Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Let’s contemplate one of the most widespread and most unfortunate phrases of recent times: The “adult” entertainment industry.

When I say adult entertainment, the vast majority of you know exactly what I mean—pornography. If you did a search for that term (don’t), 99% of your hits would come up pornographic. In our cultural lexicon, the use of “adult” as an adjective almost always signifies sexual explicitness or erotica: “Adult” books, “adult” films, “adult” events, etc, ad nauseum.

Purveyors of the pornography industry would probably defend this vocabulary by stressing that it helps create both a legal and cultural impulse to keep porn away from children (or, more accurately, from “minors”). Even if that logic worked (and, at least since the invention of the internet, it does not), I think there is something deeply regrettable about this kind of philological hijacking.

For one thing, it’s patently dishonest. Labeling smut “adult” is deceptive, since it conveys the idea that voyeurism is a mature or grown up pastime. But pornography is anything but adult in the meaningful sense of the word. Porn’s depictions of ultra low-stakes sex and infinitely accessible pleasure are more than fantasies, they are delusions, delusions that only survive as long as the mind that harbors them bends and shapes to accommodate it. In order to find pornography maximally pleasurable, one has to shut out reality in greater and greater measures.

This is precisely the phenomenon that Kevin Williamson observed when he saw hordes of attendees of the nation’s largest pornography trade show wait hours and pay premium prices to watch their favorite actors when accessible and less expensive prostitution was available. Williamson dubbed what he saw  “the end of sex,” perceiving correctly that porn eventually becomes, in the mind of the addicted, preferable to actual intimacy.

This subservience of reality to fantasy is not “adult” but instead quite pubescent. Adult entertainment is entertainment for those who want to live out a perpetual adolescent mythology  about themselves (in pornography the user is always infinitely desirable), other people (they are always infinitely willing) and sex in the abstract (it is infinitely available and easy).  These mythologies require careful tending and cultivation. They evaporate easily, and once the mutuality and adult responsibilities that attend real sex are discovered, they will appeal to only the tragically addicted.

“Adult entertainment” appeals to our flight from reality by labeling it “mature.” But it also appeals to a perverted sense of propriety. There is still some cultural embarrassment—but I won’t call it shame—over “pornography.” If you tell me your 16 year old son has pornography in his room, you’re probably not happy about it, even if there’s nothing in particular you want to do for him. But if you tell me your 30 year old brother is in the “adult entertainment” business, you probably think of him as a professional in an age-conscious business.

You see what happens? The phrase “adult entertainment” combines two generic and morally neutral words to describe something that causes discomfort and embarrassment when it is correctly named. And because “adult” is a legally significant identifier, everyone believes this phrase to be protecting children rather than ensnaring adults. How many video rental stores could survive the ire of their communities if the “adult” section were renamed the “pornography” aisle? Words matter, and no one knows this better than the people who benefit from obscuring and misleading words.

“Adult entertainment” is not the neutral, passive recreation for grown ups it says it is. It is a spiritually significant and politically oriented consumerism . Adult entertainment is not adult, and it’s not entertainment either. As Christians who know about real sex, one thing we can do in our engagement with culturally palatable porn is refuse to call it by its preferred name. “Adult entertainment” is pornography, and pornography is sexual immorality. Let’s use those words instead.
Read more from Sam James here.