Sex & Relationships

Readers Write: Pornography and the End of Masculinity

From video games to historical art, and from sexual repression to violence against women, AlterNet readers have a lot to say about porn. Here's the first in a two-part series.
"Pornography and the End of Masculinity" -- the introductory essay and the excerpt of Robert Jensen's book -- produced an avalanche of interest and comments. Published on Saturday, by midday Sunday, the article was the second most read story and the first most discussed, and it has now amassed more than 500 comments. This "Readers Write" encompasses maybe 20 percent of the comments, those which came in on the first couple of days. We hope to publish more reader's comments, as well as more articles and a range of perspectives, like Riane Eisler's article, Liberal Denial: The Link Between Porno and War.

The comments covered a lot of ground; many were very smart and well thought out and ranged from skeptical to critical to supportive, including a number of writers sharing their own experiences of porn from various perspectives. While the comments are not easily categorized, they included concerns of censorship, skepticism that porn is really any different now, that it's damage on society may be minimal, and that experiences in other countries might teach us a lot.

Some writers asserted that the state of porn is symptomatic of larger themes and depressing realities that we all face in the U.S. today and in many other parts of the world. Other points were made regarding gay porn, women as porn consumers, commentary on the power of beautiful women, and even romance novels.

The big picture skeptics
PJ Tramdack gives us a very dark view that fuses the past with the present, suggesting Scandanavian countries offer hope, but then maybe not:
There are Greek vases and wall paintings in Pompeii depicting "rough sex." Sexual degredation was almost ritualized in ancient Rome...Societies today that repress sex always seem to be founded on some male-centered Stone Age myth where the women are the property of the men and the point is to keep the women for the exclusive use of their owners. My question about pornography is: when was it ever any different? Was there some golden age when women were on an equal footing with men and the men weren't exploiting women for something? There were 10,000 prostitutes in straight-laced Victorian England.
The internet and access to equipment and technology has put the tools to represent the sexual exploitation of women into the hands of every moron on the street. What makes the author think anything has changed?
Violence toward women (and the weak) is in the grain of society. I don't believe that the average human is more civilized today than the average citizen of Rome. We may not hold spectacles in arenas where people are impaled on sticks and eaten still alive by wild animals, but if we did, there would be sell-out audiences at $200 a ticket. In 15 years, I predict you WILL be able to witness any degraded, violent or sadistic spectacle you care to imagine thanks to the power of computing to create life-like simulacra of real events. As society skates toward the edge of oblivion, the psychotics and mal-adjusted will lead the way, as always.
The solution is tough. Look at the society with the MOST freedom and at the same time the LEAST violence and sadism....Is it Finland? Sweden? They have a commitment (albeit recent) toward liberal tolerance, a healthy respect for the individual, an egalitarian society that discourages excess of either poverty or wealth, respect for education and a common sense appreciation of human yearnings and suffering. It wasn't like this in Finland and Sweden 100 years ago, but it is now. It can be done, but it takes work. Is there any hope for us? I don't think so.
Big in Japan is also pretty skeptical, as is frantaylor, but for different reasons.

Big in Japan: "The book looks interesting and the article is well written. I suppose me jerking off to Bangbus videos and laughing about it afterwards should make me feel guilty. Yes, because of what I saw and enjoyed, I'm adding to the deterioration of American social values..... I live in Japan, and let me tell you, the GONZO film industry including BUKKAKE (where several men ejaculate on a girls face, etc.) was created here. There is NOBODY that gives a flying #$ck about it and I don't see Japanese society falling apart at the seams because of it. European films are as nasty as they "cum" but you don't see anybody pointing to pornography as a source for troubling social trends over there. I'd sure love, FOR ONCE, for AlterNet to just try to write an article about the horrible sexual REPRESSION that goes on in America (crap, now that I've said that, I'm sure there probably has been one too ... I'll look it up later). Maybe if people weren't all so scared of sex, or guilted into feeling that way by religion, etc, there wouldn't be a need for this guy to waste all this time and energy on a book about some dirty movies. All the points in this article are extremely interesting ... . degradation and violence towards women that aren't asking to participate in it because A) they like it or B) they desperately need the money is WRONG (pretty sure there's a lot of ACTING going on in those bangbus videos, and if not, why the hell aren't the police putting a stop to it????). But if you ask me, the fact that women are having to work for the porn industry at all, or the fact that so many American men out there have nothing but porn to run to for a sexual outlet ... . those are some big problems ... ."

frantaylor: "I'm no fan of degradation or any of that kind of stuff, but this sounds just like the video game controversy. The problem is that you confuse the horse and the cart, or you neglect the landslide beneath. It's possible that some other force is causing the change in behavior and this purported increase in yucky pornography is just a symptom of something else. We've barely even begun to understand the strangeness of our own minds. Pretending that we've figured it out and hacking away at social institutions is not something to take lightly."

Is Anything Proven?
Here is Logic's Edge: "'Male attitudes are potentially being shaped by ugly and sometimes disgusting abuse toward women.' The key word being potentially. The author doesn't provide any information about just how many men (1) purchase and watch porn, (2) how frequently, or (3) purchase and watch the more extreme forms. 'It hurts women, and men like it, and it hurts just to know that.' This is a huge generalization. 'Men buy movies like that.' 'Men like it.' Again no data indicating just how many do."

Logic's Edge does some math: "I'll assume that you mean the porn industry makes $10 billion a year in the U.S. rather than the world.120 million American men. Say $25 a tape sold. That's 40 million tapes.'" He concludes that one in ten watch violent porn.

Frosty responds: "If you honestly doubt that many men purchase porn and use it frequently, I recommend you check out Jensen's previous articles and books (Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality and his new book.) He talks about how we asked porn producer after porn seller and they always told him that men were the one's who bought their pornography. Gail Dines said she got the same answer when she asked porn producers and folks at Adult Video News. These are the people who know better than anybody who is using pornography. Corporations HAVE to know who their market is -- so they spend lots of money on marketing research. The porn industry (Adult Video News) keeps track of the bestselling movies itself and in fact a content analysis was done of a random sample of the bestselling 100 movies -- showing that they were all largely violent movies.

ooki also responds to Logic's Edge: "So, you think maybe 1 in 10 watch these videos. That means that maybe one of every ten men I meet look at me in a degrading way. That my only value lies in degrading and oppressing me to the point of their ejaculation. That any man would see me as less than human bothers me a bit. It's not generalized when it's you. It's personal.

"Doesn't it bother you to think that there are men out there who have looked at your mother, sister, wife, daughter, niece like that? Like something to abuse? Do you look at women that way? What makes it okay for anyone to look at another human that way?"

In the Field
Speaking from direct experience, asilsfable writes that he worked for a porn company in the San Fernando Valley doing graphics for the box covers. "Actually, I was the photo chooser and retoucher. It's worse than the article illustrates. While I was there, porn seemed to go through a 'dog bowl' phase; it was de rigeur to have woman drink/eat out of dog/cat bowls while they were penetrated from all sides. Producers would talk about 'getting girls before they get used up' and they were ALWAYS on the lookout for new talent. The editor would tell me about what he would see in the outtakes while he was cutting the movies together -- really disturbing.

"Interesting thing -- all of the men who worked there could not watch anymore. Instead of arousing them, it disgusted them. I wanted to see what an actual set was like but my workmates were adamant about me not going. They insisted that it was 'gross' and that most of them couldn't tolerate it. I've spoken with other men who've worked in the industry, even friends who had boyfriends who worked in adult bookstores. They said that sex got 'weird'; it lost its subtlety and became desireless and rote.

"How far can you go when you reach for extremes? The inner world is vast and expansive yet so unexplored."

kgs1947 writes: "The style of pornography is simply a symptom, I believe, of a much greater phenomenon that is happening in this country. Do I need to remind us of the quality of the public media, the drama of this current administration of lies and brutality and dictatorship, the violence in our streets and homes, the rage that exists in this culture and perpetrated by authority figures (religion, government, banking industry, corporate culture et al)?

"This issue is not only one of using/abusing women as objects, but is indicative of the rise of violence against men who have sex with men ... ."gay bashing" in schools, in homes, in churches, in government, in corporations. It's directly related to violence against women because "queers" are seen as just like women, "less than men". What it means to be masculine is not being feminine in any way!

"I want to remind mothers of how they teach their sons to behave, what values they manifest in their lives, what beliefs they hold around what it means to be a "man"....... The patriarchal order will continue to bash and demean and degrade women and other men ("sisses", "wimps", "fags") until men and women unite in changing the cultural belief system and tolerance for violence to survive in a "man eat man" world and redefine what it means to be 'a man.'"

quitecontrary offers a context, the popular culture for his/her analysis: "I'm looking forward to reading this book, as I have a big problem with mainstream and extreme porn. Make no mistake, I think that good old mutually pleasurable erotica or even some fantasy is fun and healthy, but that isn't mainstream anymore. Humiliation and degradation are what is featured on the menu, and it's selling.

"I think that this article, and the book, are really just addressing a symptom of patriarchy gone wild. I agree that the mainstream porn industry is destructive to women, and perpetuates a mentality in real life that treats women as sex objects. Single women are pressured to push the envelope further and further in order to live up to what their partners see on the screen. But what makes men enjoy, even crave, this type of degradation?

"Culture. That is actually the root of the problem. Our culture tends to compartmentalize sex into "good" and "bad" and that has created a confusing dynamic for men and women. People are naturally sexual beings, with some exceptions of course. A well rounded and adventurous sex life is what we crave, but society tells us we are "sick" or "depraved" because we enjoy certain activities. So there is a market for porn that visualizes the extremes of these activities. Mix in the patriarchal attitudes toward women, and you've got a recipe for making women nothing more than receptacles for violence, anger, and frustration.

"We won't see the "porn problem" go away until we take care of our attitudes toward sex and women. I hope this is addressed in the book."

There is a lot of concern about "censorship," and for many this is a line that many refuse to approach. It's important to note that neither the article nor the excerpt advocates for censorship, but rather clamors for a lot more consciousness and discussion about pornography, just like is taking place on AlterNet given the powerful role it plays economically and, presumably, on social attitudes and behaviors.

Urgelt weighs in: "I agree with the premise. America is a cruel nation, and mainstream, degrading pornography reflects and even amplifes that cruelty.

"It's extremely disheartening. Not just the cruelty towards women ...But the other manifestations of cruelty, too, indifference to suffering, inequities, death, where nationalism and predatory capitalism trumps humanity and morality.

"But the conclusion that the answer is censorship is flawed. It's much more than a slippery slope we are talking about when we speak of censorship. It's a slippery slope aimed at totalitarianism. In a totalitarian America, women will not fare better than they fare today. Instead, a ruling elite will exercise absolute, unconstrained power over everyone else. Excesses of brutality and cruelty will be given free reign to those who serve the regime. Censorship is the key that unlocks that door.

"Notice that I am not arguing on abstract 1st Amendment grounds. I am arguing that censorship delivers to government the power to shape what information can be heard. That power is coveted by wealthy elites; unable to obtain it through government alone, they have sought to obtain it by buying media corporations and shaping the messages they carry, which is bad enough. By advocating government censorship of morally repugnant messages, we will be playing right into their power-grubbing hands.

"The author has underscored a disturbing fact about the nature of men in America and the women with whom they have relationships. Hiding it with censorship is not an answer. The answer, if there is one, lies in social engineering: attempts to restructure the society in which we live. But there are, there must be, firm limits on what government can be allowed to do. Otherwise the solutions will impose far worse damage upon our society than the problems they seek to solve.

"Education is fair game; it could do a lot to dissuade willing participation by women in degrading pornography. So, too, are attempts to get the pornography industry to reign in its own excesses. But I will not willingly concede to the government the power to censor pornography, or any other protected speech. That is a road I do not want to travel."

Cruella reminds us to think about what we mean when we use the term censorship: "of course in the UK and the US we do censor child pornography. so what is the logic in saying we cant censor adult porn? censorship is not an on-off switch, it's a scale of acceptability. there is plenty of evidence about to suggest that younger and younger boys are being conditioned to accept porn, including abusive porn as normal and mainstream."

Who's Problem Is It Anyway?
Some are simply critical of the whole jist of the argument that holds men responsible for porn.

jimidee writes: "Why does it always have to be the male's fault? ........Somehow it always comes down to the male's fault in these arguments ... and more often than not, white men's fault.

"With regards to those poor innocent women who "have to be" in porn movies ... that concept is extremely naive. I have known several women who were strippers and one was also in the video industry in California. She was hardly a victim of anyone as she was one of the most assertive and confident women I have ever met. I asked her about any other women being victims that she knew in the business, and she laughed. Out loud.

"I am sure there are some women in this industry somewhere who are being exploited, but she didn't know any in Hollywood. This seems like a myth these days ... taking on a life of its own. Some have even crossed over to mainstream media. One such woman was on the HBO series "Entourage" recently ... I recognized her as one of the Vivid studio stars (and who always practice safe sex!). This company has some of the best porn with rather lavish sets and absolutely no degrading of women."

There are Alternatives
In terms of the alternatives, there are some hopes that things can change, less degrading porn can reach larger audiences, and the women performing in films can be better protected.

Wessex writes: "Too bad, indeed! Catastrophic, more likely. The porn I watch consists of self submitted, videos posted, seemingly, as "rites of passage" by and, for people who share their obvious delight and confidence in their consensual, sexuality. This "genre" is also out there, and counters the vicious, deadly, exploitative and degrading relations that mirror most of our relations under, what? "capitalism"?! Ism/ism. After all, it was "the West" and in our case, The Puritans, etc. that ordained our revulsion for the human body and it's connections -- to self, others, Nature and the "sacred" generally. With obvious, fatal, consequences to ourselves and our Planet. Whatever happened to Freud, Wilhelm Reich, A.S. Neil/Summerhill and the other "sex positive" prophets and pioneers? Guilt, shame and fear have been our masters. Good Porn also keeps the Right at Bay. Not for nuthin' are there Web Sites for Priests and Ministers "addicted" to Porn! Time to look deep into those mirrors, folks -- the ones WE project and choose. Wishing us all happy sex!"

UnEasyOne adds: "The author also brings up a valid point as far as general mistreatment of the actresses is concerned. Rather than banning the porn however (which I personally find disgusting) I believe that there is plenty that can be done in terms of unionizing the actresses and banning acts that are unsafe working practices.

"I like lots of nekkid girls. I find most of what is described here unerotic and gross -- but I suspect the motive here is more about banning the viewing of what the author (and myself) find distasteful than protecting the actresses.

"I am all in favor of protecting the actresses. I firmly believe there are things we can and should do in that regard and would support initiatives that actually had that as their actual aim."

quitecontrary disagrees: "Unionizing porn actresses would kill the porn industry. Know why? Because there are a lot of underage girls, both citizens and illegal immigrants, used in porn. Do you think these girls would unionize? Do you think the women would unionize when the boss is threatening them with violence for the slightest infraction? These aren't school teachers, these are women who are living in a dangerous world where their bosses don't see them as human beings, but as objects. Kind of like Wal*Mart."

UnEasyOne responds: "Then enforce existing laws and deal with that. Hard for me to believe though, that with all the furor over kiddie porn that there are "a lot" of underage girls involved. That would be the perfect excuse for a crackdown.

"The point about unionization is well taken -- I didn't explain myself sufficiently. You can't get a job in the regular film industry without joining the SAG. There should be a similar requirement for the porn industry. Or it could be an agency that oversees and licenses the actors. Food preparation workers must all be licensed. OSHA or other agency should control working conditions. The problem is that this industry is largely clandestine and unregulated. The actors are workers and deserve protection. Then if they produce high quality art or disgusting sleaze, that is covered by the first amendment."

GREGORYABUTLER joins in: "I agree with you 1000% on "protecting the actresses" (and the actors, for that matter). That's why we should demand that the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists open their membership to adult film actors and actresses. For too many years, SAG and AFTRA have discriminated against adult film actors, by denying them union membership, and by refusing to collectively bargain from them. This injustice has GOT TO STOP -- demand that SAG and AFTRA give equal rights to adult film stars!!!"

And one Critic wonders, Why can't porn be better? Chomsky asks: "why would someone want to see such sick movies? What is so fun about seeing someone cry/suffer? Where is the fun in todays movies? Where are my damn "old-style" erotic/porn movies; I can only find "bunny-style" "butcher-style" scenes. Even women directors these days film these meat-festivals that have no fun/sensuality. It's like watching donkey sex for god sake!!!! So, as we have junk-food, we have junk porn ... Too bad."

Cruella responds: "sadly the demand for genuinely sexy porn is so trivial compared to the demand for abusive degrading power-porn, that you may be looking for a needle in a haystack ... "

Eroticism, Romance and Beauty
Here is a comment from taryn about romance novels: "Do women masturbate to romance novels? I don't. I called up a few friends, and they don't either. Those of us that use 'visual aids' prefer erotic fiction, though even then we don't usually have it 'in hand' while masturbating. So, is romance fiction pornography? I'd say no, unless it is being read specifically for sexual arousal. I don't think that's often the case.

"I think we read romances for emotional arousal. For excitement, longing, adventure, fantasy, danger, tension, release, escape. ( ... hmmm? ... ) But that describes most fiction, most movies, most video games, much television, for all audiences.

"You know what I think is really pornographic? All that cheesy universe-spanning galactic war fiction, the books with a couple of soldiers (genders optional) back-to-back in high-tech armor, ray-guns drawn, against a background of death-stars and dreadnoughts blazing away at each other.** ** sarcasm.

psychochurch tries to change the subject: "Lets get to a universal truth that feminists never mention ... the unchallenged power of beautiful women ... .they are so powerful in fact, that they can have powerful "male" billionaires competing against each other like grade school kids (Ivana Trump comes to mind). Their social capital is unrivaled ... In fact, in our local neighborhoods, a beautiful woman can jump from doctor to lawyer, to millionaire at will ... forcing each of these "successful" men to live under the constant threat of being rejected in favor of a new and improved model from the next hill over (social exchange theory) ... see any ugly women of TV recently?"

And phatkhat quickly retorts: "Your argument is shallow. The beautiful women leading the powerful men around by their dicks really don't have any power of their own. They are still the girls picked up by the slutbus, to be fucked and left by the side of the road as soon as a yet more beautiful woman appears -- and Ivana Trump is a great example."

And for the last word we'll end with oobi 's funny take off of a famous Marxist notion regarding religion being the opiate of the people: "Porn is about psychological control of the masses. Keep the masses ejaculating, then they are much too tired to go out and protest in the streets. If the country is really being run (and overrun) by so-called "christians", you think they would've had this porn thing under control by now. It only continues to grow."

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