Internet porn victimizes legitimate literary eroticism

The Argument

Crackdowns on the evils of peddling smut to or about children are chilling serious fiction.

Books

October 05, 2003|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

It happens daily: Men (and even occasionally women) arrested for dealing in child pornography on the Internet. Their tricks are many, their ploys despicably agile, the police and FBI busts seemingly inevitable. Only those who deal in and seek out this form of smut understand the need. Once all it took to protect children from such invasions was to lock the front door; now pornographers are as near as the ubiquitous home computer.

Fear has spawned ever more intensive laws to combat child porn. Attorney General John Ashcroft has made the capture of such pornographers a priority, and control over the Internet a goal. Not since Attorney General Edwin Meese lashed out against pornography decades ago has there been such public agitation over pornography versus the First Amendment with its free-speech protections.

Even mainstream sexually graphic magazines are feeling the heat. Penthouse is near demise, and Playboy's looking more like Reader's Digest with a few air-brushed nudies (the Vargas pinup illustrations of a half-century ago look sexier than the real women in the magazine these days). America remains a Puritan nation, as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal proved.

That Puritanism runs deep. Except for those who deal in it, no one wants to protect child pornography. But this vigilance to protect children from very real monsters who want to be in, not under, their beds has had a chilling effect on adult eroticism in adult literature.

Some would assert the Sex and the City-ing of books aimed at twenty-to-thirtysomething women argues otherwise. Books by Candace Bushnell (Sex and the City), Jennifer Weiner (Good in Bed), Diane Johnson (Le Divorce) and others keep sex on the front burner in their plots. These books, however, are genre novels, not serious literature.

These "new" romance novels and their plots follow standards set a century ago by the "old" romance fiction: girl gets guy in the end and a happily-ever-after ensues, mitigating the suspect morality of seemingly freewheeling sex. Thus a moral code indeed lies between the covers of these books, even if it reads like the technical virginity of a generation or two ago.

Fluff books such as these with their formulaic plots and characters fly under the moral-outrage radar. Eroticize serious fiction, however -- particularly with even mildly aberrant sexual appetites -- and moral outrage becomes as strong as the libidinous forces detailed in erotic fiction.

Censorship of literary license to be licentious has made for great intellectual debate over the years. Throughout the Victorian era, erotic fiction all had the same author: Anonymous. It's been more than 80 years since England banned D.H. Lawrence's now-classic novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, as well as E.M. Forster's sentimental Maurice and Radclyffe Hall's redoubtable The Well of Loneliness, both gay classics. Read these books today against the tamest of Internet porn sites or while watching daytime TV soap operas, and it's difficult to see what all the fuss was about. The sex in these novels happens largely off the page.

The real scandal (some would argue threat) these books posed in their era was not sex at all but romance between people of different classes. That these authors went on trial for their novels seems a crime in itself, now.

It would take nearly 50 years to break censorship codes in England and the United States and put the "banned in Boston" phrase to rest -- at least temporarily. Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (Grove Press, 318 pages, $11.95.) broke the censorship stranglehold with yet another trial. The highly autobiographical tale of a young expatriate writer living in Paris in the 1930s mixes memoir with fiction. Undeniably salacious but nevertheless serious and important literature, Miller's novel with its ribald sexuality still provokes (and makes feminist hairs stand on end). The book was first published in Paris in 1934 but banned in the United States until 1961.

In 1991, Bennington College bad boy Bret Easton Ellis turned the New York publishing world inside out with American Psycho (Vintage, 399 pages, $14). The book was dropped by its original publisher after word leaked about its content: extremely violent sex, torture and murder involving the main character, Patrick Bateman, a sleek Wall Streeter on the rise, and a series of women and men.

The novel is unquestionably disturbing; it's meant to be. Ellis is equally unquestionably a serious writer of serious (if in this particular case also lurid) fiction. However, the feminist and intellectual outcry against the book was as strong as anything short of a censorship trial could incur.

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