I’ve been on movie sets and I’ve been on network TV, but in all these years I’d never watched a porn film being made.
So last week while I was in L.A., I finally accepted an invitation. After lunch I drove out to the San Fernando Valley, parked in a neighborhood of modest homes and small warehouses, and walked into the studio of Brash Films. I spent about two hours there, watching and occasionally chatting. Everyone involved made me feel welcome.
The most interesting thing I have to say about it all is--nothing.
But maybe not for the reasons you think.
* * *
Sooner or later, watching the same people having sex is repetitive and boring--unless, of course, you’re adding to it via fantasy, imagination, arousal, and voyeurism. I didn’t do much of that, because I was there working (yeah, I know--nice gig). So yes, watching the shoot did reduce the sex (along with the filming itself) to a technical craft. She used her left hand when the camera needed it, even though she’s right-handed. He stopped right in the middle of licking her when some sweat dripped into a bowl of fruit.
Some people condemn how watching porn at home supposedly does the same thing--it reduces sex to "mechanics." But the critical difference between watching a film being made and watching it at home is what the consumer brings to the experience. And that transforms the "mechanics" into something stimulating.
Those who say that watching porn reduces sex to mechanics aren’t adding anything to the film. Nothing positive, that’s for sure.
This is the same dynamic when consuming any media--whether it’s Seinfeld, or Guernica, or Star Wars. In fact, both Bach and the Beatles are just noise unless the listener adds something to them. Ever listen to Chinese music and think "This isn’t music"? I went to China last spring, and sure enough, their tunes sounded like noise--because I didn’t know what to add to the sound to turn it into what I recognize as "music." The Chinese architecture looked like art to me, because I was able to add something to it. But I couldn’t make the Chinese music sound like "music," so it sounded like noise. The same is true with Coltrane or Miles Davis, if you’re not conversant with their hum.
What I brought to the porn shoot was nothing. And because of the situation, I was perfectly willing to have a bland, non-erotic experience.
What a consumer brings to a porn film is imagination, privacy, a little time, maybe lube or a toy. And that gives the images meaning--erotic meaning. When anti-porn crusaders take the same film and add fear, anger, and a sense of helplessness, they also give the images meaning--but distinctly un-sexy ones (such as "exploitation" and "immorality"). So:
Porn + nothing = neutral meaning
Porn + privacy + time + imagination = positive meaning
Porn + fear, loneliness + anger = negative meaning
* * *
In all, it was just like being on any other movie set: a bunch of people wearing t-shirts and shorts (except for Her, Him, and Him), intensely concentrating and cooperating for short bursts of time--and then stopping to adjust a light, mop a brow, snip a loose thread, or find the damn beeping that only the sound guy can hear. Then another burst, maybe stopping when a scene is completed. Or when an actress really needs to pee.
Of course, the focus was on the people having sex. Her underwear was gorgeous, and she had exactly the body it was designed for. The guys had abs and muscles on top of their abs and muscles, and pretty fair penises, too. But what I admired most about all the bodies was their backs. You gotta have a strong back to thrust and thrust and keep thrusting. You gotta have a strong back to twist around and service a guy at each end, changing positions without missing a beat.
I imagined what these people do in their spare time--a little bit of sex, and a lot of time at the gym.
* * *
I wasn’t there on a political mission--in fact, I had no agenda at all except to just be open to whatever happened. But I finally couldn’t help asking myself--what exactly is the problem here? Crew, actors, actress: they’re all adults, they’re all getting paid, they all know exactly what they’re doing. No one’s exploited, no one’s been tricked into thinking they’re making Art. They know they’re not working with Pixar or Spielberg, Natalie Portman or the Coen Brothers. And they’re also not working the graveyard shift at 7-Eleven.
They’re making a living. Like most working stiffs, they’re not brilliant, they’re good enough.
I saw a few orgasms (perhaps), spoke with a couple of tech people, and thanked the director. Several people on break thanked me for coming. I gave them a copy of my book America’s War On Sex, which they admired.
They have their craft, I have mine. Different in some ways, not so different in others.
New York City has just mandated sex education in all public schools. Students in middle school and high school will get one semester each.
The city’s logic is pretty simple:
* New York teens have an unacceptably high rate of unintended pregnancy and STIs;
* These outcomes are clearly linked with poverty, domestic violence and adult health problems;
* Comprehensive sex education is scientifically proven to reduce these outcomes.
As we say in school, 1+ 1 = 2.
Parents should be celebrating the city’s decision. Medical and mental health organizations should be supporting it. The juvenile justice system should embrace it. Advocates for black and Latino youth should feel gratified that their concerns are being addressed, as minority youth have much, much higher rates of pregnancy and STIs than their white peers.
From both a practical and moral perspective, helping young people understand themselves, make better decisions, and protect themselves from unwanted consequences sure looks like a win-win.
And so of course the Catholic Archdiocese of New York calls the program "troubling," and some church officials are advising Catholic parents to prevent their kids from participating.
According to the New York Times, the Archdiocese issued a statement saying "Parents have the right and the responsibility to be the first and primary educators of their children. This mandate by the city usurps that role, and allows the public school system to substitute its beliefs and values for those of the parents." Further, Brooklyn bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said he planned to work with Catholic parents to "assert their parent rights on this issue."
Which looks like willful misunderstanding and fear-mongering.
First, no one disputes that parents are the primary educators of their children. Indeed, by the time kids are 10 or 15, they’ve had a decade of learning about sexuality at home. Families are continually sex educating kids, whether they do it consciously or not. It is precisely because so many families do a poor job ("we don’t talk about it in my family"; "they just tell me not to be a slut") that they need the schools’ help. How do you think kids got into this mess in the first place?
Second, the goals of this city program are the same as those of any moral, responsible parent: protecting kids. Helping them make good decisions. Helping them to resist peer pressure, and to protect themselves no matter what they do.
In condemning this program, and framing its resistance as it does, the Church betrays the naked power grab that lies behind its opposition. The Church wants to run parishioners lives, particularly their sex lives. They don’t want any competition--not even from families themselves, who might choose enlightened, life-affirming, and practical education for their children.
As usual, the Church describes the issue as an adversarial dichotomy: "they" (the city, the school) want to take away parents’ rights; "they" have different values than "you" (believers). This is scandalous. The church is supposed to support the improvement of parishioners’ lives, not condemn them to poverty by enforced ignorance masquerading as superior morality.
Memo to the Church, and to all parents who aren’t paying attention: teens are interested in sex, whether we like it or not. There is absolutely nothing we can do to change this. And so we must choose: We can take our responsibility as adults seriously, and equip kids to deal with their interest (including teaching them how to say no), or we can abandon kids and prepare them for an adolescent life they will never have: a life in which they don’t fall in love, don’t have sexual feelings, don’t face sexual dilemmas.
In 1850, the average age of puberty and the average age of first marriage were roughly the same--about 15. This, combined with the lack of privacy and the lack of transportation, meant that most young people didn’t have much chance for "premarital sex."
Today the average age of puberty is about 11, and the average age of first marriage is about 26. This creates a "premarital sex zone" of as much as 15 years. We can decry this, but we certainly cannot change this. It helps explain why the overwhelming majority of Americans (like people in every advanced industrial nation) have sex before marriage.
Sex education in New York schools? Even Imam Souleimane Konaté of Harlem’s Masjid Aqsa mosque is in favor of it. "I think it’s a good idea," he says. "Imams aren’t supposed to talk about it. But if somebody is doing it for me, I would support them 100 percent."
Welcome back to school, kids.
The lobbying group Morality In Media wants to eliminate adult pornography. But they have a problem: adult pornography is one of the most successful consumer products on earth, and it is generally protected by the Constitution.
So MiM has resorted to a desperate measure--repeatedly connecting adult pornography to a reviled product (child porn) and a reviled behavior (child molestation). Of course there is no evidence linking adult porn with either of those things, but MiM has never let facts stand in the way of their Big Lie.
In their latest press release, they admit that they have no evidence of this connection--and, incredibly, they demand that the government find one: "No researcher has yet published a study that uses empirical science to validate the [alleged] link between adult and child pornography. . .the U.S. Department of Justice doles out hundreds of millions of dollars for crime research, ostensibly to discover ways to make us safer. The link between adult and child pornography should now be a top target of research."
Clearly, anyone documenting this link would get the Religious Right equivalent of the Nobel Prize and MacArthur "genius grant." If that link hasn’t been established yet, it can’t possibly be for lack of trying. If anyone could show it, they would. Social scientists have all the necessary research tools; if it hasn’t been credibly shown by now, it won’t be.
Having admitted that the link doesn’t exist, MiM blithely goes on to repeat its Big Lie over and over:
Viewing adult porn –> viewing child porn –> molesting children.
Therefore, says MiM, "the U.S. Department of Justice must change course and begin vigorously to enforce adult as well as child pornography laws." The "therefore," of course, is based on enthusiasm and lying, rather than any documented facts.
In last week’s press release, MiM continues its familiar lies:
* "The predatory pornography industry targets children with their teaser material."
Nonsense: the industry wouldn’t waste money on consumers who have no money to spend on its products. And the industry doesn’t want the attention that would come with such stupid commercial behavior.
* "Federal laws prohibit distribution of hard-core adult pornography (called obscenity in law)."
Adult pornography is NOT legally "obscene"--unless a jury decides that a particular indicted production meets very special criteria. MiM bemoans the fact that this hardly ever happens.
* "The average age of a child’s first exposure to pornography is 11."
This 12-year-old claim was debunked by Forbes Magazine five years ago, yet "decency" groups still use it. No one has ever documented this nonsense, and for starters, you’d have to publicly define "pornography" (which to some people includes sex education books, "sexting" by childhood peers, and mainstream magazines like French Vogue).
* "There is evidence that the rise in child-on-child sexual abuse appears to flow from consumption of Internet pornography."
The "evidence" MiM cites is speculation by Australian officials who define such "abuse" to include "explicit swearing," "inappropriate rubbing," and "reports of sexual behavior among children." Psychologists across America and the U.S. call this behavior normal.
So how does adult pornography supposedly pose a danger for kids?
MiM cites the usual freaky comments: ten years ago, an official of a Bangkok NGO said that "Men with perfectly normal sexual proclivities become seduced, then involved, and finally addicted to child pornography…the addiction leads many men into seeking out children to abuse." Three years ago a Spanish "expert" (no credentials listed) offered the dubious "the majority of pedophiles develop the tendency later on. . .[after] looking for pornography on the web as their stimulation threshold rises, they feel the need for stronger and stronger material until their search leads them to child pornography."
These officials and others citing their "observations" apparently have no clue about developmental issues in pedophilia or child porn consumption. Neither results from boredom with adult pornography. What could lead YOU to masturbate looking at photos of a four-year-old? What could make YOU desire sex with a four-year-old? "Boredom?" "Saturation?" "Needing stronger material?" That just defies logic.
MiM’s latest ends with this demand: "Candidates for president must pledge to protect our children from pornography, and that means committing to the vigorous prosecution of illegal adult pornography as well as child pornography."
If anything, we need a president who understands the difference between adult pornography and child pornography. The first is legal, the second illegal; the first shows consenting adults doing things most American adults do, or wish to do (ask any marriage counselor); the second portrays activities that interest very few people, and is often the record of a crime.
We need a President who knows simple arithmetic: with adult pornography consumed by some 40 million adults each month, the overwhelming majority of them obviously do not commit sex crimes, do not consume child porn, and do not abuse children. In fact, those 40 million adults are similar to the American population that doesn’t use pornography--similar in levels of religiosity, income, marriage & divorce, and, for better or worse, in the way they vote.
If MiM really wants to protect children, rather than simply promoting itself through fear-mongering, it can champion comprehensive sex education--to help young people make good sexual decisions, including protecting themselves from those who want to exploit them. And it can acknowledge childhood sexuality, so ignorant people will stop seeing kids’ sexual experimentation as "abuse" that requires an explanation--inevitably focused on pathology.
Oh, and they can model an important value for our young people: you shouldn’t lie.