Frank Rich's Amoral Democracy

During the Monica Lewinsky uproar, New York Times columnist Frank Rich argued that since a majority of Americans didn't want Bill Clinton to leave office, his sleaziness ultimately didn't matter. Perhaps he was a trendsetter, maybe a visionary. Either way, an element of Clinton's legacy is our society's growing acceptance of pornography.

In a nearly 8,000-word cover story on the porn business for the May 20 issue of the Times' Sunday magazine, Rich takes a similarly democratic approach: "People pay [at least $10 billion] for pornography in America in a year," he writes. That's more "than they [spend] on movie tickets, more than they [spend] on all the performing arts combined...Porn is no longer a sideshow to the mainstream like, say, the $600 million Broadway theater industry - it is the mainstream."

The troublesome issue - the depraved, degrading nature of porn, to be specific - ultimately doesn't matter. Early in his piece, Rich admits that he isn't out "to construct a moral brief," just as he wasn't in 1998 when discussing Clinton's scandalous conduct. Apparently there wasn't room to tackle that angle in the 8,000-word article.

In the age of moral relativism, popularity is enough to legitimize any behavior, and Rich follows the construct with pornography. That's why it's curious that he makes a considerable effort to establish the semi-respectability of (part of) the industry and (some of) those who work in it. For example, he mentions that Veronica Hart, an adult-film star twenty years ago and now an executive at a large porn studio, has a classy theater background; while in college, she played "leads in plays by Pinter and Garcia Lorca."

Rich also observes that many porn films have an artistic pedigree, if you will, coming "in all genres, from period costume dramas to sci-fi to comedy. (One series is modeled on the old Hope-Crosby 'Road' pictures.)" He relates that one skinflick is "full of erudite cinematic references" and that another has not only "a social conscience reminiscent of 'West Side Story'" but also "a soundtrack that features music by Aaron Copland."

No, states Rich repeatedly, the people of Pornville often aren't what you'd expect them to be. These are respectable businessmen, don't you know. Russell Hampshire, who owns a large production company, declares, "I like the rest of Bush's cabinet - just not [attorney general John] Ashcroft." Director Michael Raven says he's "leaned toward the right in my politics, but I'm bothered by the Republicans' association with the religious right." Many in the industry worry that Ashcroft may launch another Ed Meese-style attack on porn. So long as Republicans limit their agenda to moneymaking, these could be their new angels.

Plenty of porn people have children, framed photographs of which are clearly visible in the accompanying portrait photos of both Hampshire and his fellow mogul Steve Orenstein. But how Mom and/or Dad earn a living can be problematic. Of his nine-year-old stepdaughter, Orenstein remarks, "The counselors say don't tell her yet." It isn't only the young whom he keeps in the dark; Rich reports that Orenstein "has revealed his true profession to only a handful of people whom he and his wife have met on the PTA circuit."

Next to some in porn, Orenstein is a blabbermouth. Bryn Pryor, a staffer at the trade journal Adult Video News, tells Rich, "If our customers project shame, then [we] must be doing something wrong. Everyone at AVN writes under a pseudonym. We have people here who don't want anyone to know their real name."

The $10 billion aside, that this shame apparently remains pervasive may be greatly encouraging. The truth is, however, that every day it's becoming less intense, thanks to stories like Rich's. The mainstream entertainment media profess to disdain the porn industry, but they have been influenced by it, and they exploit it.

One study found that on prime time television, references to porn were 300 percent more common in 1999 than in 1989. A 1999 Rolling Stone article noted that music videos by big-name groups frequently feature adult-film stars. Moreover, a Washington Times piece last year reported that "one of today's fashion statements among young people is a T-shirt that says 'Future Porn Star' or 'Future Pimp.'"

That dovetails with Rich's comment that "the next generation of porn consumers and producers alike may break with [the] puritan mindset." AVN's Pryor says that today's teens have "never known a time without Calvin Klein ads and MTV. By the time they see porn, they've already seen so many naked people, they're pre-jaded."

And when they're adults, God knows what kind of movies they'll watch, or presidential misconduct they'll countenance.