25 June 2006

Pamela and Jenna

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Feminism & Me, Part VI. A review of Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, by Pamela Paul, Times Books, New York, 2005 and How To Make Love Like A Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale, by Jenna Jameson with Neil Strauss, HarperCollins, New York, 2004.

The best chapters of Pamela Paul’s Pornified are the last two: chapter 8, “The Truth about Pornography” and her “Conclusion: The Censure-Not-Censor Solution,” where she finally addresses – directly and with few of her negatively-insinuating anecdotes about Regular Americans Damaged By Porn [my phrase, not hers] – what I would call three bottom-line elements to any serious discussion of pornography in our society.

First, we should make every effort – every effort – to protect children both from participation in and observation of pornography; the former is most critical, since child pornography is horrible, and it should be stopped. As for the latter, well, that those same kids will likely make an equal effort to discover porn is not an argument for allowing or enabling them to do so. Kids should be – need to be – protected from a number of aspects of the adult world, and this is certainly one of them, even if part of the process of growing up inevitably includes struggles to do adult-type things before one might really be ready. Paul quotes a study that showed, somewhat surprisingly, that 69% of men want pornography to be illegal for minors, an even higher percentage than that of women, at 52%. (P. 252) This study is quoted amidst an exploration of political perspectives on access to porn, and the traditional liberal vs. conservative divide on the subject – a divide trumped by this 69% figure. Perhaps it is not so surprising: maybe men know about the dangers of pornography, and therefore even the liberal ones have fewer illusions about the need to distinguish between acceptable adult behavior as distinct from that of children.

Second, we should improve our sex education, our programs educating teenagers about human sexuality – and we should admit to ourselves that “pornography” (whatever its other uses) does not constitute an effective or acceptable sexual education tool for teenagers. An intelligently designed and implemented program of sexual education – one that reinforces, among other things, messages about the importance of mutual pleasure, about the dangers of early or unprotected sex, about respect for one’s partners, about basic sexual health – might not only help prepare kids for all the things their hormones will compel them to do, it might also undermine the argument that there is sex-education value in pornography.

Third, we need to accept that adults have a right to do things – like view pornography – that other people may dislike or find unappealing, but acknowledging this right and over-enabling it are two different things. Paul’s argument is that it is possible to allow the legal distribution of pornography without necessarily making it easy to acquire. She equates the dynamic to that of smoking, where a variety of individual and social health issues finally encouraged our government to allow the sale of cigarettes while taxing them heavily, thus permitting a behavior while imposing a societal penalty of sorts. (P. 265)

If my implied agreement with all of the above comes as a surprise to those familiar with my civil libertarian leanings, so be it. Separate and apart from Paul’s book, I think: it is obvious that children shouldn’t be exposed to pornography; equally obvious that American sex education programs (particularly now, under the teach-abstinence-only focused Bush-Cheney administration) are sorely in need of improvement; and that there most definitely is a distinction between acknowledging someone’s right to access a particular good or service and reducing or eliminating restrictions on access to that good or service.

Unfortunately, these three effective Pornified points will normally require the reader to wade through the remainder of the book – which is significantly less appealing, and generally ineffective in its argumentation. The first big problem with Pornified concerns Paul’s central thesis: that our society has not only become obsessed with pornography, but that this obsession is hurting us as individuals and impairing our relationships (sexual or otherwise) to our husbands, wives, partners, and society as whole. On the first part of that thesis, Paul writes that “The all-pornography, all-the-time mentality is everywhere in today’s pornified culture – not just in cybersex and Playboy magazine. It’s on Maxim magazine covers where even women who ostensibly want to be taken seriously as actresses pose like Penthouse pinups. It’s in women’s magazines where readers are urged to model themselves on strippers, articles explain how to work your sex moves after those displayed in pornos, and columnists counsel bored or dissatisfied young women to rent pornographic films with their lovers in order to ‘enliven’ their sex lives. ... Softcore pornography has now become part and parcel of the mainstream media.” (P. 5)

Even if we accept her argument as true – and there is certainly truth to it – what is missing entirely from Paul’s analysis is recognition of the legitimate choices made by adults, both male and female, and the responsibility that should come with those choices. In many ways, the problems with Paul’s book are similar to those of Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, namely the pairing of occasionally-astute observation (e.g., about young women who participate in Girls Gone Wild videos) with poor conclusions about who is responsible for the actions of an individual, and what can be learned from those actions. In Paul’s case, she specifically points to these kinds of videos and places the biggest blame not with the women who participate, or even the camera crews who engage and encourage them, but with the demand for the product in the first place. “If demand didn’t exist, the product wouldn’t sell – and would disappear.” (P. 265) Well, ok; but since the demand is unlikely to fade away on its own, shouldn’t the people who participate be encouraged to take greater responsibility for their actions if they are unhappy with the results?

This leads to the second problem with Pornified: the argument that women have gone along with the expansion of pornography in our society; that they have, in fact, largely adopted much of it into our collective culture; that this is clearly a bad thing; and that pornography itself is to blame. Levy called this “raunch culture,” and again, neither author is necessarily wrong in their assessment of the situation; as Kira Cochrane wrote in a recent review of Levy’s book in The Guardian, after re-reading the book “suddenly, everywhere I look, I can see, well, pure raunchiness. ... All around, there’s a profusion of nylon thongs poking above women’s waistbands. ... Girls are wearing cut-off tops and T-shirts saying “Porn star” and every other woman I see has breast implants.” These books certainly can be eye-opening if you were not tuned in to such details already.

But to blame the proliferation of pornography itself for this situation seems extremely naïve. We are talking, after all, about one industry; it may be a wealthy industry relative to its size, and it may be politically powerful because of its First Amendment positions, but there are limits. Think about all of this in relation to perhaps the biggest cross-American industry of all: religion. According to The Harris Poll, the statistics on the number of Americans who profess to believe in god (79%), who attend some kind of worship service regularly (55%), and who believe in miracles (84%) are enormous, to put it mildly. Churches in America are powerful, “values voters” are claimed to have dominated the last two national elections, and even the American left has been looking for opportunities to adopt some of the values of the right. Therefore, in an environment like this, in a society with so many competing influences and opportunities, to blame one industry for the change in American culture – as opposed to the motivations of the individuals who are themselves making these changes – seems completely out of whack. Pornography cannot be that powerful. Can it?

That’s an interesting question all by itself. In Pornified, Paul goes out of her way to prove this point – and fails, utterly. In some places, she claims that the problem is the reach of the porn industry: “Fueled by a combination of access, anonymity, and affordability, the Internet has propelled pornography consumption – bringing in new viewers (including children), encouraging more use from existing fans, escalating consumers from softcore to harder-core material, and propelling some over the edge into sexual compulsivity.” (P. 60) In other places, she quotes psychologists, such as David Marcus: “‘More is being asked of men emotionally these days,’ he explains, ‘Many men are still providers and they’re still in the workforce... the workplace is more competitive and there are fewer jobs... But at home, the kind of behavior that works in the workplace is simply unacceptable. ... They feel like they’re mastering neither home nor work and that, overall, they’re not in control.” P. 35. Paul mentions different studies, such as the Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillmann study from 1982 about how pornography negatively changed people’s perceptions about rape and violent sex. (PP. 77-78) And she makes statements – such as: “But there’s a vast difference between sexuality and its artistic representation, and pornography, a commercialized means to arousal. To pretend they are equivalent is nothing short of deceit.” (P. 241) – thats sound correct, but fail on closer analysis. That art and porn are not equal does not automatically mean that the commercialized arousal of pornography is or must be bad.

Worst of all, Paul uses a series of warped anecdotes to highlight people – pornography users – in ways that cast aspersions on their actions while attempting to maintain a neutral tone. For example, telling the tale of “Christina” (PP. 116-117), who is in her mid-thirties and has two kids, she starts off by saying Christina “...got started on pornography at age twelve...” and from there goes on to imply that everything else that happened – her drug use, her having a child at 19, even her subsequent marriage and divorce – are all the result of her continued attachment to porn. This despite the fact that Christina herself says “I just find porn really enticing.” We are supposed to feel sorry for the 5’9” blond, blue-eyed, thin, busty Christina because, I suppose, she isn’t even aware that she’s delusional. This in direct contrast to Keisha, a few pages later, who responds to an absurd porn film plot-line by saying “I was like, ugh, gross!” (P. 119) Clearly, Paul wants to make clear that Keisha gets it and Christina doesn’t.

What I don’t get – and what Paul never really explains – is: why do we humans (or, at least, we Americans) find pornography so compelling? If we accept Paul’s statistics on the scope of the industry, the massive numbers of people who buy, look at, or are otherwise connected to porn in some way, including both men and women, then we need more research into what, exactly, is behind this, at a biological and psychological level. Only once we have a better understanding of what truly motivates our consumption of pornography – beyond just the excuses about someone’s difficulty relating to people, or that it’s easier than trying to date, or that it adds a little spice to stale relationship – can we explore the scope of its impact and assess whether that impact is negative. There may be good reasons why contemporary pornography is hardly the expression of female liberation that some claim, but the kind of anecdotal back-stabbing Paul engages in only weakens the arguments. Moreover, if there are victims of pornography, they need to paint a more compelling portrait than that “Christina” – or that of “Christopher,” who is fat but is picky about his women, and hasn’t had a girlfriend in four years in part because it’s just easier to masturbate to pornography. (PP. 24-25) Something tells me fat, dateless sad-sacks like “Christopher” were around long before the creation of the internet. Ditto for busty, self-confident women like “Christina” who wisely opted not to blame their problems on someone else.


This is where Jenna Jameson comes in. The woman is certainly a wonder, and I mean that in a variety of positive and negative ways. Her book is disastrous, with a tortuous narrative flow that must surely have bothered not-quite-a-ghost-writer Neil Strauss as much as any reader. And reading it is, in many ways, like reading several hundred pages of “Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey” – absent the self-conscious irony and evident humor. For example, in one passage, explaining why people sometimes make the (poor) decisions they do, driven as humans are by complex desires: “And emotions always overpower thoughts.” (P. 60). Well, yes, that’s been known to happen. Or how about this one: “The best sex takes place in the mind first.” (P. 72) Hmmm. “Perception, I quickly learned, is reality.” (P. 404) Here, here! Or what about: “...success requires some familiarity with the fatal flaw of narcissism.” (P. 402) All too true.

Or, more to the point of my review: “People often say that the world would be so much better if it were run by women. But women have as many faults as men. Their faults are just different. So he truth is that the world would not be better if it were run by a woman, it would be better if it were run by the right woman. When men race or fight, they are only striving to prove their masculinity or protect their sense of pride. But women do not compartmentalize in the same way. Our actions are a reflection of our complete selves, worthiness, and deservedness. For the worst of our species, any other attractive female is seen as competition and a threat.” (P. 70)

Or, on standing up for herself: “If any journalist makes me feel uncomfortable or shows any disrespect, I’ll cancel the interview. In this business, you get to see all the double standards that women are held to in society, and it is important to keep from perpetuating them. One way is by refusing to allow anyone to disrespect you.” (P. 415)

She may be onto something here. There’s no irony in those statements, either.

My two biggest pet peeves in reading this book are simple. First, Jenna describes herself as, at times, being in “mouse mode” (e.g., P. 105) while, mere paragraphs later, we are to believe she has flipped some kind of switch and the mouse is gone. This happens repeatedly, from her early experiences as a stripper, to her first movies, to how she deals with many “industry” people, Jenna goes from shy to shrewd in a few sentences. In other words: it is difficult to believe; I am not saying she doesn’t feel mousy inside, but it doesn’t ring true with the subsequent actions, never mind the public persona. Second: Jenna has a penchant for describing the “camaraderie” in the porn industry (e.g., P. 334, P. 376), as if to make us feel better about it – which usually fails, because such “camaraderie” is usually followed a page or two later with a story about how someone has (you should pardon the pun) dicked her over. Why bother. The story works better when pornography is work, and described as such in matter-of-fact terms.

Now, this may sound ridiculous in light of my review of Pornified and my general agreement that pornography has become a deep and deeply negative influence on our society, but I have to admit: I admire Jenna Jameson. Yes, yes, she’s “successful” and likely richer than I’ll ever be; it isn’t that, though. And yes, yes, Jenna has played as much of a role as anyone in popularizing porn in the last decade, contributing to our “pornified” culture and all that this implies. I admire Jenna because – in spite of the many bad things that happened to her, or that she allowed to happen to her, or that she did to herself – she has had the guts to be who and what she is. I don’t even mean the “porn star” part per se, so much as her unselfconscious attitude towards explaining how she got where she did. If Toni Bentley was brave to talk about her penchant for anal sex, Jenna takes it all so much further, in a way that seems so much more honest for its charting of her (many, and varied) ups-and-downs.

Jenna Jameson is not the most astute observer of the world, or of human relationships, and it is too easy to dismiss this book for its flaws (or as a glibly successful effort to make money). Nor am I sure I want to advocate that people should read it. I cannot quite go that far. However, the book’s subtitle is “A Cautionary Tale” for good reason and in that, no matter what else one wants to talk about, there is merit. If we live in a “pornified” culture, we deserve to read about some of the pitfalls, straight from a key source. On that score, Jenna delivers.


Anonymous ChrisW said...

I can't believe nobody has posted a comment in a whole year. This is a really useful, helpful unpacking of the confusion and need for honest thinking about porn . I for one know that men benefit from asking themselves the big why and NOT blaming firs: its a question I would like to communicate with men about

5:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good review of Paul's book. But you must agree that pornography has become a problem for people who use it. The main damage is sexual. Pornography is is no sex for the observer, it is other people's sex. So, pornography cannot deliver sexual satisfaction but only excitment, and because of this it induces the consumer to take another dose, on and on, looking for a genuine sexual pleasure. This is a kind of addiction that moves the consumer away from the real thing. He may look for satisfaction in real sex but he won't find it, because pornography is more spicy, so he will return to it. This vicious circle is pointed in her words by Pamela Paul and other consequences come from it.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good review of Paul's book. But you must consider that pornography renders many problems in real life. The most important comes from the fact that it isn't sex at all: it's only a representation of sex. This means that it cannot deliver real sexual satisfaction. So, it leads people to use it repeatedly, becoming a sort of addiction (a symbolic addiction, of course). At last, it moves the consumer to move away from real sex, where he cannot find out that kind o excitment promoted by pornography.

2:39 PM  

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