When "porn" lost its impact

From horror movies to interior design and young adult books: How a salacious word got robbed of its meaning

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 20, 2010 3:21PM (EDT)

We fight over language all the time. We bicker over whether "rape" is bandied about too casually, whether "the n-word" is offensive even if it's Jay-Z saying it, or whether the suggestion of a profanity is profanity itself. But the stickiest of all semantic wickets is surely "porn." If Justice Potter Stewart, who famously decreed back in 1964 that "I know it when I see it," was around today, he'd be up to his eyeballs in judgment calls. The word "porn" has of late been getting around so freely, and coming from such a wide variety of sources, it's downright promiscuous.

At the center of the most recent hoo-hah is Laurie Halse Anderson's acclaimed young adult novel "Speak," an award-winning tale of a teenage girl's rape and the aftermath of the crime. Or, as Dr. Wesley Scroggins referred to it in the Springfield News-Leader this weekend, "soft pornography." Scroggins, whose use of phrases like "female parts" suggests he will never be accused of attempting to write porn himself, says that "Speak," along with "Slaughterhouse Five," is "profane," condones "immorality" and should be removed from the public school curriculum. The piece moved beloved and oft-censored author Judy Blume to bring the case to the attention of the National Coalition Against Censorship. But whether something is censorable isn't the same as calling it porn.

Aside from his idiocy in suggesting that narratives about rape or war are tantamount to an author condoning those things, Scroggins' word choice is an interesting one. Is it entirely possible that someone out there reading a fictional account of a rape could become aroused? Could its descriptions therefore be used for sexual gratification, which is what porn does? Sure. But if we're going to decide that "porn" is anything capable of inciting a boner somewhere, we might as well apply it to every damn thing in the world, from the Victoria's Secret catalog to ComicCon.

In fact, it looks we already do. Last year, Sarah Palin dismissed her almost son-in-law Levi Johnston's tame, full-frontal-free photo spread in Playgirl by saying, "I call it porn." The aspirational pages of the Styles section and the glossy pages of Dwell? They're "design porn."  A "Good Eats" marathon? That's "food porn."  And as a nation of viscera enthusiasts eagerly awaits the latest installment in the "Saw" series, prepare to hear the phrase "torture porn"  this October as often as "trick or treat."

And in the same way your name has always meant something different when your best friend chummily abbreviates it and your mother angrily bellows it in full, confirmation name and all, "porn" has taken on a life that "pornography" does not. It's linguistically lazy slang for a profoundly loaded concept. If I learned anything during the year I spent working for an adult magazine in the "do me feminist" era of the '90s, it's the absurdity of glib figures of speech. Even now, when people use terms like "anti-porn crusader" or "pro-porn activist," I have to shrug. That's like saying you're anti- or pro-food. Some of it is quite good, some of it is terrible, and what is delectable to one might be utterly indigestible to another.

When we say "porn," do we mean something sexy and desirable, like a movie of two cheerleaders going at it or the contents of the new Office Max catalog? Is it something debased and sick, a depiction of whatever sex one personally finds gross, or an evening of Fox News punditry? We apply it to something so hot it makes our pupils dilate, and to something vile that makes us despair for the human condition. It means everything. And the more we toss it around, the more it means nothing. And while I know my idea of porn when I see it, I can't imagine what it looks like through another's eyes. That's why Wesley Scroggins is free to call "Speak" porn if he likes, but he's crazy to try to make anybody else do likewise.

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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