The Green Door in the Floor

Show me the money shot: How porn made itself at home in America's living room

Welcome to the pornographic working week: a job like any other, except that the more explicitly brutalizing and humiliating conditions are offset by the chance to escape mundane anonymity and partake of some kind of low-rent, transgressive sex-drugs-money-glamour action. The real social tension it generates may come from the growing sense that The Whore Next Door has moved in and made her good-natured, squirm-inducing self right at home. That video, directed by and starring Kylie Ireland, is a well-oiled catalog of rough sex practices (slapping, spitting, double anal, etc.) performed with the career woman professionalism of a publicist (which she used to moonlight as) or spunky Avon lady. In cultural-warfare terms, it also suggests a weird hybrid victory over both puritans and sexual revolutionaries (if there are any of the latter left). As such sexual deviance integrates itself into the status quo, society doesn't miss a beat.

It's the perfect circle jerk: raw meat for the decency legions to feed the permanent scowling outrage of their bluenosed constituents, who keep the old taboos on enough life support so porno-graphers like Ireland can make a pretty decent living violating them. Everybody gets off but nobody's satisfied: Sex videos go on testing the outer limits of obscenity, openly daring the authorities to clamp down, while the smut haters cling to inane fantasies of rolling back the clock to wholesome times. Conservatives go about consolidating power even as their Sunday schoolmarm utopia keeps losing ground to the capitalist sex monster they half-wittingly unleashed. The New Victorians throw conniption fits over Janet Jackson's subliminally glimpsed nipple, putting up roadblocks to prevent the broadcast networks from turning Paris into a dominatrix for Hanoi Hilton (the first P.O.W.-BDSM game show), but the inexorable logic of capital gnaws away at all boundaries.

The Hollywood/Other Hollywood distinction is still in force, in the sense that Sideways, Wife Swap, Tales From the Crack, and the umpteen Law & Order/CSIfranchises each gum different sectors of the stunted public imagination. But they're part of the same congealed, impoverished pageant, same as the moral watchdogs yapping at their dust: Deep down in its slobbery throat, Hollywood really wants approval no matter how low it stoops, while porn works the good old Frank Booth hate-fuck mojo under-pinning our showbiz and politics alike. For their self-divided parts, the anxious masses seem to want the thrills and Percocets of capitalism while maintaining an acceptable level of deniability—like the man who wants a porn star girlfriend, but a reformed one. So if demimonde-on-film pioneers like arch-pervert Jamie Gillis, Marilyn Chambers, and Sharon Mitchell performed their many small, gratuitous acts to secure a beachhead for unreconstructed filth, the industry itself remains a treadmill devoted to increasingly calisthenic exercises in futility. This futility is all too pervasively familiar across the spectrum of the present age, though porn at least gives it a hoarse voice with which to tell the gatekeepers of affluent taste and traditional values: Choke on us.


Howard Hampton'sBorn in Flames will be published by Harvard University Press in 2006.

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