Marilyn Chambers: What has she wrought?
By Daniel M. Ryan
She died last week, at 56, of causes that have been slow to emerge. Her breakout movie, an X-rated classic called Behind The Green Door, illustrated a well-known sales technique: people like converts. More specifically, people who are used to being snubbed like converts from the snubbers' circuit. Titanic worked this angle to great effect. In Ms. Chambers' case, the "Ivory Soap Girl" crossed over to a then-stigmatized genre and helped semi-mainstream it. She paid a price, as her obituaries indicated. A guess at what she went through is contained in the scene in the helicopter with the Playmate of the Year in Apocalypse Now, with the white ribbon allegorically standing in for the Ivory Soap gig and said bunny standing in for Ms. Chambers.
A convert of this sort is one of the mechanisms of social changes: some leave net benefits, others apply net costs. Whether beneficial or no, any such sea-change is a done deal once it has run its course; once Humpty Dumpty falls to the ground, he can't be restored. As a result of Ms. Chambers' shift to the wilder side, a lot of old William F. Buckley' s castigations of "pornographers" now look little more than exotic. The much-noted trend towards clean living amongst today's youth may push porn back a little, but the fable's end is more realistic about Humpty being put back together again. The most likely effect of a return-to-clean-living trend is sequestration of sex work and specialization. The high-end call girl, as indicated by this CNBC documentary, already has a tincture of real professionalism on her. Exotic dancers are still being hired, and the jobs are still being sought after by middle-class women. The widespread protest over the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake "wardrobe malfunction" was certainly an experience, but is unlikely to be the base of a full-scale reversal. Like it or not, pornography is here to stay; so are prostitution and quasi-prostitution.
Even the criticism of it has changed. Rather than conservatives holding the fort on moral or public-interest grounds, the anti-porn banner is largely being hoisted by radical feminists on grievance grounds. Critiques are coming from the inside now, and the seamier side is illustrated by evidence rather than by imaginative criticism. The film Boogie Nights identified cocaine as the tragic flaw in the porn world, but the 1980 New Year's party scene pointed to a more gut-level flaw in the porn ideology: sex jealousy. That's the fly in the ointment, or the elephant in the room. Despite decades' worth of promises, that ole debbil never went away.
Now that porn's nestled into our culture, real downsides have appeared. Below are some of them:
These points are far from exhaustive. As pornography has been mainstreamed, more are made evident. The old wisdom was based upon direct observation of the sex drive and its workings; the old decency tried to grapple with the consequences. That wisdom may not have been put very well, or even clearly, but it was not a compendium of concocted stories by the embittered. Warnings typically aren't.
Our culture does have an adaptability to it. To be more exact, we're adaptable people. The introduction of porn has not destroyed civilization and sent us back to the caves. Like divorce, though, porn has had indirect consequences both debilitating and unanticipated. We may not be living as savages, but we do feel a certain loss. The old customs and rituals, through ritualizing and socializing the sex urge, did add to a spirit of community that has eroded in the last few decades. What has Ms. Chambers and her kind wrought? The socialization of loneliness.