"A pornographic culture," wrote author and columnist Maggie Gallagher some years ago, "is not one in which pornographic materials are published and distributed. A pornographic culture is one which accepts the ideas about sex on which pornography is based."
This past spring, the Los Angeles Times reached that level of acceptance when it created "the first known pornography beat at a major American newspaper." That description belongs to the media website Inside.com, which late last month ran a story about the Times' stepped-up porn coverage and two of the reporters responsible for it.
"We couldn't ignore it anymore," one of the reporters, Ralph Frammolino, told Inside.com. Indeed, there were two compelling reasons for the Times to make this move: porn is a $10-billion-a-year industry, and it's based in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. Those were found superior to the one transcendent reason for the paper not to do so: that to confer respectability on something as corrupting as porn represents a significant triumph for the forces of decadence.
In other words, economics once again trumped morality. Who says the Clinton era is over?
One way you can tell porn is big business is that it has a lobbying arm, which calls itself the Free Speech Coalition. One way you can tell the ethics of the porn industry, big business or not, is that the group doesn't have a more honest name, like the Smut Producers' Association.
Kat Sunlove was once a dominatrix. Today she's the Coalition's legislative-affairs director. In May she led a porn-industry delegation to Sacramento to chat up California legislators. "We're...talking [to them] like ordinary businesspeople facing ordinary business issues," she told Frammolino. "Taxation issues. Regulation issues." She added, "The greeting I got...today is far different than the greeting that I got in 1986. Politically, we're no longer a pariah."
Porn is no longer a pariah journalistically, either. The only unconventional element of the Times' porn articles is their subject matter. We learn, for example, that one fellow works at a porn company's web site, "spend[ing] eight hours a day digitally covering up female nipples for the...front page, which entices visitors to pay for the full peep show."
It's not as if the Times is at all ashamed by this development, either. The paper is relishing the topic.
The stories are given considerable space, often running more than 1,500 words, and sometimes are prominently placed. A July piece dealing with male porn stars taking Viagra in order to, shall we say, perform more frequently than they'd otherwise be able to, ran in the paper's prime front-page, above-the-fold Column One slot and even carried a cheeky headline: "Lights! Camera! Viagra!"
One can just hear defenders of this non-judgmental approach addressing its critics: "Lighten up! The people who have sex in porn flicks are consenting adults. So are the people who purchase and rent the movies. Who's getting hurt in all this?" Oh, no one, I suppose, except those favoring civilized behavior, and standards based on ethics instead of economics.
It's undeniable that there's a huge demand for porn, and that an increasing number of aficionados crave the hard stuff. Playboy, which has prospered selling a fairly mild (by comparison) variety, woke up recently and discovered it was, well, unhip. That's why, as the Times reported, it acquired three TV channels specializing in XX-rated fare. Previously, Playboy-owned networks featured only soft-core, X-rated programming. (Take heart, though: Hugh Hefner's enterprise is drawing the line, at least for now, at XXX films.)
One analyst remarked to the Times that Playboy "has always been the class act" of the porn business, adding, "But that's not necessarily what people wanted. The company has suffered for not plunging into dirtier waters." What good, after all, is porn without smut?
For its part, Playboy noted the popularity of more explicit porn: "D[id] we know those [audience] numbers? Yes," the head of its TV division, Jim English, stated. "Do...[they] indicate that the public's taste...has changed? Yes. So 'yes' and 'yes' equal[ed] 'got to do something.'" (It's the bottom line, stupid.)
"Whether you think [porn is] terrible, acceptable, something you want to do, or [something] nobody should know anything about, at least you'll know how it works," the Times' Frammolino told Inside.com. "We're leaving the values up to you."
"We're leaving the values up to you." That's the modern world in one sentence. No standards, no rules, no shame.