The Book Club

Why Have We Made a Religion Out of Selfishness?

Hey, Meghan, Laura:

Look, I have my disagreements with these authors. But I do think there is a lot of intellectual honesty in these books. (Full disclosure: I’ve reviewed Levy’s book for the Wall Street Journal, today. No, I am not being paid by either author to promote her book!)

Meghan, I agree that people’s assumptions about porn may lead them to assume that Paul’s women “are squeamish about sex.” Yet so many of her examples are of wives who want to have sex with their husbands and are frustrated because hubby is off studying AutoEroticism 101. Despite the attempt to paint this debate as pro-sex vs. anti-sex, to me it’s not about that. You also ask whether it could be “women’s relationship expectations that makes [porn] seem destructive.” What a good question. I think our hope for human connection is a beautiful thing, and not something to cure women (or men) of. We would never dream of telling a female academic not to have tenure expectations, so why are young women hearing that their romantic expectations are the problem? I suspect it’s because this is the area where they are most likely to differ from young men.

Why do we assume pornography signifies betrayal? Because the people involved, including divorce attorneys, tell us this. So do psychiatrists, who report that half of men involved in cybersex are no longer interested in sex with their partners. Even women who offer to watch porn with their partners are surprised when their man wants to watch alone. Porn is sex divorced from relationships. Selfishness is latent in all of us, but why have we made a religion out of encouraging it?

Now back to you, Laura. I’ve read all 56 pages of that CDC study, and the interesting thing is that respondents were simply asked, “Have you ever … ?” This says nothing about the frequency of oral sex. As an analogy, my husband has been skiing over 200 times, whereas I have been skiing exactly once (don’t ask!). We would both respond the same—”yes”—to a questionnaire that asked, “Have you ever been skiing?” Yet obviously, we do not have the same level of experience.

But much more important than the numbers are the underlying attitudes. Here social science is pretty clear. Teens, especially girls, tend to regret their sexual experiences, and the more experiences they have, the more likely they are to be depressed and commit suicide. For both sexes, an increase in sexual partners throughout one’s life is negatively correlated with human happiness.

Laura, in Against Love, you argued compellingly that the ad industry promotes an unrealistic view of love that is stifling people. But you still believe that the porn industry—a $14 billion business in California, 800 million porn videos and DVDs rented per year—has no effect on us?

I don’t buy it. We’ve never had groups of teenage boys assaulting girls with pool cues before—boys who say they got the idea from watching Internet porn. (They recorded it all on video so that they could have their homemade porn flick.) If criticizing this makes me a “scolding mom” or “the nation’s housekeeper,” then so be it.

Or take a milder example from Paul—a boyfriend pressing his girlfriend to get plastic surgery: “Imagine what an awesome body you’d have if you had big breasts,” he subtly suggests. This, despite her doctor warning that bigger breasts aren’t advisable on her small frame. This is not a “mere” anecdote: The number of 18-year-olds who got breast-implant surgery nearly tripled from 2002 to 2003. Something’s clearly going on here.

Laura, you went to college in the late ‘70s—Levy and I both graduated in the late 90s (we are both 30, and Paul is 34). Meghan, you’re 29 and you agree that “we … need to examine closely the effects of the new wave of porn.” To be honest, I think the biggest difference here is generational. To boomers, pornography is ideological, associated with other aspects of women’s liberation. But now porn plays an oppressive role for young people seeking more than superficial relationships.

Levy mentions a Palo Alto middle-school “career day” in which a speaker promoted stripping as a profession. Paul talks about how ex-porn star Ron Jeremy was mobbed by kids and parents alike at Disney World. For my part, I often receive letters from girls whose own mothers are pressuring them to lose their virginity. Will you grant me that this is a bit odd?

In a nutshell, what’s happened is that the rebellion of the ‘60s has become the status quo, and it’s no longer so much fun.

Consider Levy’s 19-year-old Debbie Cope, who experiences regret after doing a “scene” for a Girls Gone Wild video—not because she masturbated on camera in the back of a bar, but for “not doing it right” when for some reason beyond her grasp, she couldn’t climax.

The fact is, “do whatever you want” is meaningless to a girl like Debbie. Debbie has had more “sex-positive” opportunities than she knows what to do with. Still, she doesn’t realize something basic: Women are typically paid to appear in pornography precisely because being a sexual object is not supposed to be fun. Like many young women today, Debbie is publicly sexual, while remaining utterly alienated from her own sexuality.

I think girls today want to hear that they can be sexual beings without having to be boy-toys. And indeed, we’re seeing that there’s a greater chance of real intimacy that way.         

Laura, Meghan, I hope you’ll keep in touch—this has been really fun.

All my best,