Porn and Profits: Where to From Here?

In today's America, the profit motive seems to justify anything

When Playboy.com was registered on the Nasdaq exchange in March 2000, cyberporn gained a new level of respectability. News commentary pointed out that the decision to give commercial legitimacy to an enterprise based on soft-core online pornography may open the way to public acceptance of the more hardcore varieties. The question is, will purveyors of exploitative and demeaning sex increasingly pollute our economy?

Some people have argued that Playboy and its philosophy are so mild and vapid that they are hardly worth worrying about. After all, Playboy Enterprises has been listed with the New York Stock Exchange since 1971, and the world is still functioning, more or less.

Others point out that although we haven't yet reached cosmic collapse, pornography already governs our culture in ways that are both powerful and insidious. From TV sitcoms to shampoo ads, sexual titillation has proved to be a sure draw.

In fact, the statistics on web pornography are scary. U.S. News & World Report recently noted that some 15 to 20 million surfers visit cyberspace porn sites each month; in 1998, $1 billion was spent on access to such sites, a figure expected to triple during the next three years; and studies made by two leading American universities concluded that at least 200,000 Americans use online porn in a compulsive way that has negative consequences for their real-life relationships. The magazine also mordantly notes the fate of the Child Online Protection Act, which sought to restrict minors from accessing websites containing "harmful material." It was overturned on grounds of "free speech," although an appeal is pending.

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On the whole, the churches have maintained an eerie silence on this whole issue. To raise questions seems either petty, puritanically prudish, or politically incorrect. We've come to the point where we are ashamed to raise our voices against the shameful exploitation of the human person by (literally) stripping more or less willing women, men, and children of any shred of dignity or personal integrity. In today's America, the profit motive seems to justify any degree of self-degradation, including cyber-prostitution. If the recent article published in the Romanian print version of Playboy magazine is any indication, we're in for hard times ahead. Purporting to be a satire, that article described ways a man can beat a woman without leaving telltale marks. The ensuing stir was so great, it seemed that the company might pull its magazine off the market once and for all. But when I left Romania in late May, another edition was already in the kiosks.A strange and fascinating country, America. So much talent, energy, generosity, and imagination; so much basic goodness among its most "average" citizens. We lead the world in Nobel Prizes, technology, medicine, space exploration, and charitable donations. Yet we don't seem to care enough about our children to protect them from the violence inherent in pornography. We justify it by appealing to "the American way" that protects anti-social extremes in the name of individual rights and free speech. In the end, this country may well go down the tubes because of specious, self-serving interpretations of the First and Second Amendments.

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