A Call for an Open Discussion of Mass-Marketed Pornography

By Robert Jensen

Published in Alternet · February, 2007

At a progressive media reform conference dedicated to resisting corporate control of mass media, where many of the participants focus on gender and racial justice, it shouldn’t be difficult to interest people in the feminist critique of mass-marketed pornography.

After all, the pornography industry creates a steady stream of relentlessly sexist and racist films and web sites that undermine attempts to build a healthy sexual culture, while filling the pornographers’ pockets with substantial profits. A general critique of the effects of misogyny, white supremacy, and predatory corporate capitalism on mass media dovetails perfectly with the feminist critique of sexual-exploitation media.

Yet as I circulated at last week’s National Conference on Media Reform and distributed fliers for an upcoming feminist conference on pornography, the responses I got were often skeptical and sometimes hostile. The questions that were commonly asked of me that weekend revealed the need for the left/progressive political community to deepen its understanding of the issue.

The most common of those questions was, “Is your conference an anti-sex project?” reflecting the common distortion that feminist critics of pornography share the right-wing’s obsessions about containing sexuality within traditional “family values.”

My co-author Gail Dines has developed a clear response to the question, which I borrowed during the weekend in Memphis: When we criticize McDonald’s for its unhealthy food, environmentally destructive business practices, and targeting of children through manipulative advertising, does anyone ask whether we are “anti-food”? Of course not, because no one conflates McDonald’s with food; we recognize that there are many ways to prepare food, and it’s appropriate to critique the more toxic varieties. The same holds for pornography; pursuing a healthy sexuality does not mean we have to support toxic pornography.

Another common response was, “Do you support censorship?” reflecting a distortion of what feminists have proposed as remedies to the problem of pornography. First, the original feminist anti-pornography movement in the 1980s rejected state censorship that works through existing obscenity law and proposed a civil-rights approach that would give people hurt by pornography a chance in court to prove the harm. There are questions to ask about any legal strategy involving expression, and concerns about suppression of free speech are important; there are even disagreements within the feminist anti-pornography movement about this. But that discussion should start from an accurate account of the alternatives.

Second, at this point in the feminist anti-pornography movement the focus is on public education. The goal is to begin an honest conversation about the way in which “mainstream” pornography, the bulk of which is marketed to heterosexual men, is increasingly cruel and degrading to women and more openly racist than ever — at the same time that it is increasingly accepted as mainstream entertainment. It’s ironic to be accused of trying to suppress free speech when trying simply to exercise free speech in critique of profit-driven sexism and racism.

There was much insightful criticism at the conference of the subtle sexism and racism that still pervades mainstream corporate-commercial mass media. Although men and white people — including in progressive circles — are sometimes resistant to that analysis, no one argues that it’s an inappropriate topic for discussion. Yet for some reason, many of those same progressives — men and women alike — don’t consider a left/feminist/anti-racist critique of pornography to be part of the media reform/media justice agenda. Why? I think it has to do with fear.

Facing the pornography industry forces us to acknowledge the deep misogyny and white supremacy that still exists in the culture, even with the gains of the feminist and civil-rights movements. Both women and men might understandably be afraid of confronting what pornography tells us about the cruelty of our culture, our own sexual socialization, and the difficult struggles we face to create a world free of sexual violence.

That fear is real, and all the more reason to confront the issue of pornography more openly.