- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2005

ATLANTA - Porn and bingo. Now there’s a couple of concepts that don’t usually hook up.

But every Tuesday night at the Gravity Pub in hip East Atlanta, host Charlie Leach calls bingo for a crowd of twenty- and thirtysomethings and between games leads them in hoisting a toast to “porn star birthdays.”

He’ll name a porn star having a birthday and then rattle off a list of her movies, most of which are unprintable, as the patrons laugh and cheer. “Some of the funny ones are plays on real movie titles,” he says, “like ‘The Sub-Pornos’ instead of ‘The Sopranos.’”

The porno-bingo connection isn’t mentioned in either of two new books being published simultaneously about the extent to which porn has infiltrated mainstream culture, but it’s nicely emblematic of how casual many people are about something that not long ago was taboo.

The new pornucopia takes two related forms. There’s the real stuff, in hotel room pay-per-views, on cable, in video stores and on the Internet. Don’t forget the cutting edge, either: porn delivered wirelessly to your cell-phone screen or on the DVD player in your sport utility vehicle.

Supposedly, porn is a $10 billion- to $14 billion-a-year business — roughly equal to the annual U.S. movie box-office total — although with the Internet, it’s probably much higher.

Then there’s the referential stuff, the mainstream books, movies and TV shows that are about porn: Jenna Jameson’s memoir, which made the New York Times’ best-seller list; the teen comedy film “The Girl Next Door,” starring Elisha Cuthbert as an apple-cheeked regular girl who just happens to be a porn actress; and Barbara Walters naming Paris Hilton one of her “10 Most Fascinating People” of 2004, knowing full well it wasn’t Paris’ reality TV show or her stupid little dog that fascinated us.

Insanely complicated issues are at play in the merging of pop culture and porn culture, including how we think about our sexuality, both individually and collectively; the effect on couples and children; and the role of women.

Two new books written by mainstream female journalists (Ariel Levy is with New York magazine, Pamela Paul writes for Time) acknowledge the complexities but want very badly to make the point that what’s going on is deeply troubling.

Miss Levy comes from a traditional feminist viewpoint in “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.” She goes on location with a “Girls Gone Wild” video shoot and talks to teenage girls about dressing provocatively to get boys’ attention, stalking what she calls the female chauvinist pig: a cohort of young women who live life like a frat party. She’s told that this “raunch culture” is progressive and empowering to women and that she just doesn’t get it.

She retorts that she has no problem with sexual freedom and equality but that raunch culture celebrates a very narrow, very commercial view of sex and of women: breast implants, strip clubs and Playboy — “women as consumers and women as things to be consumed,” Miss Levy writes.

Miss Paul’s “Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families” sounds a similar note: “To be for pornography was to stand in favor of civil liberties, sexual liberation and human biology. Opposition to pornography was considered repressive, reactionary and anti-sex.” (There’s a real blue-state mentality in that observation, but point taken.)

Even though she wants to think of herself as being in the middle of any debate, Miss Paul clearly became convinced through her research and interviews that porn is pernicious.

She commissioned her own poll for the book through Harris Interactive and interviewed more than 100 people in depth, she says — 80 percent of them men. As she recounts their stories, it becomes clear that the men she quotes most are the ones with the most serious problems, some with dangerous porn addictions that have overwhelmed them and their families.

The National Council on Sex Addiction and Compulsivity, she writes, estimates that 3 percent to 8 percent of Americans are sex addicts of some kind. The men in the book, some of whom are downright creepy, seem to overwhelm that meager number.

Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in 1964 that he couldn’t define pornography, “but I know it when I see it.” These days, it’s far easier to see it than it is to know it; any commonly held societal definition (the elusive “community standards” of yesteryear) is long gone.

Once upon a time, D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was considered pornography. Now there are erotica, soft-core, hard-core, “Girls Gone Wild,” Howard Stern and lad mags.

Despite what some may want to believe, this change is not ideological; it’s demographic. In her Harris poll, Miss Paul asked if people should have full access to porn under the U.S. Constitution. Overall, 24 percent of Democrats and 20 percent of Republicans agreed, which is essentially no difference. Baby boomers and younger people were more than twice as likely to agree as people older than 59.

Although she doesn’t supply the data, it would be a safe bet that Gen X and Gen Y are more comfortable with porn than boomers are. That is a true shift in values and attitudes.

One could argue that 45 years after the introduction of the birth control pill we’re still grappling with just what that little breakthrough wrought. It’s no wonder we have trouble assessing the change to our social psyche just a few years into the transition from hidden porn to porn in the den, the office cubicle, the family SUV.

That doesn’t mean the discussion isn’t necessary, and these books, with their rejection of the status quo, are good places to start.

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