January 24, 2013

Uncovering unwholesomeness in culture throughout history

50 years from now, when people try to figure out what life was like in the early 21st century, how many will know what the Grand Theft Auto video game series was? Or torture porn movies? Or the sado-masochistic character of much mainstream porn? That's just to pick three examples of the general shift toward voyeurism and sensationalism in the culture over the past 20 years.

It may be hard to remember (even more so if you weren't alive), but back in the '80s there was no lurid violence in young people's entertainment. The slasher flick presented all-American teenagers who were mostly likable, or at least sympathetic, although doing what hormone-crazed young people do (or used to do, anyway). This makes you feel for the victims when they get attacked. When the characters are annoying or downright unlikable, you're actually cheering the serial killer on -- "Finally we won't have to listen to that whining bitch anymore!"

Ditto all of the glorification of crime in video games over the past 20 years. In the video games of the '80s and early '90s, where crime was a theme at all, you played the good guys taking on the bad guys, with little or no gore. Kind of like Lethal Weapon with martial arts. Kids increasingly want to role-play as a hoodlum who deals drugs, steals cars, and kills hookers.

And porno movies then featured a guy and a girl who were hot for each other and felt like getting it on, neither one trying to exploit the other, just smiling and having fun. No shock or sensationalism. More and more dirty movies emphasize domination, degradation, and humiliation, whether of the male ("femdom") or of the female (throat gagging). The prevalence of bondage themes is bewildering. How can so many people be so into such degrading stuff?

Yet when people try to reconstruct life in the early 21st century, I'll bet the turn toward sleaze doesn't make the textbooks or popular accounts. From what you learned in US history class, could you give an even basic contrast between the zeitgeist of the 1880s vs. the 1920s? Professional historians love getting into the nitty-gritty, if anything erring on the side of being too particularistic. But the average person, even the average educated person, just doesn't feel like knowing that much about the variations in the historical record is worth anything today. The past must therefore be homogeneous beyond a certain point in time, either uniformly worse than today if they're a progressivist, or uniformly better than today if they're a declinist.

Aside from the past 20 years, the other highpoint of unseen unwholesomeness was the mid-century, especially the '40s and '50s. I don't mean that there was a "seedy underbelly" to the white picket fence suburbs. It was right out in the open, and everyone at the time would've recognized it -- there could have even been a widespread moral panic about it -- but it hasn't been preserved in the popular memory.

The most flagrant example is the sleazy sensationalism of mid-century comic books, featuring just as much lurid torture porn and sado-masochistic imagery as today's dorky video games. I've read some of the secondary literature on this stuff, but today I finally picked up Seduction of the Innocent, a book that ignited a moral panic over the unwholesome nature of comic books back then, and eventually led to the Comics Code Authority, a censorship board within the industry itself, akin to the Hays Code in Hollywood movie studios.

I plan to post in more detail about comic books in particular, since they really were out there back then, and along with radio they were the dominant form of mass media entertainment for young people, like video games today (movie-going was dead, and TV was either non-existent in the earlier part, or slowly gaining viewers by the mid-'50s). But for now, have a look through an online gallery of comic book covers from those days -- and that's not even including the full story inside. The butt-kicking babe, bondage, gore, role-playing as the clever criminal, the intended lack of sympathy running through it all -- it could be straight out of today's youth culture.

Seduction of the Innocent is also available free online; most of the images are not those from the original book, but similar ones that still prove the point. Skim through the chapters named "I Want to be a Sex Maniac" (about the bizarre sexuality so often shown) and "Bumps and Bulges" (about the ads -- increase your bosom size, use this telescope to peep on your neighbors, etc.). You'll never think of the '50s the same way again.

Last, it should go without saying, but "unwholesome" is a property of the cultural item itself -- it doesn't matter what broader social consequences it has. I'm more aware than anyone else of how the violent crime rate kept falling during the mania for lurid S&M comic books, as well as during the neo-sleazy renaissance of the past 20 years. Whether the crime rate shot up or bottomed out in response to comic book sensationalism, the things themselves can't but strike you as unwholesome and sleazy, something that would appeal to weak, passive, anti-social minds.

Unwholesomeness is deplorable not because of its effects or non-effects on material well-being and safety, but because of what it says about our social and psychological health. It triggers our disgust mechanism, not our harm-avoidance mechanism, but that doesn't make it any less important.

25 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:40 AM

    rgasedtThe "Dark Side" has always been there, the unwholesomeness of which you speak.

    The more important question is how pervasive were such things as these particular type of comic books through the culture? Being alive back then I can attest that the overwhelming portion of comics books did not feature this sort of perverted madness at all.

    The same can be said for pornography. Heffners "Playboy" fist hit the shelves in December of 1953, untitled, wrapped in brown paper and kept behind the counters in less than reputable stores. The members of the Greatest and Silent Generations bought it in enough quantity that the January of 1954 edition, though still papered-over and behind the counter, was bannered with the name "Playboy" and "unwholesomeness" was on its way to being mainstreamed.

    Ubitquous during the 1950's it wasn't. Agree with this contention or not, life then actually was, at least in the suburban parts of America, virtually a mirror image of the portrayals one sees in the reruns of "Leave It To Beaver" and "Andy of Mayberry". "My Three Sons", "Ozzie and Harriet" and the cleanliness of the Disney movies during that era, with the young Kurt Russell, Hayley Mills, Dean Jones and the like fairly reflected the norm.

    What was happening during that period was the planting of seeds, the "Tares" so to speak. Evil walked through the fields of goodness and sowed away, and today we have "matured" plants that have spread from fenceline to fenceline.

    Tolerance is a sign of a depraved society. "We" now tolerate anything and everything ...

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  2. Anonymous10:23 AM

    Kids increasingly want to role-play as a hoodlum who deals drugs, steals cars, and kills hookers.

    I get the impression they fantasize about being some kind of gangster in "violent times" who distrusts the police, gangs up with his "boys" and protects his community. Weird freaks in my opinion.

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  3. Anonymous11:03 AM

    I tend to associate the 1970s and 1980s with "video nasties" - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_nasty

    That is, video type gave light to lots of nasty, brutal horror films that weren't really a thing in preceding periods, but that these died off to some extent in the 1990s.

    "I Spit On Your Grave" etc. Perhaps this is a false association, frequency differences being what they are. I don't like modern torture type films.

    ...

    With domination and sadism pornography and practice, I think the tendency is either towards older and younger people having an equal preference, or older people having a higher preference.

    http://www.niu.edu/user/tj0bjs1/bdsm/Richters,%20de%20Visser,%20Rissel,%20Grulich,%20&%20Smith%20(2008).pdf - This study shows a mild peak in BDSM activity by subjects in their 20s in 2000, although it only measures "Have you in the last year", but how much this is due to higher sex drive of people in their 20s I could not say.

    BDSM perhaps may be a sign of the times, but not of early environment.

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  4. Anonymous1:30 PM

    "Ubitquous during the 1950's it wasn't."

    playboy lacked degradation and hostility. The girl was naked, posed normally, smiling.(this probably changed in the 90s, I dunno)

    Generally I don't like any pornography, but you can make a distinction between "normal" porno vs. sick stuff, as this blog post explains.

    -Curtis

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  5. Anonymous1:43 PM

    "I tend to associate the 1970s and 1980s with "video nasties" - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_nasty

    That is, video type gave light to lots of nasty, brutal horror films that weren't really a thing in preceding periods, but that these died off to some extent in the 1990s."

    These movies different in tone from what came later, though. 1970s "nasties" were intended to genuinenly disturb viewers... not to indulge their sadistic fantasies. The world had suddenly become dangerous during this time, and movies such as Last House on the Left were a way for people to understand and deal with it.

    -Curtis

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  6. The taste for the unwholesome is probably stable through all periods and both rising and falling crime era. People's tendencies to get a greater or lesser kick from transgression may be inborn. What changes is society's tolerance for the expression of these tendencies -- or more particularly, which particular unwholesomenesses are sanctioned at any given time. The 50s and 60s were not periods of innocence but periods when the culture focused away from unwholesome tastes -- probably out of regard for the generation that served in WWII, some of whom were exposed to depravity (or committed it) on a scale some of us could never imagine.

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  7. The most common title for the crime comics seemed to be "Crime Doesn't Pay", and a lot of them featured the criminal meeting a bad-end on the very cover. It's hard to compare with computer games where there's a level of interaction, and even where there really isn't (as in Photopia) it can feel like the player has some culpability in the outcome. But the amoralistic massacring of innocents for yucks appeared at least as early as Death Race.

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  8. "The more important question is how pervasive were such things as these particular type of comic books through the culture?"

    That's too subjective of a way to frame it. How pervasive is "pervasive"? But by contrasting the prevalence across time, we can see when it was rising or falling.

    In several places, Wertham mentions comic books from the 1920s not having lurid pictures or storylines. Weird or goofy or lame, but not sensationalist and sado-masochistic.

    I remember reading some comic books from the '70s that an older cousin had, and by then it was back closer to what they were like in the '20s. No gore, rape, torture, or voyeurism. That goes broadly for youth culture of the '70s and '80s.

    So during the mid-century, sensationalism and voyeurism was more prevalent in youth culture than it had been a few decades earlier as well as later. That suggests a shift toward the unwholesome during that period.

    You'd see the same thing today. Those torture porn movies don't make it into the top 10 or 20 at the box office, and the majority of blockbuster video games are not so lurid and sleazy.

    However, those unwholesome movies and video games are a lot more common than they were 20-30 years ago. They seemingly came out of nowhere. Again we see a shift toward the unwholesome.

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  9. "I tend to associate the 1970s and 1980s with "video nasties" "

    We had something like that in America, but directed more at mainstream sources of graphic violence. In 1984, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom made some people re-think the PG rating, which was for less intense movies. So in 1985, they introduced the PG-13 rating.

    But in both the British and American cases, it was more of a concern about violence and gore being shown to children. The movies they pointed to didn't feature an intentional lack of sympathy for victims, e.g. rape with a red-hot poker. They were more like monster movies that might be too frightening to the young ones.

    "BDSM perhaps may be a sign of the times"

    It's so weird looking at those '40s and '50s comic book covers and seeing how many show a scantily clad woman tied up...

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  10. "1970s "nasties" were intended to genuinenly disturb viewers... not to indulge their sadistic fantasies."

    Right, the old ones appealed to the audience's empathy. Now they appeal to the audience's self-superiority -- "Oh snap, sucks to be you!"

    In Seduction of the Innocent, there's a quote from some juvenile delinquent girl who says she likes lurid comics because you get to laugh at how stupid the victims are, something like that.

    It sounds so contemporary -- being the victim of some sick criminal isn't fortunate vs. unfortunate, it's intelligent vs. stupid. And of course that'll never happen to me because I'm so smart....

    I don't think most parents or other adults realize how short of a chain it is from cocooning your child to them having sadistic tendencies. Not out-there extreme ones, but a "sub-clinical" level of sadism. Cocooning prevents much of the social interactions that stimulate your sense of empathy to develop. Lacking empathy, you don't mind fucking around with others for no reason, and you don't respond to their signs of displeasure.

    That must be one reason why Millennials don't want friends. They perceive too great of a chance of the friend actually having a sadistic streak.

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  11. "The 50s and 60s were not periods of innocence but periods when the culture focused away from unwholesome tastes"

    Aside from lurid comic books, there was also the lurid film noir movies of the mid-century. Unlike comic books, film noir can be enjoyable. Yet for the most part you're seeing sleaziness and depravity unfolding in a way where people can't band together to stop it, so it's every man out for himself. It's claustrophobic and paranoid.

    Same with the more Hitchcockian kind of mystery/suspense/thriller movies of the period.

    The two exceptions (that I've seen anyway) that stand out as uplifting and show people learning to reach out and trust someone -- The Big Heat and Rear Window. Those two seem like they traveled back in time from the '80s, with such a tempestuous outside world yet with such wholesome social relations among those trying to get through it all.

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  12. "and a lot of them featured the criminal meeting a bad-end on the very cover."

    What's wholesome about that? Sleazy crook meets sleazy demise. You don't care about them unless they'd been shown in something likable or sympathetic earlier on.

    Think of those scenes in Scarface where Tony Montana is putting the moves on Michelle Pfeiffer's character. Like when he puts on her hat, totally straight-faced, making her laugh like a schoolgirl out on her first date. Or the disco scenes where everybody's dancing with each other and smiling. (No self-conscious, attention-whoring dance moves like rump shaking back in the '80s.)

    Those elements humanize the characters and make us actually care what happens to them, even if they're cokeheads or murderers. It makes the ending where Tony gets killed more poignant. It wasn't just "random thug blown away by other random thug".

    "But the amoralistic massacring of innocents for yucks appeared at least as early as Death Race."

    I never saw that game in any arcade, and I spent a good amount of time in arcades as a kid. The Killer List of Video Games puts it as 12 out of 100 for how common it is among their members, meaning it's rare.

    But even if that had been a popular game, it would've only been one. We're looking for broader patterns. Every '80s arcade game that does show killing is from the point of view of the hero in a simple good guys vs. bad guys battle.

    We didn't have a detached yuk-yuk mindset even when killing the bad guys. We took our role seriously, kind of like how the 4th grade hall monitors truly felt like the order of the school rested on them doing their job well.

    It wasn't until Street Fighter II (1991) that we got more somewhat detached, sadistic, and inflicting violence for yuks. That got a little worse with Mortal Kombat. The game that really stands out as the beginning of openly detached, sadistic, yuk-yuk violence was Mortal Kombat II of 1993. Self-awareness and ironic detachment reached Ren & Stimpy levels.

    Goldeneye was another milestone in that direction. We'd often keep shooting someone after they were already dead, just to watch their body twitch around. From what I understand, that's even more common / gruesome now. Back then all that happened was a pool of blood forming underneath them. Now you see more finely detailed trauma to the specific part that you shot.

    Doom, from the earlier '90s, wasn't like that -- no overkill, no senseless violence for yuks.

    By now I hear people complaining about spawn campers in all online multiplayer games that allow the possibility. By now it's not even for yuks, it's like a treadmill that they've habituated to and don't even get any enjoyment out of.

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  13. BTW, here's another gallery showing the covers that Wertham refers to without naming them in the book.

    http://www.lostsoti.org/FoundSOTI.htm

    Be sure to check out the mid-century ads just below the cover gallery. Yep, there's the one for the high-powered binoculars that tantalizes the reader with, "See what your neighbors are doing without being seen!"

    And there's even a mid-century Game advertisement. I always figured the mid-century would've had some kind of Game culture / hucksterism since the girls back then weren't eager themselves, and the guys grew up more socially isolated, hence would not have developed a natural intuition for what did and did not work.

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  14. Come to think of it, in Goldeneye we didn't just overkill someone once they were dead. We sadistically fucked around with them bit by bit from a distance, often through a voyeuristic sniper rifle lens.

    You'd zoom in from afar, tag them just once on their leg or arm, watch them squirm and hop around in pain, and once they regained their composure, tag them again, repeating until they dropped dead.

    Mortal Kombat II really started the torture porn thing, but Goldeneye paired it with voyeurism too.

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  15. Anonymous2:09 AM

    "That must be one reason why Millennials don't want friends. They perceive too great of a chance of the friend actually having a sadistic streak."

    This seems absolutely true. But I wonder how much is due to sexual frustration, overinfalted egos, etc., as opposed to having weak empathy.

    -Curtis

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  16. Anonymous2:18 AM

    The world had suddenly become dangerous during this time, and movies such as Last House on the Left were a way for people to understand and deal with it.

    The more brutal comic books (in terms of their influence on by far the largest comic book genre, the superhero comics) are noted as coming in in the 1980s as well, and losing popularity in the mid 1990s. Might be a similar thing of motivation, where the peak nastiness happened during the 1980s to "understand" the world and there was a hangover during the early 1990s?

    ...

    Ugh, Mortal Kombat was always a pretty brutal, gross kind of game (it's no God of War (brutally graphic head ripping, horrific nihilism)).

    About Street Fighter II and Goldeneye, sounds more like how you're playing the game than the game itself... They always looked quite clean cut. I don't know if at times sadistic "mind games" that are possible (but not really obligatory - ostensibly they're just about being a secret agent or winning a fight tournament, and reward (with points) doing so as quickly and efficiently as possible) in these games have more kind of appeal in current times than before.

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  17. "...but that doesn't make it any less important."

    Yeah actually it does make it less important. No matter how much it could theoretically impact society over who knows how many generations, I'm not more worried about the guy watching porn in his apartment than the guy slinging bullets and selling crack. I don't see how this is a defensible statement.

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  18. The impact is real, not theoretical. You just don't see any offenses other than those to medical health and personal security. There are other dimensions of well-being other than just personal safety.

    I feel like adding "Like, duh" but Jonathan Haidt probably as a TED talk about the differences between liberal and conservative morality, that would go into greater depth.

    I also doubt you live near a place where even in the '80s guys were slinging bullets or selling crack. Yet who knows what percentage of guys in your neighborhood are on one kind of joyless, unwholesome treadmill or another -- video games, porn, "gamer snacks," etc.

    Weighting by frequency as well as by impact, no doubt that treadmills are more corrosive than hoodlums.

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  19. I was making a point about how today criminals are more glorified (Bonnie & Clyde is often cited as the beginning, although as in reality they end badly) and you can play as them. Part of the Hayes Code for movies was that criminals couldn't get away with crime, and the comics seem consistent with that.

    Mortal Kombat was indeed revelling in violence. I never thought of Street Fighter that way, it was more cartoony. Goldeneye didn't seem particularly bad, the stuff you're talking about isn't really inherent in the game (it wasn't particularly gory, less so than Doom I'd guess) but how someone might play. I suppose the more recent equivalent of Mortal Kombat is Manhunt.

    Which reminds me, I was rewatching "Manhunter" recently which is a good movie despite a lot of crappy 80s music (the Inna Gadda Da Vida scene is great though). Part of the hook for that movie is that the protagonist empathisizes too much with the serial killer he's pursuing in order to get inside his head. But there isn't as much fawning over Hannibal Lecter as there would be later. Brian Cox, who first played Hannibal, blames that for the increasingly poor quality of the books (I haven't read them, but I have heard the later movies are terrible and think Red Dragon is inferior as a remake).

    I'm going to agree with pzed that you're basically making a self-refuting statement. I like to look at the "foot vote" for revealed preference, and I see that hoodlums cause white flight away from areas and much lower property values. Nothing like that for treadmills.

    Odd you bring up the pervasiveness of porn now, since I thought you wrote earlier that fewer people are reporting having watched it now.

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  20. Porn isn't produced for people who watch porn. It's produced for people who pay for porn. Before the web that wasn't much of a difference. The pervier one is, the harder it is to find real-life satisfaction or pre-existing porn. So most new porn is made for freakier and freakier people.

    Also, the quality (I use the word loosely) of porn actresses could be much higher when there were way fewer of them. Who wants to watch a meth addict pretend to be in love?

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  21. Anonymous10:24 AM

    The disturbnig thing is that these young men cannot even imagine consensually having sex with any woman. This is where the BDSM comes in - it seems more realistic to them, and therefore, more arousing. So thoroughly have they been rejected.

    -Curtis

    Off-topic: I could have sworn you mentioned something about conservatives and liberal biological differences.

    Teh best thing I've come across is that liberals have larger noses, with wider nostrils. This gives them an enhanced sense of smell. Because of this, they can easily judge whether someone else is good or bad for them - take a whiff, feel good or bad, and act accordingly. This is why liberals are generally more fragmented and self-indulgent - they can get away with it, because of their keen, instinctual judgement of others and situations.

    Conservatives have small, high-rooted noses, with small nostrils, and so have lost their ability to instinctually judge other people. They've historically compensated by trying to "figure things out" cerebrally, socially interacting with others, and creating dogma out of their findings. This is why conservatives are so strict about enforcing their beliefs - they don't have any instinctual judgement to fall back on, so better safe than sorry.

    Of course, this makes cons. more cooperative and social, and liberals more independent(ironically, but I think its true), more self-interested, and more able to get by without doing a lot of work, or making a real contribution. Judging others by smell, liberals are cunning and intuitive enough to break the rules and get away with it. Conservatives, lacking the ability to judge people by smell, must play by the rules and use their minds.

    This is why liberals don't get disgusted by the violation of taboos. They're so confident in their ability to judge people that they don't mind social chaos. Conservatives, on the other hand, don't want to have to constantly judge newcomers or new social behaviors, since its something they're bad at it. They need to figure things out the long way, through observance and reflection.

    -Curtis

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  22. Anonymous10:33 AM

    Of course, if this is true - and who knows, sorry if its sounds utterly ridiculous - it means that the intellectual and scientific legacy of Western Civ. is mostly conservative. And the birth of civilaztion itself - since the conservatives needed to talk to each other to figure out how to make it in the world.

    Liberals made their contributions, but those were mostly military and political. Liberals understood who you could trust or not trust, so naturally they would have ended up in charge. Not the way most people think of it - conservatives as the intellectual elite, liberals as teh no-nonsense managers and protectors.

    Then again, maybe it was conservatives who were said to have large noses... :/

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  23. Anonymous5:03 AM

    The disturbnig thing is that these young men cannot even imagine consensually having sex with any woman. This is where the BDSM comes in - it seems more realistic to them, and therefore, more arousing. So thoroughly have they been rejected.

    Curtis, do you have any evidence to suggest younger men are disproportionately using stuff with BDSM themes?

    http://www.archpsychological.com/index_htm_files/Porn%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf

    e.g. "Age is not a major factor. Pornography consumers are fairly evenly divided. The 35 to 44 year-old age group consume the most pornography in the United States (26 percent) and 18-24-year-olds purchase the least (14 percent)."

    Frustrated Gen-X old goats using porno the most sounds like the most plausible scenario to me anyway (follows the data on promiscuity, declining attractiveness of their partners, relative to younger generations), and there doesn't seem like anything to indicate that younger men like more S&M themed stuff.

    Indeed http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/10-charts-about-sex/ finds that younger men prefer "gentle sex" overwhelmingly, while older men favor "rough sex" overwhelmingly (there is a much milder reverse trend in women - women's sexual desires for rough/gentle are generally more akin to young mens).

    (Interestingly, the OKCupid information also does find that "rough sex" preference correlates with words like "comics", "anime", "internet", "dork", "nerdy", "atheist", "religion" [as opposed to "church", a more abstract view of religion] - all confirming the stereotype of nerds and dorks liking BDSM a bit more).

    Of course, rough != BDSM, but could mean "passionate", I suppose (and I'm sure this will simply be explained away with older men simply being more "alive" not "psychopathic" and Dark Triad).

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  24. Anonymous7:05 PM

    "Frustrated Gen-X old goats using porno the most sounds like the most plausible scenario to me anyway (follows the data on promiscuity, declining attractiveness of their partners, relative to younger generations), and there doesn't seem like anything to indicate that younger men like more S&M themed stuff."

    There's no hard data, but there is lots of anecdotal data in the changing tenor of videogames, movies, TV shows, and even music("don't trust a ho")

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  25. Anonymous4:31 AM

    There's no hard data, but there is lots of anecdotal data in the changing tenor of videogames, movies, TV shows, and even music("don't trust a ho")

    I'm not sure younger people consume more television or movies (in the present day and are thus responsible disproportionately for that) and I don't really think much of just assuming that old people in the present day have not changed greatly since their youth.

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