My work surrounding violence against women has taken me down some very dark alleys. During the run-up to this week's ninth annual Chick Ball, I parsed studies and data, and spoke with numerous people about sex trafficking. I followed where my research led, and I learned a lot. Most of it wasn't pretty.
I said once that nothing about the subject surprised me, but I soon found myself facing my own ignorance and bias. I already knew that domestic violence cuts across all segments of society. Money and status don't shelter women from a beating and don't stop men inclined to exert violent control over their children. "Good" boys from old families aren't immune to believing that a short skirt and revealing cleavage means a woman is "asking for it."
Still, I didn't understand how depraved a sexual predator can be. Trolling for vulnerable kids at the mall weren't part of my reality. Neither were prostitutes shipped from coast to coast following paths of sporting events to service the men, juiced up on competition and testosterone, who attend them. Girls from good families, brought up to believe in Jesus and dreaming of white wedding gowns couldn't end up selling their bodies—not in my world. I was wrong. All of those scenarios are common, and they all happen in Mississippi and in Jackson—probably in my neighborhood and probably in yours.
One of the dark alleys led to a subject that I wasn't able to give much attention in my stories, but it crystallized much of my naive "how can this happen?" incredulousness. That subject is pornography.
When I saw my first copies of Playboy magazine, I was embarrassed, but I couldn't stop looking. I was clear that my body didn't look like those of the beauties posing seductively; it never would. The women were undeniably gorgeous, though. They were photographic versions of Raphael paintings. At least to my untrained and undiscerning (and un-lustful) eye, they were still women. I found the unadorned female forms stunning, full of soft curves and the promise of nurturing love and life.
Porn has dramatically changed over the years. All the feigned innocence and luscious allure displayed in those circa-1974 issues of Playboy are gone. These days, that kind of soft porn is in mainstream, primetime pop culture. "Sex and the City" and "50 Shades of Grey" is no more shocking than extra-marital or pre-marital sex. Politicians charged with crimes of soliciting prostitutes, such as Eliot Spitzer, and of "marital improprieties," such as North Carolina's John Edwards, are "rehabilitated" after they shed the appropriate crocodile tears for the appropriate cameras.
Look, no one can ever accuse me of being a prude. I took my sexual-identity cues from bra-burning feminists and took full advantage of the freedom ushered in by the pill. I had my share of no-strings-attached sex just because I wanted to. It's not stuff I'll put on my resume but, on the other hand, I'm not ashamed of it, either.
Today's pornography, though, took our heady, libidinous party and made it into something about as far from fun as I can imagine. Instead of suave, smoke-jacketed Hugh Hefner, woman-hating sexual sadists like Max Hardcore (who was on the violent fringe back in soft porn's heyday) embody today's porn merchant. The Internet, a vast, easily accessible vessel for the best society has created, has also become a spittoon for the very worst. Instead of beautiful women shyly offering the promise of fulfilling and mutual pleasure, today's pornography offers little more than woman-shaped repositories for men's abusive fantasies.
Pornography in 2013—the vehicle by which many boys learn how to be men—has turned women into objects of loathing, abuse and violence.
"Many people have outdated ideas that porn is pictures of naked women wearing coy smiles and not much else, or of people having hot sex. Today's mainstream Internet porn is brutal and cruel, with body-punishing sex acts that debase and dehumanize women," said anti-pornography activist Gail Dines in an interview with Ms. Magazine in 2010. Dines is the author of "Pornland: How Pornography has Hijacked Our Sexuality" (Beacon Press, 2011, $16) and a professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College in Boston.
Mainstream porn teaches that women's bodies are little more than a collection of orifices. "Actresses" in today's porn weep and vomit, and the only moans of pleasure come from "actors" attached to body parts turned into weapons of torture. Gonzo porn has gotten so extreme that the industry—estimated worldwide to garner more than $100 billion annually—is in disarray: Porn merchants are at a loss on how to continue upping the ante for the insatiable beast it's created.
"The more porn sexualizes violence against women, the more it normalizes and legitimizes sexually abusive behavior," Dines said in a Guardian newspaper interview. "Men learn about sex from porn, and in porn nothing is too painful or degrading for women."
Dines, like other anti-pornography activists, has her detractors. Hustler's Larry Flynt famously—and successfully—defended pornography as free speech in America, and the rest, as they say, is history. But free speech, like all hard-won freedoms, must embody responsibility, and the porn industry has left that to its audience.
Pornography is not the only reason for the huge amounts of violence toward women—the issue is too complicated to oversimplify it that way. And let me be clear: Men are not the only ones committing sexual violence, whether inside or outside intimate relationships, nor are women its only victims. But women make up the overwhelming majority of domestic abuse, sexual assault and sex-trafficking victims, and pornography is undoubtedly a part of the problem.
On average, the age of children first exposed to Internet pornography is 11 and, frequently, it's the only sex "education" kids will ever get. Public policy seems determined to keep sex a dirty secret while allowing porn's unfettered access to children struggling to figure out how to be adults and form relationships. What that imbalance teaches boys is that "good" sex is violent and impersonal; for girls, it teaches them to hide sex even as it pushes them to have more of it at younger ages.
As parents and stewards, we must teach our children—especially our boys—that pornographic sex is neither normal nor acceptable behavior. Abuse has no place in healthy relationships. The sooner we teach them, and the better we serve as role models of loving, respectful, mature relationships, the more successful we'll be in stemming the tide of abominations such as sexual slavery.