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.