Sunday, September 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Reviews

Porn: It's here, it's there, it's everywhere ...

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearances

Ariel Levy will discuss "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture" at 7 p.m. tomorrow, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or

Pamela Paul will discuss "Pornified: How the Culture of Pornography is Changing Our Lives, Our Relationships, And Our Families" at 7.p.m. Wednesday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or

"Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families"
by Pamela Paul
Times Books/Henry Holt & Co., 304 pp., $25

"Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture"
by Ariel Levy
Free Press, 224 pp., $25

An elderly woman seated next to me on a recent flight asked about the books I was carrying. I showed her "Pornified" and "Female Chauvinist Pigs," both bristling with bookmarked pages. I hurriedly explained the books were about pornography, not actually the smutty stuff itself.

She patted my arm. "Even if they were dirty books," she said firmly, "no harm in just reading 'em!" We chuckled together, two open-minded civil libertarians in confident agreement.

Well, maybe.

Actually, reading these two books would make almost anyone question her own live-and-let-live philosophy. With its long reach into our homes and workplaces, online pornography is not a hidden indulgence for the few; it's a factor in daily life. It's not a stretch to say it influences the clothes we wear, the language we use, and of course, the sex we have.

If your acquaintance with such matters dates to Playboy centerfolds of distant decades, today's X-rated online offerings as described in "Pornification" are shockers: scatological scenes, rapes, bestiality, pregnant women and children used as sexual offerings. (Such things come up via free access as well as on sites requiring credit cards.)

Even those tempted to invoke the one-person's-porn-is-another's-poetry defense might find themselves rethinking the effect of the raw Web that infiltrates schools, workplaces and bedrooms.

The books differ in how and where they enter into the analysis of pornography and "raunch culture," as Ariel Levy terms it. For Levy, online porn is but one element of a dismaying societal shift in which "female chauvinist pigs" embrace ideals of female sexuality and attractiveness born in strip clubs and blue movies. For Pamela Paul, pornography is a debilitating plague, and its influence on women is one of its many symptoms.

Paul's book is the more unsettling of the two. A contributor to Time and author of "The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony," (Villard, 2002) Paul commissioned a poll and interviewed 100-plus people for this new book, seeking to discover how and why people view online porn, and what effect it has on their lives.

The result is an incomplete and uneven study, but still well worth reading; an alarming, thought-provoking overview of today's cyber-sexual society. Paul falls short when she fails to fully describe the structure of her interviews and poll. She says, for example, that her study focuses on heterosexuals, but it is not clear how she dealt with sexual orientation through her questions. She does, however, convey the remarkable ubiquity and graphic content of online pornography, and initiates intelligent arguments against its toll on children and on satisfying adult relationships.

Who looks at computer porn and why? Men from all walks of life, some women and too many children, says Paul. Some (particularly kids) find it by accident. Most seek it out of curiosity, sexual release, relaxation, feelings of inadequacy or escape.

One man's online habit might be to admire a comely model in passing; another might log on for hours a day to watch women raped or children fondled. No one knows how many users are out there, but any search engine reveals millions of pages of X-rated sites. Even if every site had only a few visitors, the numbers of potential users are mind-boggling.

The "who" and "why" of porn may be too varied to pinpoint, but Paul argues convincingly that once a user has a habit, some patterns are inevitable. "It's the human condition, it's the American weakness — the desire for more, bigger, better — damn the consequences," she writes. "In order to make that momentary gain last longer, in order to get back that sexual zing, men go back for more pornography. Better porn. Edgier porn."

If this ended with users simply spending too much time alone with their computers, we might dismiss them as more pitiful than worrisome. But Paul makes serious points when she quotes several users who describe eerily similar escalations from tamer peeks to hours of harder-core content. She builds a reasonable case that regular porn-viewing inevitably interferes with real-life relationships.

She supports her contention that "pornography leaves men desensitized to both outrage and excitement," offering up several regular porn surfers for whom sexual activity with a live partner became boring, abusive or impossible. It makes sense that even a viewer who only watches scenes of garden-variety intercourse between a man and a woman (no animals, kids or violence) will eventually find the real thing to be, well, not quite the same. More than one of the men Paul interviewed bemoaned the time and effort it took to bring pleasure to a live woman.

Add the tendency for secrecy around the use of Internet porn, and you've got bigger complications. "Most women have no idea how often their boyfriends and husbands look at pornography. Usually, the deception is deliberate, though many men also deny the frequency to themselves," writes Paul.

The subject of pornography's effect on relationships today, and the myriad ways women deal with its role in intimate relationships, is fascinating stuff. Both Paul, and to a greater extent Levy in "Female Chauvinist Pigs," note that the props, language and images of pornographic movies and strip clubs are now firmly part of mainstream American life. Both capture a particularly harrowing trend: the tendency of many young women to accept that their own sexual activities and responses (and those of their male partners) should mirror those seen in sexual-fantasy media.

Levy, who writes for New York magazine, launches her lively, well-reported book with a list of porn-culture influences: G-strings and other skimpy fashion for all ages; amateur flashers on the likes of "Girls Gone Wild"; female Olympic athletes in skin mags, even strip-club influenced aerobics classes, complete with pole-dancing moves as a fat-burning technique.

The result, she says, is "raunch culture," a peculiar convergence of unleashed sexuality in an increasingly conservative era.

"It actually makes perfect sense when we think about it," writes Levy. "Raunch culture is not essentially progressive, it is essentially commercial. By going to strip clubs and flashing on spring break and ogling our Olympians in Playboy, it's not as though we are embracing something liberal — this isn't Free Love."

Raunch culture, she says, is "about endlessly reiterating one particular — and particularly commercial — shorthand for sexiness."

Just blaming men misses the bigger picture, Levy says. The women's movement has empowered women and provided myriad choices, she points out. Sexuality is a complex business, yet "somehow, we [women] have accepted as fact the myth that sexiness needs to be divorced from the everyday experience of being ourselves."

Levy ponders how this happened, providing a useful commentary on America's ever-shifting views of pornography, with the country's strange bedfellows of Puritans and free-speech principles.

Both Levy and Paul offer worthwhile insights on resisting the raunch factor that's become so commonplace. Levy pushes for improved, straightforward education on sexuality and health for young people, and urges women to do the work of articulating their own values, rejecting cultural practices that don't fit those beliefs. She writes in passionate opposition to those so-called female chauvinists who embrace porn-laden values and culture, only to trade away the very things they seek — freedom and power over their own lives and sexuality.

Paul offers useful thoughts about corralling online pornography, noting successful restrictions used by theaters, hardcore cable programming, even in sales of cigarettes and alcohol. Regardless of one's view on her practical proposals, it's hard to disagree with this insight: The pornography industry, she contends, is a huge, moneymaking business that has "sold America on the idea of fantasy ... inciting us to ignore reality." Read these two books and decide for yourself if that disconnect with reality is as dangerous as the authors contend.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer in Portland.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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