Gratuitous Sex, or, The Freedom of Pornography

by JJ Wylie

When I left my parents' nest at the tender age of eighteen, I moved into a rat-hole 3-bedroom apartment with 2 other guys. It didn't take long to figure out that one of us was a pervert. Or at least a little strange.

See, he made a habit of renting 3 or 4 pornos from the local video outlet, then bringing them home and watching them--one after the other--in our living-room. As he did this, he would pull the recliner up close to the television and stare at the screen, mesmerized. He would do this while wearing only his underwear.

At first, my other roommate and I registered our disgust vocally. We tried to shame him into taking his habit to his own bedroom, if not stopping it altogether. But this prurient fanatic was strangely unrepentant, so we gave up. After all, he wasn't actually engaging in masturbation right in front of us, and it was his living-room, too. (Besides, in those days, there weren't too many females visiting the place.)

Eventually, curiosity got the better of me, and I began to take in the occasional adult-oriented title as well. See, up until then I had only seen one or two pornographic movies in my whole life. Then my living-room was turned into this private blue-movie theater. Suddenly my roommate was giving me an in-depth education--rubbing my nose in it, as it were. It didn't take long to learn the lore of porn: names like John Holmes, Ginger Lynn, and Traci Lords still stick in my memory. (And I could only take it in small doses--say, about 20 minutes at a time, unlike my obsessed roommate.)

It's hard to recollect what preconceptions I'd had at that point, but I remember being struck by a couple of things. First was the overwhelming awfulness of production. The photography was competent, sure, but, as for story and acting, well, the word "window-dressing" comes to mind. I knew we weren't watching Breakfast at Tiffany's but I'd had no idea that pornos were this bad.

Then there was the main event itself. While the videos were graphic beyond anything in my previous experience, they followed a numbingly regular routine: a little window-dressing setting up a situation where man (or men) finds himself alone with woman (or women), then foreplay (almost always exclusively fellatio), then penetration and intercourse until the man visibly ejaculates. Then the next scene, and so on.

So the final surprise to a young man whose sexual life was just reaching cruising speed was this: pornography, for all its prurient allure, was boring as hell. Especially when compared to the real thing.

But why is pornography so popular? In the February 10th issue of U.S. News & World Report, reporter Eric Schlosser gives detail after detail of porn's popularity as it translates into commerce. According to him, pornography in America earned an amount "larger than all the revenues generated by rock and country music recordings" put together. But he leaves the question of cause unanswered.

I think pornography is popular for the same reason that masturbation is: it's easy. The pleasure of pornography is essentially masturbatory, while real sex involves at least cursory connection with another person (I always made it a point to at least get a name). It is no accident, then, that, according to Schlosser, the popularity of pornography exploded with the advent of video-tape, cable-television, and the internet--all of which, to quote his article, "shifted the consumption of porn from seedy movie theaters and bookstores into the home." Now you don't even have to leave the house to rent the stuff. Or download it.

I'm no prude, you understand. And I am definitely not pro-censorship. If anything, I support Larry Flynt's right to publish whatever he wants. And I also support the abolition of obscenity laws (one's obscenity being another's free speech). It's just that I've always thought that sex was something you did, not something you watched. Perhaps, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, I need to remember that all the people in the world haven't had the advantages that I've had. But if I can get a date, believe me, anybody can. Even my porn-struck roommate.

I also recognize that the pornography industry is an exploitative one. (Voyeurism is by definition an exploitation.) And while I condemn efforts to censor pornography (I prefer being my own censor, thank you), I support efforts to clean the industry up. Mandatory AIDS and drug testing? Sure. Collective bargaining for porn stars? If they want it. See, the way I see it, most of the problems with the "Adult Entertainment" industry (it's more animal than adult) would be cleared up if our society would quit acting so hypocritical and hit this pervasive phenomenon with the cultural light of day. After all, everybody does it. Why not let them watch it, too.

In the end, the paradox of pornography's popularity versus its public stigma points to a basic schism in American society: We are both the freest and the most repressed of countries. As Schlosser tellingly puts it: "European countries tend to have much looser standards about nudity on television and much tougher restrictions on violence." What does it say about us that we can freely broadcast some blockbusting bloodfest (after bleeping a few expletives) while shrinking away from exhibitionism between consenting adults? That we'd rather fight than fornicate? No wonder we've got the toughest army in the world.

So perhaps my roommate wasn't so perverted after all. (He was just a little strange.) At least he wasn't into slasher-flicks. If it's gotta be gratuitous, sex is better than violence any day of the week. And if you feel different, well, knock yourself out.

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