The New York Times was full of depressing news on March 21. On the front page of the paper’s “Style” section was a long story entitled “The Mainstream Flirts With Pornography Chic.” It is easy to wonder whether “flirts” is really the right word. Anyone who has been subjected to the underwear advertisements emblazoned on city buses in New York, the fashion ads in women’s magazines, or indeed the stories trumpeted on the covers of those magazines might think that something far stronger than “flirts” is called for. It seems to be a rule of contemporary cultural life, however, that things are always worse than one thinks. No sooner have we gotten used to gender-bending pedophilic ads from Calvin Klein than the President of the United States gives the cigar industry a bad name. Now we learn from the Times that the sewers of hard-core pornography are eagerly being raided by mainstream television, movies, and art galleries. Porn stars are featured in mainstream productions, the look and feel of low-budget porn films are being copied as the latest thing in chic. In Los Angeles, the Times reports, the pornographer Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine “opened a blond-wood latte bar in December that also sells a casual assortment of adult videos and sex toys. Hustler Hollywood is the prototype in what Mr. Flynt says will be a national roll-out of Gap-style newsstand sex shops—a new one every ninety days, with next stops in Las Vegas and Atlanta.”

The filmmaker John Waters, who made a name for himself directing several semi-pornographic cult films, is quoted as saying that pornography is “the only real outlaw left—that’s why it’s hip.” But of course yesterday’s outlaw is today’s bestseller. In fact, the rise of “pornography chic” is just the latest reminder that our culture seems determined to normalize the abnormal and perverted. Several years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan made headlines with an article called “Defining Deviancy Down.” We begin to wonder how far down our culture is prepared to go.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 8, on page 3
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