Huh? Problem? What problem?
A week or so ago, the U.S. Senate held some hearings on pornography, including the internet’s vast and various store of the stuff. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, called porn a “problem of harm, not an issue of taste.” Nobody, though, paid much attention to the proceedings. Popular blogger Jeff Jarvis, in a post titled A Nation of Hairy Palms, dismissed it all as “silly crap” from “conservative prudes.”
Jarvis’s reaction is typical of the blogosphere’s, and, for that matter, the whole country’s, laissez faire attitude toward online porn: Yeah, there’s a whole lot of it out there, but it’s basically harmless, even kind of amusing. Anyone who has the temerity to criticize it, or even call attention to it, is just a prude or a loser who deserves to be ridiculed and ignored.
Another common view of digital porn is that it’s useful – as a case study for internet businesses. Paul Kedrosky, in a recent post, rehearses this theme: “I think that a valuable startup exercise would be to do a wholesale survey of all emerging technology in the promotion, selling, and distribution of online porn …” I’ve probably said or written similar things in the past, as have many others.
But maybe the most common reaction of all is simply denial. When Icann recently proposed setting up an online red-light district, under the .xxx domain, many politicians around the world, led by President Bush, attacked the idea, and Icann shelved the plan. Establishing a porn domain would have acknowledged the fact that the web is crammed with naughty pictures and videos. Without .xxx, we can pretend it doesn’t exist – or at least distance ourselves from it.
I don’t think I’m a prude (and I like to pretend I’m not a loser), but I’d like to suggest that internet pornography is bad. Very bad, in fact. I’m not talking here about your run-of-the-mill dirty pictures and movies – the stuff you’d find in Playboy or Penthouse or your local video store. I’m talking about the really gruesome stuff. If you have a blog, you’re familiar with trackback spam – links that spammers add to your site in order to promote their own sites. My daily chore of deleting trackback spam has, unfortunately, opened for me a window onto the internet pornography industry. Here, for your edification, is a small selection of the headlines I routinely have to delete from my site:
Sex with animals
Brutal [fill in the blank]
These are not the worst of them. The long tail of online pornography is a very long tail indeed, meticulously documenting the full scope and intricacy of human depravity, from the simulated rape and torture of women through bestiality and on to child pornography and other criminal diversions. And guess what? Photographs and video clips of all of it are readily available, not only to adults but to children as well. There are no drawn curtains, no blacked-out windows, on the internet. Think you need a credit card to get this stuff? Think again. Think that filters are reliable, or that kids can’t get around them? Dream on. (And even if you carefully monitor what your kids do on your family’s computers, do you really think all your kids’ friends’ parents are as diligent? Yeah, right.)
[A few hours after posting this entry, I decided to delete a paragraph that originally appeared here. The paragraph provided an example showing how easy it is for anyone to access the type of stuff I’ve been describing (and also illustrated how search engines, by cataloguing the material, facilitate its discovery). I came to fear that the example might have the counterproductive effect of promoting what I’m trying to criticize.]
This isn’t a call to arms. I don’t have the backbone to be a crusader. I just find it curious how easily we’ve come to accept what just a few years ago would have been unimaginable – both the content and its accessibility. Then again, maybe it’s not so curious. In his 1993 article Defining Deviancy Down, published in the American Scholar, Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out that:
there are circumstances in which society will choose not to notice behavior that would be otherwise controlled, or disapproved, or even punished. It appears to me that this is in fact what we in the United States have been doing of late. I proffer the thesis that, over the past generation … the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can “afford to recognize” and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the “normal” level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.
Moynihan was writing specifically about criminal behavior, but the analysis holds for pornography as well. As a society, we can’t afford to recognize what we all know exists – what in fact lies just a click or two away from whatever we, or our children, happen to be looking at on the web at any given moment. And we can’t afford to consider that when Orrin Hatch calls it “a problem of harm, not an issue of taste,” he may be right. It’s so much simpler to pretend that what he’s saying is “silly crap.”