COMES NATURALLY #109
Spectator Magazine -- April 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 David Steinberg
OH, THEM DIRTY PICTURES
It only took Yahoo a couple of days to get the picture in no uncertain terms: There are two sides of the tracks, the sex side and the no-sex side, and you've got to choose which one you're going to call home; no straddling allowed.
It was an act that a few would cheer as unprecedented daring but a far greater number would decry as delusional insanity. The world's largest Internet search engine decided to offer the convenience, selection, and anonymity of sophisticated Internet shopping to the hundreds of millions of people who form the vast customer base of the multi-billion dollar porn industry -- a demographic known to include just about everybody on the other side of town, but never you, me, mom, dad, the kids, or the people next door.
It was an act so fundamentally sensible, and so potentially lucrative, that Yahoo, publicly ailing from a precipitous drop in online advertising revenues, was simply unable to resist dipping into the sweet honey jar that every Internet enterprise knows is only a click away. Why not just look reality in the eye and invite pornography, the bastard child that no one wants to call their own, to sit down with the rest of the family for dinner?
It wasn't, after all, as if Yahoo's 185 million monthly users couldn't already buy all the porn they wanted through the site. But now Yahoo would organize its porn vendors into a publicly acknowledged "Adult and Erotica" store. It would list sellers of sexual material in a directory of their very own that would become a master index to the genre. In addition to paying Yahoo the usual commission on all their online sales, sex merchants would pay a fee to be listed in Yahoo's porn directory, even as other merchants pay for listings in comparable non-sexual guides. Only this time the fee would be three times as much as Yahoo charges its non-sexual companies -- $600, instead of $200 -- a sex surcharge, you might say. Minors would be screened from the "Adult and Erotica" store by requiring a valid credit card number for entry. Comparison-shopping programs would allow porn consumers to find the best deals among various outlets offering identical products, much as consumers are able to do online price checks for computer software, photographic equipment, or used cars.
Yahoo knows as well as anyone how fundamentally information, power, and profit are intertwined. Indeed, the interconnection between those three are the reason Yahoo exists in the first place. It certainly knows that it has both the information and the market positioning to offer sophisticated data analysis to its porn customers. the only thing remaining for Yahoo to make a whole lot of money is for it to acknowledge porn consumers as the very normal, respectable, service-appreciating sorts of all-American shoppers that studies in fact reveal them to be.
But there, of course, is the rub, and the reason no one before Yahoo had dared openly mine the porn mother lode. Perhaps the policy makers at Yahoo were daring, perhaps they were desperate, but they were not stupid. They knew full well how distinctly unreasonable people insist on being whenever questions of sex and sexual entertainment make their way to dinner table conversation. So, last December, Yahoo inaugurated its "Adult and Erotica" store quietly, hoping perhaps that only those most likely to appreciate the service would notice its existence. Inevitably, however, word got out to the media.
On April 11, the story made headlines in both Reuters and the Los Angeles Times. The porn-scorn reaction was immediate and uncompromising. It was led not by Operation Rescue and the American Family Association, but by Yahoo's Internet rivals who outdid each other condemning this supposedly unsavory Internet development, sniffing and snorting like once-upon-a-time society matrons going apoplectic about the first Negro, Jew, or Homosexual invited to a debutante ball.
America Online, which does not permit the sale of adult material on it site and which operates the most grossly overreaching of all Internet website filters (its "Young Teen" filter blocked out 63% of non-sexual websites dealing with controversial subjects in a Consumer Reports test), proudly announced that its anti-porn vigilance would remain strictly in place, Yahoo porn or no Yahoo porn. A Microsoft Network spokesman, commenting to the Los Angeles Times, lay claim to the mythical black-and-white distinction between good products promoting "healthy sensuality" (sometimes called "erotica" and available, of course, through Microsoft's web browser) and bad products "that simply exploit sexuality" (theoretically verboten via Microsoft). Blockbuster -- the video rental chain famous for its refusal to stock NC-17, let alone X-rated, videos -- commented archly to the Times that they (as opposed to poor Yahoo) didn't "need to sell adult products to make money."
Within days of the media trumpeting Yahoo's four-month-old policy, the outrage of offended users, duly amplified by objections from both Yahoo's non-sexual advertisers and from influential Wall Street analysts, had Yahoo doing a policy about-face that was dramatic even for an industry accustomed to sudden corporate changes of heart.
"We heard [our concerned users]," Yahoo president Jeff Mallet intoned apologetically, "and swiftly responded." Not only would Yahoo abandon its "Adult and Erotica" sub-site, but it would also now eliminate all pornographic material from its shopping, auction, and classified pages, and refrain from negotiating the kinds of adult-oriented banner ads it had been carrying all along.
Poking its head briefly into the light of day, the groundhog of Yahoo sex was completely dazzled by the length and darkness of the shadow it cast on the white-as-snow sexual landscape and retreated to the underground caverns that have long been its familiar home. There would, true to the Punxsutawney tradition, indeed be many more weeks of sexual winter to endure before there would be any possibility of sexual spring.
"Nice people don't do that."
That's the message delivered loud and clear, over and over again, whenever someone publicly acknowledges a sexual reality that proper society is determined to ignore and deny. But the truth is that nice people do almost every sexual thing that moralists insists could only be enjoyed by psychologically twisted perverts. Millions of nice people enjoy s/m. Every day. Millions of nice people enjoy sex with people who are the same gender as they are. Every day. Millions of nice people have sex with prostitutes. Every day. Millions of nice people go to strip shows and lap dancing clubs. Every day. Millions of nice people go to swingers' parties. Every day.
And millions and millions of nice people, as everyone must know full well by now, enjoy sexual material, particularly visual material, in the comfort and privacy of their own homes every single day. They enjoy porn, as ludicrous and shoddily produced as most of it may be. They enjoy all sorts of porn. They enjoy porn a lot and they enjoy it often -- even the nice people next door; even mom, dad, and the kids; even the huff-and-puff policymakers at America Online, Blockbuster, and Microsoft; even (or especially, judging from market analysis) the televangelists and their followers.
Last November, a hapless Marine assigned to guard duty at Camp David called a Washington, D.C., radio station to say that there was porn -- lots of porn -- at the creme-de-la-creme Federal retreat where Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin negotiated their famous small measure of peace. (The question of porn at Camp David was more newsworthy than usual then because Paula Jones had just been featured nude in Penthouse.) For his lapse of simple honesty, the Marine lost his prestigious assignment and was subjected to an intense investigation.
A couple of months ago, "Picasso Erotique," a major retrospective of Pablo Picasso's erotic drawings, engravings, and sculptures -- 330 works depicting the sexual act in one form or another, half of which had never before been shown publicly -- opened at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. Picasso, undeniably one of the great artists of the 20th century, was almost as well-known for his sexuality as he was for his painting. For Picasso, sex and art, sex and life, were inseparable. "Art is not chaste," he declared. "Those ill prepared should be allowed no contact with art. Art is dangerous. If it is chaste, it is not art."
Picasso enjoyed drawing and sculpting people having sex in all kinds of ways. Donkeys having sex. Artists having sex with their models. Artists having sex with their models while the Pope, or Michelangelo, watches. Peeping Toms watching sex surreptitiously through curtained windows. Much of Picasso's sexual art is about prostitutes and is set in bordellos not unlike the place where he had sex for the first time at the age of 16.
As Alan Riding notes in the New York Times, "it would be inaccurate to view the show as a display naughty pictures." Much more significantly, he says, "'Picasso Erotique' offers fresh insight into [Picasso's] creative process, above all the evolving role that sex played in his life and imagination." Will any of us in the U.S. get to see this important collection of Picasso's work? Will we have the opportunity to absorb a great artist's perspective on a fundamental aspect of being alive?
No, we will not -- not unless we're willing to travel abroad for the privilege. After "Picasso Erotique" closes in Paris, it will make its way to Montreal and to Barcelona, but no American museum from sea to shining sea has seen fit to become a showcase for Picasso's sexual oeuvre. Nice people, after all, don't look at pictures of people having sex. Not even if the pictures are by Picasso.
Because people are too embarrassed to openly and proudly enjoy pornography, Picasso's sexy work or, for that matter, any kind of reputedly unconventional sex, the myth that "nice people don't do that" manages to stay alive and well, fouling everyone with sexual guilt and sexual shame. As a result, life -- not just sexual life -- becomes a little smaller, a little less vibrant, a little less profound, and a little less genuine for all of us. Maybe it's time for us -- at least some of us -- to stand up and be counted from time to time, to let the people around us know a little more about who we really are as sexual people, and to stop tacitly agreeing with the idea that "nice" and "fully sexual" somehow can't apply to the same person.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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