The grainy images of abuse coming from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq are as disturbing and offensive as they are unsettlingly familiar: a naked man is lying on a cement floor, a woman holding a leash tied to his neck; others are bound and piled naked in a pyramid or hooded and forced to simulate sex acts.
"What happened wasn't torture," one Iraqi prisoner, Hiadar Abed, told NBC News. "It was pornography."
A certain pornographic aesthetic shrouds the Abu Ghraib photos, calling to mind similarly shame-provoking images from some adult magazines, videos and Web sites. That these images came not from the dark imagination of the porn industry but from American soldiers in charge of guarding Iraqi prisoners makes for a most awful kind of reality show.
The prison photos resemble a niche called gonzo porn that experts say has been popular for the last five years or so, a genre marked by handheld cameras, the illusion of spontaneity and a low-tech aesthetic meant to suggest reality. One popular site, for instance, shows men in a van pulling up to random women on the streets of Miami and luring them inside for sex.
"People want to see what's real and those [Iraq] photos in a way, even though they're more violent than sexual, they're kind of somewhat similar," said Chip Rowe, a senior editor at Playboy. "It brings to mind a certain type of porn - the kind of thing where somebody's humiliated."
Even if the soldiers weren't intending to make pornography, that may be an unintended consequence of what they did. As prisons play a larger role in American life - with more Americans incarcerated every year -prison fetish has grown in popularity in the porn industry.
"Anything that looms so large in the collective conscience gets fetishized by a small segment," said Dan Savage, a syndicated sex-advice columnist, noting the photos will certainly make it onto porn sites, if they're not there already. "A lot of the same technology that's democratized pornography production and made amateur porn possible is what brought us these images."
While the Abu Ghraib photos themselves may have the feel of pornography, they are not by definition pornographic because their purpose is not to arouse, but to degrade and humiliate.
And, apparently, to document the interesting adventures the soldiers had in Iraq. The Washington Post reported that the prison photos were mixed in with other, more traditional Americans-abroad poses showing soldiers in front of mosques and atop camels.
"They're digital-age war souvenirs," Savage said. "These are not people who thought these pictures would ruin their lives or get them thrown in the brig."
But the blur is such that images from Abu Ghraib are already getting confused with actual pornography. Three Egyptian publications last week published pictures of what they said were American soldiers sexually abusing female prisoners in Iraq. But the U.S. Embassy in Cairo quickly demanded a retraction, saying the pictures were, in fact, fakes taken from a Web site.
"They are clearly staged photos, done by actors," according to the embassy.
But editors of those Egyptian publications were unapologetic, suggesting that it was impossible to distinguish between actual photos from the prison, first broadcast by CBS News, and fakes from the Internet.
"The kind of pictures on CBS made us believe that any other picture is authentic," one editor, Mustafa Bakri, told the Associated Press.
Still, the question remains: How could ordinary Americans - from small towns in Western Maryland and elsewhere, a fisherman, a mechanic, a Papa John's pizza employee - stage and photograph scenes that would be so hard to distinguish from actual pornographic ones?
"To me, the question is how could they not," said Craig W. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
In a landmark 1971 experiment, Haney and another researcher simulated a prison in the basement of a Stanford University building. Nine students were randomly assigned to be guards, and nine to be prisoners. The outcome now seems pre-ordained: The guards quickly turned sadistic and forced prisoners to wear hoods and perform sexual acts.
"Sexual abuse is a very straightforward and powerful way to humiliate people," Haney said.
Savage, the sex columnist, notes that the abuse - which included forcing naked male prisoners to sit on each other and simulate sex acts - seemed tailored to humiliate the Iraqis, given the attitudes toward homosexuality in Muslim countries.
And the only way to make it worse, he said, would be to put a woman in charge.
Enter Pfc. Lynndie England, giving a thumbs-up in front of a pile of prisoners and holding one by a leash. In another, she is pointing at male prisoners' genitals, a cigarette in her mouth and a grin on her face.
"Part of what's stunning about the photographs," Haney said, "is the smiling faces, and the distribution of the photographs suggests standards inside the prison had deteriorated so badly that they did not realize how far they had gone."