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Once upon a time, one worried about protecting his or her kids from the type of porn one might find at the local drugstore.   In that quaint time, placing a brown cover over the offending material, or simply putting the magazines behind the counter, solved much of the problem.  With the internet, however, the problem has become more pervasive and invasive.  Spam and pop-up ads attack even the most pure-at-heart computer user, while libraries force even their god-fearing patrons to sign pledges to avoid smutty-net pages.  But what if some curious kid really wants to find smutty-net pages?  Well, the net shows little prejudice.  Almost anyone, it seems, can hook up to a computer somewhere that will reveal a world that will make the old Hustlers look tame.  Call it a new kind of democracy.

It isn’t children, however, that the American Porn industry is after.  Why court controversy when they’re already making billions from their parents by internet, video, and cable?  Indeed, much of the concern over what children may find on the internet has been a red herring: it’s adults who are partaking of porn, and paying for it, in record quantities.  A smart aleck might even suggest that without the big folks copious appetites for smut, the net would be mostly free of it.

American Porn descends into a myriad of West Coast porn companies who have made multi-millions in the ’90s.   While the Reagan White House pursued pornographers voraciously, the Clinton Justice Department set other priorities.  This laxity, along with new cable and internet technology, paved the way for a multi-billion dollar industry.  Interestingly, wealth, high-profile players, and college-educated executives have made L.A.’s kings and queens of porno indistinguishable from the Hollywood elite.

The issues surrounding pornography are complex and even a card caring member of the ALCU may deplore the sexism and exploitive nature of most porn. Many within the industry argue that watching porno, transported over phone lines owned by Ma Bell, is now accepted by mainstream Americans as a legitimate way to pass one’s time.  This line of thinking views pornography as healthy fantasy, perhaps enjoyed by a monogamous couple wishing to spice up their love life.  But others point to the emphasis that the industry places on youth (as in the Barely Legal series) and, in some cases, violence. 

The most disturbing coverage during American Porn involves Extreme Associates, a company that likes to push the envelop so far that they even frighten old-timers like Larry Flynt.  The script of one video calls for a woman to be beaten—literally —by two men and then—within the fantasy of the film—raped.  When asked if the woman in the video is really going to be hit, company owner Lizzie Borden answers, “Yeah.  She’s really going to get hit.  She likes it.  It’s good.   Sometimes, it makes you more horny when you’re getting hit.”  Really?  One begins to see how porn, under a talented director like Borden, could replace costly therapy. Present during the filming, the Frontline crew became so disturbed by what was taking place they left.

Americans have shown themselves to be hypocrites on the subject of pornography.  It would be nice to say that the people who watch hardcore porn are sex-starved perverts and a small minority of the population.  But with $10 billion dollars being poured into the industry, it’s obvious that a person within one’s family, neighborhood, and bible study group are watching.  It might be more helpful to ignore the usual pro/con arguments concerning restricting porn and ask: what kind of culture markets and purchases explicit material that includes forced sex, bestiality, and inflicted violence?  

Frontline achieves balanced coverage by including representative footage of the porn industry while avoiding sensationalism.  The only misstep occurs when the program takes a brief detour into sexual ethics by allowing an interviewee to ask: how many partners will a female porn star have over a period of several years?   How will she ever tell Mr. Right about her sexual past?  This brief diversion is worthy of talk-TV and adds nothing to the program.  Overall though, American Porn provides fascinating fodder for the ongoing debate about America’s favorite, secret pastime.     

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

Frontline’s American Porn airs on February 7 at 9:00 PM.