For Kids, No Escape From Porn Imagery

The idea for a book about porn culture came to Kevin Scott the day his daughter decided she absolutely had to have a Bratz-doll pony. For months, the 5-year-old had begged him for a Bratz doll—clad in spike heels, fishnets and miniskirt, enormous puppy-dog eyes protruding from her oversized head. Her sexy look seemed a little too sexy for a preschooler, so he and his wife bought her a different doll, which she was happy with. Except that a few months later, Bratz came out with Bratz Babyz. "If Bratz had looked like Barbie hookers, these looked like baby hookers," Scott says. Again, he convinced his daughter that My Little Pony was just as cool—and for a moment, the conversation ended. Until, of course, the Bratz came out with Bratz Ponyz. And then, says Scott, an English professor at a small college in Georgia, "I realized porn culture and I were in a death match for my daughter's soul."

In a market that sells high heels for babies and thongs for tweens, it doesn't take a genius to see that sex, if not porn, has invaded our lives. Whether we welcome it or not, television brings it into our living rooms and the Web brings it into our bedrooms. According to a 2007 study from the University of Alberta, as many as 90 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls aged 13 to 14 have accessed sexually explicit content at least once.

But it isn't just sex that Scott is worried about. He's more interested in how we, as a culture, often mimic the most raunchy, degrading parts of it—many of which, he says, come directly from pornography. In "The Porning of America" (Beacon), which he has written with colleague Carmine Sarracino, a professor of American literature, the duo argue that, through Bratz dolls and beyond, the influence of porn on mainstream culture is affecting our self perceptions and behavior—in everything from fashion to body image to how we conceptualize our sexuality.

It's too early to know exactly how kids who grow up in this hypersexualized environment will be affected in the long term. But Scott and his coauthor say it's not too soon—or too prudish—to sound the alarm, and to look critically at the sexualized culture we're exposed to every day. The authors don't suggest banishing porn to back alleys, however. Both grew up when people were crying out for sexual liberation. And, they contend, porn certainly played a role in achieving it. But somehow between then and now, porn themes have gone from adult entertainment to prime time, seeping into nearly every aspect of popular culture. Sarracino and Scott define "porning" as the way advertising and society in general have borrowed from the ideas and characteristics central to most American pornography: sex as commodity, sexuality as overt, narrow views of women and male-female relationships, bad girls and dirty boys, domination and submission.

All it takes is one look at MySpace photos of teens to see examples—if they aren't imitating porn they've actually seen, they're imitating the porn-inspired images and poses they've absorbed elsewhere. Latex, corsets and stripper heels, once the fashion of porn stars, have made their way into middle and high school. An ad for Axe shower gel, marketed to teen boys, uses the slogan "How Dirty Boys Get Clean," while Burton, the snowboard company, partnered with Playboy earlier this year on a new line of "Love" boards—complete with voluptuous cheeks smack dab in the middle of each. The boards' online description reads: "I enjoy laps through the park; long, hard grinds on my meaty Park Edges followed by a good, hot waxing." One of the most popular kids' videogames, Guitar Hero, features animated rock stars that stand on a stage with a neon stripper gyrating on a pole behind them. Strippers have become cool—unremarkable even.

Celebrities, too, have become amateur porn stars. They show up in sex tapes (Colin Farrell, Kim Kardashian), hire porn producers to shoot their videos (Britney Spears) or produce porn outright (Snoop Dogg). Actual porn stars and call girls, meanwhile, have become celebs. Ron Jeremy regularly takes cameos in movies and on TV, while adult star Jenna Jameson is a best-selling author.

In July, a Florida defense attorney argued in an obscenity trial that porn had become so commonplace—evidenced by the fact that a Google search for "orgy" is twice as common as one for "apple pie"—that his client, a porn-site operator charged with racketeering and prostitution, could not be considered as behaving outside the societal norm. (The obscenity charges were dropped, though the defendant was found guilty of money laundering.) "All you have to do is live here on a daily basis, and you pick this stuff up through every medium," says Sarracino, who teaches at Pennsylvania's Elizabethtown College. "But it's been so absorbed that it has almost ceased to exist as something separate from the culture."

The prevalence or porn leaves today's children with a lot of conflicting ideas and misconceptions, says Lyn Mikel Brown, the coauthor of "Packaging Girlhood," about marketers' influence on teen girls. "All this sex gives a misinformed notion of what it means to be grown-up." Studies show that kids who consume this kind of sex in the media inherit more traditional views of gender—boys as dominant, girls as submissive, in the bedroom and beyond. (In a survey of 244 high-school students earlier this year, researchers at the University of Michigan found that those who frequently viewed talk shows and prime-time programs with sexualized content endorsed sexual stereotypes more strongly.) Kids are less likely to know when and how to express themselves sexually—or what behavior crosses the border into sexual harassment. As part of their research, the authors of "Porning" talked to middle-school teachers who told stories of girls sending half-nude pictures to classmates they'd barely met, then strutting around in classrooms in provocative clothing to reveal what's underneath.

The authors of "So Sexy So Soon" (Ballantine), which came out last month, believe that part of the problem for children is that they lack the emotional sophistication to understand the images they see. Last year, the American Psychological Association put out a compelling report that described the sexualization of young girls: a process that entails being stripped of all value except the sexual use to which they might be put. Once they subscribe to that belief, say some psychologists, those girls begin to self-objectify—with consequences ranging from cognitive problems to depression and eating disorders. "It's not as if we get our ideas straight from porn about what a kiss should be or what sex should be," says Sharon Lamb, a psychologist at Saint Michael's College in Burlington, Vt., and a coauthor of the APA report. "But you do see imitation of sex that was once found only in porn. It's a kind of education to kids about what sex is like before they have a real education of it."

That education involves seeing thousands of explicit sexual images by the time a person reaches his teenage years. Experts say that exposure can make real-life sex a letdown for men driven by porn-style fantasies. In porn culture, women are overwhelmingly viewed as sexually rapacious or as victims of verbal, physical or sexual violence. And young girls, not knowing any different, may play straight into the watered-down mainstream versions of those roles. Today, terms like slut and whore are commonplace among teens. And whether it's porn or a combination of influences, anonymous, no-strings-attached-style casual sex, now commonly called "hookup" culture, has come to be one of the defining characteristics of a whole generation of teens. (That culture is the subject of a number of publications, including this year's "Hooking Up," by sociologist Kathleen Bogle.)

It's the porn ideal of sex as commodity in a competitive market—and to see rapper Nelly swipe a credit card through a young girl's backside in a music video only reaffirms that notion. It's artificiality as a replacement for authenticity, the Miley Cyrus-type plasticity that's become the mainstream, prepubescent sexual ideal. (Not only has Cyrus been photographed wrapped in a sheet looking like she just had sex—she claims she was manipulated by the photographer—but revealing photos of her, taken by herself and friends, have also emerged online.) "Both boys and girls are really confused about what's appropriate," says Brown. Helping kids make that distinction may be an increasingly uphill battle.

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