Abusive images belittle women, men and sex

By Robert Jensen

Published in Irish Examiner · June, 2007

[This article appeared in the Irish Examiner (Dublin), June 7, 2007, p. 10.]

Pornography is an industrial media product primarily sold to men in a male-dominant culture for use as a masturbation facilitator.

With that sentence, we can dispatch many of the attempts to defend pornography.

First, producers of sexually explicit material aren’t interested in creating a space for artists exploring the mysteries of sexuality. Pornographers make money by churning out a rigidly formatted product that minimizes creativity and maximizes profit.

Second, despite all the talk about “couples-friendly” pornography and the rise in women’s porn consumption, the overwhelming majority of consumers of heterosexual pornography are men. Not surprisingly in a male-dominant society, the material reflects a hyper-masculine sexual imagination rooted in a conventional conception of masculinity: sex as conquest and the acquisition of pleasure through the taking of women.

Third, men don’t encounter ¬this toxic definition of sex as a rational argument to be evaluated critically but through masturbation leading to orgasm — a powerful method for delivering the woman-hating message of the genre, reinforced in virtually every other institution of the society.

Evidence from laboratory studies and in-depth interviews indicates that men’s habitual use of media material that sexually objectifies and degrades women (1) adds to the cultural climate that increases the risk of sexual violence for women and (2) leads to women’s dissatisfaction with male partners in many relationships.

The evidence makes it even clearer that this pornographic culture also is destructive for men.

This doesn’t mean the harms of pornography are borne equally by all; in male-dominant societies, women bear the brunt of the damage from the sexualizing of a domination/subordination dynamic, which is so central to pornography. Nor does it mean that all people experience pornography the same way.

But while human behavior is variable, there are patterns we can observe. From nearly 20 years of research on the issue, I have concluded that one of the most damaging aspects of pornography (along with much of pop culture) is not only that it objectifies women but that it also encourages men to objectify ourselves, to cut ourselves off from the rich, complex experience of sexuality and intimacy. Pornography provides men a quick and easy orgasm, producing physical pleasure with little or no emotional engagement. But to do that, what are we doing to ourselves?

In hundreds of formal interviews and informal discussions with men, I repeatedly hear them describe going emotionally numb when viewing pornography and masturbating, a state of being “checked out.” In my own use of pornography as a child and young man, I remember how completely I would shut down during the experience.

So, to enter into the pornographic world and experience that intense sexual rush, many men have to turn off some of the emotional reactions typically connected to a sexual experience with a real person — a sense of the other’s humanity, an awareness of being present with another person, the recognition of something outside our own bodies, as well as a deeper connection to oneself. Many of those same men report that in intimate relationships with another person, this same emotionally shut-down response to sexual stimulation kicks in.

In short: Pornography helps train men not to feel during an experience that is most about feeling.

Compounding the problem is the way in which pornography intensifies men’s sense of control, over self and others. In pornography men — the actors on the screen and the viewers at home — control everything. For viewers, technology has allowed more control of the sexual experience, first with the fast-forward button on a VCR to speed past a particular scene that may be less exciting. DVDs offer the same feature, enhanced further by the segmenting of movies by performer or type of sex acts; on many DVDs, one can click to be taken directly to anal penetration, for example.

So, men turn women into objects in order to turn ourselves into objects, splitting off loving emotion from body, in search of a sexual experience in which we don’t have to feel and can stay in complete control. Coming full circle, this is not only destructive for men but dangerous for women. Because sex is always more than a physical act, men seeking this split-off state often find themselves having uncontrollable emotional reactions that can get channeled easily into violence and cruelty, increasing the risk to women.

In the end, I believe men should reject pornography and resist the pornifying of the culture for two reasons. First is an argument from justice, a principled concern for the welfare of women. Second is an argument from self-interest.

Do we want to be shut down and cut off from one of the great mysteries of life? Do we want to trade our humanity for a quick, cheap thrill that ends up costing us all more than we may realize?