by Gail Dines and Dana Bialer
(Transformations, Vol XX111, Number 1, Spring/Summer 2012)
As universities increasingly see themselves as profit-driven institutions rather than institutions of knowledge production, progressive educators are placed in a difficult situation. Much of what we teach can upset, disturb, and anger students, because we challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions that underlie the ways they make sense of the world and their place in it. Such reactions should not be seen as a problem, but rather a logical outcome of being exposed to counter-hegemonic ways of thinking that disrupt much of what passes for “common sense.” However, over the last decade or so, the corporatization of universities often renders the term “student” interchangeable with the term “consumer,” and this has altered the way in which administrations deal with complaints. In their desire to protect their revenue source, universities are shortchanging our students of their education, by abandoning the university’s ability to critical thinking and intellectual engagement.
Given that the majority of students enter college with the hegemonic discourse firmly embedded in their social construction of reality, it is easy to understand why some experience critical theory as hostile. Most have been taught by elementary and high school teachers who themselves have had little exposure to critical theory and were reared on corporate-produced pop culture images. Consequently, students can be unnerved to find themselves in a classroom in which everything they have thought to be the truth is now open to interrogation. Suddenly students are exposed to theory and research that unpacks the way mainstream ideology obfuscates how institutionalized power reproduces gender, race, and class inequality. This is especially noticeable when dealing with issues of race and racism in classes that take a critical perspective because white students often feel like they are being blamed for being white, when in actuality the focus is on systems of white privilege that reproduce institutional racism. Again, this makes sense, since they have generally been trained to think only in terms of individuals, not structures.
It can often take an entire semester for a teacher to move a class toward a more macro analysis wherein students begin to understand individuals as cultural beings contextualized within a wider social structure that shapes and determines individual choices, access to resources, and ways of thinking. We argue that moving students toward such an approach is what progressive teachers do, and that in some universities this is welcomed, while in others it is seen as a direct attack on the institution. Dr. Jammie Price is in the unfortunate position of being a professor in a school that sees encouraging questioning as an attack on the institution. The administration of Appalachian State University in North Carolina has done a terrible disservice to her, as well as her students, by limiting access to a teacher who is committed to transformative education.
Dr. Price, a tenured professor of sociology, was suspended after just 3 of 120 students complained to the administration that she showed the documentary The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality and Relationships (POP) in her class. (Full disclosure: One of the authors of this article, Dr. Gail Dines, was a senior consultant on POP and is interviewed throughout the documentary.) Dr. Price was informed by the administration that she was being suspended in part creating a hostile classroom. This followed a complaint a week earlier from a white female athlete who said that Dr. Price’s lecture on institutionalized racism made her feel “uncomfortable” and “unsafe in the classroom.”
By showing POP, Dr. Price gave her students an opportunity to think critically about the multi-billion-dollar porn industry that is the major vehicle of sex education in the western world today. Since students of traditional college age–especially male students–are the most prized demographic for pornographers, and given that students, both male and female, increasingly develop their sexual identity in a world dominated by mass media saturated with the pornographic gaze, what could possibly be wrong with showing a film that harnesses the powerful concepts of sociology to an analysis of the porn industry?
Released in 2008, POP was directed and produced by Chyng Sun, an associate professor of Media Studies at NYU, and Miguel Picker, an award-winning editor and seasoned filmmaker. The documentary provides a thorough, unflinching, and clear snapshot of an industry “once considered exploitative, [and] now depicted as a fun and normal (Price of Pleasure). This film is distributed by the Media Education Foundation, a respected producer of educational materials, and follows a long line of films frequently shown in sociology and women’s studies departments internationally, including Tough Guise (1999), Mickey Mouse Monopoly (2001), and Dreamworlds 3 (2007). The success and power of POP lies in its ability to place the pornography industry front and center in a critical sociological analysis. The key questions asked in the film are: “How do these pornographic messages help shape our gender and sexual identities and our relationships? How did this industry once considered seedy become part of the cultural and economic mainstream?” (Price of Pleasure).
To answer these questions, Sun and Picker interview scholars, porn producers, directors, performers, and consumers, and explore recent academic research on the effects of visual images. To illustrate the way in which mainstream porn has become more hardcore, the producers include images from well-traveled porn websites, many of which are violent, cruel, and brutal. What is important, however, is that the documentary uses these images sparingly and are not gratuitous, but rather included to demonstrate to the viewer just how misogynist porn has become over the years. Beyond the images, the filmmakers also include data from the only peer-reviewed study to date that quantifies the actual content of internet porn. POP that works within the theories and methods of critical media literacy. It takes seriously the notion that being an image-literate person is a central component of contemporary progressive pedagogy, as argued by scholars such as Sut Jhally, Stuart Ewen, and Doug Kellner.
Central to this argument is society’s shift from a print-based culture to an image-based one, where the dominant form of communication is now the corporate-produced image. Jhally argues that this has enormous implications for democracy, since corporations have used their economic power to dominate the visual landscape. Media scholars have pointed out that a robust democracy requires a media-literate population, yet few schools and colleges actually include any classes or courses that teach students how to critically deconstruct the image (Page 201). The result is a population that is largely unable to analyze images and is easily manipulated by highly trained professionals who use images to sell consumer products, ideologies, political ideas, and even politicians. Progressive scholars see media literacy as one way to limit the power of the corporations by providing the theories and skills necessary to critically decode the way images shape reality. As Doug Kellner has argued:
Learning how to read, criticize, and resist socio-cultural manipulation can help empower oneself in relation to dominant forms of media and culture. It can enhance individual sovereignty vis-à-vis media culture and give people more power over their cultural environment. (Kellner 10)
Over the last two decades or so, scholars have produced theory and research on how best to teach media literacy. This is itself a highly contested area within the academy, since some scholars argue that the focus should be on a formalist deconstruction of the text by itself while others call for a more comprehensive media literacy that explores the political, economic, and cultural dynamics of media production and consumption. Scholars working within a critical theory paradigm take the second approach. This focus on the broader dynamics of how media is produced and consumed is evident in POP, since the film does not just focus on the porn text but rather provides a much richer analysis of the role of pornography in our culture. To fully appreciate this, we will briefly explore the theoretical roots of critical media literacy.
A key starting point for critical media literacy is Karl Marx’s argument that capitalism, while producing goods, also produces ideologies that legitimize economic inequality. Many point to the following quote from Marx as a first step in building a framework for media literacy:
The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force. The class which has the means of production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production. (Marx 78)
Although Marx wrote this before the rise of monopoly capitalism, it is more relevant today than ever, since studies show that the vast majority of media outlets are owned by a handful of corporations. While the Internet has certainly provided an opportunity for non-corporate voices to flourish, most of the television, music, movies, books, websites, and newspapers consumed today are actually owned by media giants such as Disney, News Corporation, Time Warner, and Viacom. Scholars such as Robert McChesney have conducted detailed empirical work that illustrates the degree to which such ownership shapes the ideological contours of media products. Hence, critical media literacy scholars see a thorough analysis of the politics of ownership as the first component of a critical media literacy.
While research into ownership is important, it does not explain how the text is constructed to produce meaning. Thus, scholars assert that a second component of media literacy is actual textual deconstruction. Methods for analyzing the properties of a text fall into the broad categories of the qualitative and the quantitative. Qualitative analysis often produces a detailed analysis of a few texts, while quantitative work maps a large body of texts. An excellent example of the qualitative method is Rosalind Gill’s work, in which she exposes the way women’s bodies are represented in specific advertisements. The more quantitative studies use traditional content analysis, which typically fragments the images into quantifiable categories where the researchers codes the occurrence of specific categories such as the gender and race of the characters in a TV show or video game (see for example, Martins et al. POP combines both methods in its examination of the content of pornography.
The third and final component is audience- reception, which can involve interviewing people to determine how they make sense of the text. Central to this area of research is the notion that all texts are potentially polysemic (may have multiple meanings), and thus one cannot assume that all people read the text the same way. Research by scholars such as Janice Radway and Gigi Durham has shown that gender, race, class, and ethnic affiliations play an important role in deciding how viewers decode the narrative. Viewers are not blank slates but rather bring with them to any text an array of discourses and experiences that shape the way they make meaning of it. This approach has enriched research on media effects by forcing scholars to move away from the simple cause-and-effect model and toward a more nuanced understanding of how media constructs notions of reality.
Chyng Sun, one of the producers of POP and a media scholar well versed in critical media literacy, set out to apply this three-pronged media literacy model to the study of pornography: analyzing the politics of ownership, analyzing or deconstructing the text, and researching how its audiences receive it. This breadth is what distinguishes POP from other films on pornography, and it offers students a sophisticated set of theories for understanding the way porn functions as a business, a discourse, and a text that is potentially open to multiple meanings. We now move to a more detailed analysis of the documentary in order to highlight how the producers harnessed the key themes of media literacy to an analysis of the porn industry.
The Politics of Ownership
POP begins by exploring the economics of the porn industry by examining the industry’s interface with other mainstream industries. Rather than treating porn as a loose collection of images, POP walks the viewer through the labyrinthian connections between the porn industry, the credit card industry, the banking industry, the mainstream media companies, the hotel industry, and the economic and political power that these connections yield for the pornographers. The filmmakers illustrate how the business practices of the porn industry, while unremarkable in themselves, signal that porn is becoming a mainstream, normal business–a legitimate business that is being taken more seriously by Wall Street, the media, and the political establishment. They demonstrate just why we need to understand that this is an industry with considerable political clout–with the capacity to lobby politicians, engage in expensive legal battles, and use public relations strategies to influence public debate.
POP highlights the way in which pornography has now stepped into the world of national and international capitalism. This calls into question the simplistic notion that porn belongs in the realm of art and fantasy, since viewers get to see how pornography producers operate economically and politically. A key scene in the film is a clip from 60 Minutes showing an interview with a member of the Free Speech Coalition (the trade association and lobbying arm of the “adult entertainment” industry. We hear from a lobbyist how the enormous profits produced by porn buy him access to politicians, and the role the Free Speech Coalition played in the 2002 Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition decision, which overturned the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act. (That legislation, among other things, prohibited the use of people in porn who appeared to be younger than 18 years of age.) This was a major legal victory for the porn industry and illustrates the way that the industry’s links to mainstream finance, media, and communications provides it with powerful allies who have very real political and economic clout.
The Construction of the Porn Text
POP is not an easy film to watch, because it uncovers the way that porn production involves the sexual abuse of women. Rather than taking the finished edited text as a given entity, the filmmakers interview a number of female porn performers who explain, in graphic detail, what happens to them when making porn. In one particularly informative scene, a porn performer describes the system of payment for each act. She explains that the more penises inserted into her body at any one time, the more money she makes. The matter-of-fact delivery, together with the story from a second porn performer, who talks about feeling disgusted by the men who consume her images, disrupts the taken-for-granted notion that women in porn end up there because they love having sex. Instead, these scenes reveal the way that porn is, for these women who have few career options – one of the few opportunities to earn more than minimum wage.
In order to illustrate to the audience that the filmmakers did not cherry-pick the worst of the porn to make their case, they interview Dr. Ana Bridges, who was the lead researcher on a large quantitative content analysis of contemporary porn. In their 2010 study, Bridges and her team found that the majority of scenes from fifty of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted at the female performers. Physical aggression, which included spanking, open-hand slapping, and gagging, occurred in over 88 percent of scenes, while expressions of verbal aggression—calling the woman names such as “bitch” or “slut”—were found in 48 percent of the scenes. The researchers concluded that, if both physical and verbal aggression were combined, 90 percent of scenes contained at least one aggressive act.
The film shows footage of how a scene is constructed and the way the woman’s body is manipulated for the camera. We watch a woman being trained how to arch her back and to perform oral sex. And we see, in stark form, a woman retch after a particularly abusive act. Some of the footage includes scenes that are often edited out of the final version, so the audience is privy to the way the women feel after the scene is over. One example is a woman who has just been ejaculated on by 13 men. In the film she is depicted as loving it, but the post production footage shows her saying “gross” and cringing because she is covered in ejaculate. This deconstructing of the text helps students appreciate the degree to which porn is less a documentation of reality than an edited, stylized representation that is ideological in the way it depicts sex, gender, heterosexuality, and relationships.
Critical media literacy requires that we explore the complex ways in which the audience makes meaning from texts. Understanding that texts’ are potentially polysemic, POP interviews a range of men about their experiences with pornography. What is important about this section of the documentary is that the filmmakers do not fall into the simplistic cause-and-effect model of media effects, because we get to hear how porn affects men in multiple and complex ways. It is evident from the interviews that not all men respond to porn the same way, with some internalizing the messages more than others. The men, mostly college students, speak eloquently and powerfully about the way pornography has shaped their sexuality and contributed to their taken-for-granted assumptions about sex and sexuality. These men are not “cultural dupes” in that they clearly express an awareness that porn is not reality, since they understand that most women do not seek out the kind of sex that is commonplace in pornography. However, what becomes clear is that for some of these men, knowing that the text is not simple documentation does not mean that they do not internalize the messages of pornography into their own sexual identities.
The women interviewed in POP (again, mainly college students), are not themselves consumers of mainstream porn, but they discuss the pressure they feel to perform sex modeled on pornography with their partners. A number of the women talk about the ways in which the pornographic images of women that are now mainstream have shaped their own body image and left them feeling inadequate and overwhelmed by a need to look and act in ways that are both hypersexualized,formulaic and narrowly scripted To be fair, not all women interviewed express a concern with the increasing ways pornography has shaped their sex lives, and some point out that they have found ways to integrate their partners’ use of porn into their sexual relationship. For other women, however, negotiation was not an option, since their partners forced them to perform porn sex against their will. By including the voices of women with different experiences, the filmmakers provide a space for students with varying ideologies and experiences to reflect on ways that they negotiate, or not, the sexual world they inhabit.
The Suspension of Dr. Jammie Price: Shortchanging Students
It is worth restating here that Dr. Jammie Price was suspended after only 3 of 120 students complained to the administration about her showing POP in her class. Since Dr. Price was told that she could not speak to these students—indeed, she was instructed to stay away from campus altogether—she did not get a chance to find out exactly what the students were complaining about. Moreover, the 117 students who did not complain were denied access to their teacher for the second half of the semester. Dr. Price’s suspension meant that the students had only one class to explore how they felt after watching POP, and from experience we know that this is shortchanging the students. When we show POP in our women’s studies classes, the students take many weeks to process the documentary’s images, arguments, interviews, theories, and concepts. As we move through the semester, the students often circle back to the documentary when discussing other topics, and over time they develop a more nuanced understanding of the main points.
While Dr. Price did not provide a warning about the content to her students before she showed the film, a mistake she acknowledges and regrets, she did provide plenty of room in the next class for the students to share their thoughts and feelings. In the class students talked openly and freely about feeling “awkward” and “uncomfortable” while watching the documentary. We hear these words regularly after showing POP—and, given the content, it makes sense. Many of the women students have never seen hardcore porn and are shocked at the level of brutality. They thought porn consisted of images of people having “hot sex,” not images of sexual cruelty. Moreover, we hear from women in class that the film is also disturbing because they have been asked by male partners to perform some of the sex acts that they now realize are normalized in porn, and had no idea that their partners had been watching porn. As naïve as they may seem, many women students are unaware that porn use is a major part of male sexual development today. “Uncomfortable” is indeed how many of them feel when contemplating the role porn may be playing in their intimate lives. The key point here, and one the administration at ASU failed to grasp, is that students are not uncomfortable and disturbed with the film per se, but with what it reveals about the society they live in.
In our experience, the majority of male students have at some time masturbated to images similar to those shown in POP. Thus, while not shocked by them, they are extremely uncomfortable looking at them in a classroom setting. Since male students have only seen these images during sexual arousal, they have not had the opportunity to deconstruct them in a critical way. In the non-sexual atmosphere of a college classroom, these men now get to explore and examine the very images they have masturbated to, and when seen without an erection, they look very different. This is best summed up by Gregg, a college student interviewed in POP who talks about enjoying porn “in the heat of the moment,” but when “that passion sinks out,” and he is still watching the film, he sees just how brutalized the woman is. The film ends with Gregg saying, “You just kind of wonder, this is not sexy. This is not how I want to experience sex.” We hear this from our male students after watching POP, because the documentary affords them a space to reflect on, and think critically about, the way their sexuality is being socially constructed by a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Male students specifically speak about the ways that their use of porn has affected their capacity to develop close relationships with women because they internalize the porn message that “hot” sex is an act divorced from intimacy and connection. They also report feeling disappointed with their own sexual performance because it did not match the sexual “athletics” that are now commonplace in porn. During the class discussion, the men often say that the film forced them to confront the ways that they have been socialized by porn to see female porn performers as “hot sluts” and not as real people who are facing limited job opportunities. This insight encourages them to ask larger questions about the role porn has played in shaping their views about gender, sexuality and equality in a patriarchal society.
By refusing Dr. Price access to her class after three students complained, the university cheated all the students in the class. It was at this precise moment that students needed the space to explore, from an intellectual perspective, the feelings and thoughts that watching POP evoked. This presented a rich opportunity for students to apply macro sociological concepts to the study of micro social behavior. For students to take that which they see as belonging to the most private and personal—their sexuality—and locate it within a structural framework, opens the door to a critical pedagogy that both liberates and empowers them. These students might not end up as good consumers, but they will be the linchpin of a vibrant and robust democracy that puts equality and justice ahead of corporate greed and profits. Dr. Jammie Price, in the tradition of critical pedagogy, was furnishing her students with the theories and tools that can turn them from passive consumers to active citizens. That she was suspended for this makes clear the struggles that lay ahead for educators committed to progressive social change.
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