On a recent trip to Istanbul I encountered a group of Muslim students who insisted that American culture was morally perverse. They called it “pornographic.” And they charged that this culture is now being imposed on the rest of the world. I protested that pornography is a universal vice. “Yes,” one of the students replied, “but nowhere else is pornography in the mainstream of the culture. Nowhere else is porn considered so cool and fashionable. Pornography in America represents an inversion of values.”
As I returned home to the United States, I wondered: are these students right? I don’t think American culture as a whole is guilty of the charge of moral depravity. But there is a segment of our culture that is perverse and pornographic, and perhaps this part of American culture is the one that foreigners see. Wrongly, they identify one face of America with the whole of America. When they protest what they see as the glamorization of pornography and vice, however, it’s hard to deny that they have a point.
Pornography has become big business in the United States. You no longer have to go places to find it; it now finds you. Once confined to “dirty old men” and seedy areas of town, pornography has now penetrated the hotel room and home. The Internet and cell phone have made pornography accessible everywhere, all the time.
The spread of porn is not surprising, and neither is its popularity. It is not the appeal of sex, but the appeal of voyeurism. After all, the actors in porn films seek to gratify not themselves but the viewer. The spectator finds himself in an unnatural position of being witness to a sexual act which is conducted fully for his benefit. It’s hard to deny that there is something degrading in the continuous exposure to increasingly hard-core pornography.
In a manner that the older generation of Americans finds scandalous, porn has become socially acceptable and lost its moral stigma. A good example of this cultural cache is that today a porn star like Jenna Jameson appears on billboards and on the cover of magazines like Vanity Fair. In some liberal intellectual circles, the advocacy of porn is now viewed as a mark of sophistication. Recently the New Yorker reported on an event held at the Mary Boone art galley in Manhattan where “artists, collectors, literati, and other art world regulars mingled seamlessly with adult-movie producers and directors and quite a few of the performers themselves.” The purpose of the event was to celebrate the publication of the book “XXX: Porn Star Portraits.” The pictures in the book are accompanied by appreciative essays by leading figures on the left like Gore Vidal, John Waters, and Salman Rushdie.
The liberal defense of obscenity and pornography began many decades ago as a defense of great works of literature and of free speech. It began as a defense of books like James Joyce’s Ulysses, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. But now some liberal advocates insist that all forms of sexual explicitness are equally deserving of legal protection and that no restriction of obscenity or pornography should be allowed.
This is the position defended in former ACLU president Nadine Strossen’s book Defending Pornography. As liberal pundit Wendy Kaminer puts it, in her foreword to the book, “You don’t need to know anything about art—you don’t even need to know what you like—in order to defend speech deemed hateful, sick or pornographic.” Kaminer even takes the view that child pornography should be permitted because “fantasies about children having sex are repellent to most of us, but the First Amendment is designed to protect repellent imaginings.” Actually this is pure nonsense: the framers were concerned to protect political speech and not depictions of pedophilia. But Kaminer’s view is a good reflection of what some liberals would like the Constitution to say.
Groups like the ACLU have taken the approach that pornography rights, like the rights of accused criminals, are best protected at their outermost extreme. This means is that the more foul the obscenity, the harder liberals must fight to allow it. By protecting expression at its farthest reach, these activists believe they are fully securing the free speech rights of the rest of us.
It is a long way, for instance, from James Joyce to a loathsome character like Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine. There would seem to be an obvious distinction between fighting to include James Joyce in a high school library and insisting that the same library maintain its subscription to Hustler. For the ACLU, however, the two causes are part of the same free speech crusade. In a sense, the ACLU considers the campaign for Hustler a more worthy cause because if Hustler is permitted, anything is permitted, and therefore free speech has been more vigorously defended.
In recent years, leading liberals have gone from defending Flynt as a despicable man who nevertheless has First Amendment rights, to defending Flynt as a delightful man who is valiantly fighting against the forces of darkness and repression. “What I find refreshing about Larry Flynt is that he doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a scumbag,” Frank Rich writes in the New York Times. “At least Flynt’s honest about what he’s doing.”
These liberal virtues—honestly and openness about being a scumbag—are on full display in Milos Forman’s film The People vs. Larry Flynt. The movie sanitizes Flynt in order to make him a likeable, even heroic figure. In reality Flynt is short and ugly; in the movie he is tall and handsome, played by Woody Harrelson. In life Flynt was married five times. His daughter accused him of sexually abusing her, a charge that Flynt has denied. All of this is suppressed in the movie, where Flynt has one wife and is portrayed as an adoring and supportive husband.
Hustler features a good deal of gross and repellent material, such as its parody of Jerry Falwell having sex with his grandmother, or its picture of a woman being processed through a meat grinder. The movie, by contrast, features mostly tasteful erotica; if Flynt goes over the line, it is always presented as mischievous fun. If there is anyone who is despicable in the movie, it is Flynt’s critics, who are unfailingly shown as smug, hypocritical, vicious and stupid.
The pornographer generally knows that he is a sleazy operator. I have read interviews with men like Larry Flynt and Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw magazine. Typically such men do not even try and defend the social value of what they do, other than to point out that there is a demand for it. It is only the ACLU and its supporters who celebrate the pornographer as a paragon of the First Amendment and a contemporary social hero. Social liberals like Frank Rich seem to have a much higher view of Flynt than Flynt himself. If we confine ourselves to liberal culture and its apologists, my Muslim interlocutors would seem to have a justified complaint. The liberal defense of pornography is even more perverted than the pornography itself.