February 11, 2008
By Gail Dines
You know an industry has become mainstream when its representatives are invited to address the elite institutions of higher learning. On Feb 16th, as part of the Sex Week at Yale (SWAY), pornographer Steve Hirsch, founder and owner of leading porn studio Vivid Productions, will be at Yale University to talk about – what else? – his role in mainstreaming the porn industry. And indeed, pornographers like Hirsch, who represent the up-market chic end of the industry, did more than most pornographers to make the industry the multi-billion dollar a year concern it is today.
By showcasing Vivid, Yale University is accepting, even promoting, the media-generated sugar-coated image of the porn industry as glamorous, fun and cool. This image has been made popular by Howard Stern, “documentaries” on E! Entertainment and celebrity magazines such as People. The “Vivid Girls” are the elite of the porn industry, women who earn a decent, if short-lived livelihood, and somewhat protected from the much larger world of more violent and body-punishing hard-core movies called ‘gonzo’ by the industry. The (mainly white) Vivid Girls are the respectable face of the porn industry; their job is to make porn look like a wholesome route to stardom; they act as a recruitment tool for a mass production sweatshop industry that needs to keep replenishing its supply of female bodies.
One of the highlights of the SWAY week is the contest “Who Looks Most Like a Vivid Girl”, to be judged by two of the women on contract to Vivid. Women go to university for many reasons, but for most, it is to get an education and position themselves for a professional career. I dare say that few if any women at Yale are aspiring for a career track in the porn industry, as they are going to have a range of options open to them, thanks to their Ivy League degree. Those women who do go into porn are mostly women from underprivileged backgrounds, who facing a life of minimum wage labor, see porn as a way out of anonymous economic drudgery. And why not? The only image they ever get of porn is one that highlights the lucky few who actually made real money and get to mix with a few B list celebrities. What they don’t get to see are the thousands and thousands of women who start in porn and end up, within a short time, working the brothels of Nevada for a pittance, or having to deal with substance abuse and STDs.
The real story of porn, one which looks nothing like the chic media image, will be well hidden next week at Yale. The students have invited mainly representatives from the porn industry and their supporters, with the only voice of opposition being XXX Church pastor Craig Gross. Missing are the voices of women who have left the industry after being brutalized and exploited, for whom a college education, let alone at an Ivy, is unaffordable and almost unimaginable. Also missing is the anti-pornography feminist voice, which sees pornography as sexist, violent and harmful to women. After thirty years of researching the industry, the business practices of the pornographers, and the effects on women and men, we anti-porn feminists are “disappeared” from the debate.
Two years ago I spoke on a pornography panel at Yale Law School. Of the six people invited, I was the only speaker to criticize the porn industry, with the others either being pornographers, or bar one, so pro-porn, they might as well have been industry representatives. After the panel, some students came up to me to express their disgust with the way the panel had been organized, and how they felt cheated out of a thoughtful dialogue. Now just a couple of years later there is no attempt by the organizers of SWAY to even pay lip-service to a feminist critique; one more sign of just how acceptable and mainstream porn has become at Yale, and in our culture.
Gail Dines, a sociology professor at Wheelock College in Boston, is co-editor of Gender, Race and Class in Media. Dines is one of the producers a PowerPoint slide show on pornography that is available by writing firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Dines go to http://www.gaildines.com.