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So You Think You Know What Porn is: Q&A with Gail Dines for the Mars Society

Thursday Sep 10, 2009

1) If I understand your position correctly, you acknowledge that some women choose pornography — young women who want to be the next Jenna Jameson — and obviously many modern women choose to be ‘empowered women’ like the Sex and the City characters. Given that these women feel free and powerful, without appeal to either of these, how is being a radical feminist better for women?

Gag on My Cock, Altered Assholes, Human Toilet Bowls, Ebony Sluts, Oh No Theres a Negro in My Daughter, First Time with Daddy and so on. These are just some of the titles of popular porn websites and movies. Behind the soft-focus façade of porn – a façade constructed by the media in large part – lies a world of cruelty, violence and degradation. Most people I know who claim that porn is empowering for women have never actually seen what mainstream Internet porn – called gonzo by the industry – looks like. For the uninitiated, I will list some of the most common acts:

  • Vaginal, anal, and oral penetration of a woman by three or more men at the same time
  • Double anal in which a woman is penetrated anally by two men at the same time
  • Double vagina in which a woman is penetrated vaginally by two men at the same time
  • Gagging in which a woman has a penis thrust so far down her throat, she gags (or in the more extreme cases, vomits)
  • Ass-to-mouth in which a penis goes from a woman’s anus to her mouth without washing

These acts are played out on a living being who, like the rest of us, has certain bodily limits. The goal in gonzo is to push these limits to the maximum. I would bet that few of the women who enter porn know fully what is expected of them or that they have a short shelf life as the body cannot take such punishment for long. Even the industry admits that gonzo porn is hard on the woman’s body.[i] According to the Adult Industry Media Healthcare Foundation women in porn are at risk of contracting diseases that few women outside of the industry will ever experience: chlamydia of the eye and throat, gonorrhea of the eye and throat, herpes of the eye, and herpes of the nose.

Jenna Jameson was indeed a major recruitment tool for the industry since she was the first woman to move seamlessly from pornography to pop culture and back again. Her fame, together with her vast wealth, became a walking advertisement for the porn industry. Add to this that the reality of porn today is largely hidden from young women, and what you get is a steady stream of working-class women looking to become “porn stars.” In a recession, working-class jobs for women are increasingly hard to find, and they often offer a life of drudgery. Next to this porn looks very glamorous. What I hear from many women in porn is that although they consented to be in porn, they had no idea what they were actually consenting to. Jenna Jameson in her book “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” explains what a woman’s entry into porn looks like:

Most girls get their first experience in gonzo films—in which they’re taken to a crappy studio apartment in Mission Hills and penetrated in every hole possible by some abusive asshole who thinks her name is Bitch.  And these girls . . . go home aferward and pledge never to do it again because it was such a terrible experience.  But, unfortunately, they can’t take that experience back, so they live the rest of their days in fear that their relatives, their co-workers, or their children will find out, which they inevitably do.

So the question becomes just how empowering is performing in porn for women? Again Jameson provides insight when she describes her first photo shoot:
Spreading my legs was the worst.  I had no idea it would be so intimidating to sit spread-eagled under bright lights in a room full of clothed people.”  The photographer keeps shouting “wider!”  Then “show me pink!”  … Though I really wanted to please him, I couldn’t . . . exposing my insides to strangers was so daunting that, instead of spreading my lips with my fingers, I kept trying to cover them up.

This does not sound like an empowered woman taking control of her sexuality, but a frightened teenager who is out of her depth. Women in porn are also subject to verbal as well as physical abuse, where they are called not honey, love, or sweetheart – terms of endearment –  but cunt, whore, bitch, cumbucket and slut. Empowerment is not about working in an industry that demands that you are anally, vaginally and orally penetrated by men who scream in your face that you are a dirty slut. So what is real empowerment?

The place where I discovered my power was radical feminism. When I read Andrea Dworkin’s work my life was turned upside down. All of a sudden I could make sense of my life and understand why I was treated the way I was. I broke free of all the ideological myths that patriarchy delivers to women and for the first time, I felt like I could really see the world. There is nothing like feminist consciousness to make a woman feel powerful and free. This is why your question doesn’t make much sense to me as radical feminism is all about power and freedom for women.

In radical feminism we don’t talk about empowerment of the individual but rather collective liberation for women as a class. We say that as long as one woman is being oppressed then our job is to fight for her. We don’t see more sex or better orgasms as the answer to women’s oppression. What we want is the end of a system where women are the majority of the world’s poor, hungry, illiterate, overworked and raped. Our bodies are commodified to the point that you can buy and sell a woman over and over again. For radical feminists only massive structural change will do. We need to overthrow the systems of patriarchy, capitalism and racism and in their place put a world that is based on equality, justice and dignity for all people. To suggest in any way that working for a predatory industry that sees you as a “cunt” and uses your body to make money is empowerment is to be co-opted by the very systems that oppress you.

2) Do you object to pornographic images where the male actor is subservient? If not, does this mean you object to some innate part of male psychology?

As a radical feminist I object to any person being subordinated. Turning the tables and oppressing men is not my goal. This would be a total and absolute internalization of the oppressor. I don’t know what male psychology is as we have not “discovered” what percentage of behavior is nature and what is nurture. What I can say as a sociologist is that we are social beings who construct our identities from the cultural cues that come to us from parents, peer groups, schools, media and especially, for men,  porn. Masculinity and femininity are socially constructed in that they are culturally produced rather than innate behaviors. To say that men (or women for that matter) have innate desires to be subservient makes no sense in this framework.

3) You’ve written extensively on heterosexual pornography, what is your perspective on pornography aimed at women or, say, homosexual pornography?

I focus on mainstream heterosexual porn and have not delved much into gay or lesbian porn. What I will say is that most of the porn directed to lesbians uses the same visual codes and conventions of heterosexual porn.   There is very little that looks creative or counter-hegemonic.

4) You assert that heterosexual pornography is a gateway drug to child pornography, you sighted trends such as very slim models, the shaving of public hair, but also that pornography has increasingly ‘harder’ subject matters. But how does a person, in your mind, make that drastic change from the moral position that it has to be consensual, to watching real abuse. What is the casual link?

This is an excellent question and one that preoccupies me as it asks the key question of why men like gonzo porn. We need to remember, though, that in mainstream porn, no matter how cruel the act, women are depicted as loving it and wanting more, even as you see her grimace and grit her teeth. This suggests to men that porn women are unlike the women they know in the real world; they desire a certain level of abuse to get off. But even if she is says she likes it, it really doesn’t take much empathy to see that the act is painful and demeaning. So how do men get to the point that they can look past the obvious as a way to gain pleasure from porn.

One way to explain this is desensitization where men become bored with porn and have to keep upping the ante to remain interested. This makes sense as porn is inherently boring because it is so formulaic. The average gonzo has X minutes on oral, X on anal and so on. There might be small variations – anal comes before oral – but it is mind-numbing in its repetitiveness. What keeps sex interesting is connection and intimacy, the very things that are missing in porn. Indeed one ad for the porn website ImLive  says “don’t come here looking for love.” Porn is more like making hate to women, and to keep this from getting old, you need to keep increasing the hate. As an example of just how much hatered towards women there is in porn, I will quote from an ad for Jake Malone’s Fuck Slave 3:

Jaelyn Fox walks amongst us, but lets take this moment to mourn the death of her soul. It was a good soul – one filled with youthful vigor and hope. Its time of death is believed to have occurred somewhat between eating Jake Malone’s rancid asshole and having her pretty blonde head used as a toilet brush …. Fuck Slaves 3 is Malone’s latest exercise in dignity extraction. Female performers surrender mind, body and soul to participate in disturbing acts of debasement.

What’s remarkable about this text is that it so perfectly captures what porn is all about: the dehumanization and debasement of women and the more you do this to them, the better the sexual sizzle. To keep users interested the industry needs to keep inventing new acts that are more debased than the last. This partially explains why one popular sub-genre today is ATM – Ass to Mouth – where a man puts his penis in a woman’s anus and then, without washing, puts it in her mouth or the mouth of another woman. What, outside of the debasement of the woman, makes ATM hot?

How men decide where to draw the line is very interesting. I regularly read the online porn discussion boards and what you find is that the users’ lines keep shifting. There was a very interesting thread on Max Hardcore, the king of cruel and hateful porn, that illustrated this. One man wrote that when he first looked at Hardcore’s videos, he felt sickened and violated. He then goes on to say that his tastes seemed to have changed over the years and he now likes Hardcore’s movies. What actually changed was his tolerance level for violent porn as his regular use shifted his idea of what was acceptable and was unacceptable. In this way porn socializes users to want more violent stuff. Also, the more bored he became, the more he needed to see violence and utter degradation. Rather than explain what Hardcore’s films are like, I will let him describe the themes he “pioneered:”

Positions like pile driver, where I would gape the girls asses wide open, and provide a clear view for the camera, was unknown before I came along. I also created the technique of cumming in a girl’s ass, having her squeeze it out into a glass, and then chuck the load down.

He continues by boasting that he:

developed many other unique maneuvers, most notably, vigorous throat fucking, creating gallons of throat slime over a girl’s upside down face, and even causing them to puke. A little later, I started pissing down their throats several times during a scene, often causing them to vomit uncontrollably while still reaming their throats.

While Hardcore is on the extreme end of gonzo, the themes he uses in his movies are now filtering down into gonzo as a whole.

What’s left for the desensitized user fter gonzo? I was told by a porn producer in an interview that this is an industry running out of ideas. They have now done everything they can to a woman’s body, short of killing her. This is a problem because, according to porn director Jules Jordan, “Fans want to see much more extreme stuff.”[ii] We don’t have any long-term empirical studies that explore where such users go, but anecdotal evidence from psychologists and social workers, as well as my own interviews with incarcerated child molesters, suggests that increasingly men are becoming so bored with porn that they are turning to child porn, even if they do not fit the profile of a pedophile. Children are the last taboo and since porn trades in breaking taboos, what could be hotter than masturbating to that which transgresses all boundaries?

Talking about how porn affects users inevitable leads us into the most tricky of terrains. Some argue that porn has no effect while others, especially anti-porn feminists, see porn as part and parcel of a male supremacist society. In radical feminism we don’t think that pornography is the cause of women’s subordinate status. What we say is that for any system of oppression to work it needs to deliver an ideology that legitimizes the oppression. By reducing women to cunts, whores and sluts, the porn industry robs us of our humanity and delivers us up as a series of body parts to men. Porn is the most succinct and crisp deliverer of a woman-hating ideology. While we have other places that encode such an ideology, nowhere does it quite as well as porn, as this delivers messages to men’s brain via the penis – a very powerful method.

While it is ridiculous to assume that porn is THE reason for women’s subordinate status, it is equally ridiculous to assume that porn has no effect on its consumers. If men could walk away from masturbating to porn unchanged then everything we know about humans as cultural beings is wrong. We would have to believe that somehow we come into the world as fixed beings and our experiences don’t shape us. For this to be true we would have to throw out the core assumptions of sociology, psychology, philosophy, history and media studies.

To talk about what these potential effects could be, I have spoken with thousands of men across the United States about how they themselves experience porn’s effects. My research, as well as that by journalist Pamela Paul, shows that the more men use porn, the more difficult it is to form close and intimate sexual bonds with real women. Porn today is so extreme that real-world sex seems vanilla and boring by comparison. Some of the effects that men have told me include:

  • Difficulty in ejaculating without imagining porn images
  • Feeling like a sexual loser because they cannot perform like the men in porn
  • Comparing their sex partners with women in porn
  • Losing  interest in sex with real women
  • Becoming bored so there is a need to graduate to harder material
  • Developing an addiction to porn

I have been giving lectures on porn for over twenty years, and only recently have I heard stories from men about addiction to porn. These men feel scared and out of control as they increasingly seek out more extreme material – the kind of material that in the past disgusted them. I used to be very skeptical of the addiction model but more and more therapists are seeing men who are addicted. Clinicians Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz,[iii] in their book on porn addiction, say that they found that “what used to be a small problem for relatively few people [has] grown to a societal issue.” The most compelling evidence for me comes from the porn industry as it was reported in an article in Adult Video News (the trade journal of the industry) that approximately 20% of users meet the clinical definition of an addict. Of course the article then goes on to explore how website owners can “exploit the data” in ways that keep the addict on the site after he has ejaculated.

Radical feminists have been accused of saying that porn leads men to rape. We have never argued for such a simplistic approach, rather we see porn as one place that produces ideology, myths, norms and values that create a culture that is at best inhospitable to women, and at worse, dangerous.  This means that the images and stories of porn impact the way men construct their notions of identity, gender, sexuality and heterosexuality. The more men masturbate to women being treated in cruel ways, the more it chips away at men’s abilities to see women as full human beings who deserve full equality. Take, for example, racist images. Nobody ever argued that such images would lead a white person to kill a person of color, but we would see that such images have an impact on the way whites see people of color, and the way these people are treated in the real world. This is why as a society we have developed some minimal consciousness around racist images. Not so for sexist ones, as we allow a level of misogyny in porn that is breathtaking – only this hateful propaganda is sexualized thus rendering the violence invisible.

What I say to men who attend my lectures is that porn most probably won’t turn you into a rapist, but it will affect you in some way. It is impossible to say with any precision how any individual user will be affected, but what we can predict is that in some way, on some level, porn’s messages will affect the way a user thinks and/or acts in the real world. This could be anything from having trouble ejaculating when with a woman, or feeling let down by sex, or in the more extreme cases, forcing a hookup partner to go further than she wants. Whatever the effect, these images, unlike the penis, can’t be zipped up after use.

5) How do you account for the fact that cultures with high levels of female rights have greater media and pornographic access, whilst societies with greater female rights curtailment, for example Iran, have very limited access to pornography?

You can’t take one country and compare it to the next as if the same dynamics are found in both. We don’t know if there is a connection between women’s rights and porn. We know, for example, that porn is now rampant in Eastern Europe yet these countries are the worst offenders in trafficking women – women are so easily trafficked because they are legally and economically oppressed. Also what does access to porn mean in the days of the Internet? Individuals all over the world have access to porn, much of it made in LA.

6) Do you acknowledge the role freedom of speech plays in change and the danger of limiting that freedom? For example in practical terms legislation has to be worded by people who have to decide what a visual objectification of women is. How would you phrase the bill which legally enforced your views?

As someone who has been silenced from more radio and TV programs than I can count, I am a firm believer in freedom of speech. The only problem is that in a capitalist country speech is controlled by the huge corporations and it is anything but free (30 seconds of prime time TV can cost anywhere between $350,000 to $500,000). Even with the Internet the corporations still have the power as most of the news broadcasts and other programs we watch come from just a handful of companies.  Historically, the oppressed have never had access to those institutions that produce and deliver speech (the church, the state, the corporations). Their speech is rarely heard since it is rarely transmitted in ways that allow for mass audiences, and it is drowned out by the speech of the elite class. In the case of porn, how often does an anti-porn feminist get access to mass audiences? The pornographers literally control the discourse around sex as today porn equals sex in the minds of many, and hence to be anti-porn is thought to be anti-sex. What radical feminists argue is that we do not get to speak in the public domain and those who oppose us get to speak for us and thus we are seen as uptight, man hating prudes who fear sex.

The big question for anti-porn activists is what we can do about the infiltration of porn into the culture. It is way too early to talk about legal remedies as we have not yet had a national conversation on porn. Most women (and some men, especially older ones) have no idea what porn is today so before we move to the law, we need to do a grassroots educational campaign as to the nature and effects of porn. Towards this end, I co-wrote (with Rebecca Whisnant and Robert Jensen) an anti-porn slideshow that explores the contemporary porn industry. The show consists of a 50-minute script and over 100 slides. To get a copy of the show free of charge email stoppornculture@gmail.com.

While we have no plans to seek legal remedies at this time, most radical feminists support some version of the Dworkin-MacKinnon legislation that defines pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights. This way the battles take place in the civil courts so we can avoid using the forces of the state to bring criminal action. Few radical feminists have any faith that the state will work on the behalf of women but we do want to empower women to sue the porn industry if they are hurt in the production or consumption of porn. This way we can hold the industry accountable for harm, much like we hold other companies accountable should their product cause harm.

The average age of a boy seeing his first porn image is 11.5 years. We can’t say for sure what the effects are going to be on the culture as boys increasingly encode porn into their sexual DNA. We are in the midst of a massive social experiment except most people did not sign up to participate. If radical feminists are correct, then the consequences of living in a porn saturated world will be dire for women and girls. I for one do not want to take a wait and see approach, especially because I am an activist as well as an academic. For those people who feel as I do, then go to the Stop Porn Culture website and see how you can help build a movement against this predatory industry.

Gail Dines teaches sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. She is a founding member of Stop Porn Culture and the author of the forthcoming book “PornLand: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.”  She can be contacted at gdines@wheelock.edu.


[i] Gonzo: Taking a Toll. Erik Jay. September 10, 2007, http://xbiz.com/articles/83870

[ii] Quoted in Robert Jensen, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Boston: South End Press, 2007, p. 70.

[iii] Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz. The porn Trap. New York: Collins, 2008, p. 4

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