Sex Sells

The pornography industry continues to saturate our society but ultimately not satisfy it.

When men view women as sex objects, they are also objectifying themselves, a point not often appreciated ... Pornography promotes our insecurities by picturing sex as a field of combat and conquest ... Emotional needs are denied altogether or telescoped mercilessly into the search to obtain exclusively genital satisfaction. Although what most men want is physical affection from another human being, what they end up thinking they want is to be laid by a Playboy bunny. --Harry Brod, "Eros Thanatized: Pornography and Male Sexuality," in Men Confront Pornography, Michael S. Kimmel, ed.

"I can't get no satisfaction." --The Rolling Stones

The arguments for and against pornography are not likely to be resolved anytime soon, but with the Sex Worker Arts Festival in town this weekend, Tucsonans have an opportunity to get a rare glimpse into the lives and politics of women and men who earn their living by catering to human desire. Unlike last week's election--an exercise in the porn of politics--this weekend's spectacle addresses the politics of porn.

Sex workers have legitimate concerns about health, safety, legal issues and the hypocrisy of a system that marginalizes them while increasingly making use of their services. Though it is now a growth industry, not long ago pornography was largely relegated to gritty sidestreets in the seediest parts of town. But with the advent of the Internet, the lax prosecution of pornographers during the Clinton administration and the entry of major corporations (GM and AT&T, to name two) into the sex trade, porn's ease of availability grows while its profits skyrocket.

Sales of sexual material in the United States are estimated at between $10 and $14 billion annually. Globally, the income from adult videos alone generates $20 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

What the commodification of sex indicates regarding patterns of culture and consumption remains unclear. Pornography is protected by the First Amendment and is a liberatory vehicle for men as well as women, advocates argue. Opponents point to numerous studies linking porn to violence against women, and they decry the negative effects of pornography on emotional intimacy in relationships.

In her book XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography, Wendy McElroy, an anarchist feminist, states: "Pornography benefits women, both personally and politically." Among other benefits, pornography provides a view of the "world's sexual possibilities," allows women to safely explore sexual options in a private and safe environment and can be therapeutic for those with no sexual partner. In addition, pornography is the handmaiden to sexual freedom and is "free speech applied to the sexual realm." Finally, legitimizing porn protects sex workers who McElroy believes are being "undermined" by anti-porn feminists.

McElroy claims she interviewed dozens of sex workers in the course of her research and that none of them reported being coerced (an accusation made by porn opponents). On the contrary, according to McElroy, a common element among them is a "love of exhibitionism." In addition, say other pro-porn feminists, sex work provides women with independence and a greater degree of control over their working lives than most women enjoy. How much control and independence are enjoyed by teen-age runaways living on the streets and selling their bodies is not mentioned.

While it comes as no surprise that a large and vocal group of feminists--as well as women who cringe at that moniker--oppose pornography, a growing number of men are joining the chorus. In his widely-quoted book, The Centerfold Syndrome: How Men Can Overcome Objectification and Achieve Intimacy with Women, psychologist Dr. Gary R. Brooks lists several primary symptoms connected to the consumption of even soft-core porn: voyeurism, objectification, validation, trophyism and fear of intimacy.

The voyeur, nurtured on a stream of unreal images of women, learns to prefer looking at women rather than interacting with them. In the process of objectification, men see women as body parts to be rated against an unattainable standard of physical beauty. Some men find their masculinity validated only through beautiful women; the great majority of men who never experience sex with their ideal women may feel cheated or "less a man." Connected to validation is trophyism: the desirable--usually younger--woman as symbol of a man's worth. Finally, preoccupied with sex, some men develop an inability to develop relationships with women based on deep emotional intimacy.

Although much of the debate over pornography focuses on how it affects adult men and women, some commentators are turning their attention to how images of idealized bodies--both men's and women's--influence adolescents.

Anorexic young women, boys fantasizing over pets, playmates and bunnies, young girls as young as 5 worrying about their weight are all symptomatic of a culture that values form over substance. What lessons are children learning when the media feeds them a steady diet that not only commodifies sex, but sexualizes commodities? (Think of almost any car commercial.)

If pornography's opponents are correct that an endless stream of sexual images soon leads to boredom and a search for visuals that are more outré (not unlike a drug addict who needs more in order to attain the same high) the outcome may ultimately be precious little satisfaction.

As intimacy and connection become increasingly illusive in a culture driven by consumption, the odds are that the flesh trade will continue to flourish, the debate over pornography will generate more books, articles and television specials and young people will find it more difficult to reach adulthood without being inundated with and influenced by unattainable and artificial images of beauty.