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Pornified Review Misses One Key Criticism

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Megan Rosenfeld’s The Trouble with Smut review in Sunday’s Washington Post examined two recent books about the way pornography and exhibitionism are changing the way men and women interact. The review focused on Pamela Paul’s Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families and Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy.

In general, critic Rosenfeld admired both books while also pointing out some of their shortcomings. However, there was one key criticism of Pamela Paul’s Pornified that isn’t mentioned. Obviously, the critic doesn’t have to share my exact opinions, but my complaint about the book affects the credibility and persuasiveness of the Pornified‘s main arguments.

Quite simply, Paul wants it both ways in Pornified, and I don’t mean that as some sort of dirty pun. Her central thesis is that pornography has become so accepted and widespread that most people no longer even think it’s dangerous. Unfortunately, Paul is quick to quote facts and statistics when they suit her purpose but then to say that facts and stats can’t be trusted or aren’t accurate when she needs to cover up a lack of support.

The book begins with a litany of porn’s takeover of contemporary culture. “Today, pornography is so seamlessly integrated into popular culture that embarrassment or surreptitiousness is no longer part of the equation,” Paul writes in the introduction. She describes her own research as interviewing “more than a hundred people (approximately 80 percent male) about the role pornography plays in their lives… men were quite willing to open up about a subject they rarely get to discuss seriously and at length.” In short, “America has porn on the brain,” Paul writes and then she goes on to describe the horrors of porn addiction from all these men so thrilled to have a chance to talk about the damaged they’ve suffered. She also quotes from more than twelve surveys, polls, and reports in the introduction and first chapter alone. Even Washington Post critic Rosenfeld was sucked under and disoriented by the author’s tidal wave of statistics. “Paul cites so many studies and surveys and polls that I got a little confused about exactly how many men are so consumed by pornography that they are losing jobs, partners and all sense of reality,” the reviewer writes.

Yet, in spite of all those facts Paul gleefully sprinkles around, there are other times when she says trustworthy data isn’t available. “Reliable figures are hard to come by, as many people are reluctant to admit their usage even with the anonymity of a phone or online survey,” she writes. Huh? What about all those studies? What about all those people who no longer felt any embarrassment or need to hide their consumption? What about the dust jacket copy that proclaims “pornography, once the taboo vice that no one dared mention, has become part of our daily lives–affordable, accessible, anonymous, and, increasingly, acceptable”?

Paul wanted some control over her own research so in addition to relying on surveys and polls by MSNBC.com and Elle magazine, the Zogby organization, the Kinsey Institute, the Employment Law Alliance, and many others, she herself “commissioned the first nationally representative poll of Americans to deal primarily with pornography.” But then suddenly, all this great information just disappears?

This type of contradiction also appears with the people interviewed in Pornified. Paul admirably provides a number of different perspectives and opinions on porn, but in many instances, the way she presents these discussions contradicts her own objectives for the book. She writes, “men who don’t like pornography aren’t as rare as fans think, or even as unusual as guys who don’t like it suppose they are. In the Pornified/Harris poll, only 27 percent of Americans agreed with the statement ‘All men look at pornography.'” But I thought that we, as a country, have “porn on the brain”?

To describe the segment of the population who doesn’t indulge in this area, Paul describes the experience of Ian, an interview subject who dislikes pornography. Ian “has trouble believing that as many men are into pornography as most people seem to think.” He points out that he never hears friends talk about porn, he hasn’t had it in his presence since he was twenty-two, nobody in his weekly poker game mentions it, and in general “For all I know, nobody I know watches pornography.” But on the very next page, Paul writes “it may be biological or it may be cultural, but most agree that it [pornography] plays a part in nearly all men’s lives.” But didn’t Ian just tell us it played zero part in his? And didn’t Paul quote her own study in saying that it’s not nearly as pervasive as we might think?

These issues with contradiction, along with the incessant descriptions of these men and all their problems caused by porn, really turned me off Pornified. In the book, Pamela Paul makes the argument that people get so accustomed to porn that it takes increasingly more extreme and graphic depictions to get the same arousal. The constant barrage of “basic” porn makes it so that we don’t even notice anymore. I felt the same way reading this book. The story after story after story after story of these men and women, eager to tell their story, and often feeling no embarrassment about their use, are none the less “given pseudonyms and any identifying characteristics have been obscured,” to such a point where I found it a chore to get through the book. The Washington Post critic seemed to enjoy Pornified but unfortunately, I can’t say the same.