The playmate and the rabbi: unlikely bedfellows fighting internet porn

Shmuley Boteach and Pamela Anderson described porn and its ubiquity online as ‘a public hazard of unprecedented seriousness’. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Shmuley Boteach and Pamela Anderson described porn and its ubiquity online as ‘a public hazard of unprecedented seriousness’. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Playboy stalwart Pamela Anderson and self-styled ‘America’s rabbi’ Shmuley Boteach are set to hit the Oxford Union.

They make unlikely bedfellows, the Playboy playmate and the rabbi, but they have found a common belief and mission: that pornography is harmful, and we – by which they mostly mean men – should be consuming much less of it, or at least not fuelling the demand for the viler, more degrading parts of it.

On Saturday, Pamela Anderson, the most enduring sex symbol of recent times, and Shmuley Boteach, self-styled as “America’s Rabbi”, will talk about this at the Oxford Union. It follows a month of campaigning, which kicked off with an opinion piece they wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

They described porn, and its ubiquity online, as “a public hazard of unprecedented seriousness” that leads to the implosions of marriages, families and careers. Children, they said, are being “raised in an environment of wall-to-wall, digitised sexual images … [becoming] adults inured to intimacy and in need of even greater graphic stimulation. They are the crack babies of porn.”

They met when Anderson was being honoured by an organisation run by Boteach. “We celebrate and promote universal values and [people] who are attached to the state of Israel,” he says, when we speak on the phone set while he and Anderson are being driven through London to a TV studio. “Pamela has been a very laudatory and complimentary spokesperson about Israel. We gave her an award.”

They became friends, and began talking about their feelings on relationships – and pornography’s effect on them. Boteach is known in the US for his books on sex and relationships and appearances on TV. Together, they decided to launch what they are calling the “sensual revolution”.

Some may recognise Boteach. He has been criticised within the Jewish community, and by many fellow rabbis, for his work on sexuality and theology alike, been investigated for the way his organisations use funds, and his seemingly immense appetite for self-promotion is not to everyone’s tastes (he had his own reality show and has made numerous appearances on shows such as Oprah and Dr Oz; his book Kosher Lust was serialised in Playboy). And he has appeared at the Oxford Union before, in 2001, where he spoke alongside his friend Michael Jackson, to whom he acted as “spiritual adviser”.

Anderson wasn’t put off by Boteach’s controversial, colourful past, she says. “I love Rabbi Shmuley and everything he stands for. I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s very outspoken and he’s in a position to do that and make powerful change. I respect him immensely.”

Since the WSJ piece, Anderson has been accused of hypocrisy, given that her entire career has been built on nude shots for Playboy, most recently in December, which was Playboy’s last issue to feature naked women. “Porn even killed Playboy,” she says, though not everyone will weep.

But Anderson has always been clear about the distinction. According to the artist Marilyn Minter, who worked with her in 2006, she is “the opposite of Anna Nicole Smith and Marilyn Monroe – she owned her own sexual power”. Anderson refuses to consider that Playboy is pornographic: “I think it was titillating, innocent,” she says. “It was highbrow – there was art and culture.

“When I went to the Playboy mansion I met great artists, intellectuals, people who were into philanthropy, art, music. I look at that as a fond memory but I understand … ” She pauses. “There are people who eat meat and become vegetarian – that doesn’t make them hypocritical, that makes them a growing, evolving human being.”

But she says she doesn’t regret her work for Playboy, because she views it as different from what is available online today. “I do believe that internet porn is addictive, getting weirder and weirder, and darker, and I think it does lead to violence against women.”

Does she not think that something such as Playboy paved the way? “It might have, it opened the door, but we’ve gone down this rabbit hole of dark pornography and it’s getting worse and worse.” Boteach joins in: “Some people might try to disqualify her from this conversation, saying, ‘You are someone who has been part of this culture and now you’re criticising it’, but the truth is who would know about the impact of that culture better than Pamela?”

Not that we should assume Anderson has had some kind of radical feminist epiphany (she has always refused to call herself a feminist), but she is undergoing something of a reinvention in other ways.

Born in Canada, she was spotted at a football game in Vancouver and became the face of a beer company, before Hugh Hefner, the Playboy founder, asked her to move to LA and become a model. In 1992 she joined the hilariously good-looking cast of Baywatch, the successful show about Los Angeles County lifeguards, and Anderson became a global star.

During the 1990s and early 2000s Anderson did a few films, but mainly appeared naked in Playboy and other men’s magazines; in the tabloids she was better known for her turbulent marriages. Later, launching her own charitable foundation, she would talk about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child and young teenager.

Now she is known as an activist as much as anything else. She has supported Peta for more than 20 years, and runs her own foundation. Presumably, like anyone hurled into celebrity at an early age, she has spent a lot of time since then figuring out how to carve something meaningful out of it. Luke Gilford, a young independent filmmaker, was struck by exactly this when he persuaded her to be in his short film, Connected, recently.

“I was interested in capturing this moment in time for her where she’s this ageing sex symbol trying to find deeper meaning in her own life,” he says. “She has a lot of ideas, a lot she has to say and a lot she has experienced. People don’t realise how much there is to her.”

However curious her partnership with Shmuley, no one can deny that they’re making their point at an opportune moment. Look at the tone of the US presidential campaign, Anderson says. “There is this culture of men who speak this way about women.” Shmuley adds: “There are men who are marinating in a culture of our portrayal of women.

“We have to take a deeper examination of [that].” Porn, he says, “trains men to see women as a means to an end. The idea of pornography is to portray women as a walking male orgasm, that women are there to stimulate men for sexual climax. This is part of addressing it. Not through censorship, but an honest conversation.”

This has become a subject Anderson feels strongly about. “I think we should really look at ourselves and think is this affecting our relationships and causing a lack of intimacy? Because I’m talking about having better sex, better loving relationships and more respect for women. I have two teenage sons and I want them to experience loving relationships and sensual experiences.”

In the past, she says, “people assume, because of who I am, that I want [sex which is] wild, crazy, slapped around, called a whore. What is going on? I’m here and telling people you can have beautiful, loving sex without the demeaning side of it.”

www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/oct/14/pamela-anderson-and-the-rabbi-unlikely-bedfellows-fighting-internet-porn