Sticky Fingers

Two new books show why porn is so pervasive—and so hard to put down.

American Demographics senior editor Pamela Paul broke out of the numbers-nerd ghetto with her seminal book The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. Her follow-up, Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families (Times Books, $25), both exploits and opposes the most startling recent social trend—the mainstreaming of pornography. With Jenna Jameson topping the best-seller list, it was inevitable that analytical porn-bashing books would follow fast as the Furies.

In the number-intensive Pornified, Paul conducted more than 100 intimate interviews with porn patrons and commissioned a big Harris Poll. Though only 28 percent of men say porn improves their sex lives, two-thirds of men 18 to 34 watch Internet porn monthly. Forty-seven percent of women and 33 percent of men say porn hurt their relationships; one-third of women think porn equals cheating, and 17 percent of men agree. Yet 41 percent of all women in an Elle/ poll said they looked at Internet porn. Six out of 10 women think men's porn viewing affects how men expect them to look and behave. Four out of 10 ministers told Christianity Today they surf porn sites.

Number surfing is like Internet porn surfing—it's a rush, but the relationships aren't very meaningful. Paul tries to weave her stats into a coherent narrative but fails completely. She does prove that porn is big these days: We spend $4 billion on video porn alone.

Much worse are her interviews. According to "Thomas, the single, 34-year-old tech support worker from Seattle," half of women like porn and half are offended. But anecdotes aren't reality. The guys who tell her they're porn addicts with limp dicks and ruined lives don't really tell us about their other problems beyond the mouse and keyboard. At times, Pornified is like a takeoff on Reefer Madness—call it Peeper Madness. Paul's bottom line, that we should not censor porn but "censure" it to be unrespectable and unpopular, is impractical and also boring. Her book is almost as boring as porn itself.

One turns with relief to New York magazine scribe Ariel Levy's hot-pink feminist manifesto Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Free Press, $25). Though Levy's generalizations are less anchored to statistics than Paul's, and therefore arguably more impressionistic, she's much better at orchestrating her snippets into an argument. And she's twice the writer Paul is. Both devote pages to the $100 million Girls Gone Wild! empire, but only Levy conveys how heterosexual Ph.D. candidates she interviewed could eagerly agree to simulate lesbian sex on camera.

Levy is also punchier and better at summing up the amazing sea change in porn attitudes. Anent Jenna, she writes, "There was something profoundly weird about the fact that one of the most widely read authors in the country was simultaneously selling 'ultra-realistic, lifelike' replicas of 'Jenna's Vagina and Ass' with complimentary lubricant on her own Web site." She quotes hooker-turned-writer Tracy Quan after Quan appeared at a book event alongside Chief Justice William Rehnquist. "If that's not being part of the Establishment," quoth Quan, "I don't know what is."

Levy nimbly narrates how Robin Morgan, Susan Brownmiller, and Andrea Dworkin gave way to Candida Royalle and cardio-striptease classes at the gym. She surveys teenagers on their alarmingly adventurous sex lives in interviews infinitely more riveting than Paul's, and attends Cake parties, raunchy feminist female- chauvinist-pig events with strippers and live sex acts. Levy agrees with Brownmiller, who says of Cake, "You think you're being brave, you think you're being sexy, you think you're transcending feminism. But that's bullshit."

Levy's take is that the raunchy new female is sort of trying to be a man in drag. It bothers her to hear a young girl pout that she's only had 35 lovers, and intends to get to 100. Levy agrees with Royalle, who says today's mainstreamed porn ethos co-opts the old sexual revolution, reducing it to pop culture that's insidiously sold back to us.

Paul and Levy are both liberals who don't necessarily disapprove of free love. They just want to pry it from the cold grip of porn consciousness, so that it can be free indeed.

Ariel Levy will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Mon., Sept. 26; Pamela Paul will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Wed., Sept. 28.

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