subject is pornography and Pervasive Presence. That last is a legal
term meaning — it's everywhere. Is it really everywhere? In February
I picked up the current Esquire. The issue began with letters-to-the-editor.
Readers gave their opinions of Esquire's year-end issue marking
the end of President Clinton's administration. That issue had come
in with a cover photo of Mr. Clinton, seated, smiling defiantly into
the camera, hands resting on widely separated knees, the picture snapped
at crotch level. Leer time.
introduced a running feature called "Man at His Best."
Its theme — What shall we do? What shall we think about?
— was given by the editors for serial weeks in the month of February.
For Valentine's Day (Week Two), ". . . we recommend the Valentine's
Day Sex Tour at the San Francisco Zoo. Learn that chimps make it
with their sisters. Marvel that a male lion can copulate up to 50
times a day." For Week Four, there is a dark observation: "Observe
Ash Wednesday on February 28th, if that's your thing." Quickly
followed by, "Also [i.e., something else to look for in February's
Week Four]: Nicole Kidman is expected to bare butt yet again in
Miramax's Birthday Girl."
The same page
gives us, on column right, insights on recent automobile models.
The commentary begins with a warning: "Unfortunately, getting
some backseat action has gone the way of the drive-in. But we miss
the backseat. We miss the contortions and the , is that your elbow?'
and how the smell of high-test can fire our passions."
A second feature
of the "Man at His Best" section concerns Food & Drink.
We turn to wine. "Of course it has to be rose champagne, because
the bubbles, the blush of color — do I really need to explain this
further? Try one of these and she'll be giddy enough to say yes
even if she harbours doubts."
We turn then
to a section labeled "Read Her Mind." "Getting your
desired one to see the sun rise from your corner of the world is
the hard part." (Interesting question: Why hard? Why
should she be reluctant?) We are given "some helpful hints."
They include the Canine Code. "We know you consider your dog
to be an extension of your heart, and we aim to please. But when
it's time to get naked, Fido goes or we do. " Esquire
knows when one has to get down to business.
"What sort of flowers should I buy for my lady friend?"
Flowers "will soon droop and die, but love songs live beyond
the moon and stars. And more: They're sure to get you laid."
Other considerations are deftly dealt with. "What's the deal
with my morning erections?" and, How to deal with the prostitute?
— "You can expect to arrange the act before it's performed,
so please stay within the limits set. If you said you want a blow
job, don't try to stick it in her ass. This ought to go without
saying." But nothing goes without saying in the contemporary
We are not
nearly through — the groundwork for our inquiry into Pervasive Presence
needs to be solid. We come upon Esquire's feature section:
"Take This Job and...Insert Gently." It recounts the empirical
responsibilities of an employee of a sex-toys outfit, a married
26-year-old woman who, on this night out, is experimenting with
a pair of thong panties to which a brand new apparatus is attached.
An explanation: "Inside this plastic butterfly is a tiny electric
motor and a receiver. The receiver is activated by depressing the
button on the small plastic box in [her husband's] pocket which,
it turns out, is a wireless remote control with a range of twenty-five
feet. Upon such activation, the motor causes the butterfly to vibrate.
It's not so quiet that it would be inaudible in a board meeting,
most probably, but it's more than quiet enough to be employed overtly
in a bar. Or in a movie theater. Or at the opera. Certainly during
the loud parts."
On to a second
main feature, "One Woman, Five Senses," described as an
extended exploration of women's five operative senses and leading
to a third feature called "46 Women Who Were Not My Wife."
Details? "I have cheated on my wife with thirty-two women I
can name (perhaps even correctly) and another dozen or so who flash
into recall only as situations . . ." A final long feature
is of an elderly adult-movie maker. A picture of one of the stars
has a caption that tells the story. "The pornographication
of the American girl has proceeded at such a pace that the fact
of Gregory Dark directing a Britney Spears video seems not so much
anomalous as inevitable." Like the modern Esquire.
The pornographication of the American girl! Esquire's language.
About itself? Don't answer that, but think back to the Esquire
of days gone by. Ernest Hemingway published "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"
in Esquire. Tom Wolfe, in a renowned essay, singled out Esquire
as the primary home of inventive literary journalism in his generation.
It published 5,000-word pieces by Norman Mailer and Garry Wills
(and this author). It was the monthly magazine of Dwight Macdonald,
movie critic, and Malcolm Muggeridge, book critic. Is the Esquire
given over to erotomania unique? Of course not, but it isn't just
one more girlie magazine. It is a sign of the times, the day of
pervasive presence. Eros is crowding at us on all sides, as the
erotic and the pornographic merge.
by at the local Abercrombie & Fitch for sailing wear. I waited,
at the counter, for my package and looked down on the A&F Summer
Catalogue. You could see the handsome young man on the cover, but
the catalogue itself was bound in cellophane. My eyes turned to
the card alongside. "To subscribe: Fill out this card and head
to the nearest A&F store with a valid photo ID." With
a valid photo ID? I thought that odd and asked the young man
behind the counter, who was perhaps 19 years old, why IDs were required
for purchasers of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. He said,
"Well, uh, it's kind of porny inside."
& Fitch has been from time immemorial a sportswear store renowned
for its wholesome regard for the outdoor life. I smile still at
the story recorded in The New Yorker generations ago. It
was of a gardener in Long Island who yearned to buy a genuine A&F
barometer and finally saved up the money to do so. He brought the
beautiful thing back from Manhattan to his little house on the south
shore, tapped it a few times impatiently, and stormed back to Manhattan
to complain to the salesman that it was defective, its needle stuck
at the mark "Hurricane." Abercrombie returned his money
and the plaintiff returned to Islip to find that his house had been
barometric needle had pointed resolutely at the impending hurricane
of 1938, and presumably the company's current managers are confident
that its current clothes line is also pointed surely, though the
summer A&F catalogue seems to be suggesting that young men and
women are better off wearing no clothes at all.
It is introduced
by a 150-word essay under the title, "The Pleasure Principle."
A definition ensues: "In psychoanalysis, the tendency or drive
to achieve pleasure and avoid pain is the chief motivating force
in behavior." And then an amplification: "Summer being
our favorite time of the year and all, we've worked extra hard to
bring you our best issue yet by letting the pleasure principle be
our guide through the hottest months."
The lead page
gives us a jaunty blonde clutching her hair, wet from the ocean
she has just emerged from. If she is wearing anything, it would
be below her pelvic joint. Above it, which is all the viewer can
see, there are no clothes.
Next, a two-page
spread of above-the-navel photos, six young men and one girl. One
does spot a shoulder strap on the girl that may be a part of a bathing
suit, subterranean and not reached by the camera. But lo, she does
wear a watch, sheltering the wristnudity. The men wear nothing.
A few pages on, a boy wears tennis shoes (unlaced) and a towel over
his head. On his knee a camera rests. His shorts are given perspective
by the young man's erection.
young man a few pages on is entirely naked, leaning slightly over
one knee. Across the page are worshipful photos of his windblown
face in six differing exposures. . . . On to another young man entirely
naked, one knee (the windward knee) held up. He is reposing on the
deck of a sailboat, his back resting on an unfurled mainsail. The
very next page gives us a girl wearing a T-shirt on which one can
actually make out the name of our hosts: "Abercrombie"
is discernible, and then something on the order of "Open Beauty
Pageant." That shirt tapers off at the lady's waist. Below
the waist there is nothing at all, except, of course, her naked
body. A few pages later the young man is naked again on the boat,
but wearing a drenched jacket which reaches only as far as his waist.
A few pages later we have five beautiful blondes in full summer
wear, draped about a Byronic young man evidently lost in the poetry
of his reflections, a loose towel over his crotch.
There was never
a pitch more nakedly designed than Abercrombie's to stimulate erotic
appetites. The last part of the catalogue actually depicts clothes
of one kind or another, but the reader, getting that far, is hotly
indignant: What are all those shirts and shorts and pants doing,
interrupting my view of the naked kids! I mean, I showed you my
ID, didn't I?
Neither of us (I am co-opting the reader) is suffering simply from
being the last guy in town to get the word. Erotomania is the phenomenon.
The ubiquity of merchandised sex is hinted at by such displays as
Esquire's and Abercrombie's, which are merely byways to full-blown
did a thorough piece, in May 2001, for The New York Times Magazine,
nicely titled, "Naked Capitalists: There's No Business Like
Porn Business." The raw figures he assembled astonish. We learn
that $4 billion a year is spent on video pornography, that this
sum of money is greater than what is spent on major league baseball;
indeed that pornography is a bigger business than professional football
or basketball. That 700 million rentals of porn movies occur every
year, and that people pay more money for pornography in America
than they do for movies. Perhaps we should say, more carefully,
than for "non-adult" movies. Every year, 400 regular movies
are made. The porn people make 11,000.
to be laws — not of the kind that would interfere with Esquire
or Abercrombie, but laws that said: That product is obscene; and
you can't peddle it in our marketplace. (There still are
such laws, as Jay Nordlinger emphasizes in the following article;
it is largely a question of attention and enforcement.)
In 1965, crusading
lawyer Charles Rembar set out to defend Fanny Hill, a volume
no less pornographic for having achieved classical status. Rembar
persuaded a jury that Fanny Hill was not obscene because
it had other than merely prurient dimensions. What happened rather
quickly on the heels of that decision, and another that cleared
the way to sell Lady Chatterley's Lover, was a wholesale
adoption by the intelligentsia, and a contingent adoption by the
courts, of the slippery-slope catechism. That line of reasoning
holds, in effect, that if you forbid Deep Throat to be shown
at the local movie house, the next thing you know you will be forbidding
Ulysses at the local bookstore.
celebrated his victory in a book strikingly titled, The End of
Obscenity. Published in 1968, it gave us the aphorism that pornography
is "in the groin of the beholder." That definition is
provocative and amusing; but no doubt unintentionally, it is also
telling us that, yes, there is such a thing as pornography.
was arguing that because obscenity is indefinable, it is impossible
to legislate against it. That fatalism isn't held only by First
Amendment fundamentalists. James Jackson Kilpatrick, a thoughtful
and influential conservative writer and essayist, some time ago
publicly gave up on the challenge of regulating traffic in obscenity.
His reasoning might be assailed as circular (Because I can't
define obscenity, nobody can) but it is not unreasonable. If
you can't define it, how can you expect the legislature to succeed?
had a second challenge. They were prepared to insist on the nescient
definitional point (How can we tell it's obscenity? ), but
it was more difficult to overcome the democratic point, which held
that the local community should decide the question.
the Supreme Court came up with a pragmatic devolution of authority.
So obscenity can't be defined, does that mean it does not exist?
The combatants crowded around the latest aphorism, which was Justice
Potter Stewart's. He opined that whatever the difficulties in definition,
"I know it when I see it." The statement reassured the
fundamentalists by suggesting that porn was in the eye of the beholder;
but that didn't make it invisible.
The Court pursued
a demographic cultural line. There are different standards
by which erotic/pornographic material is judged. The book or movie
an urbane New Yorker might read or view without raising an eyebrow,
in other jurisdictions might be deemed obscene and offensive. The
landmark ruling (Miller v. California, 1973) held
that material is obscene when 1) an average person, applying contemporary
community standards, finds that the work, taken as a whole, appeals
to prurient interest; when 2) the work depicts in a patently offensive
way sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law;
and when 3) the work in question lacks serious literary, artistic,
political, or scientific value.
prosecutor, seeking to comply with the Miller decision, elected
in 1976 to prosecute Deep Throat in Memphis, banking on a
Sunbelt jury's granitic determination to declare obscenity obscene.
Deep Throat, then, was judged obscene, but appeals went on
for so long that the film, far from suffering censorship, became
something of a risqué cause. The movie continued full-bodied
on the screen, not only in Memphis, where it played for months,
but in venturesome movie theaters everywhere. Everybody wanted to
know exactly what it was all about. A body of editors of the New
York Times trooped to it one afternoon as something of a delegation,
deferring to judicial equivocation by paying their own way, instead
of charging their tickets to the Times as a professional
But how to
judge a work obscene under the law if it has extra-prurient value?
the showcase event. A juror in Cincinnati was questioned in 1990
by a New York Times reporter curious about the Not Guilty
verdict handed down the day before, exonerating the Cincinnati Museum
of violating state obscenity laws. The museum had exhibited photographs
by Robert Mapplethorpe.
How did you
reach that not-guilty conclusion, the reporter asked the juror?
Well you see,
he explained, it isn't that we didn't think the Mapplethorpe exhibit
really was obscene. There is no question about that, it certainly
was obscene. But there was the other question . . .
What kept the
jury from a guilty verdict, it transpired, was the expert witness
who came in to testify that there was redeeming value in the photographs.
"I don't even like Picasso!" the poor, emasculated juror
confessed. Who was he to argue about the work of the artist
called Mapplethorpe, never mind the photo of a male rectum with
the bullwhip sticking out.
of Deep Throat had meanwhile pretty much established that
you didn't really need artistic cover, of the kind that was adduced
by the defense of Mapplethorpe in Cincinnati. If you lost on the
artistic-value front, you could winnow your way back into the protection
of the First Amendment from the deepest imaginable throat. First
Amendment aggrandizement, and the raindrop pressure of commerce,
had anachronized the censors. With the result that there is porn
Well not quite
everywhere, and this leads to cable TV.
the Morning, In the Evening . . .
Playboy-TV wanted badly to stretch its legs a few years ago,
which meant getting permission from the FCC to broadcast 24 hours
The FCC's original
refusal had turned on the so-called signal bleed, under the authority
of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Technological cable-TV expansion
had had the effect of channel crowding, permitting sex-talk or sex
images to leak into adjacent channels. To guard against this, Playboy
had been ordered to remain silent until 10 P.M., when image frontiers
were easier to govern and when such leakage as did occur came in
at adult hours.
argued that this deprivation imposed burdens that ran into their
First Amendment rights. Broadcast television is properly
governed by FCC rules, the fundamentalists conceded, but cable
television should be left alone unless the case can be made that
it is "a pervasive presence," i.e., for all intents and
purposes, impossible to exclude from view. The Playboy Channel,
its sponsor argued, comes in only on schedules especially invited
into the house. That being so, any attempt to block its entry should
be done only after "strict scrutiny" constitutional pleading,
keeping in mind that First Amendment rights superordinate regulatory
laws, which are legitimately invoked only on broadcast material
that comes into the room like sunshine, and is therefore pervasively
won. They persuaded the tribunal that cable television was not
omnipresent, not a pervasive presence. The new ruling meant that
those who bring in cable and subscribe to a menu that includes the
Playboy Channel should be free to get porn round the clock. If twelve-year-olds
are caught looking in curiously at gangbangs at eight in the morning,
why . . . spank them.
true that subscribing to a schedule that includes Playboy is a volitional
act, even as renting a porn movie requires a foray of sorts. For
one thing, to get a porno, unless you are ordering by mail, you
actually have to leave the house; step out from the neighborhood,
so to speak, to bring in that porn. And then Blockbuster, the corner
store of video TV, doesn't even carry Adult Fare. Therefore, a Playboy
Channel customer, far from posing as an innocent bystander victimized
by porn's juggernaut, is better likened to the man or woman free
to buy a ticket to see Deep Throat.
While the question
of cable TV as a pervasive presence was being considered, along
came the Internet. We are advised (though I stare at the figure
with obdurate skepticism) that the Internet has 70,000 porn
outlets. Anybody who wishes, and learns how to twiddle the dials,
can now drink deep of porn at home or, as contrived, in leisure
moments in the office. To be sure, you are supposed to be older
than 18, which requires you to feign to be older than 18.
But even the
Internet, though there are about 130 million users in this country,
is one step removed from what one is exposed to in normal, pedestrian
life. Television, on the other hand, is truly universal. By relaxing
its grip on pre-10 P.M. cable porn, the FCC has moved in the direction
of porn as a pervasive presence. Still, Playboy argued, the individual
subscriber, to satisfy himself, needs to seek Playboy out, so that
it remains one stage removed from, say, the radio left idly on in
the house or garage.
Yes . . . and
no. It is reasonably argued that porn on TV is a pervasive presence.
And then to ask, Is there still an ethical question kicking about?
If something is wrong, viz., distributing materials assembled with
only the purpose in mind to gratify prurient interests, what leverage
is left to questions of right and wrong? Questions of ethics? What
sanctions, if any, do objectors have who claim concern for community
The issue of
Esquire cited above has that wonderfully patronizing line
for those of its readers casting about for something to do during
the fourth week of the month. "Observe Ash Wednesday on February
28th, if that's your thing." Your thing. Your thing!
Your fetish. Christianity.
isn't the only ethical system spawned by religious beliefs that
opines on sexual commerce. Judaism, of course, and Islam have sexual
codes. The questioner keeps asking, What are the wells from which
these strictures against sexual exhibitionism flow? Primarily they
are deposits of religious creeds and maxims. But they have a life
of their own, reiteratedly stressed in non-religious chambers. The
New York Society for Ethical Culture posts its credenda on a single
page: "We Believe . . . that ethics is the central factor
in human relationships." That "all individuals are validated
and strengthened through our interconnectedness with others."
But why should others, unburdened by religious doctrine, be affected
by mores that were created by religion, or that derive from them?
Are those who make the case for the revival of public codes on pornography
left with an obligation to come up with empirical secular justification
for doing so? Do we need bastard children and AIDS and syphilis
to make the case for condoms or for sexual restraint?
exist independent of material consequences, notably the commandment
to charity. But a search for utilitarian means of making the case
for sexual restraint is rewarding. It takes us to the most obvious
historical case study, if concededly the most facile, which is the
Lewinsky episode in President Clinton's career.
what Clinton did. Focus only on the factor of shame.
and the republic's, ordeal, it was endlessly reiterated that what
he did was irrelevant to his tenure as president.
why was it necessary to make this point endlessly? Because contrary
judgments were endlessly arrived at; indeed, President Clinton was
impeached. To uphold publicly his rights to private sexual
conduct necessarily gave rise to public questions about normative
sexual conduct. The pornographic code holds that consensual exchanges
of whatever nature are, at the very least, interesting to read about,
and abstractly innocent. But to aver that what-he-did-in-the-bedroom
was irrelevant to his tenure as president is different from saying
that what he did "in private life" should be immune from
ethical criticism. Not justifying impeachment is different from
not meriting disapproval.
we deduce that there survives, buffeted and defensive, an extant
code of sexual behavior that, while countenancing pornography, disapproves
of it and is properly alert to the challenge, What to do about
collective concern takes you beyond the counsel to self-abnegation.
We have a code of ethics that tells us that indeed Clinton ought
not to have done what he did, and the rebuke is made at different
levels of sternness, reflecting the ardor with which one holds to
standards of behavior. The failure to live unerringly by the marital
code, to single out that aspect of Clinton's conduct, is so commonplace
as to escape reprimand in positive law except when the betrayed
partner decides to enter a claim in a divorce court. But that which
isn't illegal isn't therefore blameless, as a rudimentary esteem
for honor reminds us. Carefree commerce in pornography is a consequence
of permissive interpretations of the Constitution, but the courts'
rulings do not repeal a sense of what is and isn't proper. Nobody
of public consequence comes to mind who flatly dismisses the marital
ideal and appropriate sexual behavior as anachronized, on the order
of laws against witchcraft or heresy, or even laws against sodomy.
These are not only ignored, they are disowned as errant moral judgments
of history; which is not likely to happen on the question of the
In the United States v. Clinton, A.D. 1999, ethical
forces, demoralized by partisanship, distracted by constitutional
scruple, and weakened by moral irresolution, stopped short of exacting
the capital penalty of removal from office. But the code of conduct
was not so laggard as to fail to exact some form of deference: Bill
Clinton apologized for his conduct.
It has not been established that viewing a movie about wanton sexual
behavior prompts wanton sexual behavior, though common sense comes
into play. What are the progenitors of current sexual behavior?
Prohibiting advertisements for cigarette smoking is an ongoing objective
of those who assume there is a nexus between the display of a product
and commerce done in that product. Nobody argues the contrary in
respect of liquor. If cigarette ads sell cigarettes, why doesn't
Esquire sell sex?
It is established
by common sense that stimulants stimulate. What are the defensible
weapons against beady-eyed sexual commerce? If conduct of a certain
kind is wrong, how does one argue that point? Traditionally one
asks for more merely than soliloquies by the tablet keepers, eulogizing
community codes. In the presidential campaign of 1996, Candidate
Robert Dole chastised Hollywood and, in the interpretation of some,
even threatened it.
Threatened it with what? Public strictures?
should begin, however modestly. (For possibilities, see Mr. Nordlinger's
article.) And a key to it is the concept of the pervasive presence.
Twenty-five years ago, Malcolm Muggeridge commented on the American
scene in The New York Review of Books. "Never, it is
safe to say, in the history of the world, has a country been as
sex-ridden as America is today. The great advertising industry has
helped by producing a quenchless flow of effective, if sometimes
crude, propaganda. Likewise the publishers and the entertainment
moguls. Even television has now joined in. Faced with a formidable
array of forces, pockets of resistance have been forced onto the
defensive, and even to retreat."
How did Muggeridge
find all that out? The argument that, after all, non-porn fare on
television/radio/books/magazines outnumbers porn fare by 100 to
1 is as persuasive as to argue that a dwelling with a single window
only proportionately lets the eye travel to the outdoors. Porn has
become a pervasive presence and a counteroffensive should begin.
A modest objective would aim at the decision involving the Playboy
Channel. Hack away at that station's arrant, demeaning, corrosive
obscenity. Tell it no — tell the porn merchants to stay on the other
side of midnight, in the dark hours. Revive the spirit of Miller
v. California. Accept the challenge to declare as obscene
and without artistic value the sons and daughters of Deep Throat,
and do so to the satisfaction of American jurors, who, paradoxically,
can emerge, as in Cincinnati, as the most sophisticated moral arbiters
around. Free them from the guile of the expert who can find enduring
social value in ordure.
Is the willpower
latently there? Muggeridge completed his thought about porn in America
with a distinction. "Love especially can prove a highly subversive
force in that it stimulates individual and particular emotions and
loyalties, whereas eroticism is generalized and therefore conducive
to a conformist state of mind." It would be a significant step
forward if we were to take a step back, to how it was in 1975, about
which Muggeridge wrote, warning us then of the complacency that
besets us now.