The Porn Paradox

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: May 24, 2001 12:00 AM
Frank Rich is not a man to get excited by porn. Surveying the best of the exploding $14 billion "Silicone Valley" pornography industry for the ever-so-august New York Times Sunday Magazine, the former butcher of Broadway sniffs: "All the artful mise-en-scene in the world cannot, for me anyway, make merchandized sex entertaining or erotic."

Though moralists such as me like to see in the porning of America a decline in standards, Rich declares that "it's an all-too-ringing affirmation" that porn is neither more nor less "imaginative" than "much of the junk in the entertainment mainstream."

The paradox of porn is that it is always on the verge of going legit and never quite getting there. The most interesting thing in Rich's expose of "Naked Capitalists" is not how normal these porn purveyors seem, but how embarrassed they remain.

"Everyone at AVN (Adult Video News) writes under a pseudonym," says Bryn Pryor, director and writer of "The Money Shot," a made-for-Internet TV series. Receptionists answer the phone generically, as in "production company" or "corporate office."

Steve Orenstein, the 38-year-old head of Wicked Pictures, agonizes with the therapists over when to let his 9-year-old stepdaughter know what pays for the roof over her head. "The counselors say don't tell her yet." As Pryor confesses, "Everyone in the porn industry says he's on the way to something else, like waiters and bartenders. ... If we were really good, we'd be doing something else."

Male lust, to which porn caters, is, well, embarrassing. Especially to men, a fact feminists (who are disproportionately female) have never grasped. Just about every man spends a good part of his life inflamed with desire for passing women who never know he exists. Porn is the balm for that particular wound, a wound women know nothing of. In porn, lust always triumphs and women are always inordinately pleased. That's why they call it fantasy.

The second paradox of porn is that women are always said to be just about to become major consumers of pornography (fastest-growing segment of the porn industry, according to Rich) but never do, somehow. I was receiving pink fliers from Candace Royalle about the new "female-centered" porn when I was an intern at National Review in the mid-'80s. But somehow, 15 years later, if you want uninvited free samples of hot sex deluging your e-mail box, you still have to visit WWF.com and not Oprah.com. The market has spoken.

There is already erotic literature for women, of course, but it is not called pornography, because pornography is, by definition, what appeals to indiscriminate male lust. Pornography is sex stripped of all but the most desultory demands of narrative. The female equivalent is the romance novel, most of which are pretty sexual indeed, and just as formulaic. But women want 200 pages of storyline before the climax and a wedding somewhere around the corner after.

Veronica Hart, a former performer cum producer of porn, claims women "want hot and dirty sex just like anybody else. For instance, many women love the fantasy of being taken." Yeah, judging by best-selling bodice-rippers, women long to be forcefully taken by men who fall desperately in love and propose marriage afterward. That's why they call it fantasy.

Moralists such as me may call for a porn crackdown. Fat chance, as Rich points out, when "too many Fortune 500 corporations with Washington clout, from AT&T to AOL Time Warner, make too much money on porn."

"Still," predicts the ever-hopeful Rich, "the next generation of porn consumers and producers alike may yet break with that puritan mind-set." Maybe -- but don't count on it, Frank. If it's not dirty, what's the point?