Like most guys of my generation—I’m on the downslide to 40—I have fond memories of my first experience with pornography. I was 14 years old and my best friend at the time had just discovered his father’s secret stash of smut. We gathered in his basement and studied the magazines like archaeologists, delicately turning every page like we thought they might disintegrate. Some of the photos featured naked ladies, their legs stretched apart like gymnasts, and some featured naked men and women, their faces contorted in pretend ecstasy, their bodies bent in impossible angles, their genitals much larger (and certainly hairier) than seemed necessary.
I eventually mustered the courage to ask my friend if I could borrow a few of the magazines “just for the night,” which in hindsight was a pretty bold request. I was, after all, essentially announcing my intention to masturbate. It wasn’t like I’d be taking his dad’s porn back to my bedroom lab for carbon dating. I can still vividly recall the excitement and terror of walking home with a handful of porn stuffed inside my jacket. I felt like a drug smuggler at the Mexican border, his rectum filled with baggies of contraband, fully expecting the Feds to descend on him at any moment. When I somehow managed to slip past my parents and run upstairs, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I stayed up all night, cherishing my hard-won porn, rarely blinking as my eyes traced every powdered areola and pubic forest on display in the magazine’s dog-eared pages.
A lot has changed since I was a horny teenager. In today’s Internet age, porn isn’t something that the average person has much trouble finding. Spend five minutes on Google and you’ll be able to track down all the erotic imagery any reasonable person would ever want or need. In fact, the trick these days isn’t finding porn but figuring out how to avoid being inundated by it. Porn is literally everywhere. Not just online, where you’re going to see pictures of strangers fucking whether you want to or not, but in every other facet of culture. Porn is now fodder for arty coffee table books and cable TV reality shows and bestselling memoirs and Broadway musicals. (The Broadway smash Avenue Q was the first to point out the obvious: “The Internet Is For Porn”.) In movies like Superbad, teenage boys have graphic discussions about their tastes in Internet porn without even a hint of embarrassment. Mainstream celebrities—most recently Colin Farrell and Kim Kardashian—are starring in their own amateur porn videos, and porn stars are going mainstream, whether it’s Ron Jeremy co-starring on The Surreal Life or Sasha Grey, semi-famous for her throat-gagging blowjobs in porn, getting a lead role in Steven Soderbergh’s latest art house flick, The Girlfriend Experience.
Porn is no longer a guilty pleasure. It’s become the new cultural norm. As Moby once admitted in an interview, “I don’t really trust men who claim to not be interested in porn.” The message couldn’t be clearer. If you don’t like wanking off to pornography, you’re a cultural outsider, and very likely some kind of freak.
Not surprisingly, this has inspired a legion of wide-eyed journalists and finger-wagging experts to declare that Internet porn is transforming another generation of otherwise innocent children into moral degenerates. The statistics are endless, and admittedly a little scary. 1000 new pornographic websites are created every day, at least 40 million people in the U.S. are “sexually involved” with the Internet, 12% of all websites and 8% of all emails are porn-related, and 90% of teenagers under the age of 16 have viewed pornography online. (It shouldn’t be surprising that most of these statistics come from organizations with the word “family” in their name.) Porn, we’ve been told repeatedly, is “the wallpaper of our era.” Some of the warnings are so obvious and late to the party that they’re almost adorable. The American Family Association cautioned that pornography is now so pervasive that it was only a matter of time before it became “just another part of the entertainment menu.” Wow. Uh, yeah, good guess, A.F.A. Are you only just noticing that? Isn’t that like worrying that these horseless carriages might soon take over the planet?
With so many carnal distractions, it’s amazing that anybody has the strength to feed and wash themselves anymore. The recent recession shouldn’t be a surprise. An entire generation has been too busy staring at their computers and jerking off incessantly to be worried with something as trivial as the economy. But it’s difficult to get a clear sense of whether porn is really corruptive, because most critics usually focus on age. Insisting that porn is dangerous for children isn’t an interesting argument. Obviously children shouldn’t be watching porn. It’s like arguing against drug legalization because a 9-year-old might get his hands on a joint. Nobody thinks that prepubescents should be getting stoned, and nobody (at least nobody who doesn’t own a van with the windows blacked out) thinks that children should be looking at pictures of adults fucking. But the issue of whether Internet porn is a positive influence gets a little murkier when you’re talking about adults and adult adjacents. Is the abundance of porn on the Web causing damage to the post-puberty teenagers and 20-somethings still trying to wrap their heads around the mechanics of sex and healthy relationships?
If we’ve learned nothing else about porn over the last three decades, it’s that the experts know nothing. In the 80s, anti-porn activist Andrea Dworkin warned Congress that “pornography is used in rape—to plan it, to execute it, to choreograph it, to engender the excitement to commit the act.” As it turns out, the exact opposite is true. Studies have proven that porn actually prevents rape, tuckering out the overactive libidos of frat-boy douchebags before they do something the rest of us will regret. In a 2004 testimony before the U. S. Senate Committee, Dr. Judith Reisman of the California Protective Parents Association claimed that watching too much Internet porn produces a neurochemical called “Erototoxins”, which could lead to antisocial behavior like serial murder and child molestation. (Never heard of Erototoxins? That’s because it’s a made-up word, like when medieval doctors would blame an illness on “melancholic humours”.) A 2008 Australian study found that people who looked at Internet porn had “alarmingly high” rates of depression and stress, though even the researchers weren’t entirely clear whether it was the porn making them depressed or if depressed people just tend to spend more time masturbating.
To be fair, there are some legitimate arguments against Internet porn, or at least arguments that can’t be immediately dismissed by saying “Oh shut up, grandpa.” For instance, it’s been suggested that porn could be giving young adults unrealistic expectations about what constitutes actual sex between consenting adults. That’s a valid, if not entirely accurate, concern.
According to Clay Calvert, a professor in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, “Every older generation is filled with fear wrought by the new generation’s technology. Just as most well-adjusted kids can distinguish violence in a fictional video game from a real-life shooting at school or shopping mall, so too can most people distinguish fictional sex in a movie featuring breast-enhanced babes from their own sex lives.”
In other words, kids aren’t that stupid. Suggesting that teenagers and young adults are watching porn and thinking it’s an accurate reflection of sex in the real world is as absurd as thinking they’re watching horror films for tips on how to murder sorority girls in abandoned summer camps. It’s not so much a condemnation of porn as it is an insult to the intellect and rational cognitive ability of anybody under 21. It’s basically saying to young people, “We don’t think you understand the difference between reality and fantasy.” Because that’s honestly the only reason porn could lead to confusion.
If you’re the sort of person who goes to see Transformers and gets disappointed when you leave the theater and your car doesn’t turn into a robot killing machine with machine-gun hands, or you watch Twilight and wonder why your boyfriend can’t be a sexy, overly-coiffed vampire, then porn is the least of your problems. You are, to be it gently, a moron. We should be less concerned with what porn is doing to you and more concerned with how the fuck somebody with your mental abilities got access to porn in the first place.
“Porn is definitely not a big deal,” says Emily, a 21-year-old student from Penn State. “It’s just a fun thing to watch when you’re bored or horny or both. It gets me excited and in the mood for sex, but there’s only so far that porn can take you before you need the real thing. Sex in real life involves way more feelings and is more complicated. But porn is just entertainment.”
Ryan L, a 20-year-old college student in Florida, agrees. “It hasn’t changed my view of sex at all,” he says. “I kind of view sex and porn as mutually exclusive. Porn stars are unattainable and the things they do are impossible for normal human beings.” By way of example, he tells me about a baseball-themed porno that was recommended to him by a friend. “It quickly turned into a baseball bat being rammed up a girl’s ass,” he remembers with a shudder, “and then they used some kind of vacuum to suck it out. It struck me as horribly disturbing at the time.” But not disturbing enough, he insists, to change his behavior in any meaningful way. His feelings about women and sex are more or less the same. “The only downside,” he tells me, “is that the game of baseball has been tarnished forever.”
Remember when Time magazine warned us in 1995 that Internet porn was “pervasive and surprisingly perverse?” Well, it turns out the purveyors of online filth were just getting warmed up. If you want to find out just how “surprisingly perverse” it’s gotten in recent years, find some college students. They’ll be happy to tell you everything, and probably in more graphic detail than you ever wanted to know.
Cody and Travis Pigon, both 21 and college seniors, aren’t in any way bashful or reserved when describing to me the various sex acts they’ve witnessed online. “I’ve learned that many different objects can be stuck in someone’s ass,” Travis says. “And that some people apparently like to eat shit. And that it is, in fact, possible to suck your own dick.”
“Ass-to-mouth is pretty gross,” Cody adds helpfully, describing a sex act that really shouldn’t be explained if you’re not already familiar with it. “And I didn’t know girls could squirt until I saw porn.”
They take particular delight in sharing the details of a video—it’s unclear whether they’ve watched it together—in which a man shoved a small dildo into his urethra. “Probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen,” Cody says, with a giddy enthusiasm that suggests he’s anything but scarred by the experience. When I wonder aloud whether they’d ever consider imitating the sexual behavior they’ve seen in porn, specifically the harrowing dildo-in-a-dude’s-peehole scene, Travis and Cody just laugh. They inform me, repeatedly and vehemently, that I’m out of my fucking mind.
“I looks way too painful and a tiny bit gay,” Travis tells me. “When they shove that thing down there, it rips your dick down the center so you get what looks like a ‘cleft dick’. That is way too bloody and painful for me.”
Talk to an average adult and you’ll hear the same concerns. All this Internet porn has to be desensitizing. Kids today have seen too much, too often and in too many bizarre variations. They’re so hypersexualized by technology, pummeled with so much graphic imagery, that it’s only a matter of time before they grow jaded with unchoreographed, flesh-and-blood sex. But talk to anybody under the age 21 and you’ll get a very different take. Their version of this Garden of Eden story has a happy ending. The end of their sexual innocence hasn’t left them confused and scared and cynical and alienated. Yes, the temptations of Internet porn are everywhere. But so are fast food restaurants, and they somehow manage to avoid pulling into every drive-through and gorging themselves.
If the abundance of porn has had any negative effect, it’s that today’s youth are starting to get bored… not with sex, but with porn.
“I love sex no matter how much porn I watch,” Cody Pigon tells me. “But porn definitely isn’t as exciting as it used to be. I remember when I was kid, I had to sneak around MySpace looking for naked pics and I would spend hours doing it. Now I could care less about most of the porn I see. There’s just too much of it.”
You want to feel bad for somebody? Feel bad for the adult industry. Yes, they’ve made billions in the Internet boom ($2.5 billion, by some estimations) but their ambition might very well be their undoing. They’ve saturated the market for porn to the point where their product is starting to lose its mystique and taboo status, which was most its appeal in the first place. If porn ceases to be naughty and special because you can find it everywhere, it won’t take long for people to stop caring entirely.
It’s difficult for me to not sound like an old fart when talking about the good old days of porn. I could tell you how porn wasn’t always easy to come by, and how when I was a teenager we cherished every photo of naked boobies like it might be our last, because we were never certain if the porn underground railroad would be shut down tomorrow. I could tell you how porn wasn’t just given to us, we had to earn it, either by knowing somebody who had access or discovering discarded Playboys in the forest or making the shameful walk to the dimly-lit back rooms of video stores. I could even tell you about the dark ages, during the 70s and 80s, when people had to venture into dirty movie theaters in seedy neighborhoods to watch their porn, and then they might be showered with viscous fluid by guys in raincoats sitting behind them. I could tell you exactly what’s wrong with kids today and their masturbatory habits: They’ve forgotten that porn isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey.
“Back in my day,” I want to lecture to the Pigon brothers, “we had to walk barefoot in the snow for six miles to see pictures of guys doing inadvisable things with dildos.” But I don’t, because I’m secretly a little jealous that they have it so easy. So I just smile and nod and say nothing, and then later that night I do a Google search for “dildo” and “urethra”, just to find out what all the fuss is about.
Travis and Cody are right. That video is totally fucked up.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the July 2009 issue of Details magazine.)