It was reported that Hugh Hefner turned 80-years old on Sunday, so I guess now the American lexicon can more fully appreciate the expression “dirty old man.” Mr. Hefner was no doubt showered with gifts and tributes, followed by speeches and speechifying, for his entrée into octogenarian-hood and for all the good (but oh, so bad) work he has done on behalf of human sexuality. Consider: it was only 1953, a mere half century ago, when Playboy, the magazine Hefner dreamed of and founded, burst onto the publishing scene and stood athwart a Puritan society yelling Stop. He’s called the godfather of the sexual revolution. He’s called other things, too – visionary, businessman, and “boyfriend” to a revolving group of thoughtless young women paid to have sex with him. And he has had impact. It’s fair to say that every man reading this blog post, and many women as well, saw their first piece of pornography in the navel-stapled image of a Playboy bunny. Those of us who grew up under older brothers, and even some of us with equally messy dads, had Miss March and all her calendar girlfriends, it seemed, just an overturned mattress away. Hefner has slowed down considerably since then, placing operational control of his empire into the hands of Christie, his oldest daughter by his first wife, walking his mansion, viewing his film library, listening to music, and in general keeping up appearances on the set of his girlfriends’ fake reality series on the E! Channel, an eyes-wide-open look into the lives of three beautiful but irresponsible women and their quest to sleep till 11 o’clock in the morning. If he wasn’t obscenely well off, not to mention oversexed into his eighth decade, one could almost feel sympathy for a guy who genuinely appreciates the finer things in life trying to play Miles Davis for a group of girls more interested in J.Lo than jazz. But, having said all this, “Hef” has made a mark on the culture: the sexual revolution, if not started, then was influenced by, Playboy magazine; pornography is part of the American vocabulary, inter alia; and it’s time for Minerva’s owl to take wing and for the rest of us to look at where we are -- plus what, if anything, this all means.
Today, objections to pornography abound. Some decry the relaxing of community standards. Others call the business chauvinistic and exploitative. Many quote crime and violence statistics to support their claim that responsible censorship is in order. Women blame men; men blame women, after blaming themselves. The call to ban pornographic material is nothing new, as one can guess – why, even in Hef’s heyday the same concerns were raised and the usual figures trotted out. But now the surprise: after the free-wheeling and free-spending 1990s, the triumph of global capitalism, and the victory of limited government over the welfare state, the issue of pornography still hinges on that pesky and hidebound thing called culture. Computers and Internet access notwithstanding, the debate about pornography today has very little to do with privacy issues, instead focusing heavily on the relationship effects between men and women caused by a “pornified” world. The war of the “me” versus “we” it is now she against he.
The relationship issue is good strategy for liberal and conservative bedfellows because so many of the major indexes are against them. The 90’s brought about in the US a steady decline in the number of rapes, teen pregnancies, and sexual-related crimes that continues to this day. Abstinence is on the rise. Fewer teenagers report having unprotected sex than ever before. Thus, many commentators, stuck with the inconvenient truth, search for problems. The spanking new disease called pornography addiction is one of these. Feminists like Naomi Wolf and social conservatives such as Pat Buchanan have spoken out against online pornography for being too accessible, and therefore too tempting, for young men’s own good. These desiccated sex-zombies, we are told, view online porn up to ten hours a day in order to satisfy their cravings, forsaking the real world in favor of a virtual one where all their carnal desires are met. Ms. Wolf wrote such an article not long ago in which she spoke with a college-aged man about his daily porn habit. The man had been a good student, he explained, but his addiction to Internet porn was affecting his grades and straining relations with his girlfriend, a smart, pretty freshman he had been dating for several months. In short, this young man found the idea of jerking off in front of a computer more attractive than the soft embrace of a woman who actually cared about him. Unfortunately for Ms. Wolf and Patrick Buchanan, we have not discovered a new pathology so much as we have lowered our threshold for sickness: in the golden days of Playboy and other pornography accessible to most young men only through the occasional dirty magazine, a closet full of smut never revealed an addict suffering in silence -- it defined a loser in need of a date. We also have (though mostly from the conservative side, I’ll grant) an injunction against pornography for the harm it can cause women due to second-hand exposure. In 2006, even the dimmest among us can fully appreciate that this kind of neo-Victorian thinking is hopelessly retrograde and slightly offensive to the “fairer” sex. When the likes of writers like Matt Scully and the morally unimpeachable, never-did-a-bad-thing-in-his-life Chuck Colson posture as if women view porn as kryptonite, I wonder if they’ve ever actually talked to one. If the sexual revolution taught men anything, it merely illuminated, and did not discover, the female libido. Women enjoy pornography, yes, and denying this fact makes writers Scully and Colson look like half-baked prudes.
Any honest discussion of porn ought to properly concern us, not with simplistic psychobabble about addiction or chivalric pretense, but instead in what it means to be an adult, and more specifically a man in 2006. Say what you will about Hugh Hefner and his male-defined vision of sexual freedom; in his “Playboy Motto,” Hef spoke for the life of action, extolling men to better themselves in the hopes of one day living their boyhood fantasies. His was not a passive ideology: self-improvement, manners, the cultivation of a well-rounded personality, all were musts before that girl next door could be yours. The instant gratification that comes with so much explicit material today never asks this of you. Instead, men (and boys too) have been given all the benefits of a sexualized culture without any of the necessary trade-offs. Recently, VH1 aired the pilot episode of a show focusing on down-on-their-luck romantics called “Can’t Get a Date.” The television program involved a heavy dosage of self-improvement, character building, and honest, brutal reflection for the show’s male participant, a nice-looking young man who acted like a jerk every chance he got. At one point, the narrator, seeking to understand this 35-year-old’s prolonged solitude, asked him pointedly if he even liked women any more. His answer: “Of course I like women. I mean, I love women…. Isn’t that the point of this whole thing? Aren’t they the point in doing anything?” Indeed.