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Letter of Support for Iceland’s Anti-Pornography Initiative

March 18, 2013

Ögmundur Jónasson
Innanríkisráðuneytið (Minister of Interior)
Reykjavík, Iceland
Dear Mr. Jónasson,

We are writing to express our support for current efforts in Iceland to develop and implement legal limits on violent Internet pornography.  As scholars, medical and public health professionals, social service providers, and community activists, we commend your government’s determination to confront the harms of pornography. As part of a comprehensive approach to violence prevention, sex education, and public health, legally limiting Internet pornography will reduce the power of this multi-billion dollar global industry to distort and diminish the lives, opportunities, and relationships of Icelandic citizens.

Especially commendable is your government’s commitment to protect children from the harms of pornography.  We recognize in other contexts (e.g., advertising) that children’s unique developmental needs mandate protecting them from predatory corporate interests. As pornography invades children’s lives and psyches at ever earlier ages and with ever more distressing effects, this recognition must be applied to pornography.  It is naïve and unrealistic to expect parents and schools to counter effectively the influence of this powerful and pervasive industry.  Rather, society must act on its compelling interest in providing a safe and nourishing environment for children.  We applaud your government’s effort to exercise collective responsibility for children’s well-being by placing limits on a toxic media environment from which they cannot otherwise be sufficiently shielded.

We understand that your deliberations remain at an early stage and that many important aspects of the proposed legislation remain to be worked out.  That said, we commend your government’s stated intention to define pornography narrowly (as sexual material involving violence and degradation), thus ensuring Icelandic citizens’ access to the fullest possible range of online information consistent with the protection of children and of women’s civil right to equality.  As your efforts continue to develop, we would urge you not to be dissuaded by dark invocations of totalitarianism or of an unregulated black market in pornography.  The pornography industry could hardly be any less regulated than it is currently, nor could the motivations and methods of the Icelandic initiative differ more starkly from those of authoritarian governments.

From adopting the so-called “Nordic” approach to prostitution in 2009 to banning strip clubs in 2010, and having stood virtually alone among nations in holding banks to account in the wake of the global financial crisis, Iceland is a global leader both in gender equality and in confronting corporate power.  We are inspired by your boldness and innovation in protecting children, honoring women’s rights to safety and equality, and maintaining the integrity of Icelandic culture against the onslaught of an unrestrained industry of sexual exploitation.  As a group of  similarly committed scholars, activists, and professionals across the globe, we stand with you and look forward to seeing the final result of your efforts.


  • Dr. Esohe Aghatise, Executive Director, Associazione Iroko Onlus, Turin, Italy
  • Ruthanna Barnett, Human Rights Lawyer, Santa Cruz, California, USA/Oxford, England
  • Roseanne Barr, Actress, Producer (“Roseanne”), USA
  • Dr. Kathleen Barry, Author, “Female Sexual Slavery” and “Prostitution of Sexuality,” Professor Emerita, Penn State University, USA
  • Angela Beausang, Chair, Roks (The National Organization for Women´s Shelters and Young Women’s Shelters), Sweden
  • Julie Bindel, Journalist and Feminist Activist, London, England
  • Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Actress, Iceland
  • Dr. Ana Bridges, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Arkansas, USA
  • Anne Burns, 
Health Improvement Lead, Child & Maternal Health, 
Health Improvement Team
 NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Scotland, Scotland
  • Tanith Carey, Author, “Where Has My Little Girl Gone?” London, England
  • Vivien Caldwell, Solicitor, The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscals Service, Glasgow, Scotland, former Local Councillor, Renfrewshire,  Scotland
  • Elaine Carr, Clinical Psychologist, Coathill Hospital, Coatbridge, Scotland
  • Vednita Carter, Founder and Executive Director, Breaking Free (Anti-Trafficking Organization), St. Paul, Minn., USA
  • Alexandra Charles, President, Ordförande, 1.6miljonerklubben, Stockholm, Sweden
  • Chris Cherry, Director of Communications, South Carolina Democratic Women’s Council, USA
  • Dr. Deirdre Condit, Associate Professor of Political Science, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, USA
  • Angie Conroy, Activist, Strategic Advisor, Strey Khmer, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
  • Dr. Gail Dines, author of “Pornland,” Professor of Sociology and Chair of American Studies, Wheelock College Boston, Mass., USA
  • Anni Donaldson, Violence Against Women Team Lead, West Dunbartonshire Violence Against Women Partnership, Glasgow, Scotland
  • Kezia Dugdale, Member, Scottish Parliament, Shadow Minister for Youth Employment, Lothian Region (Labour & Co-op)  Scotland
  • Sharon Dunn, Scottish Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation
  • Matthew B. Ezzell, Ph, Assistant Professor of Sociology, James Madison University
  • Harrisonburg, Va., USA
  • Dr. Melissa Farley, Executive Director, Prostitution Research & Education, USA
  • The Feminist Party of Germany
  • Camilla Silva Floistrup, Project Manager, Danish Institute for Human Rights, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Robert L. Franklin, MS, Sexual Violence Prevention Professional, Virginia, USA
  • Fredrika-Bremer Association (Oldest Women’s Movement Organisation in Sweden)
  • Dawn Fyffe, Say Women, Glasgow, Scotland
  • Marlyn Glen, Former Member, Scottish Parliament
  • Ruchira Gupta, President, Apne Aap Women Worldwide (sex trafficking), India
  • Sophie Gwyther, Team Leader, Children and Young People’s Service, Fife Women’s Aid, Scotland
  • Professor Simon Hackett and Dr. Nicole Westmarland, Durham University Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRiVA), UK
  • Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, President, Federation of Icelandic Artists
  • Elizabeth Handsley (Northwestern) Professor of Law, Flinders University; President, Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM)
  • Birgitta Hansson, Union President, Sweden Union, Soroptimistklubbar
  • Maree Hawken, coordinator, Queensland Women’s Health Network, Australia
  • Dr. Susan Hawthorne, Publisher, Spinifex Press, Adjunct Professor, James Cook University
  • Ann Hayne, Gender-Based Violence Manager, Coathill Hospital, Coatbridge, Scotland
  • Marta Torres Herrero, Violence Program Coordinator, Pozuelo de Alarcon, Spain
  • Wiveca Holst, Swedish Expert, The Observatory European, Women’s Lobby
  • Derrick Jensen, Author, “Endgame,” Crescent City, California, USA
  • Cherie Jimenez, Director, Kim’s Project (Anti-trafficking), Boston, Mass., USA
  • Dr. Jennifer A. Johnson, Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, USA
  • Hetty Johnston, Founder and Executive Director, Bravehearts (child abuse prevention), Australia
  • Dr. Sue Jones, Centre for Gender and Violence Research, School for Policy Studies, Bristol University, UK
  • Guðrún Jónsdóttir, Spokesperson for Stigamot, Reykjavík, Iceland
  • Jackson Katz,  Ph.D., Director, MVP Strategies, Long Beach, Calif., USA
  • Dr. Liz Kelly, Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University London, England
  • Jenny Kemp, Coordinator, Zero Tolerance Campaign, Scotland
  • Connie J. Kirkland, National Certified Counselor, Certified Trauma Specialist, Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists, Northern Virginia Community College, USA
  • Dr. Renate Klein, Associate Professor (retired), Women’s Studies, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia; Publisher, Spinifex Press
  • Elizabeth Koepping, Associate Director, CSWC, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Iluta Lace, Manager, Association Resource Centre for Women, MARTA, 
Riga, Latvia
  • Dr. David Levy, Professor and Chair, Business School, University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA
  • Linda MacDonald, MEd, BN, RN, Nurse and Human Rights Defender for Women, Persons Against Non-State Torture, Nova Scotia, Canada
  • Finn Mackay, Founder, London Feminist Network; Centre for Gender and Violence Research, University of Bristol, UK
  • Jan Macleod, Senior Development Office, Women’s Support Project, Glasgow, Scotland
  • Dr. Ramesh Manocha, Convenor and Chairman, “The Right to Childhood,” CEO Healthed and Generation Next, Australia
  • Malka Marcovich, Mediterranean Network Against Trafficking in Women; International Coalition Zero Impunity
  • Dr. Betty McLellan, Coalition for a Feminist Agenda, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
  • Robin Morgan, Author, Activist, USA
  • Kate Morrissey, Counselling and Supervision Services, Manchester; UK Feminist Network
  • Sarah Morton, Co-Director, Knowledge Exchange, Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR), University of Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Wendy Murphy, JD, Professor of Sexual Violence Law, New England Law, Boston, Mass., USA; Former Sex Crimes Prosecutor
  • Pauline Myers, National Chairman, Townswomen’s Guilds, Birmingham, England
  • The National Organization for Women’s Shelter and Young Women’s Shelters, Sweden
  • Rachel McPherson LLB (Hons) M.Res (Law), Institute for Society and Social Research, Glasgow, Caledonian University
  • Bel Mooney, Author, Columnist, UK
  • Hiroshi Nakasatomi, Associate Professor, University of Tokushima, Japan
  • The Hon. Alastair Nicholson, AO RFD QC, Former Chief Justice of the Family Court and Founding Patron, Children’s Rights International, Australia
  • Dr. Caroline Norma, RMIT University, Australia, School of Social, Urban and Global Studies
  • Dr. Lesley Orr, Feminist Historian, Theologian; Acting Chair, Zero Tolerance Trust (Fighting Male Violence Against Women), Scotland
  • Sue Palmer, Author of “Toxic Childhood,” Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Bridget Penhale, Reader in Mental Health, School of Nursing Sciences, University of East Anglia    Norwich, UK
  • Dianne Post, International Human Rights Attorney, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
  • Dr. Helen Pringle, School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
  • Rape Crisis Scotland
  • Rape Crisis Glasgow, Scotland, Emma Ritch, Chair; Isabelle Kerr, Manager
  • Eha Reitelmann, General Secretary, Estonian Women’s Associations Roundtable
  • Dr. John Sanbonmatsu, Associate Professor, Philosophy, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Mass., USA
  • Amber Schalke, Feminist Party of Germany; Renate Schmidtsdorff-Aicher, Treasurer; Margot Müller, National Spokeswoman
  • Dr. Marsha Scott, Convener Engender, Scotland
  • Elaine Smith, Member, Scottish Parliament
  • Rt. Hon. Jacqui Smith, British Home Secretary (2007-09), UK
  • Gloria Steinem, Writer, Lecturer, Co-founder, Ms Magazine
  • Ane Stoe, Ottar (Feminst Organization), Norway
  • John Stoltenberg, MDiv, MFA, Author, Washington, DC, USA
  • Jacci Stoyle, Amnesty Paisley (Campaign Against Human Trafficking), Scotland
  • Swedish Medical Women’s Association, Gothenburg, Sweden (Johanna Berg, National, Coordinator)
  • Swedish Women’s Lobby, Gertrud Åström, President, Stockholm, Sweden
  • Melinda Tankard Reist, Editor, “Big Porn Inc.,” Australia
  • Emily Thomson, Lecturer, Co-Director of Women in Scotland’s Economy Research Centre, Glasgow, Caledonian University
  • Liane Timmermann, MillionWomenRise, Wales, UK
  • Linda Thompson, National Development Officer, Women’s Support Project, Scotland
  • Teresa Ulloa Ziaurriz, Regional Director, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean; Winner, 2011 Gleitsman International Activist Award (Harvard)
  • Megan Walker, Executive Director, London Abused Women’s Centre, London, Ontario. Canada
  • Vivien Walsh, Professor, Innovation Studies, University of Manchester, England, Author, “Whose Choice?”
  • Karin Werkman, Researcher, The Netherlands
  • Maria Weston, Nurse, National Health Service, Nottingham, England, UK
  • Dr. Rebecca Whisnant, Associate Professor, Philosophy, University of Dayton, Ohio, USA
  • Women Graduates’ Association, Dr. Catherine Dahlstrom, Associate Professor, Stockholm, Sweden
  • Women’s Front of Norway, Agnete Strøm, International Coordinator
  • WOCAD: Women’s Organisations Committee on Alcohol and Drug Issues, Stockholm, Sweden
  • John Woods, Consultant Psychotherapist, The Portman Clinic, London, England

The “Price” of Counter-Hegemonic Pedagogy: The Case of Dr. Jammie Price and The Price of Pleasure

(Pre-publication version)

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.

Audience Research

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.

Works Cited

Bridges, Ana J., Robert Wosnitzer, Erica Scharrer, Chyng Sun, and Rachael Liberman. “Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update.” Violence Against Women 16.10 (2010): 1065-1085. Print.

Durham, Gigi. “Ethnic Chic and the Displacement of South Asian Female Sexuality in the US Media.” Media/Cultural Studies: Critical Approaches. Ed. Rhonda Hammer. New York: Peter Lang, 2009. 501-515. Print.

Ewen, Stuart. All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York: Basic, 1990. Print.

Gill, Rosalind. “Empowerment/Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising.” Feminism & Psychology 18.1 (2008): 36-60. Print.

Jhally, Sut. “Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture.” Gender, Race, and Class in Media. Eds. Gail Dines and Jean Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012. 199-204. Print.

Kellner, Doug. “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism and Media Culture.” Gender, Race, and Class in the Media. Eds. Gail Dines and Jean Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012. 7-18. Print.

Martins, Nicole, Dmitri C. Williams, Kristen Harrison, and Rabindra A. Ratan. “A Content Analaysis of Female Body Imagery in video Games.” Sex Roles 61, 11-12 (2009): 824-836. Print

Marx, Karl. Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. Trans. T.B. Bottomore. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Print.

McChesney, Robert W. Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. New York: New P, 2000. Print.

The Price of Pleasure. Dir. Chyng Sun and Miguel Picker. Media Education, 2008. DVD.

Radway, Janice, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1991. Print.

Cambridge Union Debate

Does pornography provide ‘a good public service’?

That was the topic debated on Thursday night, Feb. 17, 2011 at the Cambridge University Union Society, where a packed house listened to arguments for and against the motion.

Two of those participating in the debate were Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality, and Anna Span, an adult film director and producer.

BBC World Update’s Dan Damon brought them together to discuss the debate.

Interview with Sonali Kolhatkar on AlterNet

AlterNet has published an interview with Sonali Kolhatkar of Uprising Radio Sept. 11, 2010

Should We Worry Whether Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality?

By Sonali Kolhatkar, Uprising Radio
Posted on September 11, 2010, Printed on September 11, 2010

A new book by scholar Gail Dines asserts that society’s overconsumption of pornography and the ridiculous extremes of today’s mainstream pornography have greatly undermined our ability to have meaningful sexual partnerships. In Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality, Dines traces the history of the porn industry from Playboy and Penthouse, to today’s brutal fare that resembles nothing less than the videotaped sexual assault of women.

As an example, Dines quotes from the introductory text on a typical porn Web site:

Do you know what we say to things like romance and foreplay? We say fuck off! This is not another site with half-erect weenies trying to impress bold sluts. We take gorgeous young bitches and do what every man would REALLY like to do. We make them gag till their makeup starts running, and then they get all other holes sore — vaginal, anal, double penetrations, anything brutal involving a cock and an orifice. And then we give them the sticky bath.

This is not the extreme end of a complex porn continuum — it is typical of today’s mainstream porn freely available online, often to boys as young as 11. Not only does Dines go to great lengths to research the depth of porn’s standard fare, but she also details how the porn industry is consumed with profits, and the effect this has on its male viewers. Says Dines, “The pornographers did a kind of stealth attack on our culture, hijacking our sexuality and then selling it back to us, often in forms that look very little like sex but a lot like cruelty.”

Gail Dines is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Boston’s Wheelock College, where she researches the hypersexualization of the culture. I interviewed her recently about her book.

Sonali Kolhatkar: I have to say it was very difficult to read your book, and I had to skip parts where you describe mainstream pornography. This is not your father’s Playboy or Penthouse magazines and videos. What we’re seeing in porn today, and mainstream porn, is completely bizarre. I mean, how do you handle it in your research?

Gail Dines: Well, what’s interesting is that I, like the viewers, get desensitized over time. I mean, obviously I couldn’t have the visceral reaction I had in the beginning to it. But I put those descriptions in because often people say to me, you know, why are you getting so upset by images of naked women? And what I want people to understand is that pornography now looks nothing like it did 10, 15 years ago — that it is now brutal and cruel and is absolutely based on the degradation of women. So this is why I walk people through the porn industry. Also, often anti-porn feminists are accused of picking the worst of the pornography. What I wanted to do was go into the mainstream pornography that the average 11-year-old would get once he put “porn” into Google.

SK: Can you trace the history of the pornography industry, both in terms of who has run it, and its content?

GD: There’s always been pornography floating around our culture, but I really put the pornography industry at 1953, starting then. Why? Because it was the first edition of Playboy, and this was the first time pornography really became industrialized, really became a product. Now, Hefner was very smart. He started in ‘53, post-Second World War America. And what this country needed to do was jump-start the economy. Now, women were taught how to buy through television. There was nowhere to teach men. And remember in the ’50s you had to teach people how to be consumers. I know it sounds bizarre today, but then…

And so, in order to teach people how to be consumers, you needed to show them what it was to buy products they didn’t need. This is where Playboy was so successful. The advertising in Playboy was about telling men that if you consume at this level, then you will get the real prize, which is the women in the magazine, or women who look like women in the magazine. So what he did–he didn’t just commodify sexuality, he sexualized commodities, which is his brilliance.

Also in 1969 in the New York Times there was an ad for Penthouse, and that was Penthouse trying to come in and dislodge Playboy from its number one position. And between 1969 and 1973, you had a war between Playboy and Penthouse to see who could be the most explicit. Now in a way, Playboy lost the battle but won the war. The reason is that it didn’t go as explicit as Penthouse. Penthouse was so explicit that a lot of the advertisers ran and were nervous about putting their images, their products, in there.

Now, during the battle between ‘69 and ‘73, they opened up the space for what was acceptable pornography. It’s no accident that in 1973 you saw the first edition of Hustler. This absolutely pushed the limits of what could be mainstream, hard-core pornography. So you had Playboy staking out the soft-core, then you had Hustler staking out the hard-core. Those were — and I can’t believe I say this — the good old days. Today, I mean, Hustler is mild compared to what you see in the mainstream pornography.

SK: Because of the Internet.

GD: Absolutely. The Internet changed the industry. It made it accessible, and it made it affordable. So remember, when the average age of first viewing pornography is 11, when the 11-year-old boy puts “porn” into Google, he’s not looking at your father’s Playboy, he’s looking at a world of cruelty, and a world of brutality. So what I ask in the book is, “What are the long-term effects of bringing up boys on violent images when you think about pornography as being the main form of sex education in our society?”

SK: And I want to get to that question, but let’s talk about the effects on women. Because as the industry has changed, the women participating in that industry have gone from, you know, being photographed naked to now being literally brutalized — physically brutalized. What does the average female participant in the pornography industry go through in terms of her physical degradation and her physical health?

GD: If you watch pornography you see that immediately. What you see is a woman being penetrated brutally vaginally, anally and orally. As that’s happening — three men at one time, four men at one time — she’s being called vile, hateful names, she’s being sometimes slapped, sometimes her hair is pulled… Even the industry said that many women have a hard time being in the industry for more than three months. Why? Because of the brutalization of the body.

SK: Three months?

GD: That’s what the article says in Adult Video News. Also, I’ve interviewed somebody who worked with AIM, the health care organization that takes care of the health of porn performers, and he was telling me just what happens to the bodies of these women. For example, he said one of the big things are anal prolapses, where literally their anuses drop out of their body and have to be sewn back in because of the brutal anal sex. He also talked about gonorrhea of the eye, and the latest thing — because you have something called [ass to mouth] — they put the penis into the anus, and then into her mouth without washing. They’re finding now that women are getting fecal bacterial infections in their mouth and throat.

So, you’ve got a whole host of issues that women have to deal with in the porn industry, and what’s interesting is nobody seems to be interested in these women. Instead we get some ridiculous documentary saying women like it, they choose it. Absolutely not. You know, you’re looking at working-class women who think they know what pornography is, who see Jenna Jameson and think they’re going to be the next Jenna Jameson, when Jenna Jameson is one in 10,000. And really, Jenna Jameson has been an important recruitment tool because she suggests this is what you can do if you go into pornography. And what do you know? You’re 18, you think you know what you’re gonna get into, and then you get on the set and everything shifts and changes.

SK: What are the long-term effects on our sexuality as a result of this new era of brutal sexual assault that masquerades as pornography both on men and women? Have there been studies?

GD: There’s been studies for 30 years — on men, mainly — and what they find, and what I found in my interviews, is that the more pornography men watch, the less able they are to develop intimate relationships. Also what’s interesting is they lose interest in real women because the pornography is so hardcore — it’s industrial-strength sex — anything less looks bland and boring. Also, the men think they should be performing like the men in pornography, they think their penises should look like that, they think they should be able to sexually perform for hours like the men do. What they don’t realize is a lot of the men in pornography are on Viagra, that’s why it’s so possible… And they begin to really see women in terms of objects. Not as somebody to have relationships with, but as somebody to do something to. Sex becomes something like making hate to a woman’s body. They don’t make love in pornography, they make hate.

SK: Now, this is an aspect that gets debated over and over again. The pro-pornography viewpoint is that what you see on your video screen is a fantasy, and that we are human beings who are capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality, and we don’t carry over what’s in our fantasy to our real lives.

GD: Well, it’s very interesting we say that because, you know, as somebody who studies media, and as somebody who’s progressive, when we study right-wing media we don’t say it’s fantasy. We don’t say, “You know what, don’t worry about Glenn Beck, don’t worry about Rush Limbaugh — people can distinguish.” No, we understand that media shapes the way we think. It shapes our reality, it shapes our perceptions of the world. Pornography is one more form of media. It’s a specific genre which, by the way, is very powerful because it delivers messages to men’s brains via the penis, which is an extremely powerful delivery system. So I think the idea that it’s fantasy just isn’t borne out given the studies that we know about how porn, and how images in general, affect people’s view of the world.

What about the profit motive here, and how has that changed? Because, of course, in the early days of Playboy and Penthouse, profit was the motive, and profit is a motive today as well, but how has the industry become so fiercely capitalistic that, in a way, it’s almost a victim of itself?

GD: Well, it’s always been a capitalist industry. I mean, this is another thing that we don’t want to think about — that pornography, in reality, is profit-driven. It’s not about fantasy, it’s not about play, it’s not about fun. It’s about money.

When I went to the [annual porn] expo in Las Vegas, I interviewed a lot of pornographers. What was amazing is what interested them is money. They don’t talk sex, they talk money. They talk bulk mailing, they talk mass advertising. What we forget when we talk about pornography is that these are not fantasies created from nowhere that drop from the sky, these are fantasies created within a typical capitalist market. What you see in pornography is a need to keep addressing that. Now what’s happened is that as more and more men are using pornography, they’re becoming more bored and desensitized with it, which means that they want harder and harder stuff. And the pornography, because it’s profit-driven, has to meet their needs. What’s interesting is that pornography is actually in a mess because they don’t know what else to do, the pornographers. They’ve gone about as hardcore and as cruel as they can. They’ve done everything to women’s bodies short of killing her. So the question is what can they do next to keep an increasingly desensitized audience interested?

SK: In an interesting way, pornography seems to almost be a metaphor for capitalism in general, right? Basically unchecked growth…at some point there’s a limit, at some point you hit a wall, and you can’t grow any more, you can’t go any further because you’ve gone as far as you can.

GD: That’s the whole issue of capitalism in our society as well. It’s how much more can we continue given what’s happening to the environment. But I would say that there’s still room for the niche markets in pornography, and in my book I talk about specific niche markets. One of them is called interracial porn, which is black men and white women. Another one is what I call pseudo-child pornography, which is women who are 18 — I’m pretty sure of that — but they look younger, and they behave in a younger way. So what you have are men who are bored with adult women looking out for these pseudo-child porn sites. And I’ve interviewed child rapists, and some of them actually started looking… They didn’t want to go to illegal child pornography, so they started with the legal so-called child pornography, and then basically matured into child pornography. And for some of them, the distance between looking at child pornography and raping a child was six months.

SK: Wow. What are the long-term effects on our society in general? Not necessarily just effects on the men who consume it, but how has pornography ‘pornified,’ to use Pamela Paul’s term, our culture?

GD: Well, I think when we talk about a porn culture, we talk about the images and the messages and the ideologies of porn filtering down into mainstream media. I mean, you just have to turn on the television, flip through a magazine, go to the movies, and what you see is a pornographized version of the world. Now I think this is true for women as well. If you go to Cosmopolitan, the places where women read, you’ll often see articles about why you should have pornography to spice up your sex life. So what we’re seeing is, the pornographers have really taken control of the discourse around sexuality.

There’s nobody else who’s getting any voice who’s coming up and saying, “Look. This is a particular type of sex that pornography’s representing. It is brutality, it is based on the debasement of women. There are alternative ways of being sexual in our society that are not based on the debasement of women.” But where do you hear this in the media? Because the media is increasingly becoming pornified, and you have the pornographers and their hacks in the media defining what our sexuality should be.

SK: And the effects on young girls and boys — you mentioned that the average age of a boy who views porn on the Internet today is 11, which, as the mother of a boy, is just heartbreaking to me. So the effects on young children, both boys and then girls who see these pornified images on billboards and in magazines…what are we doing to our children?

GD: We’re distorting their sexuality. We’re forcing them into early sexuality this way, and we’re turning their sexuality into a commodity so we can sell it — commodify it and sell it back to them. I think one of the interesting things about how girls and young women are affected by the porn culture is they date these men who themselves have been shaped by pornography. What I found in my interviews with young women was that many of these men wanted to play out porn sex on their bodies. They wanted anal sex, they wanted all sorts of other things that they’d seen in pornography.

And a lot of the women, they don’t want to do it, but they don’t have the vocabulary to express why they don’t want to do it because everywhere they go in this society they’re told, “If you don’t do it, you’re a prude.” And what teenager or adolescent do you know wants to be defined as a prude? So the boys are pushing, nagging, cajoling girls into performing porn sex.

SK: Gail, let’s talk about the feminist debate, and where it stands over pornography. This is a long-standing debate, this battle within feminist circles over pornography. On the one hand, there are feminists who point out that pornography is degrading to women and should be an issue taken up by feminists; then on the other hand, are those who say women in the pornography industry are empowered, or they’re sex workers who ought to be respected like any other workers and we shouldn’t be prudes or man-haters or ‘feminazis,’ which is a common term I’m sure you’ve been called — I’ve been called that. Do you see that conversation changing given that the landscape of mainstream pornography has become so brutal? Or are we still blind to its brutality?

GD: This is a great question because as pornography becomes more brutal, you would think that the conversation would get around to brutality and what happens to the women. It’s amazing, I think, those feminists who support the porn industry–they don’t look at it as an industry, they look at it as a collection of women being empowered by the industry. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t some women who can’t make this work for them. However, what I’m interested in is the macro-social and systematic effects of an industry, not of individuals working within it. What I study is the mainstream industry where women are not empowered. Women come and go, they enter the industry thinking they’re going to be Jenna Jameson, they leave scarred, they leave emotionally affected by what’s happened to them. And I think as feminists we need to start looking at the effects on women both in the industry and outside the industry because, as I said, these women are dating the men.

I think also there’s areas in feminism where no one really sees the reality of women’s victim status, that we say women are no longer victims. Well, if you look at the level of violence against women in this society, you look at women struggling to feed their children, you look at women living in poverty, you know, we need to have feminism with politics. And what’s happened, I think, is that politics have been bled out of feminism, so now you get this idea that we got what we wanted, or at least we can be empowered as individuals. I’m sorry, but you cannot be empowered as individuals when women as a group are systematically discriminated against. And even if I’m OK. My feminism was saying, “You know what? I walked that distance for you because you’re not OK.” That’s what sisterhood was about. Not about looking at individuals and saying, “You’re OK, so that’s a sign that women are empowered.”

SK: Finally, where is the good news in all of this? Where’s the activism and what are some avenues by which people can take action?

GD: There are a few places they can go where we’ve got resources online. My Web site,, also, which is an organization that I co-founded, has a list of resources. You can also download a 50-minute slideshow with a script and images that you can give in your communities, you can give in your schools. It’s been given across the country, in lots of different other countries as well. And you can join on, and we have conferences, and we actually train people how to give the slideshow as a way to start building a grassroots activist movement. I often get letters from women all over the country telling me this has happened to me, thank you for doing this work, I’m now joining your organization because my husband, my boyfriend, or whatever has been using pornography and I’ve been affected by it.

Sonali Kolhatkar is Co-Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit that funds health, educational, and training projects for Afghan women. She is also the host and producer of Uprising Radio, a daily morning radio program at KPFK, Pacifica in Los Angeles.

Adventures in Pornland

Reprinted from the Huffington Post

Writing a book about porn can take a person on some strange research missions, but for me the most bizarre was no doubt the three days I spent at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas in 2008. Imagine being in a cavernous hall with hardcore porn being projected onto every wall, your voice drowned out by the fake orgasmic noises coming from the movies. Scattered around the room are scantily clad women sitting on tables with their legs wide open so fans can take pictures of their barely covered crotches.

I went around the hall interviewing porn producers, many of whom were more than happy to talk about their work. It became clear very quickly that what gets these guys excited is not bodily contact but profits, niche markets, and bulk mailing. In all the workshops I went to, nobody talked about sex, just his or her business plan for increasing revenue.

One of the representatives from RealDoll–a company that specializes in life-like sex dolls–explained to me, with a straight face, that these dolls are “great for men who want to learn how to be with a woman.” One porn producer was keen to tell me that his movies were more tasteful than the usual hard-core ones, even though his latest had a woman kneeling in a coffin as she was being anally penetrated.

One afternoon I sat down next to Patricia, an African American security guard being paid a little more than minimum wage. I asked how she was, but she looked at me suspiciously and turned her back, assuming I was a pornographer. Only after convincing her that I was an anti-porn feminist writing a book did she open up to me to complain bitterly about the work detail, since she had never before seen porn. Patricia was especially upset by the African American women porn performers, and every time one passed us, she asked me to go tell her that that it is “not good for her to be doing this stuff.” Patricia and I struck up the kind of friendship one does when you feel like you have found some sanity in a crazy place.

When I started to write Pornland, my first thought was: How can I find the words to describe just how brutal mainstream Internet porn has become? In my lectures I show images, but this was not an option for the book since I didn’t want to become one more purveyor of porn. I knew that I had to describe today’s porn, because many of the readers–especially women–would have an outdated image in their heads of a naked woman seductively smiling in a cornfield. The first thing I did was to type porn into Google and just describe, in a somewhat clinical fashion, the images that jumped out at me. This is not an easy read, because today’s mainstream Internet porn is filled with images of body-punishing sex acts that are designed to debase and dehumanize women. These are not fun, creative, playful images that feed our sexual imaginations but instead are industrial products that depict a type of sex that is formulaic, generic, and plasticized.

Porn images are not only found in those materials we call pornography. The imagery and themes have now migrated to pop culture. Whether it be Miley Cyrus in Elle spread-eagled on a table dressed in S&M gear, or Maxim doing a feature on the “Top 12 Porn Stars,” we are inundated with images, messages, and ideologies that promote porn. Using interviews with hundreds of college-age students, Pornland takes a close look at what it means for young women and men to grow up in such a culture and how it shapes their identities, sexualities, and ideas about intimacy, relationships, and connection.

One problem I knew I had to deal with as I was writing the book was the inevitable accusation that, because I am anti-porn, I must be an anti-sex prude who is out to police people’s sex lives. To criticize porn today is to be seen as criticizing sex, because–thanks to the porn PR machine–porn has now become synonymous with sex.

The way I address this in the book is to ask the reader what would happen if this book were a critique of McDonald’s for its exploitive labor practices, its destruction of the environment, and its impact on our diet and health. Would I be accused of being anti-eating or anti-food? I suspect that most readers would understand that the critique was focused on the large-scale impact of the fast-food industry and not the human need, experience, and joy of eating. So I say in the preface that this book should be read as a critique of the industrialization and commodification of sex by corporate predators, and not as an attack on sex itself.

It is this industrial setting that often gets ignored in the heated debates over porn. I write about porn as an industry because I want people to understand that it needs to be seen as a business whose product evolves with a specifically capitalist logic. This is a business with considerable political clout, with the capacity to lobby politicians, engage in expensive legal battles, and use public relations to influence public debate. As with the tobacco industry, this is not a simple matter of consumer choice; rather, the business is increasingly able to deploy a sophisticated and well-resourced marketing machine, not just to push its wares but also to cast the industry’s image in a positive light.

I have no plans to go back to the Expo in Las Vegas next year, but you can be sure the industry will be there planning how to develop new niche markets and marketing techniques to keep an increasingly bored and desensitized consumer base interested. Patricia won’t be there either, since she packed in her job as a security guard straight after the Expo and moved as far away from Las Vegas as possible.

Congressional Briefing on the Harms of Pornography

On June 15, 2010 I took part in a Congressional Briefing on the harms of pornography. The goal was to educate policy makers on the nature and effects of the contemporary porn industry, and the room was filled with more than 150 staff, aides, and people from other interested organizations. I agreed to participate because I wanted to make sure that there was a feminist voice included in the presentations because too often, we are left out of the discussion.  There were excellent presentations by Dr. Sharon Cooper, Dr. Mary Anne Laden, Shelley Lubbin, Donna Rice Hughes and Laura Lederer. Here is a video of my testimony, and here’s the text:

Howard Stern regularly features pornography on his show, and for this he was the second highest paid celebrity in the world in 2007; Hugh Hefner’s life with his blonde, young and embarrassingly naïve “girlfriends” is the topic of the hugely successful show, The Girls Next Door on E! Entertainment; retired mega-porn star Jenna Jameson has written a best-selling book; Miley Cyrus, the former Disney star who is a role model to young girls everywhere is photographed for Elle magazine, sprawled on a table wearing S/M gear; and students at Yale university invite pornographers to give talks on campus. I could go on, but these examples illustrate how porn has seeped into our everyday world and is fast becoming such a normal part of our lives that it barely warrants a mention.

A key sign that pornography is now deeply embedded in our culture is the way it has become synonymous with sex to such a point that to criticize pornography is to get slapped with the label “anti-sex”. But sex in pornography is a carefully documented and orchestrated set of images, not a mere reflection of reality. Porn sex is a  sex that is debased, dehumanized, formulaic and generic, a sex based not on individual fantasy, play or intimacy, but one that is the result of an industrial product created by men who get excited not by bodily contact but by profits.

Understanding that porn is an industry means that it needs to be needs to be seen as a business, whose product evolves with a specifically economic logic. This is a business with considerable political clout, with the capacity to lobby politicians, engage in expensive legal battles, and use public relations to influence public debate. Like the tobacco industry, this is not a simple matter of consumer choice; rather the business is increasingly able to deploy a sophisticated and well-resourced marketing machine, not just to push its wares but also to cast the industry’s image in a positive light.

When I talk about pornography, I am often asked why I am getting so upset about pictures of naked women. Well, traditional Playboy-style images were bad enough in their sexism but anyone who is familiar with contemporary pornography knows that the days of naked women wearing coy smiles and not much else have long gone. Internet pornography today is filled with body-punishing sex where a woman is penetrated in every orifice by any number of men at the same time. As they pound away at her body, they call her vile, hateful names such as filthy whore, dirty slut, cumdumspter  and worse, as a way to compound the degradation. Nothing is too painful or debasing for these women since, according to porn, they love it.

In the porn world, women are never concerned about pregnancy, STDs, or damage to the body. They seem comfortable with the idea that their sex partner(s) view their sexuality as something dirty (as in “dirty slut,” or “filthy little whore). This is an uncomplicated world where women don’t need equal pay, health care, day care, retirement plans, good schools for their children or safe housing;  It is a world filled with one-dimensional women who are nothing more than a collection of holes.

The titles of movies and websites say it all: Anally Ripped Whores, Gag Me then Fuck Me, Fuck the Babysitter, Cum Swapping Cheerleader, Gag on My Gag, First Time with Daddy, Brutal Blow Jobs and so on.  If you go on you see a 20 second clip of a scene with a young woman they call Scarlett. To give you a sense of the content of today’s porn, I will describe the clip.  “Scarlett” is blonde, dressed in Victoria Secret’s type underwear and looks resigned to having a vise-like contraption digging into her neck and head. The 20-second clip opens with Scarlett sitting on a toilet having a penis thrust down her throat while the man attached to the penis pulls her head back and forward using the handles on the vise. He drags her off the toilet onto her knees where he continues to thrust his penis. You watch Scarlett from above begin to gag, eyes bulging, and as she tries to pull away to breath, the man pulls the vise toward his penis with greater force so she can’t move.  As all this is going on he is screaming obscenities at her.  On one site advertising the movie Anally Ripped Whores, the text reads:

We at Pure Filth know exactly what you want and we’re giving it to you. Chicks being ass fucked till their sphincters are pink, puffy and totally blown out. Adult diapers just might be in store for these whores when their work is done.[i]

It is important to stress that the issue is not artistic expression versus sexual repression. Porn is the commercial documentation of assault played out on real women’s bodies who, like you and me, have real physical limits. Even the industry has said that shooting hardcore today is “difficult and demanding.” The Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation, a non-profit organization that serves the sex industry, states that women in pornography are at risk for Chlamydia and gonorrhea of the throat and/or eye/and or anus, hepatitis B, and vaginal and anal tears.

Pornography, like all media forms, tells stories about the world, but the stories it tells are of the most intimate in nature. It tells men that women exist solely for male use and abuse, that they like to be debased and are willing at any time and any place to submit to men’s sexual demands. It tells men that they have a right of total and complete access to women’s bodies, that they as men lack empathy and humanity and that they have no sexual integrity. To be a real man in pornography is to violate sexual boundaries and borders, and to see sex as making hate to a woman’s body. Bled dry of intimacy, connection and emotion, porn sex is reduced to a technical, plasticized, formulaic generic act that men do to women as a way to demonstrate the power that they have over them.

To argue, as the pornographers do, that pornography has no effect on its consumers is to ignore decades of research that explores how media images shape our cognition and behavior. To suggest that a man or boy can walk away from pornography unchanged is to ignore how we, as social beings, build our sexual identities, norms and values from the images and messages that pervade our culture. Media images help construct our mental map of the world and the way we make sense of our place in it.[ii] Today, pornography is the major form of sex education for boys, and as it seeps into mainstream media, for girls as well.

One of area of controversy is the question of whether pornography causes rape.  After reviewing the major studies in the area, Neil Malamuth, one of the most well-known psychologists studying the effects of porn, concluded that “experimental research shows that exposure to non-violent or violent pornography results in increases in both attitudes supporting sexual aggression and in actual aggression.”[iii] In addition, in his own study Malamuth found that:

When we considered men who were previously determined to be at high risk for sexual aggression … we found that those who are additionally very frequent users of pornography were much more likely to have engaged in sexual aggression than their counterparts who consume pornography less frequently. [iv]

Taken together, over forty years of research into pornography has demonstrated a link between pornography and sexual aggression against women.  But it would be a mistake to see the effects of porn just in terms of rape, since studies show that many of the effects are subtle and cumulative. I have interviewed hundreds of men about their porn use and found that porn affects men in the following ways:

  • It makes them want to emulate the sex they see in porn
  • It makes them think that women in general enjoy porn sex
  • It makes them feel like sexual losers because they can’t perform like the men in porn
  • It makes them angry at the women in their lives who refuse to perform porn sex
  • It makes them less interested in real human beings and more interested in using porn
  • It gets in the way of connection when they are having sex with their partners
  • It cultivates a taste for harder and harder porn since they become desensitized and bored[v]

Indeed, it is this last finding that is most alarming since it speaks to the need to keep increasing the level of cruelty against women as a way to keep consumers interested. As one porn producer told Adult video News, the trade journal of the pornography industry, “People want more…. Make it more hard, make it more nasty, make it more relentless.”[vi]

In one of the only studies on the content of contemporary pornography,[vii] it was found that the majority of scenes from 50 of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted against the female performers. Physical aggression, which included spanking, open-hand slapping and gagging, occurred in over 88% of scenes while expressions of verbal aggression, calling the woman names such as bitch or slut, were found in 48% of the scenes. The researchers concluded that “if we combine both physical and verbal aggression, our findings indicate that nearly 90% of scenes contained at least one aggressive act .…”[viii]

While pornography is, without question, a form of violence against women in its production and consumption, we also need to see it as a form of violence against boys. To expose boys to images of sexual cruelty is to rob them of their right to develop sexually in ways that are authentic and developmentally appropriate.

I want to say that as someone who has studied the pornography industry for over 20 years, I am still surprised that it has become so brutal this quickly.  We are now in the midst of a massive social experiment, as no other generation has been so bombarded with pornographic images.  We have had our sexuality and indeed our culture hijacked by a predatory industry that does not promote our sexual freedom but rather limits and constrains our imaginations and desires. As pornography increasingly becomes part of our sexual landscape, we limit our capacity for sexual intimacy and love. If we believe that, as a culture, we deserve more than what the pornographers offer, then we must begin to roll up our sleeves and get to work to wrestle back that which is rightfully ours.

[i] Accessed June 12, 2007

[ii] See for example the research of George Gernber and Larry Gross. For an overview of their work see, Gerbner George, et al. 1994. Growing up with Television: Cultivation Process. In Media Effects” Advances in Theory and Research, edited by J. Bryant and D. Zillman. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[iii] Malamuth, Neil, Tamara Addison, and Mary Koss. (2000). Annual Pornography and Sexual Aggression: Are There Reliable Effects and Can We Understand Them. Review of Sex Research, 11, 26-91. P. 45

[iv] Ibid, P. 81

[v] Dines, Gail (2010). Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality. Boston: Beacon Press.

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

[vii] Wosnitzer, Robert .J, & Ana J. Bridges. 2007.  Aggression and sexual  behavior in best-selling pornography: A content analysis update.   Paper presented at the 57th Annual Meeting of the International
Communication Association, San Francisco, CA

[viii] Ibid.

Stop Porn Culture Conference, Wheelock College, June 2010

I am starting my blog today to celebrate the publication  of my new book, Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality. It is now available for purchase on Amazon.

We just had our Stop Porn Culture Conference at Wheelock College in Boston. It was a great success with over 120 participants from across the country as well as from Australia, the UK and Norway. Below is my opening speech:

Welcome to the Stop Porn culture Conference of 2010. We are thrilled to host these two days of keynotes and workshops and to provide a space where we can discuss the harmful effects of an industry that saturates our society with misogynistic and racist images. In this room we have women and men who are activists, anti-violence experts, academics, anti-racist educators, students and citizens who feel deep in their gut that something is wrong with the culture.  Everywhere we look we see what it means to live in a pornified culture where the images, themes and stories of porn seep into our everyday lives. Whether it be teens sexting or Miley Cyrus doing a pole dance, the dominant discourse around sex and sexuality has been hijacked by the pornographers.

We come together this weekend to share ideas and discuss strategy and we do this because we recognize that we need to build a robust movement that takes on this predatory industry. This weekend you are amongst friends.   It is not often that those of us opposed to porn find a place where we can feel welcome. The academy has basically turned us into outliers, the mass media has caricatured us, and we are ridiculed and insulted all over the web.

If the chatter is to be believed then we are, wait for it, anti-sex prudes who hate men and scream rape every time a woman has sex with a man. To read about us it would appear that we against fun, sexual creativity, playfulness, masturbation and of course orgasms. We are depressing, unappetizing and worse yet, out to ruin everyone else’s sex life.

Of course all of this is just a way to belittle us and legitimize the porn industry.  I would say that anti-porn feminists are pro-sex in the real sense of the word, pro that wonderful, fun and deliciously creative force that bathes the body in delight and pleasure. And what we are actually against is porn sex. A sex that is debased, dehumanized, formulaic and generic, a sex based not on individual fantasy, play or imagination, but one that is the result of an industrial product created by (mostly) men who get excited, not by bodily contact, but by market penetration and profits. A sex that encodes deep cultural scripts of male entitlement and female subservience.     Read the rest of this entry »