The Damaging, Disturbing Effects of America’s Ubiquitous “Raunch Culture”

Review: The Pornification of America, by Bernadette Barton

Welcome to raunch culture in the 2020s — when the United States has devolved into a Hustler fantasy. Naked and half naked pictures of girls and women litter every screen, billboard, and bus. Pole dancing studios keep women fit while men airdrop their dick pics to female passengers on buses, planes, and trains. Christian pastors complement their “hot“ wives from the pulpit, and we have whole television programs devoted to “the girlfriend experience“ — a specialized form of prostitution. People are having sex before they date and women make their own personal porn to share on social media. Rape and pedophile jokes are common place and those who don’t like them are considered prudish.

How did we end up living in a cultural scene that might’ve featured in a pulp story from the 1950s written by a horny science-fiction geek, I wonder, and how come so few people even notice?

Bernadette Barton, gender studies and sociology professor at Morehead State University, has identified what she dubs “raunch culture” as having permeated American society, advertising imagery, products and discourse until it’s utterly ubiquitous to the point that we don’t realize its true extent and damage. She relates having “listened as year after year students shared stories that vividly illustrate the negative consequences of abstinence-only sexual education, increasingly violent pornography, bro-culture, and the Instagram arms race to be the most perfect. Over and over, I observed raunch culture to be the root of these and other social dysfunctions.”

I’m not even sure what it says about me that my first reaction to this book was to bristle at the concept. My thoughts immediately went to reminders of being shamed for working as an art model for years, which most people outside the art world immediately associated with porn or sex, as well as other associations that I (and I think any other woman within a stone’s throw of my generation) have over what’s socially “allowed” in terms of how you dress, or express body positivity and positive attitudes towards sex, casual dating, and the like in our culture. As ridiculous as it seems in hindsight, it can be easy to overlook that there’s a massive difference between our current raunch culture and a sex- and body-positive one.

I learned so much from this and now it’s impossible not to notice how much certain concepts and behaviors have crossed from violent, abusive porn into mainstream culture, whether in cultivated advertising and entertainment or social settings like dating. Even just the differences that I’ve seen over time, let alone what this is like for a younger generation who never knew a time before screens and easy streaming and dick pics and everything else.

Barton relates her students’ accounts that once they learn about raunch culture’s definitions, they see it everywhere. The effect is evident after reading this too, and Barton’s telling examples are pictured throughout. The prevalence of pornographic-inspired imagery in so many advertisements, fashions, fitness trends, campaigns, commercials, designs, you name it – is suddenly noticeable everywhere, like one of those eyes-widening stunning realization moments in a movie. Worse, and more quietly menacing, is the realization of how alarmingly normalized it’s all become in the ways we treat each other.

Raunch culture glamorizes elements and attitudes of the sex industry urging women to be “good girls gone bad […] At the same time that the culture urges young women to be girls gone wild, actual exotic dancers continue to suffer terrible stigma.

Because of course, why would we ever change our puritanical attitudes towards sex work even while we overlay everything in the mainstream with images and behavior directly pulled from porn that doesn’t reflect what most people consider healthy sex.

Then there’s the way this permeation of raunch into absolutely everything affects attitudes and behavior, including online bullying and what Barton calls “e-bile”: “In addition to creating acute personal stress in the lives of those who encounter it, e-bile also lowers the bar of civil discourse. Compared to threatening to rape a five-year-old girl, or describing a woman as a rape-inspiring “hole,” a comment that a female writer is a “dumb bitch” or that it’s okay to “grab women by the pussies“ sounds relatively benign.” And so what might seem harmless, the shock-jock effect of continually pushing the envelope of what’s crude and what’s accepted, leads to a broad sector of the country being perfectly fine with electing a man who brags about grabbing women’s genitals. I remember feeling, when that news broke, along with the shock and disgust any thinking woman felt, that this might be the end of him, the bridge too far. But if I’d understood better how raunch culture has shaped our society to this point, as Barton clearly did, I would’ve been under no such illusion.

Barton also makes the point that younger generations are internalizing what’s “normal” in sex through porn, which is a terrible thing to happen. But it’s how we’re learning. She points out that “feminist” porn exists, but only if you know to look for it. Mainstream porn, which she identifies with clear data as having become outrageously more violent and abusive towards women, is much easier to instantaneously access. As she shows, the effort to access it is minimal.

But speaking of this younger generation, this was my qualm with the book, which otherwise I think is eye-opening, alarming, discourse-inspiring and wholly necessary. I was bothered that the majority of interviewees giving their experiences were 18-26, tops. That’s the demographic that was born into raunch culture everywhere since they’ve never known a time without the constant influence of the internet and handheld screens, but it makes the scope feel very narrow.

A 19-year-old telling you how much they’ve learned from experience just feels a bit off. I’m not discounting their stories whatsoever, but what does it say that all of the experiences they relate are also long familiar to me, having shaped and influenced me since I was a teenager as well, and I’m now in my mid-thirties? There’s very little exploration of what this kind of treatment, trickling from steadily increasing and spreading raunch culture, has meant over so much time. A few interviewees are older, but it still seems so limited when the effects are much further-reaching than the immediate ones related by the generation who’ve grown up under constant bombardment from raunch culture.

It seems many interviewees were the author’s students or former ones, but it lessened my appreciation since it’s framed so heavily through stories from people who haven’t had much time to marinate in these experiences, if that makes sense. Give it at least ten more years and then tell me how awful it feels, how deeply it’s scarred you physically, psychologically, emotionally, and how much you want to burn this shit down.

Absolutely worth the read, but a little heavy on anecdote and hurt by a limited sample of interviews. I would’ve read a book twice as long on this topic, and I hope the author will continue to research and write about it (exhausting and demoralizing as it must be; I’m sorry for her but grateful she’s doing the good work) and that other sociologists will also take it up.

The Pornification of America: How Raunch Culture Is Ruining Our Society
by Bernadette Barton
published March 16, 2021 by NYU Press

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

19 thoughts on “The Damaging, Disturbing Effects of America’s Ubiquitous “Raunch Culture”

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    1. It was great for what it was but yeah, ultimately a little thin considering how extensive and pervasive the topic is. I haven’t spent as much time in the UK but I do think elements of this are bleeding into everything and everywhere, sadly.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great review, and such an important topic. I think you are right that people need time to reflect on their experiences in order to fully understand them, though there is certainly value in hearing what younger people have to say. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I agree…it’s tough because this younger generation is facing a completely different atmosphere than any that came before them, so I get why their opinions and experiences are so important, but I think not looking at longer-term effects on people a decade or so older just felt limiting.


  2. Looks like another topic where we share a similar point of view! To say I’m deeply concerned about the current saturation of raunchy images and projections shaping young women’s self perceptions is an understatement. I’m no prude either but this stuff frightens me as it has the capability of permanently destroying women’s psyches. Too bad the author didn’t include older participants in the interviews but I’m still interested.

    Excellent review💜

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a big part of the problem, how it’s shaping women’s self perceptions, as well as men’s expectations in both appearance and behavior. It’s just so messed up and to really consider, as she shows, how much of it comes straight from increasingly violent and abusive pornography makes me feel ill. My first thoughts when I read the synopsis were that maybe I’m being prude although I’ve never considered myself that way, but this book really sets you right on the difference between being prude and being rightly horrified at this kind of behavior sliding more into mainstream acceptance. So upsetting, especially given that it’s sometimes difficult to talk about because you’re immediately labeled as prude or closed-minded, old-fashioned, whatever. Ugh it makes me uneasy. I think you’d find this one really interesting, Jonetta!!

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  3. My 20 year old son was telling me today about an article he read in The Telegraph which he agreed with, about his generation reacting to this phenomenon by choosing to have less sex. It seems a section of young people are so confused and angry at the mixed messages they are getting with porn, and semi pornographic rap videos from people like Candi B and on the other side, Me Too and sex abuse scandals that they don’t want to go there..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh that’s so interesting! I’ll look for the article, would be interested in the perspective. This has to end somewhere, it’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older and the lingering effects on behavior, relationships, your self perception and your own psyche are incredibly damaging. I’m glad there’s some pushback against the mixed messaging happening!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read the excerpt of your post and then wandered off to get a snack before reading the rest, so I had time to process my own negative reaction to this topic and framing. I expected it to be more puritanical than I would agree with and I was considering that I have a problem with people who think porn is evil, but that I do recognize that porn can portray gender relations in pretty terrible ways and the idea of porn being the main way teens learn about how sex should work definitely concerns me. So, I was fascinated to read that your initial reaction was similar to mine and that I may have pre-judged the author too harshly. This sounds like a worthwhile but depressing read.

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    1. I love that you had a snack break to process it 😂 I was also expecting it to be puritanical and the sort of pearl-clutching messaging I feel like we were bombarded with growing up, like around abstinence education in school and the like. So I was also surprised that the author wasn’t at all anti-porn, only against the slant it’s taken in recent years of becoming increasingly violent and degrading towards women, which has filtered into how men treat actual women they’re involved with. At least anecdotally it tracks. Then it’s also the type of imagery we get in advertising, and once she goes through the examples it really hits you, just how pornographic very common imagery is, and yet these are commercials on primetime TV, billboards, etc. It’s this normalization that’s become so disturbing.

      So it’s nothing about not being body or sex-positive, and rather what we’re normalizing as healthy and accepted, meanwhile continuing to shame sex workers, strippers, etc. It’s all a mess and very concerning….so you’re right, completely depressing, if I’m being honest. But I was glad to have read it because it’s given me some helpful framings for thinking about what’s happening!

      Liked by 1 person

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