Dr. William Struthers sits in his office watching “Jake,” a student from his psychology course “Men and Addictions,” fidget and stall like a frightened criminal. The young man offers some obligatory pleasantries about how much he’s enjoying the class, but he keeps staring evasively out the room’s sole window on the rear mezzanine level of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, past a Union Pacific rail line and quite literally onto the other side of the tracks of this quiet Chicago suburb. Struthers has seen male students act this way before, so he waits. The twenty-year-old’s eyes return to their private room and he offers an emotional, unsolicited confession: for several years, Jake explains, he’s been masturbating to internet pornography whenever he gets the chance. He’s ashamed, convinced he’ll eventually be caught and admonished as a pervert, but feels powerless to stop. No amount of praying, Bible study or research into sex addiction seems to help. He doesn’t know how to get a girlfriend and is afraid that he’ll repulse her if he does. Each day brings a new cycle of unconquerable desire, momentary relief and lacerating guilt.
In the last five years, Struthers, 40, has talked to countless similar men, listening with an evangelical’s earnestness and a psychologist’s yen for detail. These ostensible victims were the inspiration for his first book, Wired For Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain, published last year. “Tom,” for instance, is a young man who looks at porn on his office computer to deal with the stress of his job; he grows distracted and aroused by the company’s new female accountant, looks at more internet porn when he gets back from work, and after masturbating feels “miserable and trapped.” Concerning porn’s neurological hold on the male mind and the spiritual ramifications of that hold, Struthers’s book is an impassioned and occasionally awkward fusion of hard science and religious fervor; he draws on the latest research into brain chemistry and addiction formation—describing, for instance, the euphoric, simultaneous release of a half-dozen neurotransmitters that accompanies the male orgasm—before concluding that “pornography and the masturbation it fuels are sins against one’s own body,” not to mention “an institutional evil that preys on the disaffected, wounded and desperate members of our society.”
If this formulation credits pornography with an independent life and an irresistible power over the people who consume it, that’s because, like many of his anti-porn contemporaries, Struthers is primarily worried about what porn has become in the age of the internet—the way the web has heightened the expected realism and intensity of pornography while bringing it to the attention of more viewers at an earlier average age. And needless to say, he has plenty of ideological company. Nearly simultaneously with the appearance of Wired for Intimacy, the D.C.-based Witherspoon Institute published “The Social Costs of Pornography,” a familiar-sounding multidisciplinary report authored by a team of professors, researchers and writers. Their research, too, ultimately condemns the medium as much as the material itself:
The combination of hyper-realistic imagery, moving pictures, and rapid-fire bombardment of images appears to mean … that chronic consumers both become visually desensitized, and find themselves viewing depictions they themselves would once have regarded as taboo or off-limits.
This is the new porn debate, circa 2011—one that’s only nominally about keeping sex sacrosanct. When intellectuals and moralists decry its perversity or its vulgarity, they’re actually decrying the greater societal reality that porn is everywhere.
For a living embodiment of this reality, meet Zak Smith, a 34-year-old painter, occasional porn star and author of the memoir We Did Porn. A professed anarchist who maintains the piercings, tattoos and dyed hair that he’s had since his artistic and cultural awakening as a teenager, Smith asserts in conversation, “I value promiscuity, and those people,” meaning the anti-pornists, “are right when they say that a culture of promiscuity undermines family values. If you look at those cultures where everybody’s very religious and they all follow the rules, those people have a lot of babies. I don’t see that as a useful social end in itself. I don’t think the default behavior of an adult human being should be ‘have a baby.’”
For Smith, porn offers a different vision of what it means to live well. In We Did Porn, he chronicles his seamless transition from elite-mainstream art functions to the so-called alt-porn industry, which features tattooed and pierced actors and boasts more conceptual creativity, if not purpose, than standard hardcore. Given the tenor of contemporary conversation about pornography, the book is refreshingly unrepentant; never for a second does Smith even entertain the notion that having sex on camera constitutes a degrading step down for an ostensibly healthy citizen like him. This is not a memoir of frightened conversions or brushes with rock bottom. Smith regrets nothing, and takes to the new work with clearheaded and self-aware anxiousness. When I initially contacted him for an interview, explaining that I wanted to consider his book in relation to recently published counterarguments, he brusquely agreed before adding, “Has the Witherspoon Institute ever done a study on the social costs of Christianity?”
To the extent that Smith’s participation in porn has a purpose other than sheer curiosity and a desire to sleep with hot girls, the greater message of his book—unthinkable in earlier generations—is that it’s really no big deal to have sex for other people’s enjoyment and profit, much less for pure recreation. The quaking terror in a student like Jake isn’t merely that of a guilt-ridden addict on the constant verge of a relapse; it’s the manifestation of an enforced sexual schizophrenia. Within a community of devoted Christians like that at Wheaton, pornography represents everything depraved and Babylonian about contemporary society. But in the greater world—where for instance a Canadian researcher studying porn’s effect on the brain in 2009 failed to find any men in their twenties who had never seen it—porn is, at worst, just another banal form of internet-aided exhibitionism and instant gratification.
Fittingly for an industry built on the enactment of adolescent fantasies, porn seems to have entered its own awkward developmental phase: still controversial enough to warrant persistent public outcry, it’s also mainstream enough to convey barely a fraction of the inherent illicitness it once had. Decreasingly effective as an aphrodisiac, porn now functions as a kind of dwarf star at the heart of our current culture war, encompassing a great many of our society’s unsolvable moral disagreements, involving religion, liberty, economics, federal regulation and public health. In his book, Smith calls it a “Hot-Button Issue”—meaning “an issue so unconfusing that any lead-poisoned third-grader has all the information he or she needs to have an opinion on it.” Whether you bemoan sex’s increasingly prominent role in our daily lives or not; whether you wish more people went to church or you find religious belief delusional; whether you’re frightened by the increasing blurriness between public and private space or empowered by it, porn gives you a side to take.
In 1984, William Struthers’s hometown of Oil City, PA was nearing the low point of a decades-long slide into economic oblivion, as many of its eponymous companies—Wolf’s Head, Pennzoil, Quaker State—closed their headquarters and left for Texas, like drops from a dripping faucet. Nearly everyone worked for the nearby oil, steel or railroad outfits, which meant every family was captive to those industries’ increasingly rapid cycles of unemployment. Struthers’s father, an electrician and television repairman who took his two boys fishing and deer hunting on weekends, was eventually laid off and found new work as a corrections officer. It was a tough time even for an area that had long been inured to hardship, and Struthers, whose family was neither churchgoing nor college-educated, remembers observing “a lot of basic human ugliness. People being mean to each other, people being spiteful. Being angry about things that they had no control over.”
At the time, however, Struthers was fourteen and only wanted to sing. Starved for musical collaborators in a shrinking blue-collar enclave along the perennially frozen Allegheny River, he followed a friend into a local church choir and to his surprise ended up enthralled by scripture. Despite skepticism from his family and a total lack of prior interest in religion, Struthers—still only vaguely interested in girls and not even old enough to hold a learner’s permit—had found in Jesus’ gospels “everything that seemed to be missing” in his life. He studied the Bible while his peers devoted themselves to the region’s recently installed cable TV system. Soon he was walking, alone, down a mile-long hill into town every weekend for Sunday services.
Struthers was uncommonly studious for his surroundings and left Oil City for Illinois Wesleyan University because he assumed, incorrectly, that it was a Christian campus. But he took to the secular academic life quite easily and spent, by his own admission, more time partying than genuflecting during his time there. He entertained a few girlfriends and indulged in the routine undergraduate misbehaviors, but by commencement he was fully committed to Donna Vocu, then president of Wesleyan’s InterVarsity chapter, whom he credits with his growth to spiritual maturity. By the time Struthers accepted his B.A. in Psychology, he was reading more, drinking less, and writing regularly. He was also involved in a long-term, sexually abstinent relationship that he remained in Illinois after graduation to prolong; the two were married in 1993. A published article garnered an invitation to guest lecture at Wheaton, where Struthers has now taught neuroethics in the Psychology department for nearly fifteen years.
When pressed to account for his abiding faith, he speaks foremost about the ultimate simplicity of Christ’s teachings. While in his Oil City youth group, he heard a speech by Olympic gold medalist and Christian missionary Madeline Manning Mims that helped him “make sense of things in a way that [was] really beautiful,” and the aesthetic distinction pops up again and again when Struthers talks about his religion, always in relation to private shame: “God loves every human being, no matter how much bad they’ve done,” he says, “no matter who they’ve hurt—Christ back on the cross can cover that ugliness.” Minutes later he professes, “I just keep going back to that simple faith that God loves us and that he created a way for us to all know him rightly, and that we can be freed from the ugly stuff that we’ve done.”
Struthers is so genial and enthusiastic in conversation that even his more judgmental assertions can seem friendly. When he tells me, “I don’t think life is about getting as much pleasure as you can,” his voice is like a local weatherman’s announcing a cloudless ten-day forecast. He continues: “I feel there’s a goal you could be working towards and the family is a core part of that. And my faith is not just about saving myself from going to hell; it’s about being a part of God’s family. … It doesn’t really matter what your body can and can’t do, it matters what your body should do.”
Zak Smith had his own personality-shaping epiphanies at age fourteen, though he grew up in a very different environment. His parents had divorced a decade earlier, and Smith spent his youth ping-ponging around the Maryland- side D.C. suburbs with his mother, visiting his father in L.A. during the summers. Both parents were religious in a noncommittal, very 1960s way. “My dad was ‘great spirit’-slash-Jewish,” Smith says, “and my mom was into healing and energy but also kind of Presbyterian.” His introduction to the “predictable classics” of teen-appropriate existentialism—including Burroughs, Sartre, Marx and Borges—solidified his early distrust of religious and social institutions.
Smith left D.C. for Cooper Union after high school, and his work ethic and capacity for debate quickly endeared him to professors. Despite experimenting with different media and artistic approaches, his New York years helped him perfect a unique, confrontational style that looks like an extension of a youth spent scribbling in notebooks. His images—usually one or two indifferently posed people, done in paint or pen—convey quotidian scenes that have been lashed at by violent colors and jagged scratches, like a William Eggleston photograph made over by Stan Brakhage. It’s an aesthetic that highlights the flurry of objects and ideas inherent in even the most mundane scenes, and it’s proven improbably lucrative. Smith was anointed by the Whitney curators be- fore he turned 30, when an entire wall of their 2004 Biennial was given over to his 750-drawing installation, “Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow,” later released as his second book. Before the Whitney, Smith was a graduate student at the Yale School of Art, meaning he managed to align himself with the two institutions that dealer and critic Dave Hickey has said best exemplify the commercial art world’s mutation into “General Motors, establishing brand names, institutional agendas, and hierarchies of value.”
Smith’s publishers explicitly compare We Did Porn to Hell’s Angels and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and in conversation Smith refers to himself as “an interpreter,” someone who describes a subculture for the benefit of outsiders who almost surely won’t see it for themselves. But he’s also very much invested— personally and morally—in this crowd. Most of his closest friends are in the industry, and he relocated to Hollywood with his fellow performer and live-in girlfriend Mandy Morbid in 2007.
The hook, as it were, of We Did Porn is Smith’s assertion that the sex industry offered him a welcome dose of unpretentious reality after the bland elbow rubbing and quasi-professional chitchat of exhibition openings. People who deal so forthrightly with the human body don’t feel the need to observe the professional superficialities of other fields. “It’s very hard to be hypocritical or fake” among porn people, Smith says, “because you find out really quick what people think and who they want to hang out with. And when it comes to intellectual things, people get genuinely excited about them because they’re not expected to. In the art field, you talk about, like, a Werner Herzog movie, and people pretend they’re interested in it to seem smart. But if you’re with some porn chick talking about a Werner Herzog movie, it’s because she got really excited about a Werner Herzog movie. Otherwise, she doesn’t have to … there’s no reason to do that in porn. It won’t help.”
Struthers’s Crusade against pornography is also, at heart, a battle against a culture of disingenuousness, although it ultimately rejects the idea of group wisdom altogether. Of the more “acceptable” variety of pornography—seen in commercials, television shows, banner ads, gossip magazines, et al.—Struthers writes in Wired for Intimacy:
Many people have asked me if I have ever looked at pornography. … When I tell them that I find many things on television or newsstands pornographic, they frown. Apparently this makes me a prude, which is worse than being a hypocrite.
This observation is especially poignant given that to his conservative Wheaton students, Struthers is a relative radical who doesn’t, for instance, condemn homosexuality or think people need to be married to have sex. But look closer and you begin to appreciate the delicate semantic jujitsu of this alleged open-mindedness: a healthy sexual relationship, he argues, need not only occur between spouses, but unmarried people shouldn’t engage in genital intercourse. Such is the unique sexual-morality niche that Struthers has carved out for himself, one that hinges on a definition of “sexual” that doesn’t automatically imply genitalia.
Struthers’s mission, as he sees it, is to broaden our conception of sexuality to encompass emotional, relational sentiments—and his fight against porn is one front in a larger campaign against society’s increasingly depersonalized view of sex. Porn bothers him because it is the most flagrant, widespread example of our culture’s disrespect for genuine human intimacy. And at Wheaton—one of the most conservative Christian schools in America—Struthers encourages young people to become a shade more tolerant and consider a different view of what healthy sexuality might look like.
Struthers thus has an odd sort of counterpart in SuicideGirls.com, the alt-porn website whose motto is “Beautiful naked girls with tattoos,” and which launched the same month that Zak Smith had his first group show in 2001. Smith didn’t learn of the site until 2003, but felt an immediate kinship with its founders and quickly became the default visual artist of the SuicideGirls movement. And it is a movement, at least by their own proclamation: a hardcover coffee table book of material from the site’s first eight years was subtitled “Beauty Redefined,” and the Girls’ mission statement explicitly likens their efforts to Hugh Hefner’s paradigm-shifting pornographic work a half-century prior:
In the same way Playboy magazine became a beacon and guide to the swinging bachelor of the 1960s, SuicideGirls is at the forefront of a generation of young women and men whose ideals about sexuality do not conform with what mainstream media is reporting.
Fittingly, and despite the outward style and fashion of the site, SuicideGirls promotes an almost old-fashioned eroticism. The models list their measurements and some pose in lesbian scenes, but they also overwhelmingly cite Bettie Page as an influence and eschew surgical bodily enhancements. There’s even “SG Pinups for Soldiers,” a charmingly antiquated effort to send erotic pictures to APO addresses. And the photos, while titillating, never infantilize the women or equate their nudity with defenselessness. Most of the Suicide Girls stare straight back at you, confident if still come-hither, proud of their ability to arouse.
SuicideGirls’ most accomplished innovation, however, is the way in which they’ve bested Hefner’s vision by establishing an actual interactive community around their material. Like any good subculture, SuicideGirls rejects a standing vision of society by replacing it with an ersatz version of the same; themed discussion groups, ranging from “Black Death Metal” to “UK Politics” to, indeed, “Parenting,” have proliferated on the site, which now operates essentially like any other social networking portal, only with a baroquely edgy graphic design and slightly more masturbatory fodder.
When Smith joined the fray, internet porn hadn’t yet become the oceanic resource that so worries the new decade’s warriors. “You had to be kind of a download freak, one of these people with the big hard drives, and I was never one of those people,” he says. He remembers a photographer observing on a shoot, “We kind of created these girls. It was almost like they didn’t exist be- fore, and suddenly [SuicideGirls] started photographing them and giving them a self-conscious community, and there they were.” It was the internet, in other words, that gave a proper name and headquarters to a widespread but previously patchwork community of punk and goth girls who wanted to pose naked. It helped them transcend the narrow corner of society they occupied by virtue of their appearance and attitude. It gave them a chance to be professionally, stunningly photographed, just as it gave them proof of their attractiveness in the form of numbered, paying followers. It granted them a degree of power within this community—something that Hefner’s centerfolds were never allowed in quite the same way—where their varied appearances and natural attributes were considered virtues. And the internet brought them artists like Smith, who in addition to finding them physically attractive also recognized a certain stylistic, even philosophical, kinship. Contacting a Suicide Girl to set up a painting session, Smith realized she in fact lived across the street, also went to art school, was “an activist, punk rocker, the whole nine. It was literally me, as a girl.”
One could argue, convincingly, that empowerment by way of idolization and numerically measured attractiveness is no empowerment at all; that the gestures toward revolution and status quo annihilation by SuicideGirls’ proponents are pretentious and unearned; that the Suicide Girls’ bare pubic grooming, Sapphic embraces and very willingness to pose in fact bolsters William Struthers’s contention that the tenets of internet-era hardcore have irrevocably corrupted societal conceptions of sexuality. But societal alterations tend to cut both ways, and it’s not often mentioned by opponents that the internet has emboldened porn consumers and given them the same agency over their viewing options that is afforded every other online shopper; “porn” now equals whatever a person desires it to mean. For some, this means an endless rabbit hole of depravity and a possibly scarring addiction. But for others—from forcibly closeted gay youth to distressed abuse victims to relatively untroubled people with fetishes—there’s now a window into human sexuality that may prove liberating, even therapeutic. For such individuals, normalization, in the most productive sense, is more easily attained than ever before.
I ask Struthers if he considers this an acceptable tradeoff, and he demurs. The issue for him is salvation, and the sanctity of the human body as a reflection of God’s image. His definition of healthy, God-sanctioned sexuality extends no further than two monogamous adults, preferably married ones. If he’s progressive enough not to think that our sexuality is a problem, he still believes that porn is a “potentiator” of immorality. Once compulsivity is established, this argument goes, the user grows more accepting of depravity, until, as Struthers writes in Wired for Intimacy, “the consumption of sexual poison … becomes part of the fabric of the mind.”
Yet despite the proliferation of porn that Struthers decries, a sense of shame still attends sexual freedoms in our culture: movie censors remain much more scandalized by sex than violence; political and celebrity careers are up- ended by the merest whiff of sexual scandal; and in May 2010, House Republicans momentarily derailed the Democratic COMPETES job bill by attaching an amendment that blocked federal funding “to those officially disciplined for violations regarding the viewing, downloading, or exchanging of pornography, including child pornography, on a federal computer or while performing official government duties.” When the bill ultimately passed weeks later, only two of nine proposed amendments survived intact. The anti-porn provision was one.
Moreover, whatever moral loosening we’ve supposedly undergone as a culture, the cliché of porn stars’ social or sexual maladjustment remains a largely self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s still hard, for instance, for porn performers to find people outside the industry who don’t make gross assumptions about their character or mental well-being. Zak Smith alerts me to the term “civilians,” used to describe non-industry people who, irrespective of other positive qualities, don’t fully understand or accept their lifestyle. Smith recognizes that he’s a little different from his peers within the porn world; he’s not dependent on it for his livelihood, for one, and so doesn’t suffer through the regular crises of conscience commonly endured by full-time industry workers. It’s a business where legitimately creative people, most of whom harbor artistic aspirations beyond their means, routinely run into a wall of low expectations and lack of interest. Smith describes the conundrum in his book:
It’s hard to think how different porn might happen or matter … because everyone’s half inclined to get the fuck out of this business next year anyway. … There’s always that way out. Better porn might matter and it might make things better, but nobody’s proved it yet, and so you can always just say, “Fuck it, it’s just porn.”
Smith’s latest project, an online video series called “I Hit it With My Axe,” launched on St. Patrick’s Day, 2010. Hosted on the website of gaming-themed magazine The Escapist, “Axe” is a weekly series of five- to ten-minute videos of Smith and his porn star friends playing Dungeons & Dragons in nondescript L.A. apartments. Shot on handheld mid-budget digital video and devoid of nudity, introspection or even substantive D&D shoptalk, “Axe” is of interest only to the most devoted alt-porn fan, and perhaps not even to him; its only potentially enthralling quality is the small measure of implicit prurience given the participants. “My only concern is that it be honest,” Smith tells me, “I wanted it to be a true reflection of what the game is, of who the people are. We all get enough of that fake stuff at work.”
But the show also feels like the natural extension of We Did Porn, a literalization of the book’s contention that, for the youngest fifty percent or so of the population (and likely for every generation henceforth), the very concept of pornography, even the alt- variety, is just another blip on the pop culture continuum, as quaint and ubiquitous as Dungeons & Dragons. For many of us, this is simply another way to spend time, like Facebook or sports or home gardening. Or, for that matter, church.
His painful secret out in the open, “Jake” can now begin the Struthers-assisted healing process. Over the next few months—years, if necessary—the young man will undergo an intensive process of self-reflection in an effort to identify his addiction’s triggers. Struthers will meet with him every week to work through each stage of addiction recovery, helping Jake to craft a vision of the man he wants to be. The pursuit of what Struthers calls “sexual integrity” is different for everyone, but he stresses to each of his patients that it’s an attitude rather than a static state. Pornography, he reminds them, is only one of the main issues they have to deal with. “Many guys think that they need to be ‘holy’ and ‘pure,’” he says. “This becomes a major source of the shame and only fuels the compulsions. I try to get them to become holy and pure, and to think of [sexuality] as an ongoing process. You don’t get there and stay there, you work towards it.”
Jake has attended church for literally longer than he can remember, and at Wheaton, he lives in a town with a congregation on nearly every corner and ministry-sponsored nonprofits sprinkled between them all. Nevertheless, when he walks through the Graham Center’s Jeffersonian pillars and up its interior stairway for his weekly rehabilitation meetings, Jake makes an increasingly unpopular commitment for a young man his age. From Struthers, he’ll receive some much-needed certainty—in God’s love, in the righteousness of his goals, in his capacity for sanctification—which may ultimately be the point. Few of Jake’s peers bother taking such a punishing path to maturity any more; many choose not to think about the role of sex in their lives and relationships. With temptation more easily accessible than ever and the costs of indulgence only dwindling, William Struthers’s greatest possible gift might be to remind this young man that his sense of shame is not only a burden—it can also be a guide.