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The pornification of America

From music to fashion to celebrity culture, mainstream entertainment reflects an X-rated attitude like never before

Disrobing for the camera was once the province of porn, but now plenty of young women are willing to flash for their 15 seconds of fame in the 'Girls Gone Wild' series.
Disrobing for the camera was once the province of porn, but now plenty of young women are willing to flash for their 15 seconds of fame in the "Girls Gone Wild" series. (Photo by Barbara P. Hernandez for The New York Times)

Actors having real sex in art-house movies. Erstwhile child star Lindsay Lohan appearing barely clad on the cover of her new album. Teenage girls strolling down Main Street USA attired in ''Porn Star" T-shirts. A bikini-wearing Jessica Simpson bumping and grinding in the music video for ''These Boots Are Made for Walkin.' " College-age women flashing for the ''Girls Gone Wild" video series with nonchalant exhibitionism.

Not too long ago, pornography was a furtive profession, its products created and consumed in the shadows. But it has steadily elbowed its way into the limelight, with an impact that can be measured not just by the Internet-fed ubiquity of pornography itself but by the way aspects of the porn sensibility now inform movies, music videos, fashion, magazines, and celebrity culture.

Even cooking shows on the Food Network -- the Food Network! -- contain distinct parallels with the cinematography, dialogue, and body language of pornography, according to an article wryly headlined ''Debbie Does Salad" in the October issue of Harper's magazine.

Chances are the republic will survive gastro-porn. But on a more serious level, a growing number of critics are raising concerns about the way an X-rated atmosphere is making its way, in diluted but unmistakable form, into popular entertainment. ''The standards and aesthetics of pornography have really infiltrated the mainstream culture," says Pamela Paul, author of ''Pornified," which examines the role pornography plays in contemporary life. ''It's not just that the culture has gotten sexier. It's that the culture is directly referencing pornography."

Of course, some of this is simply the eternal desire of the young to shock the old. And it's not exactly stop-the-presses material that sex sells. It always has -- for beer, for convertibles, for linoleum -- and it probably always will.

What is new and troubling, critics suggest, is that the porn aesthetic has become so pervasive that it now serves as a kind of sensory wallpaper, something that many people don't even notice anymore. The free-speech-versus-censorship debates that invariably surround actual pornography do not burn as hot when the underlying principles of porn are filtered more subtly into the mainstream. And those principles, critics say, often involve reducing women to subjugated sex objects while presenting men in dominant roles.

Braving the inevitable accusations of prudery -- which they reject -- critics such as Paul are sounding the alarm. They say the current hypersexualized climate distorts the attitudes of young people toward sex and relationships. In particular, they contend it has a damaging effect on the self-image of young women and girls, who are confronted with a culture that objectifies them while disguising it as female empowerment.

''We have an aging society and an adolescent culture," says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a social historian and author of ''Why There Are No Good Men Left."

''It's the beer commercial writ large across every medium you can think of. We want to titillate 50-year-old men, but we've ended up demeaning young women, and sending them a message that what matters about you is the size of your breasts."

It seems to be a message that some young women have internalized. Paul, who interviewed more than 100 ''pornography consumers" for her book, says she found that ''the standards of pornography have become something that not only men but women see as totally acceptable. It's gone so mainstream it's barely edgy."

Yet some dispute the link between the growth of the pornography industry and the growth of mainstream depictions of sex. ''I think Pamela Paul overstates the point," says Bryant Paul (no relation), who teaches telecommunications at Indiana University and has written about media images of sexuality.

''What we're talking about is more sexually explicit content; definitely, that's happened," says Bryant Paul. ''But that's not just a function of more pornography. It's largely a function of the expansion of the media industry. We are just inundated with media messages, so what message makers have to do is come up with messages that are likely to get attention. The thing that is likely to get attention is sex. You could use fishing, but it's not going to be interesting to many people."

''You've seen this throughout history," he adds. ''Every time a new medium comes around, there's an explosion of sexual content. It happened with books, it happened with movies, it happened with the VCR. And now the Internet allows it to happen to an even greater extent."

But the Internet is far from the only venue that does a thriving risque business. From the newsstands peek not just the usual randy suspects (Playboy, Hustler) but also general-interest ''lad mags" such as Maxim, whose covers feature actresses and models in soft-core poses, surrounded by leering headline copy. Even august Harvard University and its neighbor across the Charles River, Boston University, have recently become home to student-run sex magazines. Video games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were found to contain sexually explicit scenes, and an audience-building buzz surrounded nonporn movies such as ''The Brown Bunny" and ''9 Songs" when it was learned that their actors had real, not simulated, on-screen sex. Howard Stern brought his own obsession with porn to a daily radio audience of millions, and HBO's ''Sex and the City" accustomed TV viewers to racy sexual adventures.

The career of heiress Paris Hilton has prospered, not faltered, since a publicity whirlwind involving sex tapes, and actor Colin Farrell is embroiled in a lawsuit against a former girlfriend who allegedly is seeking to publicly distribute a sex video they made together. Such tapes, amateur porn of a sort, have so thoroughly permeated public consciousness that late-night TV host David Letterman recently did a hilarious ''Top Ten Signs You're in a Bad Sex Video" (No. 6: ''Plumber shows up to fix your leaky faucet . . . and then leaves."). When porn actress Jenna Jameson was on tour to promote her best-selling 2004 memoir, ''How to Make Love Like a Porn Star," Pamela Paul notes, ''12- and 13-year-old girls went up to her and told her she was their role model." Brazilian bikini waxes -- a staple of contemporary porn -- have grown increasingly popular.

But it is perhaps the world of popular music where the lines between entertainment and soft-core porn seem to have been most thoroughly blurred. It is now routine for female performers to cater to male fantasies with sex-drenched songs and videos. In ''Pornified," Paul points out that hip-hop and rock stars such as Eminem, Kid Rock, Metallica, and Bon Jovi have featured porn actors in their music videos. ''Trying to keep up, Britney Spears, Lil' Kim, and Christina Aguilera emulate porn star moves in their videos and live concerts," Paul writes.

All in all, perhaps it's not surprising that film producer Brian Grazer, who released a documentary last year about 1972's ''Deep Throat," has labeled this an era of ''porno chic."

In the view of Cynthia Eller, author of ''Am I a Woman? A Skeptic's Guide to Gender," Madonna was ''a pivotal figure" in this transformation of popular entertainment into something that often resembles soft-core porn. ''I remember at the time being confused by this idea that acting like a porn star, acting out porn fantasies, was somehow empowering for women," says Eller.

She speculates that the current climate is partly ''a backlash to feminism, a way of protecting male egos, and men insisting on retaining a power structure sexually if they can't retain it in areas of employment and parenting and so forth. It's a way to hang on to a male-dominated paradigm."

But Eller says there is plenty of blame to go around. She and Pamela Paul point also to a schism in the women's movement several decades ago. Some feminists campaigned against pornography, but others viewed that as tantamount to censorship, or did not want to be perceived as anti-men. It divided the women's movement, they say, at a moment when it could have decisively changed the national dialogue on pornography.

Eller also contends that the ''conservative right, in its eagerness to keep sexuality forbidden, is really just stoking the fire of an appetite for porn, for naughtiness, for the whole lust for sexual transgression." She maintains that if conservative forces were to ''give up their repressive game where sex is concerned," the mainstream manifestations of porn will lose their appeal to a lot of people.

Whether or not that happens, Paul hopes that porn's hold on the culture will eventually be weakened as the ramifications of its watered-down versions sink in.

''Our culture once glamorized cigarette smoking to a large extent. It was promoted by the medical establishment, the film industry, TV," she says. ''But once the evidence of harm began to be disseminated by the government, and by schools and the private sector, the number of people who started smoking went down. My hope is that once people realize the negative effect that pornography has on individuals, their children, their wives, and society as a whole, there will be a mind-set shift."

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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