It's been a tough couple of weeks for porn. On Oct. 12, two Arizona men were sentenced to more than five years in federal prison for generating pornographic e-mail spam, a venture in which they'd sent out millions of e-mails and earned more than a million dollars.
That's justice well served, but the same day, a jury awarded a Nashville woman $85,000 in damages after her children were inadvertently exposed to hard-core pornography in a California motel room. It seems that in August 2006, Edwina McCombs and her two daughters, ages 7 and 8, checked into a Value Lodge in Artesia. While McCombs was taking a bath, her children channel surfed and, according to the lawsuit, eventually stumbled on close-up, explicit images of sex acts. The award was based on McCombs' claim of "negligence and emotional distress."
Notwithstanding the fact that offering free porn is probably the best marketing tool an economy hotel chain could hope for (during the trial, an investigator said that Value Lodge does not block porn channels from rooms unless guests request it), McCombs' lawsuit is sure to elicit smirks from several corners. For one thing, the girls had to testify at the trial, and it's difficult to imagine that that experience wasn't somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 times as traumatic as seeing the pornography in the first place.
For another thing, what kind of pornography is so shocking in this day and age that even limited exposure to it causes $85,000 worth of psychological damage? I daresay lots of parents would happily let their kids watch hard-core porn for the amount of time required to take a bath, especially if it meant getting $85,000 out of the deal. By 2017, that sum could pay for college -- at least a couple of weeks of it -- and the opportunity for the kid to read the work of Andrea Dworkin and then sue her parents for another 85 grand.
Obviously, pornography is not for children -- or many adults, for that matter. But thanks to the explosion of Internet porn, X-rated material has gone mainstream. Though reliable statistics are difficult to find, some figures show that 12% of Internet sites now traffic in pornography. Other numbers suggest that 20% of men and 13% of women look at pornography at work, and a staggering 90% of 8- to 16-year-olds have viewed it online. In other words, explicit sex has become the wallpaper of our era. We're living in the Porn Age. As troubling as that may be, there's still something surprising -- even quaint -- about the notion of being traumatized by it.
But there's something even more surprising. As explicit sexual imagery has found its way into nearly every corner of our lives -- pole dancing is now taught at the Learning Annex -- those images (both the porn kind and the regular old R-rated TV and movie kind) have come to seem a bit . . . boring. Sure, it's human nature to become inured to repeated images of anything, but pornography throws a kink in that assumption because demand for the product seems to increase even as genuine enthusiasm wanes.
Of course, a lot of people would call that addiction. And given that Internet porn addiction is now an "epidemic" (no doubt rapidly headed for its own DSM listing), it's possible we've built up a collective tolerance that prevents us from getting excited about anything short of three-ways between A-list celebrities. That's sad, but what's even sadder is how sexiness itself, which is rooted in mystery, has been replaced by the far less interesting -- and less titillating -- "porniness."
Mainstream entertainment outlets were once forced to treat sexual material with coyness and innuendo; today's characters -- at least those on cable -- can just rip their clothes off and get it on. This is worth watching . . . once. After that, it's easy to change the channel and get sucked into a Cold War documentary on the History Channel. And no wonder -- compared to naked bodies, Sputnik seems downright fresh.
As was pointed out in this paper on Tuesday, the last few years of television and movie offerings have been marked by some of the most explicit and least exciting sex scenes in recent memory. The new HBO series "Tell Me You Love Me," for example, shows extremely attractive people having sex in flattering lighting, in beautiful rooms and in the nude.
Ten or even five years ago, a program as explicit as "Tell Me You Love Me" would have been so titillating that monotonous scripts and irksome characters would be of little consequence. Today, I keep wishing someone would invent the reverse of the now-famous (thanks to its cameo in the film "Knocked Up") website Mr. Skin, which tells users how many minutes into a movie or TV show an actress disrobes (oddly, Mr. Skin hasn't gotten around to tracking male nudity yet). With this service -- call it Mr. Just Hurry Up and Be Done With It -- viewers could get the scoop on exactly how long they have to endure on-screen hanky-panky before the characters go back to arguing in the Volvo.
All this might seem to suggest a grim scenario for the future of the species. But based on the lines at Toys R Us, real-life sex -- the actual kind between actual people -- appears to be moving along at a healthy clip. Still, as the Porn Age marches onward, it seems only logical that fake sex between fake people will become increasingly humdrum.
Not that that Value Lodge isn't still the best value around.