Media  
comments_image Comments

Should We Worry Whether Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality?

Author Gail Dines says today's brutal pornography looks nothing like it did 15 years ago -- and it's damaged our ability to have intimate relationships.
 
 
Share
 
 
 

A new book by scholar Gail Dines asserts that society's overconsumption of pornography and the ridiculous extremes of today's mainstream pornography have greatly undermined our ability to have meaningful sexual partnerships. In Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality, Dines traces the history of the porn industry from Playboy and Penthouse, to today's brutal fare that resembles nothing less than the videotaped sexual assault of women.

As an example, Dines quotes from the introductory text on a typical porn Web site:

Do you know what we say to things like romance and foreplay? We say fuck off! This is not another site with half-erect weenies trying to impress bold sluts. We take gorgeous young bitches and do what every man would REALLY like to do. We make them gag till their makeup starts running, and then they get all other holes sore -- vaginal, anal, double penetrations, anything brutal involving a cock and an orifice. And then we give them the sticky bath.

This is not the extreme end of a complex porn continuum -- it is typical of today's mainstream porn freely available online, often to boys as young as 11. Not only does Dines go to great lengths to research the depth of porn's standard fare, but she also details how the porn industry is consumed with profits, and the effect this has on its male viewers. Says Dines, "The pornographers did a kind of stealth attack on our culture, hijacking our sexuality and then selling it back to us, often in forms that look very little like sex but a lot like cruelty."

Gail Dines is a professor of sociology and women's studies at Boston's Wheelock College, where she researches the hypersexualization of the culture. I interviewed her recently about her book.

Sonali Kolhatkar:I have to say it was very difficult to read your book, and I had to skip parts where you describe mainstream pornography. This is not your father's Playboy orPenthouse magazines and videos. What we're seeing in porn today, and mainstream porn, is completely bizarre. I mean, how do you handle it in your research?

Gail Dines: Well, what's interesting is that I, like the viewers, get desensitized over time. I mean, obviously I couldn't have the visceral reaction I had in the beginning to it. But I put those descriptions in because often people say to me, you know, why are you getting so upset by images of naked women? And what I want people to understand is that pornography now looks nothing like it did 10, 15 years ago -- that it is now brutal and cruel and is absolutely based on the degradation of women. So this is why I walk people through the porn industry. Also, often anti-porn feminists are accused of picking the worst of the pornography. What I wanted to do was go into the mainstream pornography that the average 11-year-old would get once he put "porn" into Google.

SK: Can you trace the history of the pornography industry, both in terms of who has run it, and its content?

GD: There's always been pornography floating around our culture, but I really put the pornography industry at 1953, starting then. Why? Because it was the first edition of Playboy, and this was the first time pornography really became industrialized, really became a product. Now, Hefner was very smart. He started in '53, post-Second World War America. And what this country needed to do was jump-start the economy. Now, women were taught how to buy through television. There was nowhere to teach men. And remember in the '50s you had to teach people how to be consumers. I know it sounds bizarre today, but then...

And so, in order to teach people how to be consumers, you needed to show them what it was to buy products they didn't need. This is where Playboy was so successful. The advertising in Playboy was about telling men that if you consume at this level, then you will get the real prize, which is the women in the magazine, or women who look like women in the magazine. So what he did–he didn't just commodify sexuality, he sexualized commodities, which is his brilliance.

Also in 1969 in the New York Times there was an ad for Penthouse, and that was Penthouse trying to come in and dislodge Playboy from its number one position. And between 1969 and 1973, you had a war between Playboy and Penthouse to see who could be the most explicit. Now in a way, Playboylost the battle but won the war. The reason is that it didn't go as explicit as Penthouse. Penthouse was so explicit that a lot of the advertisers ran and were nervous about putting their images, their products, in there.

Now, during the battle between '69 and '73, they opened up the space for what was acceptable pornography. It's no accident that in 1973 you saw the first edition of Hustler. This absolutely pushed the limits of what could be mainstream, hard-core pornography. So you had Playboy staking out the soft-core, then you had Hustler staking out the hard-core. Those were -- and I can't believe I say this -- the good old days. Today, I mean, Hustler is mild compared to what you see in the mainstream pornography.

SK: Because of the Internet.

GD: Absolutely. The Internet changed the industry. It made it accessible, and it made it affordable. So remember, when the average age of first viewing pornography is 11, when the 11-year-old boy puts "porn" into Google, he's not looking at your father'sPlayboy, he's looking at a world of cruelty, and a world of brutality. So what I ask in the book is, "What are the long-term effects of bringing up boys on violent images when you think about pornography as being the main form of sex education in our society?"

SK: And I want to get to that question, but let's talk about the effects on women. Because as the industry has changed, the women participating in that industry have gone from, you know, being photographed naked to now being literally brutalized -- physically brutalized. What does the average female participant in the pornography industry go through in terms of her physical degradation and her physical health?

GD: If you watch pornography you see that immediately. What you see is a woman being penetrated brutally vaginally, anally and orally. As that's happening -- three men at one time, four men at one time -- she's being called vile, hateful names, she's being sometimes slapped, sometimes her hair is pulled... Even the industry said that many women have a hard time being in the industry for more than three months. Why? Because of the brutalization of the body.

SK: Three months?

GD: That's what the article says in Adult Video News. Also, I've interviewed somebody who worked with AIM, the health care organization that takes care of the health of porn performers, and he was telling me just what happens to the bodies of these women. For example, he said one of the big things are anal prolapses, where literally their anuses drop out of their body and have to be sewn back in because of the brutal anal sex. He also talked about gonorrhea of the eye, and the latest thing -- because you have something called [ass to mouth] -- they put the penis into the anus, and then into her mouth without washing. They're finding now that women are getting fecal bacterial infections in their mouth and throat.

So, you've got a whole host of issues that women have to deal with in the porn industry, and what's interesting is nobody seems to be interested in these women. Instead we get some ridiculous documentary saying women like it, they choose it. Absolutely not. You know, you're looking at working-class women who think they know what pornography is, who see Jenna Jameson and think they're going to be the next Jenna Jameson, when Jenna Jameson is one in 10,000. And really, Jenna Jameson has been an important recruitment tool because she suggests this is what you can do if you go into pornography. And what do you know? You're 18, you think you know what you're gonna get into, and then you get on the set and everything shifts and changes.

SK:What are the long-term effects on our sexuality as a result of this new era of brutal sexual assault that masquerades as pornography both on men and women? Have there been studies?

GD: There's been studies for 30 years -- on men, mainly -- and what they find, and what I found in my interviews, is that the more pornography men watch, the less able they are to develop intimate relationships. Also what's interesting is they lose interest in real women because the pornography is so hardcore -- it's industrial-strength sex -- anything less looks bland and boring. Also, the men think they should be performing like the men in pornography, they think their penises should look like that, they think they should be able to sexually perform for hours like the men do. What they don't realize is a lot of the men in pornography are on Viagra, that's why it's so possible... And they begin to really see women in terms of objects. Not as somebody to have relationships with, but as somebody to do something to. Sex becomes something like making hate to a woman's body. They don't make love in pornography, they make hate.

SK: Now, this is an aspect that gets debated over and over again. The pro-pornography viewpoint is that what you see on your video screen is a fantasy, and that we are human beings who are capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality, and we don't carry over what's in our fantasy to our real lives.

GD:Well, it's very interesting we say that because, you know, as somebody who studies media, and as somebody who's progressive, when we study right-wing media we don't say it's fantasy. We don't say, "You know what, don't worry about Glenn Beck, don't worry about Rush Limbaugh -- people can distinguish." No, we understand that media shapes the way we think. It shapes our reality, it shapes our perceptions of the world. Pornography is one more form of media. It's a specific genre which, by the way, is very powerful because it delivers messages to men's brains via the penis, which is an extremely powerful delivery system. So I think the idea that it's fantasy just isn't borne out given the studies that we know about how porn, and how images in general, affect people's view of the world.

SK:
What about the profit motive here, and how has that changed? Because, of course, in the early days of Playboy and Penthouse, profit was the motive, and profit is a motive today as well, but how has the industry become so fiercely capitalistic that, in a way, it's almost a victim of itself?

GD: Well, it's always been a capitalist industry. I mean, this is another thing that we don't want to think about -- that pornography, in reality, is profit-driven. It's not about fantasy, it's not about play, it's not about fun. It's about money.

When I went to the [annual porn] expo in Las Vegas, I interviewed a lot of pornographers. What was amazing is what interested them is money. They don't talk sex, they talk money. They talk bulk mailing, they talk mass advertising. What we forget when we talk about pornography is that these are not fantasies created from nowhere that drop from the sky, these are fantasies created within a typical capitalist market. What you see in pornography is a need to keep addressing that. Now what's happened is that as more and more men are using pornography, they're becoming more bored and desensitized with it, which means that they want harder and harder stuff. And the pornography, because it's profit-driven, has to meet their needs. What's interesting is that pornography is actually in a mess because they don't know what else to do, the pornographers. They've gone about as hardcore and as cruel as they can. They've done everything to women's bodies short of killing her. So the question is what can they do next to keep an increasingly desensitized audience interested?

SK:In an interesting way, pornography seems to almost be a metaphor for capitalism in general, right? Basically unchecked growth...at some point there's a limit, at some point you hit a wall, and you can't grow any more, you can't go any further because you've gone as far as you can.

GD:That's the whole issue of capitalism in our society as well. It's how much more can we continue given what's happening to the environment. But I would say that there's still room for the niche markets in pornography, and in my book I talk about specific niche markets. One of them is called interracial porn, which is black men and white women. Another one is what I call pseudo-child pornography, which is women who are 18 -- I'm pretty sure of that -- but they look younger, and they behave in a younger way. So what you have are men who are bored with adult women looking out for these pseudo-child porn sites. And I've interviewed child rapists, and some of them actually started looking... They didn't want to go to illegal child pornography, so they started with the legal so-called child pornography, and then basically matured into child pornography. And for some of them, the distance between looking at child pornography and raping a child was six months.

SK: Wow. What are the long-term effects on our society in general? Not necessarily just effects on the men who consume it, but how has pornography 'pornified,' to use Pamela Paul's term, our culture?

GD: Well, I think when we talk about a porn culture, we talk about the images and the messages and the ideologies of porn filtering down into mainstream media. I mean, you just have to turn on the television, flip through a magazine, go to the movies, and what you see is a pornographized version of the world. Now I think this is true for women as well. If you go to Cosmopolitan, the places where women read, you'll often see articles about why you should have pornography to spice up your sex life. So what we're seeing is, the pornographers have really taken control of the discourse around sexuality.

There's nobody else who's getting any voice who's coming up and saying, "Look. This is a particular type of sex that pornography's representing. It is brutality, it is based on the debasement of women. There are alternative ways of being sexual in our society that are not based on the debasement of women." But where do you hear this in the media? Because the media is increasingly becoming pornified, and you have the pornographers and their hacks in the media defining what our sexuality should be.

SK: And the effects on young girls and boys -- you mentioned that the average age of a boy who views porn on the Internet today is 11, which, as the mother of a boy, is just heartbreaking to me. So the effects on young children, both boys and then girls who see these pornified images on billboards and in magazines...what are we doing to our children?

GD: We're distorting their sexuality. We're forcing them into early sexuality this way, and we're turning their sexuality into a commodity so we can sell it -- commodify it and sell it back to them. I think one of the interesting things about how girls and young women are affected by the porn culture is they date these men who themselves have been shaped by pornography. What I found in my interviews with young women was that many of these men wanted to play out porn sex on their bodies. They wanted anal sex, they wanted all sorts of other things that they'd seen in pornography.

And a lot of the women, they don't want to do it, but they don't have the vocabulary to express why they don't want to do it because everywhere they go in this society they're told, "If you don't do it, you're a prude." And what teenager or adolescent do you know wants to be defined as a prude? So the boys are pushing, nagging, cajoling girls into performing porn sex.

SK:Gail, let's talk about the feminist debate, and where it stands over pornography. This is a long-standing debate, this battle within feminist circles over pornography. On the one hand, there are feminists who point out that pornography is degrading to women and should be an issue taken up by feminists; then on the other hand, are those who say women in the pornography industry are empowered, or they're sex workers who ought to be respected like any other workers and we shouldn't be prudes or man-haters or 'feminazis,' which is a common term I'm sure you've been called -- I've been called that. Do you see that conversation changing given that the landscape of mainstream pornography has become so brutal? Or are we still blind to its brutality?

GD: This is a great question because as pornography becomes more brutal, you would think that the conversation would get around to brutality and what happens to the women. It's amazing, I think, those feminists who support the porn industry–they don't look at it as an industry, they look at it as a collection of women being empowered by the industry. Now, I'm not saying there aren't some women who can't make this work for them. However, what I'm interested in is the macro-social and systematic effects of an industry, not of individuals working within it. What I study is the mainstream industry where women are not empowered. Women come and go, they enter the industry thinking they're going to be Jenna Jameson, they leave scarred, they leave emotionally affected by what's happened to them. And I think as feminists we need to start looking at the effects on women both in the industry and outside the industry because, as I said, these women are dating the men.

I think also there's areas in feminism where no one really sees the reality of women's victim status, that we say women are no longer victims. Well, if you look at the level of violence against women in this society, you look at women struggling to feed their children, you look at women living in poverty, you know, we need to have feminism with politics. And what's happened, I think, is that politics have been bled out of feminism, so now you get this idea that we got what we wanted, or at least we can be empowered as individuals. I'm sorry, but you cannot be empowered as individuals when women as a group are systematically discriminated against. And even if I'm OK. My feminism was saying, "You know what? I walked that distance for you because you're not OK." That's what sisterhood was about. Not about looking at individuals and saying, "You're OK, so that's a sign that women are empowered."

SK: Finally, where is the good news in all of this? Where's the activism and what are some avenues by which people can take action?

GD: There are a few places they can go where we've got resources online. My Web site, gaildines.com, also stoppornculture.com, which is an organization that I co-founded, has a list of resources. You can also download a 50-minute slideshow with a script and images that you can give in your communities, you can give in your schools. It's been given across the country, in lots of different other countries as well. And you can join on, and we have conferences, and we actually train people how to give the slideshow as a way to start building a grassroots activist movement. I often get letters from women all over the country telling me this has happened to me, thank you for doing this work, I'm now joining your organization because my husband, my boyfriend, or whatever has been using pornography and I've been affected by it.

Sonali Kolhatkar is Co-Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a US-based non-profit that funds health, educational, and training projects for Afghan women. She is also the host and producer of Uprising Radio, a daily morning radio program at KPFK, Pacifica in Los Angeles.
 
See more stories tagged with: