When you hear the phrase “adult entertainment,” you probably know it means: pornography. 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 language-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 juvenile. Adult entertainment is entertainment for those who want to live out an adolescent myth 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.” Few families would feel a sense of peace and pride as they tell you their 25 year old son or daughter makes pornography for a living. On the flip side, the term “adult entertainment industry” removes the stigma and connotations.
This kind of language gymnastics is epidemic in how our culture talks about sex. “Hooking up” is casual sex, “cheating” is adultery, and “plan B” means an abortion-inducing pill. Americans with more money than courage can even hire professional “cuddlers” to provide a few hours of pseudo-conjugal comfort. Western culture’s sexual parlance is nothing more than code and euphemism, lexical fig leaves to cover up the emptiness and nihilism of our Sexual Revolution. 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.