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The Boston Globe

Monday Jul 26, 2010

The Shaping of Things

By Don Aucoin July 27, 2010

With just a few clicks of her desktop computer’s keyboard in her home office here, Gail Dines travels to a place she wishes did not exist: a pornographic website.

The images seem designed to maximize the women’s humiliation, a point that is not lost on Dines. “If you really watch it carefully, you can see that they’re in pain, exhausted, demoralized,’’ she says, looking somberly at the screen.

For three decades, Dines has been watching the pornography industry very carefully. What she has seen has ignited such a fury and sense of mission that she has made pornography a focus of her research, writing, teaching, and activism. As she has emerged as a leading anti-porn advocate, Dines has also become a target of venomous attacks: In one of the criticisms that can be printed in a family newspaper, a writer called her a “blind, delusional, opportunistic hack.’’

Her critics will not be pleased to learn that Dines is escalating her campaign with a new book titled “Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality’’ (Beacon Press). In particular, she is sounding the alarm about the ubiquity of “gonzo’’ porn, an extreme form of pornography that specializes in the degradation of women and that is available 24/7 on the Internet.

“Pornography today is not your father’s Playboy,’’ says Dines, 51, a Wheelock College professor of sociology and women’s studies. “It’s hard-core, cruel, and brutal. So you’re bringing up a generation of boys who are more cruel, bored, and desensitized.’’

To say she’s waging an uphill battle would be a colossal understatement, especially since the Internet has so greatly expanded pornography’s reach. According to statistics Dines cites in “Pornland,’’ there are more than four million pornographic websites worldwide, an estimated 420 million pages, and 68 million search requests for pornography each day.

At a time when the average boy first views pornography at age 11, Dines argues that we need to recognize porn for what it really is: a cultural force that is shaping the sexual attitudes of an entire generation.

“Pornography is the major form of sex ed today for boys,’’ Dines says. “It’s going to have dire consequences for the boys, for the girls, and for the culture.’’   

Brittany Wheaton of Randolph, a 21-year-old senior at Wheelock College who has taken several classes with Dines, says she thinks those consequences are already playing out for college students.

“In terms of our generation, it really is affecting us,’’ Wheaton says. “Even the average college student will tell you that. Guys sometimes say that [the pornography] they view online skews their expectations of college girls, of us.’’

That is what drives Dines, according to Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin who coauthored a book with her. He says Dines is incensed by “the idea that there is a cultural support system for violence against women.’’

“She talks with incredible passion and compassion about the reason we have to keep fighting: For all the gains the women’s movement made — and those gains were significant — the sexual exploitation industry has gotten more normalized than ever,’’ says Jensen. “Girls and women are as much at risk for sexual violence and sexual harassment as ever.’’

Perhaps that explains Dines’s sense of urgency, or perhaps it is the innate restlessness of an activist-scholar. During a two-hour interview at her home, Dines seldom sits, but rather paces back and forth, unspooling her arguments in a British accent (she was raised in Manchester, England) like the experienced lecturer and public speaker she is.

Dines often travels around the country to speak on college campuses before audiences of up to 1,000 students about how pornography distorts sexuality, and further amplifies her message by going on TV and the radio to make the case against the “hypersexualization of the culture.’’ She helped found Stop Porn Culture, a group of educators, activists, and parents. She was an expert consultant in a civil lawsuit against Joe Francis, the producer of the “Girls Gone Wild’’ videos, by seven women who were minors when they were filmed by his production company in 2003. (In 2007, Francis reached an undisclosed settlement with the women.)

A couple of years ago she even ventured to the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas to interview porn producers.

“She is one of the fiercest human beings I’ve ever met,’’ says Jensen. “She just doesn’t back down on a matter of principle.’’

It was in 1980, when she was living and working in Israel, that Dines discovered the cause that would animate her career. She had met her future husband, David Levy, when she was studying at the University of Salford in Manchester and he was a student at Manchester University. (Levy now teaches courses on business and the environment at UMass-Boston.) Having both been active in Jewish youth movements, they moved to Tel Aviv after college, where Dines worked part time at a rape crisis center while writing her doctoral dissertation.

One day, an acquaintance told her about a screening that night of a documentary about pornography. Dines went to see it, and it changed her life. “I literally couldn’t believe the images,’’ she says. “I couldn’t believe that men created such images, and that other men wanted to watch them.’’

The next day, she called her academic adviser and told her she was changing the subject of her dissertation to an examination of how pornography shapes cultural ideas about sexuality.

To Dines, it is not coincidental that pornography has grown increasingly brutal in its treatment of women as the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan have underscored the real-world gains of women in the fields of politics, law, business, and medicine. Among other things, she says, “Pornography is a backlash against women’s advancement.’’

Given the impact porn is having on the development of young people’s sexuality, Dines is baffled that more parents don’t fight back against it.

“You put all this energy and effort into your kids, and the culture is pouring all these toxic messages into them,’’ she says. She wonders if one explanation for parental passivity is that many adults still cling to outdated notions of porn that don’t square with the often-violent reality.

Having viewed countless images as part of her research, Dines says there should be legislation that would define pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights and would entitle women to sue the industry for harm done to them.

Arguments like this have earned her — along with threats, hate mail, and vitriolic broadsides from the pornography industry — the inevitable accusation that she favors censorship (Dines says she does not) and that she is an anti-sex prude. At that, she just rolls her eyes.

“If I was criticizing McDonald’s, you wouldn’t accuse me of being against eating,’’ she says. “I’m against the commodification and industrialization of a human desire. I’m not against sex. Pornography does not equal sex, and sex does not equal pornography.’’

No matter how much ridicule comes her way, Dines plans to keep writing, speaking, and delivering a wake-up call on what she considers “a major public health issue of our time.’’

“I know I’m putting myself out there,’’ she says. “But this is going to take a national movement. If you’re going to be an activist, you have to be an optimist. When the public has had enough, things do change.’’

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