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Adventures in Pornland

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Writing a book about porn can take a person on some strange research missions, but for me the most bizarre was no doubt the three days I spent at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas in 2008. Imagine being in a cavernous hall with hardcore porn being projected onto every wall, your voice drowned out by the fake orgasmic noises coming from the movies. Scattered around the room are scantily clad women sitting on tables with their legs wide open so fans can take pictures of their barely covered crotches.

I went around the hall interviewing porn producers, many of whom were more than happy to talk about their work. It became clear very quickly that what gets these guys excited is not bodily contact but profits, niche markets, and bulk mailing. In all the workshops I went to, nobody talked about sex, just his or her business plan for increasing revenue.

One of the representatives from RealDoll--a company that specializes in life-like sex dolls--explained to me, with a straight face, that these dolls are "great for men who want to learn how to be with a woman." One porn producer was keen to tell me that his movies were more tasteful than the usual hard-core ones, even though his latest had a woman kneeling in a coffin as she was being anally penetrated.

One afternoon I sat down next to Patricia, an African American security guard being paid a little more than minimum wage. I asked how she was, but she looked at me suspiciously and turned her back, assuming I was a pornographer. Only after convincing her that I was an anti-porn feminist writing a book did she open up to me to complain bitterly about the work detail, since she had never before seen porn. Patricia was especially upset by the African American women porn performers, and every time one passed us, she asked me to go tell her that that it is "not good for her to be doing this stuff." Patricia and I struck up the kind of friendship one does when you feel like you have found some sanity in a crazy place.

When I started to write Pornland, my first thought was: How can I find the words to describe just how brutal mainstream Internet porn has become? In my lectures I show images, but this was not an option for the book since I didn't want to become one more purveyor of porn. I knew that I had to describe today's porn, because many of the readers--especially women--would have an outdated image in their heads of a naked woman seductively smiling in a cornfield. The first thing I did was to type porn into Google and just describe, in a somewhat clinical fashion, the images that jumped out at me. This is not an easy read, because today's mainstream Internet porn is filled with images of body-punishing sex acts that are designed to debase and dehumanize women. These are not fun, creative, playful images that feed our sexual imaginations but instead are industrial products that depict a type of sex that is formulaic, generic, and plasticized.

Porn images are not only found in those materials we call pornography. The imagery and themes have now migrated to pop culture. Whether it be Miley Cyrus in Elle spread-eagled on a table dressed in S&M gear, or Maxim doing a feature on the "Top 12 Porn Stars," we are inundated with images, messages, and ideologies that promote porn. Using interviews with hundreds of college-age students, Pornland takes a close look at what it means for young women and men to grow up in such a culture and how it shapes their identities, sexualities, and ideas about intimacy, relationships, and connection.

One problem I knew I had to deal with as I was writing the book was the inevitable accusation that, because I am anti-porn, I must be an anti-sex prude who is out to police people's sex lives. To criticize porn today is to be seen as criticizing sex, because--thanks to the porn PR machine--porn has now become synonymous with sex.

The way I address this in the book is to ask the reader what would happen if this book were a critique of McDonald's for its exploitive labor practices, its destruction of the environment, and its impact on our diet and health. Would I be accused of being anti-eating or anti-food? I suspect that most readers would understand that the critique was focused on the large-scale impact of the fast-food industry and not the human need, experience, and joy of eating. So I say in the preface that this book should be read as a critique of the industrialization and commodification of sex by corporate predators, and not as an attack on sex itself.

It is this industrial setting that often gets ignored in the heated debates over porn. I write about porn as an industry because I want people to understand that it needs to be seen as a business whose product evolves with a specifically capitalist logic. This is a business with considerable political clout, with the capacity to lobby politicians, engage in expensive legal battles, and use public relations to influence public debate. As with the tobacco industry, this is not a simple matter of consumer choice; rather, the business is increasingly able to deploy a sophisticated and well-resourced marketing machine, not just to push its wares but also to cast the industry's image in a positive light.

I have no plans to go back to the Expo in Las Vegas next year, but you can be sure the industry will be there planning how to develop new niche markets and marketing techniques to keep an increasingly bored and desensitized consumer base interested. Patricia won't be there either, since she packed in her job as a security guard straight after the Expo and moved as far away from Las Vegas as possible.