One of the most punishing realities women face when they reach sexual maturity is that their maturity is (at least to many men) unsexy. Indeed, we now have an entire genre of online smut politely called “Lolita Porn.” This is not actual child pornography, a genre still blessedly beyond the reach of the casual Web browser. But nor is it porn in the Barely Legal tradition of women in their early 20s, tan and taut in pigtails, playing babysitters or high-school cheerleaders. (They might toss off a “Gee, mister!” to reinforce the fantasy, but only a desperate fool would accept this as truth.) Instead, Lolita Porn features girls who are 18 or older but look like 14-year-olds. They’re pale, long-limbed girls, with pears for breasts, small pink flecks for nipples (in itself a sub-genre of online porn: Tiny Titties), and a hairless, nearly invisible pubic slit.
The mass distribution of such genres of Internet porn and their hard-core depictions of sex with the steady theme of humiliation have thrown current-day feminists into a scramble. The new neo-feminists (it’s difficult to keep track of whatever wave the current “movement” is riding) argue that the primary obstacle to women’s gaining greater equality in the political and economic sphere is today’s “hypersexuality,” and specifically the spread of online porn. This is a somewhat new take on an old position. In the 1970s, second-wave feminists embraced an anti-porn militancy (a position closely identified with Andrea Dworkin). But that view was discredited by a new group of feminists who took up the mantra “Feminism means choice”—specifically, choice of lifestyle. Sex workers, strippers, corporate executives, and housewives, so the thinking went, all held the right to be liberated, “sex-positive,” and even enthusiastic consumers of (pre-digital) porn.
This sex-positive stance became so widely accepted that, as Natasha Walter writes in Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, by the 1990s, “the classic feminist critique of pornography” had “disappeared from view.” That might not have been a wholly negative development, because feminism’s simplistic argument that porn objectified women was, for Walter, too simplistic. But the spread of Internet porn—a far cry from the Hefner-published glossies of the mid-20th century—has reignited a 40-year debate, and the new-new feminists are horrified to have found that in some way they were, albeit temporarily, in bed with the sex industry. Now they are in lockstep retreat. And in fact they’ve reached a new consensus: the ubiquity of pornography has brought the sex industry out of the margins and into the mainstream, and we’re all the worse off for it. Walter asserts:
In this generation a certain view of female sexuality has become celebrated throughout advertisements, music, television programmes, films and magazines. This image of female sexuality has become more than ever defined by the terms of the sex industry.
Walter is correct that beauty standards in advertising and entertainment are unattainable, but she mischaracterizes what the images coming out of the “sex industry” actually look like today—Walter and so many other women writers who didn’t grow up with the Internet miss the fact that Internet porn has fundamentally changed the way sexuality is transmitted back to us. For instance, in her 2005 review of a documentary about Deep Throat (a movie that in today’s world of porn might be rated PG-13), Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis compared porn to science fiction: “Like sci-fi, porn replaces existing realities with wild alternative universes (against which to measure the lackluster, repressive world we’ve inherited).” But instead of a sexual ecosystem populated by an overheated species of Amazon women and ponytailed men, the Internet porn aesthetic verges on unvarnished realism.
It seems like almost every teenager in America—and hardly just the teenagers—has heard of or taken a dip into sites like RedTube and YouPorn, which alone account for roughly 2 percent of all daily Internet traffic. These are free, open, enormous sites, in which anybody can upload, distribute, and view whatever porn they please; even porn in which they star. It’s amateur hour—and like all amateur hours, it’s an honest, if often not-pretty, catalog of the desires and insecurities of regular folk.
And it’s largely a grim parade of what women will do to satisfy men: young wives fingering themselves on the family couch, older wives offering themselves to their hubby’s Army buddies, aging moms in shabby corsets shoving their sagging rear ends into the camera. When it comes to contemporary porn, you don’t have to look like a porn star to be sexually desired. Indeed, porn stars no longer look like porn stars. The image of Jenna Jameson, America’s most famous professional porn star (and a best-selling author)—with her comically huge breasts, overextended blond extensions, and artificially tanned skin—has been supplanted by the new face of pornography: a pale, naughty, 19-year-old with A-cups and a bad haircut, her face illuminated only by the bluish glow of her Mac.
This populist, utilitarian quality of homegrown porn is now obligingly mimicked by threatened professional porn productions: bald, one-off quality, whitewashed by unfiltered lights, sickly hues, and indifferent composition. This amateur aesthetic pervades porn where the viewer is put directly in the scene: always hard core, mostly close-ups, no plot or dialogue, just screwing. Some of the most popular sites of the past five years—the Bang Bus, Captain Stabbin, Mike’s Apartment—all feature vignettes based on the same premise: the pornographer plays a pornographer and the actresses play eager actresses who, either willingly or with a bit of cajoling, have sex with the pornographer (without musical accompaniment). Seasoned porn stars, to succeed, must now play the role of amateur, aspiring porn stars.