PORNOGRAPHY IS NOT a subject one would expect to come up at a baby shower. But there I was when two Manhattan women of my acquaintance began discussing the web surfing habits of their husbands. It seems they had discovered the "history" folder on their spouses' web browsers. That's the folder that (unless you turn it off) maintains a list of web sites visited over the previous month or so. When they clicked, it popped open and revealed a list of porn sites running off the bottom of the screen.
What struck them most was the sheer astonishing breadth and variety of the porn trove. Tastes and fetishes that they wouldn't have guessed existed are catered to by an endless universe of smut purveyors. They giggled over their discovery, disapproving but not terribly so. When one of the husbands came over, he giggled too. No harm done, right?
This came even as the presidential campaign was making a strange sidelong excursion into panic about sex and violence (mostly violence) in the mainstream media. The Federal Trade Commission had just issued a report blaming Hollywood for marketing R-rated fare to children as young as eight.
The cacophony was deafening. Hearings were held before John McCain's Senate Commerce Committee. Hollywood executives were pilloried, denounced, and held up to public ignominy. Al Gore and Joe Lieberman promised that, if elected, they would give the entertainment industry six months to shape up -- or else.
Of course, what "or else" meant was never clear. In quieter moments legislators admitted "or else" was nothing, because Washington wasn't about to get into the censorship business. Within a month of the election, the same FTC that had started the blaze solemnly pronounced that it had no intention of doing anything about the "abuses" it had uncovered. Nor would it advise Congress to do anything. This utter failure to propose a remedy was all the more striking when considered against the rhetoric the politicians had been spilling out a few weeks earlier, implying that entertainment violence was responsible for everything from the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado to scholastic underachievement. Lieberman never missed a chance on the campaign trail to repeat his top applause line: "Parents shouldn't be forced to compete with popular culture to raise their children."
ALARM OVER "sex and violence" in popular entertainment has been a recurring theme for at least a century. Yet it seems to recur without any progress in our understanding of the subject.
In fact, there is no reliable evidence of any causal link between imaginary violence in entertainment and violence in the real world. The nation has been witnessing a stark drop in the rates of murder, rape, and violent crime since the early 1990s. Does anyone suppose this was caused by a decline in violent themes in movies, TV shows, and video games?
Likewise, there has been a less striking but still significant decline in teenage motherhood, the spread of sexual diseases, and other indicators of promiscuity. We certainly can't credit this to any decline in the number of plot lines on "Friends" and other NBC sitcoms extolling the desirability of frequent casual sexual relationships. There is no question that a long-term transformation of sexual mores has been underway for decades, thanks to the pill, sex education, and so forth. Yes, the media undoubtedly serve as a transmission belt for changing attitudes. But that's a far cry from suggesting that people act on what they see in the media in a monkey-see, monkey-do manner.
Indeed, when you think about it, the assumption that sex in the entertainment media leads to sex in the world, or that violence leads to violence, is methodologically fishy. What foundation does this have except for a casual, intuitive belief that the imaginary must lead to the real? It seems just as plausible that imaginary sex might lead to violence or imaginary violence to sex. …