It gets harder and harder to find someone who will say a good word for pornography. Angry feminists, chagrined liberals, Henry Miller and Pauline Réage fans, all agree that this is not what we meant, not what we meant at all, while the legions who never wanted to let the genie out of the bottle in the first place feel both outraged and vindicated. Die-hard (so to speak) porn liberationists like Al Goldstein of Screw are embarrassments to what is left of the hip subculture that spawned them—as out of date as skirts up to the thighs or inspirational speeches hailing groupies as the vanguard of the cultural revolution. Yet in spite of this ecumenical disapproval, pornography may well be the characteristic mass art form of this decade. What could be a better icon of the Nixon years than a fiftyish, balding businessman in suit and tie, briefcase on lap, hands chastely folded over briefcase (I checked), watching with solemn absorption a pair of larger-than-life genitals copulating in close-up to the strains of—was it really “Stars and Stripes Forever,” or am I making that up?
The ironies may be painful, but they are hardly surprising. The revolt against Victorian morality has always had its left and right wings. On the one hand it has been part of a continuing historical process, the economic and social emancipation of women; more narrowly, it has both reflected and facilitated the shift from a production-centered (hence austere) to a consumption-centered (and hedonistic) capitalism. At this point the feminist version of the sexual revolution has been incorporated into the broader program of the women’s movement, while the consumerist version has ended up on Forty-second Street, which is as American as cherry pie—and as masculine as chewing tobacco.
For men, the most obvious drawback of traditional morality was the sexual scarcity—actual and psychic—created by the enforced abstinence of women and the taboo on public acknowledgment of sexuality. Sex was an illicit commodity, and whether or not a sexual transaction involved money, its price almost always included hypocrisy; the “respectable” man who consorted with prostitutes and collected pornography, the adolescent boy who seduced “nice girls” with phony declarations of love (or tried desperately to seduce them), the husband who secretly wished his wife would act like his fantasies of a whore, all paid in the same coin. Men have typically defined sexual liberation as freedom from these black market conditions: the liberated woman is free to be available; the liberated man is free to reject false gentility and euphemistic romanticism and express his erotic fantasies frankly and openly; by extension, the liberated entrepreneur is free to cater to those fantasies on a mass scale.
Understandably, women are not thrilled with this conception of sexual freedom. In a misogynist culture where male sexuality tends to be confused with dominance and corrupted by overt or covert sadism—read any one of the endless spew of male confessional novels that have come out of the closet (or the bathroom) since…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.