Porno Re-examined

Vice Dreams


Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America

by Laura Kipnis
Grove Press, $22 hard

Forget the "kiss my whip" title and dust jacket, this book is a serious discussion of what pornography is. In Bound and Gagged, Kipnis poses her questions by looking into four very diverse scenes. Even the polymorphous perverse are unlikely to find much that is appealing in all four scenes, and this is the point: You cannot discover what fantasy and pornography is about without looking at what does not appeal to you.

The first scene will not appeal to many: It is the planning of a pedophilic movie, and what is worse, the movie is to be a snuff flick. Even worse, if that is possible, some of the planning is done on that scariest of new terrors: the Internet. This scene involves sleazy characters who seem to have powerful connections with organized crime. Kipnis doesn't keep you in suspense, and I won't either. The sleazy characters are law enforcement officers: It is a sting operation.

The people caught up in this operation, and likely to spend the better part of 30 years in prison, do have some nasty fantasies, or at least will discuss nasty fantasies that other people have, but neither of them had fantasies of kidnapping and killing a young boy until it was suggested to them by the undercover officer. Whether this was ever anything more than a fantasy -- whether the accused really were prepared to act it out -- is not entirely clear. The jury thought so, but you may think differently. So much of the alleged conspiracy took place on the Internet that there are transcripts of many of the key points.

This is as bad as beliefs in the badness of pornography gets. And almost all of it is myth. It is a myth that strangers are a major danger to children. Children are more likely to be murdered by their own parents than by anyone else. The number of children kidnapped by strangers and missing for as long as over night is not the tens of thousands that milk cartons might lead you to believe, but rather numbers about 200-300 per year in the whole U.S.

That is not good. But it is also not good that so many preventive and protective measures are directed at shadowy strangers when most of the harm to children comes from familiar people in familiar places. Likewise, snuff flicks are a myth; the question is not how many kinds there are, but whether there are any at all. This is Cecil Adams' territory. The largest purveyor of child porn in the U.S. is the postal service. Even before the current tough laws, there was little commercial child porn -- and what there was, was mostly imported from countries where it was made legally.

As anyone who has tried to learn the Internet from scratch knows, it is no snap to find porn on the Internet -- although some of the Windows browsers make it easier. You can find dirty words and shocking ideas easily enough. But real pornographic pictures just don't leap out at you, and mostly are the sort of thing kids used to find in the bottom of Daddy's sock drawer. One story of "Internet" seduction that made headlines for 15 minutes actually occurred on America Online, which is not the Internet. The boy returned home and we heard no more about it. The reason there were no arrests was not publicized: the "Internet" seducer was another young boy and a sexual relationship between the two would not have been illegal if they had lived next door to each other.

The other scenes are a lot less threatening. Kipnis looks into fat, fat porn, fat fantasies and fat fanciers; the largely uninvestigated area of he-she porn, and finally, the phenomenon of Hustler. Larry Flynt is a curious icon in the American psyche. Kipnis points out that when George Wallace, then perhaps the most prominent and outspoken racist in America, was shot, he became a kind of elder statesman, but when Larry Flynt was shot, everyone looked the other way. Many very august publications rely daily on legal precedents set in litigation against Hustler, but no one has a kind word to say about that magazine or its founder. Could some of the animosity be that Hustler caters to people of low economic status while the more acceptable competition (Playboy and Penthouse) are grand celebrations of affluence? "Vulgar" after all, means "common" at root, and the peccadillos of the elite seldom draw so much ire as the same activities in less pretentious settings.

Is it politics? Is it economics? Ask Dr. Elders. For 20 years Ann Landers has been advising that masturbation is an acceptable alternative outlet for those who cannot or should not form a sexual relationship. Dr. Elders says the same thing, and she is out of a cushy government job. If a white male had said it, would he have been fired? This little volume looks at those kinds of paradoxes and does not blink.

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