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Marilyn Chambers: What has she wrought?

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted April 20, 2009

Marilyn ChambersShe 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:

  1. Porn degrades women, particularly wives, through men comparing them unfavorably to professional sex workers. This effect has been noted for about as long as I've been alive. It came from watching the Playboy culture when that magazine was still on the cutting edge. Men, being somewhat opportunistic, have a tendency to use a (carefully packaged) porn model as a means of humiliating their wives or girlfriends. "Why can't you be more like her?"; "She does it; why can't you?"; etc. As a critique, this point is valid. As an argument against porn, though, it paints with too wide a brush. Any Hollywood starlet or model can be used for the same purpose.
  2. Porn strips away the mysteries of sex, and in so doing facilitates a grievous invasion of privacies. Although related to #1, it broaches a different issue that some may be unable to understand. People whose love lives are, ah, emotionally perfunctory won't relate well to this point. For this type, porn seems little more than sexually arousing antics. On the other hand, people whose emotions are more engaged in acts of intimacy tend to be more resistant to their private intimacies being sampled in a movie. Even those whose private bondings are too "unbankable" to rate quasi-adaptation for a porn flick might feel threatened by the possibility.
  3. Through dissolving sex-related restraints, porn facilitates divorce and family breakdown. This point is self-explanatory.
  4. Porn encourages masturbation, which leads to ill effects. Often pooh-poohed, this point isn't elaborated upon much nowadays. That's because many of the traditional warnings against masturbation were metaphorical in character, and are lost on the literal-minded. The type of person that doesn't get hung up over masturbation is someone who confines the use of imagination in this area to fantasizing. The imagined 'dream date' is indulged in without hope of it ever coming to pass in real life. What about the person who believes that masturbation can be, uh, pre-emptive? Someone who uses imagination as a tool of planning?...
  5. Porn teaches pubescent boys to lust over full-grown women. This one is subtle, as attention is normally drawn to middle-aged men checking out the "young stuff." For thirteen and fourteen year old boys, though, the typical porn model or actress is pretty old. A thirteen-year old boy acclimatized to twenty-year-old women is going to be inclined towards women seven years older than him. This point does make point #4 less serious, as few young women are inclined to hot dates with much younger boys, but substitutes another difficulty. To use liberal lingo, it makes the boys more open to dalliances that have been pegged as sexually exploitative.
  6. Porn serves a prurient interest. A redundancy? Not necessarily. Back in the olden days, "prurience" connoted a lot more than shamelessness. The sex drive can be adapted as a means of, er, making other people uncomfortable. Call it inhibited of me, but I'm leaving the rest of this point to your imagination.

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. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is an irregular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.

 

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