Review: The Pornification of America, by Bernadette Barton
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.
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.