The traditional case against pornography, with a few 21st-century updates

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Anti-pornography polemics, like Bernadette Barton’s new “The Pornification of America: How Raunch Culture Is Ruining Our Society,” begin with one great advantage and one great disadvantage. The advantage is that most of us know that porn has become too accessible, particularly to children, and that there’s something degrading about it, particularly in its more extreme forms. One doesn’t have to spend too long on Pornhub or YouPorn to appreciate this. The disadvantage is that massive numbers of us watch porn. One 2018 study by Stony Brook University researchers found that more than 90 percent of men and more than 60 percent of women had looked at porn in the previous month. Even the lower-end studies find that a majority of adult men, and a solid minority of women, use it regularly.

The result is that many of us view porn like we view other common vices such as junk food or alcohol. There’s too much of it. Other people definitely abuse it. Sometimes we indulge too much ourselves. But it’s really seductive, and pleasurable, and we don’t like it when anyone tells us when or how we can consume.

Barton targets pornography itself as well as the rise and impact of “raunch culture,” her catch-call term (following the journalist Ariel Levy) for the ways American culture is pervaded by pornified representations of women. But the book confronts the same basic writing-about-porn challenge: Can it be candid about the ways we’re coarsened by porn without oversimplifying the experience and expression of human desire? “The Pornification of America” is stronger on the former front than the latter.

“Welcome to raunch culture in the 2020s — when the United States has devolved into a Hustler fantasy,” writes Barton, in a typical passage. “Naked and half-naked pictures of girls and women litter every screen, billboard, and bus. Pole dancing studios keep women fit while men airdrop their d--- pics to female passengers on buses, planes, and trains. . . . People are having sex before they date, and women make their own personal porn to share on social media.”

Barton, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Morehead State University, assembles her case against porn and pornification through a blend of pop-culture analysis and interviews (mostly with young women in their 20s). We learn about torture porn, fauxcest porn, Tumblr porn bots, Carl’s Jr.’s “3-Way Burger” campaign, Yeti butting, Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video, Kim Kardashian, the astounding increase in men sharing unsolicited photos of their genitals and the troubling experience of all the young women who feel as though they are expected to perform as sexualized objects for men.

Our mass embrace of pornification, argues Barton, produces a host of ill effects. Young women subordinate themselves and their sexualities to pornified visions of how they should look and act. Young men can’t sexually perform because their girlfriends don’t look and act like porn stars. The actual experience of having sex seems to be getting worse and less frequent for any gender. And pornification reinforces sexist notions of who men and women are and how they should relate to each other.

Most of these aren’t new arguments. I remember an all-school assembly in high school, 25 years ago, that tracked very closely with Barton’s chapter about the sexualization of women in advertising and media. Feminists and Christian conservatives alike have been critiquing pornography for decades, often in surprisingly similar terms, and broader debates about the sexualization of women in the media are as old as the mass media itself.

It’s good to be reminded, though, how toxic porn can be and how thoroughly our culture and brains have been colonized by it. And some of Barton’s material is genuinely fresh. Men couldn’t really harass women with intimate pics, for instance, until they had the smartphones to easily capture and share them. The Internet has expanded the scale and scope of pornographic material so much that it has become a difference in kind. It’s hard to imagine our most recent ex-president getting elected without the normalization of pornographic attitudes.

This is what “The Pornification of America” gets right. What it lacks is sufficient awe for, or even interest in, the power and allure of pornography and pornified imagery. Barton is not puritanical in a straightforward way. Two of her previous books are sympathetic engagements with the lives of sex workers, and the third is about the lives of gay men and women in Bible Belt America. She is pro-sex and against stigmatizing people’s sexual choices (unless they involve watching porn). But it’s dispiriting to read a whole book on porn and pornification with so little psychological curiosity about the experience of the men and women who use or model themselves on the stuff.

The result is a kind of thudding sameness. We get quotes from young women who seem to already share Barton’s perspective on raunch culture, lots of examples of pop culture’s sexual objectification of women, supporting passages from scholars who agree with Barton, and a faith in the good news of the anti-pornification gospel so staunch that by the end, it comes to seem willfully naive. To those of us who are in thrall, to one degree or another, to the power of porn and pornification, it has little to say beyond what we already know.

Our trouble is not that we don’t understand that porn is a problem but rather, as the philosopher Nancy Bauer put in her 2007 essay “Pornutopia,” that we “lack the words to articulate the role of pornography in our lives. What we need now is not a new politics of porn but, rather, a candid phenomenology of it, an honest reckoning with its power to produce intense pleasure and to color our ordinary sense of what the world is and ought to be like.”

This still seems right. “The Pornification of America” is a solid update of the traditional feminist case against porn. If that were all we needed to stem the tide of pornification, though, the tide would have long since been stemmed. We’re flooded.

The Pornification of America

How Raunch Culture Is Ruining Our Society

New York University.
217 pp. $24.95

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