I WAS 17 YEARS OLD the first time I saw an X-rated movie. It was Thanksgiving in Washington, D.C. My college dorm had all but emptied out for the holiday weekend. With no classes, no tests, and nobody around, I decided to scratch an itch that had long been tormenting me.
I used to see these movies advertised in the old Washington Star, and -- like any 17-year-old boy whose sex life is mostly theoretical -- I burned with curiosity. I wondered what such films might be like, what awful, thrilling secrets they might expose.
And so that weekend I took myself to see one. Full of anticipation, nervous and embarrassed, I walked to the Casino Royale at 14th Street and New York Avenue. At the top of a long flight of stairs, a cashier sat behind a cage. "Five dollars," he demanded -- steep for my budget, especially since a ticket to the movies in the late '70s usually cost $ 3.50. But I'd come this far and couldn't turn back. I paid, I entered, I watched.
For about 20 minutes. The movie, I still remember, was called "Cry for Cindy," and what I saw on the screen I'd never seen -- I'd never even imagined -- before. A man and a woman, acrobatic oral sex, extreme close-ups. The sheer gynecological explicitness of it jolted me. Was this the forbidden delight hinted at by those ads? This wasn't arousing, it was repellent. I was shocked. More than that: I was ashamed.
I literally couldn't take it. I bolted the theater and tumbled down the steps. My heart was pounding and my face was burning. I felt dirty. Guilty. I was conscience-stricken.
All that -- over a dirty movie.
Well, I was an innocent at 17. I was naive and inexperienced, shy with girls, the product of a parochial-school education and a strict upbringing. Explicit sex -- in the movies, music, my social life -- was foreign to me. Coming from such an environment, who wouldn't recoil from "Cry for Cindy" or feel repelled by what was on that screen?
But here's the rub: Dirty movies don't have that effect on me anymore. I don't make a practice of seeking out skin flicks or films with explicit nudity, but in the years since I was 17, I've certainly seen my share. Today another sex scene is just another sex scene. Not shocking, not appalling, not something I feel ashamed to look at. Writhing bodies on the screen? Raunchy lyrics in a song? They may entertain me or they may bore me, but one thing they no longer do is make me blush.
I've become jaded. And if a decade and a half of being exposed to this stuff can leave me jaded -- with my background, my religious schooling, my disciplined origins -- what impact does it have on kids and young adults who have never been sheltered from anything? What impact does it have on a generation growing up amid dysfunctional families, broken-down schools, and a culture of values-free secularism?
If sex- and violence-drenched entertainment can desensitize me, it can desensitize anyone. It can desensitize a whole society. It can drag us to the point where nothing is revolting. Where nothing makes us blush.
And what happens to an unblushing society? Why, everything. Central Park joggers get raped and beaten into comas. Sixth-graders sleep around. Los Angeles rioters burn down their neighborhood. The Menendez boys blow off their parents' heads. Lorena Bobbitt mutilates her husband as he sleeps. "Artists" sell photographs of crucifixes dunked in urine. Pro-life fanantics open fire on abortion clinics. Daytime TV fills up with deviants. The US Naval Academy fills up with cheaters. The teen suicide rate goes through the roof.
And we get used to all of it. We don't blush.
The point isn't that moviegoers walk out of Oliver Stone's latest grotesquerie primed to kill. Or that Geto Boys' sociopathic lyrics ("Leavin' out her house, grabbed the bitch by her mouth/ Drug her back in, slam her down on the couch./ Whipped out my knife, said, 'If you scream I'm cuttin,'/ Open her legs and . . .") cause rape. The point is that when blood and mayhem and sleazy sex drench our popular culture, we get accustomed to blood and mayhem and sleazy sex. We grow jaded. Depravity becomes more and more tolerable because less and less scandalizes us.
Of course, the entertainment industry accepts no responsibility for any of this. Time Warner and Hollywood indignantly reject the criticisms heaped on them in recent days. We don't cause society's ills, they say, we only reflect them. "If an artist wants to deal with violence or sexuality or images of darkness and horror," said film director Clive Barker, "those are legitimate subjects for artists."
They are, true. Artists have dealt with violence and sexuality and horror since time immemorial. But debauchery is not art. There is nothing ennobling about a two-hour paean to bloodlust. To suggest that Snoop Doggy Dogg's barbaric gang-rape fantasies somehow follow in the tradition of Sophocles' tragic drama, Chaucer's romantic poetry, or Solzhenitsyn's moral testimony is to suggest that there is no difference between meaning and meaninglessness.
For Hollywood and Time Warner, perhaps there no longer is. The question before the house is, what about the rest of us?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)