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The Stupification of a Generation...

...or, how to learn to stop worrying and love teh pr0n.

There's an article that went up on Newsweek's site this week about a book. The book is about porn, or more specifically "The Pornification Of A Generation."

Now, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that we're a country that is, not to put too fine a point on it, deeply fucked-up about sex. We are simultaneously awash in sexual imagery and hopelessly sexually repressed, and that tension doesn't make for healthy attitudes about porn OR sex.

I haven't read the book that the article talks about, so I don't know if the book is as badly written, but the article seems to make a lot of unwarranted assumptions and unsupported conclusions. It also uses a lot of over-the-top, emotionally manipulative language (like "I realized porn culture and I were in a death match for my daughter's soul"), and it's DEFINITELY been my experience that you can't really expect reasoned, measured investigation of a complex subject from folks who talk this way.

If you look at the way the article cloaks a lot of hidden assumptions in its use of language...well, let's just say it sets off my baloney detector1. It doesn't take long, either; the second paragraph of the article begins "In a market that sells high heels for babies and thongs for tweens, it doesn't take a genius to see that sex, if not porn, has invaded our lives. Whether we welcome it or not, television brings it into our living rooms and the Web brings it into our bedrooms."

It's reasonable to say that porn is more accessible at this point than it has been in the past, but to say that it comes into our lives and into our bedrooms "whether we welcome it or not" is simply stupid. It's not like "porn" is sitting somewhere inside the Internet with the magical ability to leap through your computer or TV set and, I don't know, wave naked pictures of Angelina Jolie in front of your face or invade France or something. I personally don't have that big a taste for porn, and if I don't particularly feel like seeing any, I don't. No magic involved; I just don't go to porn Web sites or watch "Debby Does Dozens XXXVI" on the DVD player unless I...

...actually want to. You know?

Anyway, the article then goes on to say, "But it isn't just sex that Scott is worried about. He's more interested in how we, as a culture, often mimic the most raunchy, degrading parts of it—many of which, he says, come directly from pornography. In "The Porning of America" (Beacon), which he has written with colleague Carmine Sarracino, a professor of American literature, the duo argue that, through Bratz dolls and beyond, the influence of porn on mainstream culture is affecting our self perceptions and behavior—in everything from fashion to body image to how we conceptualize our sexuality."

Which misses the point so spectacularly that if there was an award for point-missing kind of like the Oscars, with actresses in ten-thousand-dollar dresses and limos parked around the block and so on, this guy would be strutting his stuff on the red carpet like Paris Hilton on a bender.

See, here's the thing. People are interested in and curious about sex; it kind of, err, goes with being human. Basic biological drive, y'know? And we live in a culture that is so repressed about sex that we refuse to even talk about it, yet at the same time we hook into this basic biological drive in advertising and marketing and media, because, well, it works.

So yeah, we're surrounded by sexualized imagery, but we refuse to talk about it openly. So we create a social environment where kids grow up in a vacuum; the grownups won't talk to them about sex, the parents are too embarrassed and ashamed to talk about sex, and they're surrounded by sexual images without any sort of context. Y'think that might get confusing?

This confusion isn't the fault of the imagery; it's the fault of chickenshit grownups who refuse to have a grown-up conversation about sex. When you create an environment that says sex is fun and enticing and then you treat the entire topic with a deep, red-faced shame, people are going to get fucked in the head.

And that's the most reasonable part of the article. The rest of it is like an inverted version of those stories your grandfather told you as a kid; no matter where you go from there, it's downhill. In the snow. Both ways.

The red-carpet bender continues with this little gem: "All you have to do is live here on a daily basis, and you pick this stuff up through every medium," says Sarracino, who teaches at Pennsylvania's Elizabethtown College. "But it's been so absorbed that it has almost ceased to exist as something separate from the culture."

Attitudes about sex and sexuality are one of the defining aspects of culture. "Culture" in this context is the tastes, attitudes, ideas, and beliefs that are shared by a society. A shared set of ideas about sex doesn't exist as something separate from a culture? Thank you, Captain Obvious, for illuminating THAT with a harsh white light that will shine as a beacon of knowledge for generations. You may go now.

OF COURSE sexual attitudes don't exist as something "separate from the culture." That's what culture is. What the captain here is trying to say is something different: namely, that cultural ideas and taboos about sex are changing. And they are. That's absolutely correct.

But then, wait, it gets better. The very next sentence is this: "The prevalence or porn leaves today's children with a lot of conflicting ideas and misconceptions, says Lyn Mikel Brown, the coauthor of "Packaging Girlhood," about marketers' influence on teen girls. "All this sex gives a misinformed notion of what it means to be grown-up.""

Y'think? I wonder why that is. Could it be that, oh, I don't know, we're not giving kids any sort of framing or context in which to place and understand this sexual imagery? Could it be that grownups won't talk to kids about sex, grownups won't be honest and direct about sex, and so kids end up inventing their own context? Might it be, just maybe, that if we as a society weren't so goddamn hung up on having sex, selling sex, depicting sex, and doing everything under the sun except TALKING ABOUT sex, that kids would find it easier to put sex into context?

Take something that people really, really want to do, because it's fun and it feels good and they have genes that make doing it something of an imperative. Spend a tremendous amount of time perfecting the art of depicting this thing until it's honed to a razor-fine edge. Surround people with it, and then whenever they ask you about it, snatch it away and tell them they should feel ashamed. Rinse and repeat, oh, I don't know, thirty or forty thousand times. Think they'll end up with misinformed notions about what it is? Really? Who knew?

"The authors of "So Sexy So Soon" (Ballantine), which came out last month, believe that part of the problem for children is that they lack the emotional sophistication to understand the images they see." Yeah. You know why they lack that emotional sophistication? Because we're so goddamned obsessed with treating children like they're little china dolls or something that we refuse to give them that emotional sophistication. We deliberately, with the resolution of a Muslim suicide bomber, make goddamn well and sure that kids don't get the tools they need to understand the images they see, and not only that, we teach them that it's shameful to even try.

Then we tell them that if they're not good in the sack, they're not good people.

YOU try to figure that one out.

"Last year, the American Psychological Association put out a compelling report that described the sexualization of young girls: a process that entails being stripped of all value except the sexual use to which they might be put. Once they subscribe to that belief, say some psychologists, those girls begin to self-objectify—with consequences ranging from cognitive problems to depression and eating disorders." Mmm-hmm. And this is the fault of who, exactly? Pornographers who kick down the door and wave nudie pictures around in the living room whether we want it or not? Magazines that have learned that making girls feel bad about themselves is a devastatingly effective marketing hook? Parents who fel that their greatest duty as the guardians of society is to ensure that the next generation of bright young people grows up as ashamed and conflicted about sex and sexuality as they are?

My money's on numbers two and three. I've never had anyone force porn into my home against my will. Maybe it's the lock on the door, I don't know. Or maybe it's because nobody is FORCING anything on anyone.

"It's the porn ideal of sex as commodity in a competitive market—and to see rapper Nelly swipe a credit card through a young girl's backside in a music video only reaffirms that notion. It's artificiality as a replacement for authenticity."

No, it's adults who are scared to death of authenticity, who leave their children to figure out what all this means because Heaven knows that teaching kids how to understand all of this in context is just way too much to ask.

Listen, this should be obvious. The world is a big and confusing place. Part of a parent's job is teaching the skills that a child needs in order to learn to make sense of it. That's what adults do. When we as a society abdicate this responsibility, we can hardly go crying about the results.

1 Carl Sagan, in the book The Demon Haunted World, sets out a list of cognitive tools he describes as a "Baloney Detection Kit." It's a great set of tools for spotting flim-flam or sloppy reasoning, and I highly recommend this book.


( 45 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 11th, 2008 07:58 pm (UTC)
oh fucking huzzah! *G* One of the best bits that i've read on this topic.

I used to describe my personal sexual fuck-uppedness this way, in terms of the conflicting messages i got growing up.

A. "Sex is a beautiful thing that happens between 2 people who love each other very much."

B. "Are you going out looking like *that*?"
(i.e. slutty,as defined as too many buttons open on my shirt. really.)
Oct. 11th, 2008 08:21 pm (UTC)
There must be something in the air (pheromones?) because it seems all of LJ has been talking about our messed-up attitudes about sex lately. Anyway, this post is made of win.

Last year, the American Psychological Association put out a compelling report that described the sexualization of young girls: a process that entails being stripped of all value except the sexual use to which they might be put.

Um, would this be the same process that girls and women have been subjected to for, oh, millennia? I get such a kick out of it when people talk about the "perils of modern society" without stopping to consider whether these phenomena are in fact new. I would argue that women were stripped of all value except sexual use far more pervasively in times past than in today's world. Most girls in today's industrial world, sexualized or not, still feel entitled to an education, still believe they should be allowed to have careers or create art or get involved in politics. Even tweens in thongs have a whole lot more value in today's culture than they did just a couple hundred years ago.

In the past, women existed to provide sex and children to men, but they weren't supposed to actually enjoy the sex part. Maybe that's what truly bugs people today. Girls are no longer willing to be passive participants in sexuality--they want to flaunt it, use it, enjoy it. This is threatening. Sexual power is power. If we don't condition girls to be ashamed of that power then they might actually use it! Oh noes!

But I think we give sex more power than it warrants when we treat it as such a taboo. The forbidden is always more enticing than that which we can have (or at the very least discuss) freely.

I don't understand why people are so unwilling to talk to their kids about sex. The attitude is so pervasive that my son spells out the word "sex" because he's gotten the notion that it's a bad word. I don't know where this comes from, because I say it all the time and I've talked to him about it many times. (He will, however, say "mating," which I find utterly adorable and which always puts that "Discovery Channel" song in my head).

But my view is, if I didn't want to talk about uncomfortable, confusing, difficult topics with my kid, I wouldn't have had one. It's just part of the job.

Oct. 11th, 2008 08:33 pm (UTC)
tin foil hat
The only way I've been able to make sense of this state of affairs, is to decide that the way things are, people are easiest to manipulate. If we're insecure in our sexuality, and authority figures are calling the shots, then we are constantly in debt to them, so they can move us around.

That's the only thing that makes sense, given the enormous costs and terrible consequences of keeping the status quo. Left to ourselves, we'd be much more European in our attitudes, but then we'd also be harder to manipulate.

As a mouthpiece for owned media, I expect Newsweek to defend the status quo any way ot can.
Oct. 13th, 2008 01:53 pm (UTC)
Re: tin foil hat
While I definitely think that's true, I don't think it's a conscious thing. I don't see a government committee meeting together in a basement in the Pentagon and saying "We need to get together and make sure that society sends a confusing mixed message about sexuality, because it will make our jobs easier and make folks more controllable."

Rather, I think our messed-up attitudes about sex are the result of centuries of Puritanical religious repression about sex combined with free-market economic systems that have learned that sex makes for very good marketing indeed, and the result is a certain amount of confusion about sex. And I think people like it that way, because a great many people truly, sincerely believe that if they are not ashamed of sex, an invisible man up in the sky will cast them down into fiery pits of burning and torture forever and ever, amen.

Does that make us easy to manipulate? Yes. Do folks exploit that? Oh, yes. But they're merely taking advantage of a pre-existing situation--and one that people are really attached to.
Re: tin foil hat - anansi133 - Oct. 13th, 2008 04:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 11th, 2008 09:03 pm (UTC)
Now now, we can't actually have parents parenting kids. The job of parent doesn't really mean they have to teach, educate, or inform them, it just means they create them, give them food and a blankie at night, then send them off to someone else to educate. I mean, if a parent actually had to spend time giving their children the toolkits necessary to be a functioning adult, then those adults wouldn't have time for running corporations and volunteer organizations. I mean, you'd need, like, two or more adults for that! In this day and age, we're supposed to be able to do it all with no compromises and always what makes No. 1 happy.

Oh, wait, was that my sarcasm showing again?

zen_shooter likes to say when this topic comes up, that he'd like to do a psychological study on parents' brains to see what happens and why, when the topic of either sex or guns comes up, they go completely batshit insane and insist on treating those two topics as though they were totally unrelated to anything else in the known world.

We educate our kids on the dangers and wonders of electricity, of sports, of driving, but guns and sex? Nope, let's show them lots of shiny pictures, then slap their hands when they reach for them to get a closer look and tell them there is something wrong with them for being curious about it (like my own mother did when she threatened to send me to a therapist after reading some letter I wrote to my friend talking about sex at age 13).
Oct. 13th, 2008 10:09 pm (UTC)
Parents raising their own kids? Why, heaven forfend, that would be...taking responsiblity for something.

Since we seem headed for the biggest socialist programs in the history of the United States, doesn't that run counter to letting anyone take any sort of personal responsibility? After all, doesn't the government know better than you do?

BTW, Turtle...I can't wait to meet your kids, 20 years from now. No, wait...I can't wait to meet them at 8 years old.
(no subject) - joreth - Oct. 13th, 2008 10:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 11th, 2008 09:27 pm (UTC)
Not to come down on the prudish side, but it can also do a lot of damage if parents badly violate society's basic expectations about how sexuality should be taught. This isn't because sex is something evil -- far from it -- but because of the mixed-message problem. If parents consistently overstress sex education, especially before the child has a handle on the proper emotional context, it's pretty easy for kids to conclude that there's something wrong, either with the parent for sharing or with themselves for not understanding how awesome this is supposed to be. That's no way to grow up.

I think giving straight answers to birds-and-bees questions is always a good thing. I also think that children should have an understanding of safe-sex practices and other major topics before they become sexually active. I don't think imposing the topic on children is a good idea as long as the dominant culture says otherwise.

This obviously isn't a perfect situation. Ideally, the problem of mixed messages wouldn't exist. But parents have to deal with the culture they have, not the culture they wish they had.
Oct. 11th, 2008 11:20 pm (UTC)
I think you are combining two different issues here and while I agree with you on one of them, I don't necessarily agree on the other.

First, there is the issue of sending a mixed message. If I tell my son that it's okay for gays to marry each other but everyone else in my community says it's a horrible sin, then he will get a mixed message. I don't think that's a terrible thing. Life is confusing. My job as a parent isn't to pretend that everyone agrees about everything, but rather to give my son the tools for reasoning out his own viewpoint and for getting along with people who don't share it.

But then there's also the issue of age-appropriateness. You're right, it's not appropriate to tell kids things that they aren't intellectually or emotionally mature enough to handle. But I'd think that regardless of whether the rest of society agreed with me or not. This isn't about mixed messages, it's about not messing with the kid's head.

I don't think imposing the topic on children is a good idea as long as the dominant culture says otherwise.

I disagree here. I think you shouldn't impose topics on kids that they aren't ready to comprehend, but that's an individual decision based on the child. What the dominant culture says my kid should or shouldn't know is only relevant in terms of how I teach him to behave around others.
(no subject) - ashbet - Oct. 11th, 2008 11:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Oct. 13th, 2008 01:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jonnymoon - Oct. 13th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 11th, 2008 09:53 pm (UTC)
Well said, tacit.

"The world is a big and confusing place. Part of a parent's job is teaching the skills that a child needs in order to learn to make sense of it."

This might be my favorite bit, honestly. I really wonder what goes through parents' heads sometimes.
Oct. 11th, 2008 10:12 pm (UTC)
I agree with you about parenting, as you probably know, but I do have to take issue with one part of this. You seem boggled by the notion that porn comes in whether it's welcome or not, and you seem to interpret that literally, in that the porn actually physically walks in of its own volition and forces you to watch it. Of course it doesn't do that, but I can tell you that I have never invited porn into my bedroom (where by "bedroom" I mean "sex life with other people") and it has been there almost without exception.

I have had to compete with porn actresses for time, attention, desirability, and a place in my partner's mental sexual landscape. I have had to deal with partners who think that the sex acts that take place in porn actually happen in real life (and I do agree that parenting is a large part of the reason for this, but not the entire reason). I have been with more than one man who was unable to orgasm without porn as stimulation.

I never invited it in, but I invited my partner in, and he brought it in with him. This is an interpretation of that complaint that I feel is a valid one. I don't think porn is the enemy, but I do think it perpetuates a lot of the fucked up ideas out there about sex. I agree with you that grown-up communication is a huge solution to this - but that doesn't mean that porn isn't part of the problem.
Oct. 11th, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC)
This is a really good point. I hadn't thought of it that way.

I actually wanted to comment on the unwelcome porn issue in a different way. I think that the author tacit cites uses a broader definition of porn than most of us here. I think he's also referring to fake-breasted cover models in low-cut shirts on magazine covers. I think he's referring to people humping each other in music videos and singing about "my lovely lady lumps" on the radio. I think he's referring to advertisements that imply women will jump into bed with you if you wear a certain cologne. I don't consider these things "porn," but a lot of people do--or at least they consider them manifestations of a "porn culture." And unless you go join an Amish community or something, you really can't avoid that stuff. It's in the supermarket. It's on TV.
(no subject) - rain_herself - Oct. 12th, 2008 03:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Oct. 13th, 2008 02:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rain_herself - Oct. 13th, 2008 08:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 11th, 2008 10:23 pm (UTC)
Well, well... Starting to write like Greta Christina, with the pictures? :-)

I think you didn't quite get their point, Franklin. It seems to me that their point is a bit more subtle and even more messed up than you thought. I heard the same argument many times, from intelligent people who are not at all repressed about sex. It goes something like this:
1) Sex is this deep, awesome, important thing, an expression of our most wonderful feelings.
2) Pop culture (porn, commercials, etc.) displays it a cheap, shallow and empty way.
=> that's why children get the wrong message!

I'd love to hear what would you answer to this argument. The people I know who would agree with the article would also agree with what you said here -- that we should talk openly about sex -- and they do talk about it. But when they do, they say the same things: sex should be A, but it is depicted as B, and so we should be ashamed of ourselves. Or something.

- Ola
Oct. 11th, 2008 11:47 pm (UTC)
1) Sex is this deep, awesome, important thing, an expression of our most wonderful feelings.
2) Pop culture (porn, commercials, etc.) displays it a cheap, shallow and empty way.
=> that's why children get the wrong message!

I think the problem (and the reason for mixed messages) is that sex isn't inherently either one of those things. It's what the people engaging in it make of it. Sometimes sex is deep and important, but sometimes it really is cheap and shallow. You might not agree that it should be cheap and shallow, but you can't deny that sometimes it is. Sex can be anything from a sacred, loving experience to a form of brutal torture (i.e. rape), depending on the motivations behind it and the perceptions of the people involved. To me there's no mixed message at all. Sex is all of those things.

Explaining to your kids that sex can be all of those things doesn't stop you from talking about what you think sex should be. In fact, I think it's a great way to launch into a discussion about it. I don't need to pretend that unethical sexual activities don't exist in order to teach my son how to have ethical sexual relationships. Even at his young age he knows that people make bad decisions and people do cruel things.

The world is full of contradictions and kids are pretty capable of recognizing that. I don't think it's terrible for kids to get mixed messages. There are a lot of viewpoints in the world and I'd like to teach my son how to navigate them sooner rather than later.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Oct. 12th, 2008 12:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - red_girl_42 - Oct. 12th, 2008 08:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Oct. 13th, 2008 02:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Oct. 13th, 2008 02:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Oct. 15th, 2008 10:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 11th, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC)
You and your earth logic!
The mixed messages that parents and society send to children are amazing, and I feel bad for today's kids. I really do. I think every who has children or is even thinking about having children should read this, because you make a hell of a lot of sense.
Would you believe that my parents have still not given me the "sex talk"? They're lucky that I seem to have been born with a fully-functioning baloney/bullshit detector, or we'd be in a whole world of trouble.
Oct. 13th, 2008 02:13 pm (UTC)
Re: You and your earth logic!
Icon love!
Re: You and your earth logic! - cheerilyxmorbid - Oct. 13th, 2008 09:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 13th, 2008 02:15 pm (UTC)
That's an entirely different argument, though. "Porn is sometimes bad" and "porn is sometimes produced in ways that are coercive" is a whole 'nother topic than "our children are growing up with distorted views of sexuality, so it must be the fault of people forcing porn on them."
(no subject) - essive - Oct. 22nd, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 12th, 2008 10:34 pm (UTC)
This is the best rant I've seen on this subject in a very long time. Kudos.
Oct. 13th, 2008 02:24 am (UTC)
Good post.

Because, you know, repressing knowledge about sex and completely denying that sexual urges are a natural thing worked so well for Bristol Palin. Seriously, people's schizophrenic attitudes about sex in this country just baffle and annoy me.
Oct. 13th, 2008 02:16 pm (UTC)
And they're dangerous, and they lead to counterproductive results, as abstinence-only sex "education" shows We can not expect people to make informed sexual choices if those people are not informed.
(no subject) - brithistorian - Oct. 13th, 2008 02:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 13th, 2008 06:59 am (UTC)
There's so much more than pr0n that we don't equip our children to deal with. Basic (to me) communication skills, wealth management, and critical thining come to mind. That said, yes, sexuality should certainly be presented by the parents before it is exploited by the marketplace.
Oct. 13th, 2008 02:17 pm (UTC)
Critical thinking, definitely. Boy, I'd love to live in a society that spends as much time obsessing over teaching kids critical thinking skills as it does obsessing over sex.

Not that, y'know, I'm holding my breath.
(no subject) - fionn_mcgreggor - Oct. 13th, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 13th, 2008 02:04 pm (UTC)
the sexualization of young girls: a process that entails being stripped of all value except the sexual use to which they might be put.
Of course, the absolute worst offenders there are the abstinence groups trumpeting "You're worth waiting for!". "You", of course, being sex with you -- other aspects apparently don't matter.
Oct. 13th, 2008 02:17 pm (UTC)
Heh. And given how powerful and primal a drive sex is, those who hear this message will say "okay, I'll wait for sex; until we get married, I'll only do oral and anal."

Which blows my mind.
(no subject) - joreth - Oct. 13th, 2008 10:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cheerilyxmorbid - Oct. 14th, 2008 03:03 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joreth - Oct. 14th, 2008 03:22 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jonnymoon - Oct. 15th, 2008 08:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 21st, 2008 03:37 am (UTC)
Holy shit I think I just came. Well done, sir!
( 45 comments — Leave a comment )