You’ll Know It When You See It

John Ruskin, the English art critic, never consummated his marriage because on his wedding night, he discovered with revulsion that his wife’s pubis did not present the smooth, polished surface of a Greek statue, but was instead covered with hair. Ho ho ho, we laugh, those sick Victorians, while our sons and daughters shave themselves the better to resemble the porn stars they watch on their laptops and cell phones.

It can’t be comfortable. In the clinch, isn’t there more friction, and don’t those cold upstate bus-station urinals feel colder? On the other hand, you’ll never hastily stick a curl in your own zipper. But comfort isn’t the point. People have been suffering for fashion for thousands of years, and they will suffer for the fashions of Eros.

Pornography is not only a big business in itself—the figures I saw most recently said it had grown from a $10-million-a-year industry in the 70’s to a $10-billion-a-year industry today—but it leaks out into the wider world, influencing outerwear, advertising, slang. For example: Have you heard “fluffer” or “money shot” used metaphorically? Literally? Both? Welcome to now. Gianni Versace’s designs for women were influenced by Milanese streetwalkers, but that was so 80’s. Check the starlet du jour’s outfit du jour. This is pornography, nor are we out of it.

I was once asked what the founding fathers would do about pornography, and I tried to think of what was available in their own time. I couldn’t think of much. John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, was first published in 1748-9, but I have come across no mention of a copy of it in any of the founders’ copious libraries. Of course, it would be just the sort of thing that descendants and curators would suppress. When Gouverneur Morris was living in Paris, his girlfriend gave him Voltaire’s poem La Pucelle to read. I skipped through it once with my fractured French, and though it is one long dirty joke about the virginity of Joan of Arc, it did not seem to be particularly obscene.

Morris’ girlfriend, the owner of the volume, was a married countess whose primary lover, and father of her child, was a Catholic bishop. And yet the hottest thing she could loan her American pal would be described by The New York Times as rated “R—Sexual situations.” At the same time, of course, the Marquis de Sade was shut up in the Bastille, dreaming his baroque torments. But even the French Revolution kept him under lock and key.

The founders lived with many evils that we have suppressed. Many of them bought and sold men and women; some of them slept with the women they bought. There has been a big drop in piracy, at least in American waters. The world sees real changes, and some of them are improvements. But honesty compels us to admit that other changes are for the worse.

Pornography bills itself as the pastime of free spirits. Why then do you always know, at the moment of every setup, what will happen next? Because pornography is bound to convention by the demands of the market—unless it is aimed at a “sophisticated” audience, in which case the demands of that market niche require slower-paced conventions. The production of pornography is as economically determined as the production of soft drinks—more so, because new flavors do come along now and then, while we’re still working with the same bodies we’ve always had. Everyone jumped on Judith Regan for her Juice cocktail and its gross payday, but next to the average pornographer, she was a crusading journalist, following the truth wherever it led. The last pornographer to work outside the straitjacket of his market was probably Sade, scribbling in his cell.

But Sade was the prisoner of his compulsions, which were as demanding as any audience. Philip Larkin wrote that life was a “three-handed struggle between / Your wants, the world’s for you” and “The unbeatable slow machine / That brings what you’ll get.” Pornography is a one-way tug of plumbing, hormones and whatever impressed you before the age of consent. Even long into adulthood, producers and consumers of pornography never pass the age of consent, apart from the initial decision to switch the toggle from OFF to ON. I and my many betters try to write, and hope you will read with understanding or pleasure. Porn writes us and reads us.

The law unleashed the new world of porn, and the law could tie it up again, though doing so seems in many cases difficult and possibly counterproductive. Lives are ruined by laboring in the porn industry, but we have had too many lawsuits against makers of food and legal drugs, like alcohol and tobacco. If eaters, drinkers, smokers and sex workers don’t destroy themselves with their eyes open, they at least do it freely (see switching the toggle, above). Tom Wolfe is as good a novelist as J.P. Marquand. If I Am Charlotte Simmons had to obey the decorum of Point of No Return, it would be different but no worse. But why bother?

It is possible, though, to shrink Pornotopia at the margins. Like any other industrial process, porn has side effects. Perhaps some of them are pollutants. Rudy Giuliani made just that argument as Mayor of New York, writing the zoning laws so that strip clubs and smut troughs had to be so many yards from schools or playgrounds; as a result, they were effectively shunted to remote industrial moonscapes. The civil libertarians fought him at every step, out of the fear, sincere but crazed, that if they come for Garter Belt Girls and I say nothing, the next step will be Auschwitz. Pornography is still in your child’s bedroom, but it isn’t on your block, and the killing hasn’t started. Rudy can offer this solution to Iowa and New Hampshire.