Tim Silbaugh
Two interesting and seemingly unrelated stories were published on the same day early last month. Both stories would be ancient history already even if Abu Ghraib hadn't eclipsed all other news stories, great and small, for the foreseeable future. But both are worth revisiting--particularly in light of one aspect of the Abu Ghraib scandal that hasn't been dwelled on.

The Baltimore Sun reported on April 6 that the Bush administration is waging a "war on pornography." Attorney General John Ashcroft is spending millions to "rid the world of porn," according to the Sun's Laura Sullivan. Ashcroft isn't going after people who make kiddie porn or bareback porn, but mainstream porn producers--from the makers of HBO's Real Sex to the companies that make the porn flicks available for rent in most American hotels. Despite having arrested and detained a thousand people, Ashcroft has yet to convict a single terrorist captured on American soil, but he can assign 32 prosecutors to investigate mainstream porn full-time. (And it's nice work if you can get it--some of the prosecutors spend all day long in windowless rooms looking at porn tapes.)

The same day the Baltimore Sun revealed that the feds were spending millions in an effort to shut down the mainstream porn industry, a Reuters story with this nearly indecent headline went out over the wires: "Frequent Ejaculations May Counter Prostate Cancer." In a study of 29,000 men, Michael Conlon reported, researchers learned that "higher elevations of ejaculation appear to protect men from developing prostate cancer [by reducing the concentration of] chemical carcinogens which readily accumulate in prostatic fluid." The health benefits of porn consumption, the Reuters story made clear, call for more porn consumption by American men, not less. John Ashcroft should go after "evildoers" and stop bothering American porn producers and stars--people who make and sell a product that inspires American men to higher levels of ejaculation and, thus, lower levels of prostate cancer.

Ashcroft isn't just waging war on erotica, free expression, and cancer prevention. Porn is a $10 billion a year industry in the United States and, as the Baltimore Sun noted, porn videos rake in more money than mainstream Hollywood films. Thanks to technologies that make it possible to obtain porn relatively anonymously, the overwhelming majority of Americans are porn consumers now. Americans buy porn videos and DVDs, watch dirty movies in their hotel rooms, and surf Internet porn sites at work. Porn is no longer viewed by most Americans as something dangerous and threatening, but as something harmless and diverting. What's more, thanks first to video camcorders and then digital cameras, Americans are not only consuming more porn, we're also making more porn.

Which brings us to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In a story in the New York Times last Saturday, a senior defense department official said that Army investigators had collected "several hundred pictures" as a part of their investigation, "but most do not depict Iraqi prisoner abuse. The vast majority are pornographic pictures involving only American soldiers." This piece of info was dropped into the story toward the end and no further comment was made.

I find this fascinating for two reasons. First, when the Paris Hilton story broke, I spent a lot of time fielding calls from reporters asking why anyone would record themselves having sex. Lots of people are doing it, I explained over and over again, not just media whores. Making porn at home with digital cameras and video equipment is a mainstream kink, not something extreme or bizarre. What made Paris Hilton's tape remarkable was her celebrity, not its existence.

The second thing I find fascinating about the homemade porn coming out of Abu Ghraib--the consensual pornographic pictures depicting American soldiers, not the shocking pictures depicting American soldiers engaged in acts of torture and violence--is the disconnect it exposes between prudes in the Bush administration like Ashcroft and the men and women in the armed services. George W. Bush seizes every opportunity to tell us how brave, moral, and righteous the average American soldier is. He would have us believe that the U.S. armed services, like the Republican Party itself, are filled with churchgoing, patriotic, salt-of-the-earth, small-town-values types from Red states. The truth, of course, is that soldiers, like average Americans, are as likely to consume porn and, given the time, opportunity, and a digital camera, make porn as any other American. They're also likely, as we've seen, to buy into their own inflated sense of moral superiority--inflated by their commander in chief--and brutalize helpless human beings in their charge. Porn producers, by comparison, are angels.