When I first looked at the cover for The Porning Of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What it Means, and Where Do We Go from Here by Carmine Sarracino and Kevin M. Scott I was a little worried that it was going to be yet another poorly thought out and sex negative manifesto. I was deceived by the strawberry on the cover. “The Porning of America” is a sex positive text infinitely more focused on creating a historical context for pornography in America. It destroys the rose colored nostalgic glances to the so-called good old days before porn. It is fantastic read for anyone who is sex positive, pro porn, and anti-sexual shame but still sometimes feels conflicted by some aspects of the porn debate. It is an accessible text that encourages people to ask more questions and consider other possibilities.
“Porning” is a book about American porn and it is very assertive about creating a full context for the emergence of pornography in America. A large portion of this text is dedicated to exploring the historical precedent and taking time to note that although Los Angeles produces the bulk of pornography in the United States now, the US as a whole has only recently become the major porn exporter. Americans were not producing porn until after establishing themselves as a major global power in war in the early part of the 20th century. Where most anti-porn texts look wistfully at the “good girl” nature of the Pin Up girl, “Porning” is critical of her creation pointing out that erotic images of wartime women emerged from PSA’s for women to join the labor force and also notes that most of the “Rosies” of WWII were women of color with prior labor experience. When soldiers began painting bombshell babes on their war equipment it was a new twist on heterosexuality as a motivation to keep fighting the war which is also problematic. Within the same analysis “Porning” also points out how the “Rosies” in their 30s during WWII did return to working inside the home it didn’t last. It was the “Rosies” who re-entered the workplace in their 50s prompting new waves of feminist discourse.
The text takes the time to examine masculinity which is largely ignored in the anti-porn debate. Pornography is discussed alongside the fact that many young men went to war and were left to process their experiences within a framework for masculinity that does not allow for tears. Comic book images of sexualized damsels in distress are analyzed not just as depictions of women in bondage struggling against literally monstrous threats to their well being and happiness but also as depictions of men as heroes off in the distance as small and pathetic against the scourge. Comic book culture initially produced for children began taking on adult themes. Nudity and sexuality was a hallmark of a comic that was also likely going to include the politics of minority oppression, the nature of human evil, and other cultural anxieties. The chilling effects of political discourse in comics are noted as taking place after the Comic Book Code was introduced to censor sex and gore.
One of the greatest strengths of “Porning” is its ability to assertively redefine “porn culture” to discuss porn as a part of a historic, cultural, and sociological component of the American human experience rather than an external force set to destroy us. For those who are active sex positive critics in the great porn debate, read this book in good faith. The authors are using some terms predominantly in the domain of the sex negative camp. It took awhile for my knee to stop jerking when I would suddenly encounter some of the terms or language that have come to represent logical shortcomings, broad generalizations, and very bad data in my mind. These authors are using these terms very differently. After awhile I realized that my rhetoric often revolves around not using anti-porn terminology rather than actually engaging with it and opening up what those labels actually include. “Porn culture” is not something that should automatically read as a horror movie script where porno is the guy behind the mask with a machete killing teenagers. The words, “porn culture” should mean the culture of porn; its history, its process, innovators, popular trends, relationship to other cultural events and happenings, technology, growth, and development. Why the hell have I been letting people get away with using the words that best contain the conversation I want to have about porn?
Rather than relying on an emotional panic at the existence of sex on film being circulated widely on the internet and WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?!?, “Porning” takes the time to ask that if childhood is eroding it might not be because of sexually suggestive undergarments being marketed but because of news media. Sarracino and Scott examine the fact that all Americans are exposed to more information and news than ever before in human history. The news doesn’t really fit our model of childhood. Is it “Bratz Dolls” that are “destroying” childhood or is it the fact that most children have seen moving images of the grizzly reality of the adult world in full color? It goes on to remind readers that childhood as we know it is a cultural construct. Most children historically and globally today have not been afforded the privilege of an existence free from the harshness outside of the nursery. Class could afford that kind of sanctuary for a relatively short period of time but information news media is now immediate and increasingly global. It was so refreshing to see writing that doesn’t immediately panic at the fact that someone is selling thongs for 10 year old girls but considers the fact that it occurred in a context that includes more than just porn.
What is frustrating about so many discussions about porn is how utterly devoid of context they really are. Articles placing the blame of relationship breakdowns and cultural changes in expectations about sex and pornography fail to recognize that as a whole the way we relate to everything is changing all at once around us. Culture is no longer a slow moving glacier and we have such a limited understanding of what that fully means. Technology has changed every kind of relationship we have from ourselves to the most mundane of human interactions. Technology is also changing our relationship to information and to the past. The 1960s feel as if they occurred ages ago and yet 50 years isn’t even the full lifetime of your average American human. 50 years represents a greater abundance of technological advancements than any other 50 years of human history. It is helpful for me to step back for a moment to remind myself of what my context is exactly and I often do this by analyzing what it is not.
Access to pornography isn’t the only factor that could potentially effect relationships. The fact that I use my telephone as a telephone as little as possible is also changing the way that I relate to other people. I download software into my pocket computer that allows me to eliminate as many human interactions as I possibly can. I become visibly aggravated when I am denied access to information that I am seeking. I curse at JSTOR and Lexis Nexus when it cannot provide the minutiae that I am seeking. Americans are increasingly discontented with not knowing everything. Modern suburban parents cannot comprehend the notion of just letting their children run around unsupervised on the streets without any way to immediately connect with them. Previously unknown private habits of my friends are now broadcasted on the internet for me to watch and respond to with my own. Privacy is being redefined. All of these things contribute to relationship and sexual expectation changes. The book spends an incredible amount of time including details of porn culture that demonstrate that pornography is neither a frog in a boiling pot argument nor was it something that dropped onto modern Americans from a spaceship. There is no end point to culture, there is not goal. There is only a story of people reacting to changes in their environment.
Technology as a whole is something that has developed in a continuum of events. A lot of anti-porn rhetoric creates this image of porn as being something that started with Playboy and then somehow turned into graphic sexual acts on Sesame Street. It’s not a reasonable frame work for discussing the development of porn culture. It fails to remember that human behavior is not static. It develops alongside technological innovations that impacted every aspect of our lives and that our lives include sexuality.
Food cultivation technology changed human relationships. (And sex.)
Railroads, cars, and airplanes changed human relationships. (And sex.)
Photography changed human relationships. (And sex.)
War changes human relationships. (And sex.)
Simply panicking at the first site of change doesn’t actually introduce anything new to the conversation because humans are immediately reacting to and integrating new aspects of their environments in their lives. This is exemplified by discussing an indelible mark on the emergence of porn culture: nuclear war. Sex entered mainstream discourse formally after we split the atom and opened up an entirely new world of science. The 1950s are depicted paradoxically; white teenagers in blue jeans at the malt shops who also participated in nuclear attack response drills in high school. We started talking about sex a whole lot more in America when people were grappling with the very real potential of annihilating thousands if not millions of lives in a flash. How do you talk about Playboy without talking about The Cold War? Yes, people did have a growing secret stash of obscene materials. People also had secret stashes of supplies and shelter networks in the event of nuclear war. 8 year olds could look you in the eye and recite what they should do at the initial onset of a nuclear attack. Looking back you can see how that might start to put jerking off to dirty pictures in the bathroom a little more into perspective. “The Porning of America” is a study of pornography as a historical artifact to better understand all of mainstream culture. When Hays compiled his list of obscene things that should never be permitted on film he also created the pornography industry. At the conclusion of my reading, I had the sudden thought that conversations about pornography cannot be discussed in Freudian terms. Freud analyzed the hidden sexuality in day to day life but when we talk about fucking we’re very rarely actually talking about sex alone.
In grade school, literature was taught to me with multiple choice tests. The requisite question, “If you could re-title this story, which title would you choose?” always annoyed me. There was always a correct option in the form of a declarative statement of the thesis, an option representing the antithesis, a superficial reading of the story, and a humorous non-related option. The wording of the question always annoyed me because if you’re asking me what I personally would re-title the story then I can’t very well answer in multiple choice form, can I? Despite the test maker’s horrible semantics it was the best way they could think of to evaluate someone’s understanding of a story by phrasing the question in such a way that it entices the answer from another portion of the human brain. I understood the purpose even as I hated the process. My conclusion in the form of an homage to the sex education I was given in grade school, if I were to re-title “The Porning of America” I would call it “Porn Doesn’t Exist in a Goddamn Vacuum.” If you’re looking for a good go-to primer on the historical context for porn in America, go pick up a copy of The Porning Of America.