The Pornographic Dream
In the case of pornography for straight American men, the only kind I am qualified to discuss, an explanation emerges from formal analysis. The women displayed serve as ciphers, archetypes of one or another specialized taste; they are screens onto which the audience's fantasies can be projected. The background of these ciphers seemingly holds interest only during the refractory period which, from the pornographic point of view, is the only way to justify time not spent in sexual behavior.|
This background, though, remains surprisingly constant, as I learned in a shopping mall boutique. Leafing through a rack of posters intended for dormitories and high-schoolers' bedrooms, I saw as with new eyes a familiar poster. A blonde, her weight concentrated in her breasts, leaned over a red sports car. The caption below read "A Winning Pair." The "winning pair"--in exactly what kind of competition was left unstated--referred to the model and the auto and/or, with an implicit snicker, to the two capacious, poorly covered breasts incidentally attached to the rest of a person. At first I noticed the poster in my capacity as a red-blooded male, but it did not take me long to remember that breasts are everywhere. A fancier of neither blondes nor cars, I found my attention held by the yoking together of model and car. The wish fulfillment involved seemed vaguely familiar.
In the fullness of time and subsequent shopping trips it became clear. The poster's iconography could be traced to the Playboy philosophy, all one page of it, and its word made abundant flesh in the Playboy pictorial. In tourist spots, in well-appointed apartments, or at the epicentric Playboy mansion, one or another likewise well-appointed woman would decorate the scene. (These things apparently do not happen in a second-floor walk-up, or a split-level ranch on the outskirts of Rockford, Illinois.) Above the neck, the models were all but interchangeable, each face tabula rasa for the same elaborate treatment--voluminous hair, labial lips glossed unto roundness, eyes mascaraed and shadowed as if to draw raccoon cubs. A stylized accoutrement, or art object, the woman could not be individuated enough to remind the onanistic peruser of a lover or of, God forbid, his wife. And hovering somewhere just outside of the frame is Hef, the scene's bemused patron saint. With bathrobe, pipe, and impossibly chiselled jawline, he could descend to sample the model like rumaki from an hors d'oeuvre tray but chooses--for the moment--not to.
This image, and the accompanying lifestyle, continue to inspire millions. Long after the demise of the now quaint-seeming Playboy Clubs, auto air fresheners and other paraphernalia bearing the minimalist rabbit continue to sell. Why they sell remains a question. It seems unlikely that the bunny-buyers merely wish to identify themselves as heterosexual, or make a more exuberant statement such as "I dig chicks." Members of a majority, sexual or otherwise, don't need to adopt distinguishing insignia. Others must distinguish themselves from them.
What they are identifying with is more obliquely addressed by the titles of other "men's magazines." The name Playboy is, alas, taken, and its connotational halo of the life of Riley, or that of James Bond without the danger. The competition, though, can still flourish in the penumbra. A playboy, lower-case, would like to own a Penthouse and consider himself a Gent who prefers Swank surroundings. He would travel in High Society and belong to at least one Club. Similar titles fill gas stations, truck stops, and numerous retail outlets that purport to sell "news" on a twenty-four-hour basis.
The only club in which many "readers" of these publications may find themselves is a "gentlemen's club," as the strip joint is termed in an age of irony and spin control. In these establishments, unlike the Rotary, Lions and Sierra Clubs, participation is limited by a staff of vigilant mesomorphs. The criteria for admission are, besides an enthusiasm for the female form, a willingness to pay a cover charge and stiff drink prices. In some instances the management additionally impose a dress code to maintain a "classy" ambience; which class in particular goes unspecified. The main features include horizontal as well as vertical brass tubing, mirrors on walls outside of the bathrooms, and an occasional, redundant nude portrait. The only concession to frugality is the soi-disant businessman's lunch of steak and potatoes. Otherwise the patrons of expansively-named places such as The Admiral, Big Al's, or Legs Diamond's pay dearly for their luxury.
These willingly frustrated spectators carry on the ancient male tradition of wanting numerous sex partners. The seed of a dandelion or a man wants to broadcast itself as widely as possible, but a man's faces resistance from his own species: female sexuality consists largely of resisting most suitors' advances and reserving limited reproductive opportunities for a man who will offer some combination of support and security. Thus relatively few men have positioned themselves to enjoy the favors of numerous women free of charge. Aside from the exceptionally handsome and charming, and liars, they have historically been members of economic elites.
These historical concerns, rooted in an understanding of sex as a potentially reproductive act, have receded since the Second World War. Rising standards of living, and shortened work hours, have made dating and marriage possible for men who might have remained ineligible bachelors. Extramarital affairs are economically possible for those who might otherwise have remained monogamous. More importantly, sex and reproduction were separated by a bouquet of contraceptives, while geographical mobility loosened sexual mores. Along with these developments, declining sexual division of labor led to mixed workplaces and co-educational universities where young adults could meet and mingle at a high rate of velocity. All but the plainest or most socially inept men could realize the dream of the seraglio without having to provide for children.
If the American pornographic dream entailed merely a sexual buffet, though, demand should have all but evaporated. Instead, demand has kept pace with economic growth and pornography has entered mainstream culture. The widespread availability of pornography may also have stimulated demand by reaching individuals in their formative years. At least a generation of married or otherwise sexually active men have bought "adult" magazines or rented "adult" videos. Their sons may well do the same.
Although the two-dimensional women portrayed in pornography prove redundant to real life, or real possibility, their presentation remains. Their wardrobe often consists of, if nothing else, jewels and high heels. Their backgrounds include exclusive beaches and resort compounds; ski chalet fireplaces, or broad-lawned estates, surge forward in the frame. The woman on display may be elusive, inscrutable, or mysterious, as women often are, but in the pornographic dream she is a garnish. The fantasy is wealth.
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