Eye of the Beholder

The Jib-Jab post yesterday got me to thinking… and somewhere along the line it crossed mental paths with the recent news about ICANN rejecting .xxx as a top level domain, the ongoing debate over how to filter internet content in public access points, and Rosie’s frequent recounting of lesbian sexcapades on The View (so I’m informed anyway).

The porn debate has always centered on the inability of anyone to draw useful boundaries around what it is and isn’t. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said, “I know it when I see it.” And almost no one disagrees with that, it’s just that we all see different things. Reality and perception are not as absolute as many would hope. There’s also the porn paradox. Porn is publicly reviled, but privately popular. Even conservative estimates place porn as a $13b/year industry in the comically conservative US. That money’s not all coming from teenage boys and guys in trench coats folks.

But what about those who honestly try to practice what they preach. Those who honestly feel that porn is wrong and keep themselves far removed from exposure to any sort of commercial porn whether free, paid, or accidental. They are not hypocrites, right? Here’s where I’m not so sure.

I would contend that porn is not so much about nudity and sex, but rather is essentially voyeurism. Watching or reading porn is intruding on the private lives of individuals. It describes or depicts acts which society says should be conducted in private. I’m pretty sure if there were a market for films of people going to the bathroom, those films would be declared pornographic. I think the fact that porn is mostly about sex is because that is what there is a market for. Most people are drawn to sex, where defecation has rather the opposite effect – at least for most of us (I hope).

This leads to the idea that porn is defined along the lines of what is private and what is public. Or perhaps more accurately, along the lines of what should be private and what should be public. I’m not sure this line is any easier to define, but it does provide some fodder for thought.

Let’s consider two cases. In one case is a person glued to People magazine and similar news stories. They are gorging on stories of Brittany’s slide into her own personal abyss and desperately trying to figure out who fathered Anna Nicole’s baby. They know how much weight Kelly Clarkson has gained and they worry whether Katie Holmes is emotionally safe with Tom. In all cases, they are voyeuristically snooping on people’s private lives. These may be public people, but these things are not relevant to their public personas.

In the second case is a person buying a Penthouse magazine. The magazine is paid for. The girls depicted in the magazine were all compensated and were fully aware that their photos and stories would be published for all the world to see. All parties have consented to the exposure. They have made conscious decisions to be public.

Which person is viewing pornography? My expectation is that most would say person 2. After all, naked girls in suggestive poses are “bad”. But if I asked, who’s being violated, Brittany or Miss April? Then I think the answer changes. What about the question, who’s the worse role model? That’s not nearly so clear cut.

In the end, I suspect Potter Stewart is right. Solid definitions will remain impossible. But I do think that maybe our collective ire over porn is not properly focused. If we want to get our collective mind out of the gutter, I’d be less concerned about the Playboy channel and maybe a little more worried about E! E!’s audience is way bigger. Further, I suspect that a lot of those people decrying porn are quite comfortable browsing a Star at the supermarket checkout.

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