Gonzo: Sign of America's Cultural Apocalypse?

FANTASYLAND—Former New York Times contributor Chris Hedges has claimed in his new book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, that Americans have developed an "array of mechanisms used to divert us from confronting the economic, political and moral collapse around us"—and guess which mechanism is high on his list?

"The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans and a celebration of violence, the more we implode," Hedges charges in a recent article for Alternet.org. "We ask, like the wrestling fans or those who confuse love with pornography, to be fed lies. We demand lies. The skillfully manufactured images and slogans that flood the airwaves and infect our political discourse mask reality."

While most knowledgeable fans of porn would question how many of their fellow viewers "confuse love with pornography," Hedges has no such uncertainty—as is made clear from the title of his article, "The Rise of Gonzo Porn Is the Latest Sign of America's Cultural Apocalypse."

Of course, Hedges recites what are supposed to be standard industry statistics: 13,000 porn movies made each year (a slightly high estimate); $97 billion in  worldwide sales of porn in stores, online, hotel pay-per-view and in "sex clubs," with the U.S. accounting for $10 billion of that in 2006 (actually, it's about half that); and that such sales have been "very lucrative to some of the nation's largest corporations" like General Motors, which then owned DirecTV, plus AT&T and Comcast, which allegedly "rake in" 80 percent of "all porn dollars spent by consumers" (which is just a little hard to believe.)

But is Hedges' basis for branding gonzo culturally apocalyptic? Apparently, since no other "reason" is given in the article, it's a "behind the scenes" interview he overheard Ariana Jollee give at the 2004 Adult Entertainment Expo for her movie, 65 Guy Cream Pie (Devil's Films), which he recounts at length in the Alternet article.

First, a little background. Hedges, the son of a Presbyterian minister, has a master of divinity degree from the Harvard Divinity School besides his B.A. in English lit from Colgate University, a liberal arts college in Madison County, N.Y., that was founded "by 13 men with 13 dollars and 13 prayers" as a Baptist seminary ... but they've been coed since 1970, well after the university's "theological side" merged with the Rochester Theological Seminary in 1928. Hedges was awarded, along with Rev. Jeremiah Wright (remember him?), an honorary doctorate, discipline unknown, from the Starr King School for the Ministry in May 2009.

So, despite the fact that Hedges has spent years as a foreign correspondent for, among others, The New York Times, the Dallas Morning News and the Christian Science Monitor, and now is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute (publisher of The Nation), it's probably fair to assume that Hedges' attitudes toward adult material are highly colored by his religious upbringing and education.

For example, there's an instance where Hedges reports on a conversation he had with Jollee about an incident when "she once had sex with 12 men on a fire truck," which Hedges says suggests that she was underage when it happened: "Her enthusiasm, as she relates this story on the fire truck, momentarily fades. There is a brief tremor that crosses her face, an almost imperceptible sign of ambiguity or doubt. The fleeting impression when she falls out of character is that the experience of being taken to a fire house by a friend who is "a pervert" and having sex with 12 men on a truck was not sexy or exciting, that for a teenage girl the experience was perhaps not the result of being free or the product of sexual desire." It's just possible that Hedges is projecting his own ambivalence about the concept of performing in sexually explicit movies onto the now-retired porn star.

And Hedges' article is not without other factual flaws. For instance:

"The largest users of internet porn, which is slowly draining away profits from magazines and DVD sales because so much of it is free, are between the ages of 12 and 17," Hedges claims. "And porn producers know their market is increasingly underage. 'The age demographic has moved downwards, especially in the U.K. and Europe,' explained Steve Honest, the European director of production for Bluebird Films. 'Porn is the new rock 'n' roll. Young people and women are embracing porn and making purchases. Porn targets the mid-teens to the mid-twenties and up.'"

Although the above quote from Honest is taken from Hedges' recently published Empire of Illusion, it's hardly honest to include the U.K.-based Honest's quote in an article published online just one week ago.

"Steve Honest has not worked for Bluebird for over five months," informs Bluebird Films CEO Nicholas Steele. "It is not a policy of Bluebird Films to target anything but consenting adults."

As for "porn producers know[ing] their market is increasingly underage," all adult material produced by the U.S.-based adult entertainment industry is made with adults, by adults and for adults, no matter who may gain access to it online.

"Hopefully, he was misquoted," wrote Joan Irvine, executive director of Associated Sites Advocating Child Protection (ASACP), in an email. "If he wasn't misquoted, his comments don’t help demonstrate what the industry is doing to prevent minors from viewing age-restricted material."

Irvine was referring in part to her longstanding "Restricted to Adults" (RTA) program, which encourages all adult webmasters to label their sites with the RTA label in order to assist parental filtering of the material, and to "demonstrate the online adult industry's commitment to helping parents prevent children from viewing age-inappropriate content."

Just for shits 'n' giggles, however, since it might have a bearing on a British citizen's appraisal of who's looking at porn, AVN researched the ages of consent laws in Europe regarding the ages at which children may legally engage in sexual activity, and found some surprising results.

The youngest legal fuckers in Europe can be found in Vatican State, where the age of consent is 12. Next lowest is Spain, at 13, while kids can have sex in Albania, Austria, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Portugal, Kosovo and Serbia at age 14; the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Greece, Iceland, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden at 15; and in Belarus, Belgium, Finland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Ukraine, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland at 16.

Likewise, in the U.S., girls (but not boys) as young as 14 are okay for sex in Arkansas, Indiana and Iowa, while Colorado makes them wait until they're 15. Most other states have set 16 as the lower limit.

Now, while the age of consent for sexual intercourse is not necessarily—and in the U.S., definitely is not—the age of consent that those youngsters can legally look at porn, the crazy quilt of consent laws around the world merely points up the fact that there's nothing either scientific or sacred about the U.S. having set age 18 as the "age of majority"—but that's another discussion for another day.

The point is, Hedges' contention that porn—and specifically gonzo porn—is somehow "infect[ing] our political discourse" and "mask[ing] reality" to the point that we will eventually be unable to "distinguish between reality and illusion" and therefore die in some sort of "cultural apocalypse" is just more religiously based horseshit. It's more a product of Hedges' religious upbringing and education than anything a well-educated sociologist could discern scientifically. Contrary to Hedges' assertion, the vast majority of porn fans know that porn is fantasy; that its stars often behave differently in their private lives than they do on-screen; and the genre will play no significant part in what Hedges' sees as the American citizenry's "inevitabl[e] turn to demagogues and charlatans to entertain and reassure them."

For that, you just have to join a fundamentalist church... or the Republican Party.