Though many regard California’s San Fernando Valley as the birthplace of American pornography, one must actually search further back in the history books to the landing of the Mayflower in Plymouth, Massachusetts to discover its true origins. Established on the foundation of Puritan and Protestant beliefs, America has been grappling with its complex psychological makeup derived from the doctrines of these two widely different viewpoints. Puritans, a subgroup of Protestants, emphasized a dogma of self-restraint from life’s pleasures, including sex. Protestants risked their lives by rebelling against the normal religious conventions of England and traveling thousands of miles to safely practice their new religion. Our nation’s internal conflict between the drive to restrain itself from worldly desires and also protest the controversial has created dilemmas out of contentious issues such as Internet pornography. Unlike our European counterparts, America’s aversion to the topic of sexuality has evolved into an immature fascination which propels the success of the American porn industry and also allows the boundaries of the sexually obscene to be pushed to its limits. Internet pornography’s ubiquitous and increasingly brutal nature and its protection under the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment provide the basis for a complex, unresolved ethical dilemma.
The anonymity associated with accessing the prevalent material online has fore grounded the Internet as the most popular medium through which pornography is consumed today. The “marriage” between pornography and the Internet may be controversial, but their union was certainly inevitable. Indeed, the history of sexual obscenity in films is as storied and lengthy as the history of cinema itself. Dolorita in the Passion Dance, one of the earliest Thomas Edison silent pictures, was released to the public in 1894 (Friedman 185). Dolorita, a belly dancer, teased viewers with her highly sensual dance routine as the spectator experienced the film in privacy through the use of an individual viewing device. The short film marked the beginning of a new and wholly different form of voyeurism- cinematic voyeurism- in which anonymity is nearly guaranteed to the voyeur. Though cinematic voyeurism has not changed much in terms of its motives since Dolorita in the Passion Dance, the means through which the voyeur satisfies his desire for the consumption of the sexually explicit have evolved with the introduction of new technologies. Therefore, the hardcore narrative feature that gained popularity in downtown cinemas in the 1960s and 70s “thrived until new changes in the adult market reached another critical point in the mid-1980s when the introduction of video shifted the viewing space from the theater to the home” and thematic motive for sexual material in hardcore porn began to give way to pure sexual spectacle (Schaefer 21). The development of the Internet in the 1990s and its users’ ability to remain anonymous further reduced the need for narrative in pornography and alleviated any difficulty or embarrassment the voyeur might have experienced while consuming pornography in the public space of a movie theater.
Internet pornography has become the most popular outlet for the depiction of the sexually obscene because of the porn industry’s emphasis on low production costs and the conveniently minimal artistic abilities needed to produce pornographic movies. For example, in other mediums such as erotic literature, a writer may be limited by his ability to realistically describe certain sexual situations through words. The still photography of pornographic magazine publications like Hustler and Playboy can certainly be realistic, however the video pornographer has the ability to present his audience with actual sex on screen. Indeed, today’s pornographer is only limited by the amount of money he is willing to invest in a decent digital video camera. Moreover, the visuals of pornography provide an immediacy and realism that is unmatched by any other medium. The American porn industry has capitalized on their inexpensive production of a popular product to the tune of a whopping $20 billion a year, a figure which scholar Katherine Kinnick revealed to be more than double Hollywood’s box office numbers in 2005 (14). The United States has pushed the boundaries of its Puritanical mindset of repressed pleasures to pioneer a new wave of sexually explicit material and create a raunch culture, making porn as American as the automobile.
The anonymity and prevalence of Internet pornography have caused its content to become increasingly graphic and brutal. In her exposé on the porn industry, professor Gail Dines argues that:
Images today have now become so extreme that what used to be considered hard-core pornography is now mainstream pornography…As the market becomes saturated and consumers become increasingly bored and desensitized, pornographers are avidly searching for ways to differentiate their products from others. (xvii)
The once shocking nature of Dolorita’s belly dancing is now considered relatively innocent. Instead, the pornographic images of the late 19th century have been replaced by sadomasochistic images of men, women, and even children engaging in violent sexual fantasies for the appeasement of today’s plethora of sexual fetishes. Unhindered by any type of rating system or censorship, the creators of Internet pornography continue to push the boundaries of the sexually perverse.
Regular pornography viewers might be pleased with the porn industry’s constant efforts to satisfy their sexual cravings; however, there remains a large Internet population who is at risk of accidentally stumbling upon lewd material. This large demographic includes young children who may not have developed a strong enough grasp of the Internet to be able to effectively navigate its infinite pages without accidentally accessing pornographic material. Yet, Internet pornography has remained available in its original, uncensored format since its beginnings. The prospects of censoring Internet pornography are extremely slim because of its protection under the First Amendment and the United States Supreme Court’s employment of strict scrutiny under all First Amendment cases. Though many argue that it can at times promote deleterious secondary effects, it is undeniable that pornography does represent a form of speech and should therefore be protected by the First Amendment. In his defense for pornography as speech, Andrew Koppelman argues that although many court cases involve the dismissal of pornography as a form of speech, these cases also stem from a certain group’s aversion to the ideas that pornographic images can convey and their desire to regulate that content (B). One cannot argue that pornography does not convey any ideas and then continue to argue for the government to censor pornography because of its controversial ideology. Surely, feminist groups who detest porn’s dehumanizing depiction of women and the many others who are sickened by some porn’s ideology of children as sexual objects must also recognize that these ideas are a result of porn’s function as speech. These ideas, though contentious, are still ideas nonetheless. Moreover, a successful attack on separating pornography’s protection by the First Amendment “is like trying to pass a camel through a needle’s eye” (Kende Introduction). No matter how controversial the protected speech, the Supreme Court will always operate under the strictest scrutiny in First Amendment cases so as to prevent traveling down a slippery slope in the future.
Historically, the terms obscene and pornographic have been difficult to define effectively so as to prevent any loopholes that a pornographer can easily slip through in order to create his product. Though it may be easy to visually identify material that is sexually obscene, it has proven to be near impossible to verbally define. Abstract and shoddily defined terminology has never and will never hold up in an American court of law. In the 1964 Supreme Court case Jacobellis v. Ohio, concerning an opposition to the exhibition of the sexually charged French film Les Amants (1958), Justice Potter Stewart could not formulate an exact definition of hardcore pornography. Instead, Justice Stewart offered the unconvincing assurance, “I know it when I see it” (Nutt Footnote 90). Though the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to ban the film from exhibition, it is nonetheless dangerous for such abstract and irresponsibly weak reasoning skills as those purported by Justice Stewart to ever find a place in the American legal system.
Though the censorship of Internet pornography is seemingly impossible, regulation should be adopted to help prevent young Internet users from accidentally accessing the material. The United States government has had a history of regulating other popular indulgences, as evidenced by alcohol and tobacco age restrictions. The regulation system for Internet pornography, however, would have to be far more complex than that of alcohol since it would have to be able to keep up with the constantly evolving Internet. Unlike our country’s alcohol regulation, the pornography regulation system would allow parents or guardians to decide for themselves if they would like to grant their children access to view the content. Hopefully, this step will increase the prevalence of important family discussions about sex and also reduce the risk that young people will brand pornography with the same “forbidden fruit” status that alcohol carries today. Also, the system would have to be able to discern between the sexually obscene and other sexual material that might appear in certain academic or scientific online publications. More importantly, regulation of online pornography would not be an inconvenience to those who wish to view it. For example, identification verification is a necessity in the purchase of most every product sold online, most commonly used on sites like Amazon.com or ebay.com. If pornography is truly accepted by Americans as a legitimate business, then the porn industry should treat its online content as a business product and demand the identification of its consumers. The voyeur’s anonymity to the public will still be kept, but private suppliers will, similar to all other businesses, recognize the individual viewer as a consumer. Internet users who do not wish to view pornography have had to make the concession of allowing the content to remain available and uncensored. It is only fair that the pornography user makes the simple concession of identification verification.
On the other hand, a more stringent age restriction could create a negative backlash similar to that of the debate about America’s drinking age. Many have been in uproar over the ban on drinking for those individuals under the age of 21, especially because one can engage in the equally harmful activity of smoking and enroll in the endlessly more perilous line of duty in the United States military at the young age of 18. When forced with a controversial governmental forbiddance, Americans act in accordance with our Protestant roots and protest. Consequently, to a large group of Americans under the age of 18, alcohol is a “forbidden fruit” whose consumption can lead to a disastrous end. In 2006, approximately 5,000 deaths were attributed to underage drinking (NIAAA, paragraph 2). If the American government establishes age restrictions for the use of pornography, it may be given the same “forbidden fruit” status as alcohol and result in young citizens pushing the limits of consumption to experience the most sexually obscene material at an immature age. Yet, the effects of this boundary pushing experience are extremely different than that of underage drinking. Whereas the effects of underage drinking are mostly physical in nature, the effects of pornography viewing are psychological. Moreover, underage drinking involves the correlation between a physical cause (alcohol) and a physical effect (car accidents, death). Underage pornography consumption involves a hazy correlation between two abstracts, a visual image and a psychological effect. Even the term image, with its word derivations such as imagine and imaginary, has its roots in the metaphysical. Therefore, though it is a possibility that the impressionable youth is negatively effected by pornography, it will remain unresolved until concrete scientific evidence of the psychological link between voyeurism and actual sexual crime is established.
Furthermore, governmental regulation of pornography could hinder the production of future important artistic endeavors that happen to contain sexually explicit material. Sexuality is an integral part of the human condition and should not be frowned upon when it appears in an artistic work, no matter how dark and ugly the results. Dozens of films have been made that, in dealing with the human condition, present material that was regarded as sexually explicit at the time of its release and therefore given strict R or NC-17 ratings. Films such as Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Last Tango in Paris (Bertolucci 1972), Brokeback Mountain (Lee 2005), and Lust, Caution (Lee 2007), which all contain sexually explicit content, were all either threatened with or given a NC-17 rating which prevents children under the age of 17 from viewing the film in theater or renting it on DVD. Yet, these four films combined to garner seventeen Academy Award nominations, along with numerous other awards from countless prestigious film critic boards and film festivals. How can a work with such artistic merit be forbidden to a viewer demographic simply because it contains sexually explicit content? These films were given strong ratings but their content was not censored. If the American government wishes to censor pornography because of its sexual obscenity they must explicate the difference between pornography and commercial film. The difference may be as simple as commercial film’s depiction of simulated sex and pornography’s depiction of actual sexual intercourse. Though this may be the true distinction, one must argue exactly why the depiction of actual sexual intercourse warrants more severe legal punishment. If the reasoning behind this distinction is not fully developed, the Supreme Court will dare to create an unintended chain of subsequent rulings that could result in the erasure of an important part of the human condition from all mediums of artistic communication.
America’s immature fascination with pornography demonstrates the country’s great need to provide a much more comprehensive sexual education program for its youth to increase understanding of their sexuality and the sexual world that surrounds them. For many young Americans, pornography is their source for sexual education because of absent parents or parents who are too embarrassed to speak to their children about sexuality. Unfortunately, many children are only receiving information from one source, a source that includes porn sites with introductory texts that bellow an aggressive “fuck off…to things like romance and foreplay” (Dines xix). The new sexual education program would act in the stead of an embarrassed or absent parent. In a revealing study of young Internet users, a “survey of 10-to 17-year olds in 1999-2000 yielded the now oft-quoted statistic that one in five children has been subjected to sexual solicitations while online, three-quarters of the time when searching the Internet” (Kinnick 20). These disturbing numbers have no doubt soared in the past decade after this statistic’s publication because of the Internet’s seemingly ubiquitous use in the United States today. A new sexual education program would paralyze this alarming trend by preparing the youth to navigate both the physical and cyber world and educating them to identify and avoid sexual predators.
Of course, the Internet is much too complex and expansive for the regulation of pornography to operate perfectly, and the installation of a revolutionary sexual education program would take some time and money before it is truly effective, but the two actions operating in tandem represent a strong effort to reduce the likelihood of young children falling victim to sexual predators. More importantly, instead of wasting valuable time in an attempt to devise a perfectly impregnable argument that prevents pornography’s protection under the First Amendment, these actions can be put into immediate practice. Our nation’s internal conflict between its Protestant and Puritan beliefs will always remain present in our psychological makeup, however, by breaking down the American social taboo that is sexuality, we will become more knowledgeable of the influence that our ancestors’ beliefs have upon our culture and more adept to deal with the consequences of that history.
Dines, Gail. Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010. Print.
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Kende, Mark S. “Regulating Internet Pornography Aimed at Children: A Comparative Constitutional Perspective on Passing the Camel Through the Needle’s Eye.” Brigham Young University Law Review (2007): 1623-1660. Web.
Kinnick, Katherine N.. “Pushing the Envelope: The Role of the Mass Media in the Mainstreaming of Pornography.” Pop Porn: Pornography in American Culture. Ed. Ann C. Hall and Mardia J. Bishop. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007. Print.
Koppelman, Andrew. “Is Pornography “Speech”?.” Legal Theory 14.1 (2008): 71-89. Web.
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