Washington Post Highlights Problem of Portable Porn

The Style section of the Washington Post isn’t exactly a repository of old-fashioned small town values, which made staff writer Monica Hesse’s Nov. 12 article that much more surprising.

Her piece: “Publicly, a whole new lewdness,” related the stories of commuters, airline passengers and others exposed to “secondhand smut” – that is, people in the uncomfortable position of having neighbors watching porn in public on laptops and BlackBerrys.

“But the increasing popularity of laptops and handheld devices, and the prevalence of wireless Internet access, means there’s a greater chance of becoming a bystander to a complete stranger's viewing proclivities,” Hesse wrote.

One anecdote involved a woman who was on a long flight with her young children, when “her friendly seatmate cued up a cartoon on his laptop. Her four children were enthralled; she hoped listening in might keep them occupied. Then the cartoon characters started doing things that cartoon characters should not be doing. Naked things …”

In another story, a man in the stands at a professional basketball game was watching porn on his iPhone, leading Hesse to wonder if the problem is “the increasingly blurred boundary between public and private. If we are so accustomed to burying our noses in tiny screens, carrying our entertainment in and out of the house, perhaps people are simply getting confused as to where they are.”

Perhaps, but it is also part of the ongoing normalization of porn. It’s readily available on the Internet and cable TV, and nearly pornographic images are as ubiquitous on broadcast TV as they are at supermarket checkouts. Hesse claimed, “It’s practically a human rite of passage to have a roommate – a slobby college one – who loves [porn star] Jenna Jameson,” and unfortunately, that’s probably an accurate statement these days. But it’s a small step to go from watching smut with others in the room to watching it on a bus or subway.

Or while driving. The article mentioned the increasingly common experience of “Jess Mortimer, who spent an eternity stuck in a Beltway traffic jam behind some guy watching really acrobatic stuff on his SUV's television. (This type of secondhand viewing is prevalent enough to have earned its own terminology: Drive-By Porn. Several states have passed or proposed legislation dedicated to preventing it.)”

Despite refusing to pass judgment on “adult entertainment” (this is, after all, the Washington Post), Hesse wasn’t shy about describing “the general haze of gross that seemed to descend on the public space, the filmy yuckiness that made them wish the sprinkler system would spontaneously activate.”

And if it’s too much to ask that a Post story question the morality of porn, someone should have condemned the abject selfishness and irresponsibility – not just the inappropriateness – of watching porn in public.

Matthew Philbin
Matthew Philbin
Matt Philbin is Managing Editor of MRC Culture