A proliferation of pornography on the Internet has set up a debate about the impact on young women: is in-your-face sexuality empowering, allowing girls to act like boys, or does today's hyper-sexualized society lead to more mental-health disorders for girls?

The consumer Internet usage tracker, comScore Media Metrix, reports that more than one-third of American Internet users visited sites in the "adult" category in April 2007.

One of the Web's less admirable accomplishments is that it has allowed porn to propagate to a point once thought not imaginable. In the 1950s, could one in three Americans have visited a pornography shop?

Remember those photographs of men hiding their faces behind folded newspapers as they entered or exited such distinguished joints? Of course, it would have been unfeasible back then to have one-third of Americans routinely trafficking through them. But now pornography is accessible in your house, on your street, from the local Internet cafe, etc. To wit, it's wildly more accessible than it used to be. That doesn't mean it's good.

And porn abounds off the Net as well. I recall recently recoiling at a soft-porn scene in the Oscar-winning movie, "The Last King of Scotland," when I thought I had bought a ticket to see something more staid. Pornography and its softer sister (soft-core porn) abound in advertisements, on billboards and elsewhere. Critics say hyper-sexuality on and off the Internet has created a society obsessed with sexual exhibition and its attention-getting after-effect.

These after-effects, however, are anything but liberating for women, particularly for the young women claiming its mantra as something that empowers them. If you're wondering what I'm talking about, a visit to nakednews.com will explain all. The site was recently written up in USA Today. Some young women who take part in on-camera nudity and soft porn told the newspaper they find such behavior liberating and empowering. But a recent American Psychological Association study shows that sexualized images of women can lead to emotional and mental disorders in girls, including depression and eating disorders. Quelle surprise!!

I'm all for women's advancement, but I fail to see how pornography plays a role here. As to the argument that engaging in public sex acts and nudity "empowers" women, this is one woman who just doesn't get it.

Are male porn stars "liberated," or do they seem like pathetic souls willing to do anything for a buck? And since when did "acting like men" come to mean advancement for women? Women's advancement is about equal opportunity, particularly in the workplace. It is not about imitating disgraceful male behavior nor ever should it have been. Where do these young women get these ideas?

Feminism (a messy agglomeration of all manner of women activists) has represented a melange of views on pornography, with "Free Expression Feminists" opposing censorship and other types of feminists battling porn as harmful to women. But conservatives like to blame feminism and "women's liberation" for pornography's proliferation. Again, let me state for the record as I have in the past, I am not a feminist. I appreciate what feminist leaders have done for women's advancement, but I differ with all major political ideologies in some way, shape or form. I therefore eschew any ideological or partisan labels.

So is "women's liberation" (what an achingly archaic term) responsible for today's girls gone wild? No more so, I would argue, than conservative Christianity. Doesn't outright repression also provoke unnecessarily rebellious counter-behavior? Each is linked in a distinctive way with in-your-face hyper-sexuality.

Whatever your position on girls and porn, the reality is that what the Internet and a free society have unleashed is hardly about to be squeezed back into the bottle. The question is, how do we convince young women (and men) that pornography is disempowering, anything but empowering and damaging to one's psyche in the long run. Greater minds than mine will have to figure out that one.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)

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