Living in New York City gives you many chances to see just how yucky some of the results of a free press can be. A friend of mine recently expressed a desire to visit the city and, while here, see "where the pornography is sold." This is sort of like going to Paris and asking where the Frenchmen are kept or going to Seattle and asking where the espresso is.
Where isn't there pornography in New York? Even pure-minded folk like my friends and I find ourselves forced by New York street ads to ask questions like "What is lap dancing?" (The first time I saw that term, incidentally, it was spelled with two ps, leading to speculation that a caribou might be involved.)
This may come as a shock, but I get the impression that a lot of this pornography stuff is really dirty. It's understandable that many people have a hard time feeling the world would be a poorer place without films like Loving Lesbians Giving Enemas and The Sperminator.
Another friend of mine finds that as part of his basic cable package here in Manhattan he gets a few hours of adult material every night on the "commercial use" station, Channel 35. We stole a few guilt-wracked glimpses. I shouldn't have been surprised that, instead of beautiful, erotic imagery, the channel featured much that is grotesque or laughable or both, such as the producer addressing viewers while sitting on a toilet, ugly guys spanking each other, leather-clad dominatrices advertising their phone services with appeals such as "Call me now, you worthless piece of ****," and so on.
So here's my concern: If smut is seen as unethical, there's always the danger that our most upstanding citizens will be soft on free speech. But how can smut be seen as morally aboveboard when it's so defiantly, aggressively sleazy?
Mind you, I don't think the viewer-cum-voyeur who watches pornography is doing anything immoral. This stuff may have a dementing effect, though, if only because it's already considered outside the bounds of decent society and therefore is produced in a spirit of surrender to degradation.
When a segment on the aforementioned Channel 35 starts with a billy club-wielding police officer yelling "No peeing in public!" at a semi-clad woman, you know 1) it's time to avert your eyes and 2) the artistic credo in operation is something like "How low can we go?" rather than "How can we best instantiate Beauty?"
Perhaps there's a Catch-22 here. Pornography will only be accepted by mainstream society when it stops being so perverse and will only stop being so perverse when it is accepted by mainstream society.
I thought I saw a chance for conservative acceptance of smut one year ago. Back during the large-breasts-and-penises phase of Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when he was accused of pornography consumption as well as sexual harassment, I was hoping his conservative allies on the Senate Judiciary Committee might defend his right to porn. Instead we heard arguments such as Sen. Orrin Hatch's that there may be people as perverted as Anita Hill alleges Thomas is, "but surely they are in insane asylums." Now, I would not suggest that Republicans leap to the defense of sexual harassment. Still, it would have been neat if Thomas had said he did talk about Long Dong Silver and pubic-haired Coke cans, but not in a harassing context.
It would have been a valuable learning experience for the whole nation to see conservatives defending the right to smut and—perhaps more importantly—the right to make crude jokes. The traditional association of conservatives with censorship and liberals with free speech would have been reversed much as it was during the free-speech-on-campus debate. We might then have seen a grand alliance of libertarians, conservative Sunday school teachers, and the decadent right-wingers P. J. O'Rourke calls "pants-down Republicans." Then Dick Boddie, who nearly became the Libertarian Party nominee for the '92 presidential race, could have led this coalition to the White House, buoyed by the support of hordes of adult-movie fans operating under the assumption that "Dick Body" must be a retired porn star.
Until then, pornographers might want to ward off censors with humor, which seemed to work well during the P.C. wars. While renting wholesome films in my local video store, I've noticed titles that even the most puritanical prosecutor would feel silly attacking. Butt Boys in Space ("Blasting off for Uranus!") may be a step in the right direction.
Todd Seavey is a writer in New York City.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "A Crazy Man's Utopia: A Better Class of Sleaze".