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A Feminist Response to Weitzer

By Gail Dines

Pre-publication draft

Full citation: Violence Against Women, April 2012. vol. 18 no. 4: 512-520


In his review of my book Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality, Ronald Weitzer claims that anti-porn feminists are incapable of objective, rigorous research because they operate within the “oppression paradigm,” which he defines as “a perspective that depicts all types of sex work as exploitive, violent, and perpetuating gender inequality.” (VAW, 2011, 666). This article argues that while anti-porn feminists do indeed see pornography as exploitive, such a position is rooted in the rigorous theories and methods of cultural studies developed by critical media scholars such as Stuart Hall and Antonio Gramsci. Pornland applies a cultural studies approach by exploring how porn images are part of a wider system of sexist representations that legitimize and normalize the economic, political and legal oppression of women.

A Feminist Response to Weitzer

Reading Weitzer’s review (2011) of Karen Boyle’s Everyday Pornography (2010) and  Pornland (2010), catapulted me back to my undergraduate days when the ideas of credentialed white men were considered objective scholarship, while the rest of us were dismissed as producing ideology-laden arguments based on anecdotes. I thought, mistakenly, that the excellent work of feminist scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins (2000), Dorothy Smith (1988), and Liz Stanley (1990) had debunked the idea that having a feminist perspective of the world precludes a researcher from producing theoretically sophisticated and empirically sound work. Weitzer claims that pursuing a feminist analysis of porn renders Karen Boyle and myself incapable of saying anything interesting, meaningful, or “objective.”

My problem, it seems, is that I work within the “oppression paradigm,” which Weitzer defines as “a perspective that depicts all types of sex work as exploitive, violent, and perpetuating gender inequality”  (2011, 666). Well yes, indeed that is what I believe, but Weitzer has the wrong name for this paradigm. It is the radical feminist paradigm, and it is a set of theoretical positions that grew out of listening to the stories of thousands of women who are not credentialed, who do not publish in academic journals, and whose experiences are all too often dismissed as anecdotal. Radical feminists make no apologies for taking women’s words seriously, and we argue that this is the data from which we build our theories and explanations of how patriarchal society works, on both the micro and the macro level.

What is especially interesting about Weitzer’s review essay, written in 2011, is his belief that a critical feminism that problematizes the buying and selling of human bodies does not belong in the academy. His review consistently places radical feminist analysis in opposition to what he calls “rigorous,” “objective,” “empirical” work, as a means of dismissing those arguments he dislikes. This is a lazy way to review a book, since it does not require a substantive engagement with the arguments. Rather than exploring the way Pornland integrates critical theory and cultural studies with a rigorous political economy of the porn industry, Weitzer dismisses it as “ideological.” Then, interestingly, he spends much time critiquing what psychologists say about the effects of porn, rather than discussing how I—a sociologist—examine the more subtle and nuanced way images construct our ideas of reality.

So let us begin with the idea that the so-called “oppression paradigm” has no empirical validity. Starting in the 1970s, radical feminists began systematically collecting testimony from women who had been in the sex industry, as well as from women who had been harmed by pornography, and we have since amassed a large body of evidence. The thousands of “anecdotes” cohered into data about the ways that this industry hurts women in its production and consumption. We did not make this up, and we do not privilege the anecdotes (that also cohere into data) of consumers over the stories of women.

As those stories of women began to filter into the academy, feminist researchers began to study the sex industry using the traditional methods developed within the social sciences. And what they found was that the sex industry does indeed harm women. Women in the sex industry were found to be disproportionately drawn from the lower and working classes, and from communities of color; to have limited access to housing, health care, and education; to have experienced higher rates of childhood sexual abuse and PTSD; and were at much greater risk than the general population for STDs, rape, and murder (see for example, Kramer and Berg, 2003; Raphael & Shapiro, 2004; Farley, 2006; Jeffreys, 2008). This social science data was then used by radical feminists to further develop and build our theories on the ways that the sex industry is a crucial site for the production and reproduction of gender inequality.

One theme running through Weitzer’s review, and which is repeated by many people hostile to the radical feminist analysis, is the question: what type of porn is actually mainstream? The general argument is that we radical feminists “cherry pick” (2011: 667) the worst, and then make wild generalizations about the type of porn men are actually using. There is no question that the Internet has given rise to a dizzying array of sub-genres in porn that include soft-core, hard-core, gay, lesbian, amateur, MILF, teen, black, Asian, and so on. But even with all these sub-genres, the maturing porn industry has coalesced around what business and technology studies people call the “Dominant Design.” This refers to the industrial product that overtime becomes recognized as the market standard. Today the dominant design of the porn industry is Gonzo, which is defined by the industry as having “wall-to-wall” sex scenes.

The best evidence for this is provided by the porn industry itself. Adult Video News, the leading trade journal of the industry, tracks sales and rentals and each month provides charts of the best-selling and best-renting porn, as well as the most visited porn sites ( The studios that dominate produce mainly Gonzo porn. Click on their websites and you will see, with mind-numbing repetition, the acts that are the standard fare of gonzo: gagging (with the penis), slapping, name calling (“cunt,” “slut,” “cumdumpster,” “bitch”), hair-pulling, pounding anal and vaginal penetration, spitting in her face, ATM (in which the penis goes into the anus of the woman and then, without washing, into her mouth), and ejaculation into the mouth and eyes, and on the breasts. If Weitzer would like to argue that this is not violence against women, then I am most interested in what porn he would define as violent. Moreover, Weitzer criticizes me for calling such acts degrading and dehumanizing. Again, what would Weitzer call these?

The data from the industry indicating that Gonzo is the most popular and profitable sub-genre of porn is backed up by a recent peer-reviewed study that conducted a large-scale content analysis of contemporary porn. It is interesting to note that in his attempt to debunk my claims that porn has become more violent since the advent of the Internet, Weitzer cites a study from 1987 and one from 1993, and yet ignores this 2010 study. Bridges (2010) and her team 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 90% of scenes contained at least one aggressive act if both physical and verbal aggression were combined. Thus, making generalizations about mainstream porn is not “ludicrous,” but rather what radical feminist academics do when they are familiar with the research.

Weitzer provides a critique of the “effects” research that has been conducted by psychologists to argue that there is no evidence to show that porn has any effect in the real world. While I disagree with Weitzer on his conclusions, what surprised me most in his review of Pornland is how he, a sociologist, failed to engage with the sociological analysis of media images that are developed throughout the book. I state many times that the psychological evidence is less compelling than the sociological research into how images construct reality. I use the theories and methodologies developed in critical media studies (particularly by Stuart Hall, 1980,  and George Gerbner & Larry Gross, 1994) to argue that it is not one image that is the problem, but the system of images that provides ideological coherence. If we had the odd image here or there of a woman being gagged with a penis or slapped, then—problematic as this would be—I likely would not write an entire book about it. But given that these images form the backbone of a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, it is theoretically and empirically unsound for a sociologist to suggest that such images have no effect on the gender and sexual identity of the viewer.

Let us, for example, consider the way sociologists have understood the effects of racist images. No media theorist would argue that an occasional racist image by itself would make a non-racist white take out a lifetime membership in the KKK; nor would such images have an immediate or powerful effect in a society where blacks and whites were already treated as full and equal citizens. However, put these images in a society with a long history of racism, where the dominant ideology is that blacks are lazy, shiftless, violence-prone freeloaders, and you begin to see how the racist images don’t so much change the views of the average white person as much as they deliver and reinforce to the white population ideas that are floating around in the culture, in a form that is compelling, easy to understand, and even easier to get away with. After all, it’s supposedly just entertainment. What sociologists argue is that such images never stand alone, but are implicated in the broader system of messages that legitimize the ongoing oppression of a group, and their power is often derived not from shifting attitudes and behavior but from strengthening and normalizing the ideology that condones oppression (Snead, 1994).

If we take these arguments and apply them to pornography, we see that the effects of pornography might be more subtle and less likely to cause an immediate change in attitudes and behaviors. What sociologists argue is that porn images are part of a wider system of sexist imagery, from MTV to ads, and that rather than being an aberration, porn is just a more extreme, succinct, and crisp representation of patriarchal ideology that legitimizes the oppression of women. Indeed, looking for attitude or behavioral changes is an empirical dead end, since porn does not change men’s sexist attitudes; rather it actually firms up, cements, and consolidates their attitudes about gender, sexuality, femininity, masculinity, and heterosexuality.  Moreover, it does all of this in a way that gives men intense sexual pleasure. This framing of sexist ideology as sexy and hot gives porn a pass to deliver messages about women that in any other form would be seen as completely unacceptable.

We are not surprised that users have a positive story to tell about their use of porn; indeed we would be most surprised were this not the case. Weitzer quotes at length from David Loftus’s study that found that “most men understood porn as being about fun, beauty, women’s pleasure, and female assertiveness and power” (2011: 672).  This is the story that porn tells about women and that most men believe it makes sense, given that most consumers do not go to porn well-armed with media literacy skills. Researching the effects of media does not begin and end with what the viewers say, since this would reduce the researcher to a note-taker. Rather, it is our job to explore the relationship between how meaning is encoded by the producer, and then decoded by the viewer, and to interrogate the ideologies that the viewer mobilizes to gain meaning and pleasure from the text. As far as I know, the fact that men do get pleasure from porn is not in dispute, although men’s emotional experiences of physical pleasure may be more complicated than Weitzer or Loftus suggest. What is open to further analysis is the way this pleasure is culturally constructed and is the product of a social, political, and economic system that systematically relegates women to the margins.

Rather than continuing with the criticisms that Weitzer makes, I think it would be useful to explore what he does not discuss about Pornland. Would anyone reading Weitzer’s essay know that I spend a number of chapters carefully exploring the political economy of the porn industry? Much of the academic work today that is sympathetic to porn ignores the fact that porn is not just a discourse, but a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry that interfaces with banks, venture capitalists, real estate agents, software producers, Internet providers, cable companies, and hotel chains. What I explore in my book is how the business practices of the porn industry, while unremarkable business operations 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. This means that as sociologists 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.

My book is rich in examples of how the porn industry has used this clout to reshape our culture industries to the point that we now live in a much more hypersexualized visual and material environment. Weitzer’s suggestion that this process is “only sketchily documented in the book” (669) ignores chapters 1, 2, and 8, since it is here that I provide a detailed historical account of the way the porn industry has worked hand in glove with America’s major corporations to create a synergistic relationship between porn and pop culture. From Playboy’s role in shaping the consumer behavior of white, upwardly mobile, middle-class men of the 1950s, to Jenna Jameson’s links with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (which at one time made more money from selling porn than Playboy, through its ownership of the satellite provider EchoStar and, in turn, its part ownership of Sirius Radio, which carries The Howard Stern Show), Pornland takes apart the labyrinthian connections that illustrate how the porn industry is in bed with the media industry, and shows how this has resulted in the increasing sexualization of our culture.

How did Weitzer miss all of this in his review? I think part of the answer is that many academics who dismiss the feminist anti-porn position as ideology fail to take seriously the way the porn industry is entrenched in the wider capitalist economy. This was put succinctly by Andrew Edmond, President and CEO of Flying Crocodile, a $20-million pornography Internet business, when he stated that “a lot of people [outside adult entertainment] get distracted from the business model by [the sex]. It is just as sophisticated and multilayered as any other market place. We operate just like any Fortune 500 company (Brandweek, October, 2000, 41, 1Q48). Indeed they do.


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