants, perverts, married couples, teenagers and "normal, churchgoing" folks like Carrie Prejean -- we are all sexual beings, and we don't need to send our images to the Fotomat for processing anymore. Stuff's bound to happen. Prejean wanted to be Miss USA. Turns out she's everywoman after all.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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