Just a prude? Feminism, pornography, and men’s responsibility

By Robert Jensen

Published in Politics and Culture · April, 2005

[Talk delivered to the Sexual Assault Network of Delaware annual conference, Woodside, DE, April 5, 2005. An edited version appeared as “Empathy and choices: Rethinking the debate on pornography,” American Sexuality magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4, August 2005.]

I want to begin by coming out: I am a man. More specifically, I am a white man. That’s important because it suggest two things regarding what I know about the world.

First, I know some things that women don’t know about men. By definition, women are never in all-male spaces. Women don’t directly experience what men say about them when there are no women around. I do, and that means I know some things that the women here today don’t.

Being a man also means there’s a lot I don’t know, that I have had to learn — and have to keep learning — from women and a feminist movement. In these remarks, I’m going to speak about the feminist critique of pornography and the feminist anti-pornography movement, from which I have learned much. But in doing that, I should acknowledge the irony of a man talking to a group of mostly women about the feminist analysis of pornography. I need to make it clear that I am not speaking for women. Instead, I see my role as speaking with women, and with the ultimate goal of speaking about the insights of this critique to men.

But even that is complicated, of course, because women do not speak with one voice about pornography, nor any other issue. There are pro-pornography women who would contest much of what I have to say. All I can do is acknowledge the women who have helped me come to understand the issue, tell the truth as I see it, and ask men to take seriously this critique of the domination/subordination dynamic that is so common in pornography and, indeed, in the world.

The minute one begins to make such a critique, one can expect this response: Feminists who critique pornography are really just prudes at heart. Pornography’s opponents, we are told, are afraid of sex.

In one sense, that’s true. I am afraid of sex, of a certain kind. I’m afraid of much of the sex commonly presented in contemporary mass-marketed pornography. I am afraid of sex that is structured on a dynamic of domination and subordination. I am afraid of the sex in pornography that has become so routinely harsh that men typically cannot see the brutality of it thorough their erections and orgasms.

I’m not against sex or sexual pleasure. I’m against the kind of sex that is routinely presented in contemporary pornography. I’m against that kind of sex because it hurts people in the world today, and it helps constructs a world in which people — primarily the most vulnerable people, women and children, both girls and boys — will continue to be hurt.

Pornographic sex
Let me describe one kind of sex that I’m afraid of. This is a scene from the film “Gag Factor #10” released by J.M. Productions, which boasts that it pushes the envelope in pornography. The company website brags that this gag series, which is going on #17 as of March 2005, offers “The best throatfucking ever lensed.” If you want a sample, the website has pictures and short video clips, under the heading “this week’s victim,” with the promise “new whores degraded every Wednesday.” <>

In one of the 10 scenes from “Gag Factor #10,” released in 2002, a nagging wife is haranguing her husband and asking why he is so lazy. “Why can’t you do anything?” she asks, going on to insult his intelligence and criticize him because he doesn’t read. She asks him if he even can read, and then suggests Henry Miller, from which she starts to read. The camera focuses on her mouth as she reads, then cuts to his eyes, which look increasingly angry. The film cuts to the woman on her knees as he yells, “Shut the fuck up.” He grabs her hair and thrusts his penis into her mouth. From this point on, we hear almost exclusively from him: “Your teeth feel good you little bitch. Eat that dick. … Are you OK? Are you crying? I love you. I fucking love you. Open that mouth.” He slaps her mouth with his penis. “Open wide. Choke. Open wider, wider. You’re so good baby. Put your mouth on my balls. You treat me so fucking good. That’s why I keep you here. Give me the eyes [meaning, look up at me] while I gag you. … Do you like to gag? Beg for it. Say please. Say please gag me some more. … Your throat is so good.”
At this point, she re-enters the conversation. She says, “Keep going.”

He says, “Good, that’s the fucking answer I was looking for.”

He the flips her over, putting her on the table with her head hanging over edge. She gags several times when he thrusts into her mouth. He holds her by the cheeks, spreading her face apart. She gags but he doesn’t stop. He allows her to catch her breath. Her face is unexpressive, almost frozen.

“I want those tears to come out again, baby. I want to choke the shit out of you,” he says.

He grabs her hair and drives his penis into her mouth. He says: “Suck that dick. Convulse. I want to see your eyes roll back in your fucking head. Yes, I love it.” He asks her if she loves it; she says yes. He ejaculates into her mouth and says, “Spit that cum out. I can’t hear you. What did you say? Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

He walks away and says “Don’t give me any more shit.”

“Gag Factor” is a type of “gonzo” pornography, which is the roughest form available in the mainstream pornography shops and also the fastest growing genre. This scene is more overtly misogynistic than some, but it is not idiosyncratic. The sex and the language in what the industry calls “features” typically is not as rough, though the message is the same: Women are for sex, and women like sex this way.

I am afraid of the sex I just described to you. I’m worried about the physical and emotional well-being of the woman in that scene. I’m afraid of the way in which the men who use that pornography will act in their own lives, toward women in their lives. I am afraid of the world that such sex helps to create.
I am afraid, and you should be, too.

If anyone wants to dismiss these concerns with the tired old phrases “to each his own” and “as long as they are consenting adults” — that is, if you want to ignore the reality and complexity of the world in which we live — I can’t stop you. But I can tell you that if you do that, you are abandoning minimal standards of political and moral responsibility, and you become partially responsible for the injuries done as a result of a system you refuse to confront. I will defend that conclusion in a moment. But first, I want to make sure we come to terms with the scene I just described.

We live in a world in which a woman can be aggressively “throat fucked” to facilitate the masturbation of men. We all live in that world. We all live with that woman in “Gag Factor #10.” She is one of us. She is a person. She has hopes and dreams and desires of her own.

We all live with that woman who finds herself making a living by being filmed in another kind of gonzo film called a “blow bang,” in which a woman has oral sex in similar fashion with more than one man.

In one of these films, “Blow Bang #4,” released in 2001, a young woman dressed as a cheerleader is surrounded by six men. For about seven minutes, “Dynamite” (the name she gives on tape) methodically moves from man to man while they offer insults such as “you little cheerleading slut.” For another minute and a half, she sits upside down on a couch, her head hanging over the edge, while men thrust into her mouth, causing her to gag. She strikes the pose of the bad girl to the end. “You like coming on my pretty little face, don’t you,” she says, as they ejaculate on her face and in her mouth for the final two minutes of the scene.

Five men have finished. The sixth steps up. As she waits for him to ejaculate onto her face, now covered with semen, she closes her eyes tightly and grimaces. For a moment, her face changes; it is difficult to read her emotions, but it appears she may cry. After the last man, number six, ejaculates, she regains her composure and smiles. Then the narrator off camera hands her the pom-pom she had been holding at the beginning of the tape and says, “Here’s your little cum mop, sweetheart — mop up.” She buries her face in the pom-pom and the scene ends.

Dynamite is one of us. She is a person. She has hopes and dreams and desires of her own.

The women in the movement to end men’s violence have helped society understand that we have to empathize with the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. We also need to extend that empathy to the women in pornography and prostitution.

Now, please close your eyes. We are going to practice empathy, that most fundamental of human qualities. We are going to exercise our ability to connect our humanity with another, to travel to that person’s world and to try to feel along with another human being. We are going to be human, together.

I want us to think of that scene with Dynamite. One woman and six men. After she has performed oral sex on six men, after six men have thrust their penises into her throat to the point of gagging, after six men have ejaculated onto her, the camera is turned off. I want you to close your eyes and think not about the sex acts but about the moment when the camera shuts off. The men walk away. Someone throws her a towel. She has to clean the semen of six strangers off her face and body and from her hair. This woman, who is a person, who is one of us, who has hopes and dreams and desires of her own, cleans herself off. I want us to think about that moment.

Now, I want you to imagine that the women in that scene is your child. I want you to think about how you would feel if the woman being handed a towel to wipe off the semen of six men were your child, someone you had raised and loved and cared for. How does that feel?

Then I want you to imagine that woman is the child of your best friend, or of your neighbor, or of someone you work with. Then imagine that women is the child of someone you have never met and never will meet. Imagine that women is just a person, one of us, with hopes and dreams and desires of her own. Forget about whether or not she is your child. She is a person; she is one of us.

Close your eyes. Imagine that you are the one handing her the towel. Look into her eyes. We need to dare to look into her eyes and try to understand what she might be feeling. You can’t know for sure what she is feeling. But try to imagine how you would feel if it were you.

We are constantly told pornography is about fantasies. Those scenes I just described are not fantasy. They are real. They happened. They happened to those women. Those women are not a fantasy. They are people. They are just like us.

And after those scenes were put on videotape, the films were sold and rented to thousands of men who took it home, put it into VCRs or DVD players, and masturbated to orgasm. That also is real. Men fantasize when they masturbate, but the men who are masturbating are not a fantasy. Thousands of men have climaxed to the recording of those women being aggressively “throat fucked.” Those orgasms happened in the real world. Those men’s sexual pleasure was being conditioned to images of women being aggressively “throat fucked,” in the real world.

Those specific women and those specific men are part of the world we live in. And that idea of what a woman is, and that idea of what’s men’s sexuality is — those ideas are also part of the world we live in. None of it is a fantasy. All of it is as real as we are.

So, I want to pose a simple question: What do we owe those women? What do we owe Dynamite? What is our responsibility to her, to her hopes and dreams and desires?

Choices, hers and ours
At this point, some will say: “Whatever you or I may think of those activities, she chose to do that. She’s an adult. Who are we to condemn her choice?” I agree; we shouldn’t condemn her choice, and we shouldn’t condemn her. We should empathize with her. And we should think not just about her choice abut about the choices of the men who pay for the tape and create the demand for aggressive “throat fucking.”

From research and the testimony of women who have been prostituted and used in pornography, we know that childhood sexual assault (which often leads victims to see their value in the world primarily as the ability to provide sexual pleasure for men) and economic hardship (a lack of meaningful employment choices at a livable wage) are key factors in many women’s decisions to enter the sex industry. We know how women in the sex industry — not all, but many — routinely dissociate to cope with what they do. We know that in one study of 130 street prostitutes, 68 percent met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

We know that any meaningful discussion of choice can’t be restricted to the single moment when a woman decides to allow herself to be sold sexually, but must include all the background conditions that affect not only the objective choices she faces but her subjective assessment of those choices. What matters is not just what is available but how she perceives herself in relation to what is available. We know that in anyone’s life, completely free choices are rare, that every choice is made under some mix of constraint and opportunity.

I know, for instance, that in my large lecture classes when I give a multiple-choice exam, virtually none of the students believes that such exams are an accurate or meaningful way of measuring their learning. I know that many of them find such exams to be ridiculous, as do I. But all of my students “choose” to take a test they know to be virtually useless (except for the data it provides me in a large cattle-call class so that I can assign grades at the end of the term). They choose to take that exam because if they chose not to — no matter how sensible and compelling their analysis of the exam’s flaws — they will not pass the course, and they will be denied something that is important to them, a college diploma. They could choose to reject the institution, and thereby give up that asset, but it would cost them. Their choice is free, but it is not made under conditions of complete freedom, given their limited power in the system. So, let us not be naïve about choice.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the specific woman who was used in that aggressive “throat fucking” movie made a completely free and meaningful choice to participate, with absolutely no constraints on her. That could be the case, but it does not change the fact that many women in the industry choose under dramatic limitations. And so long as the industry is profitable and a large number of women are needed to make such films, it is certain that some number of those women will be choosing under conditions that render the concept of “free choice” virtually meaningless. When a man buys or rents a videotape or DVD, he is creating the demand for pornography that will lead to some number of women being hurt, psychologically and/or physically. That is a fact in the world in which we live.

So, men’s choices to buy or rent pornography are complicated by two realities. First, at any given moment, the consumer has no reliable way to judge which women are participating in the industry as a result of a meaningfully free choice. And second, even if the men consuming pornography could make such a determination about specific women in specific films, the demand for pornography that their purchase creates ensures that some women will be hurt.

Given that conclusion, there is only one decision that men who claim to have even minimal standards of moral and political responsibility can make: They must not buy or rent pornography. Let me restate that in a personal way: You and I must not buy or rent pornography. You and I must not create the demand that creates the industry that creates a world in which vulnerable people will be hurt.

If we buy or rent pornography, we bear some responsibility for that world. We can try to pretend we don’t know that, but we can’t avoid that responsibility.

Justice and self-interest
That’s the argument from justice. It’s an argument that men, and the women who buy or rent pornography, should take seriously unless they want to abandon minimal moral and political standards.

But it is fairly obvious that arguments from justice do not always move people who are in positions of power and privilege. Maybe such arguments from justice should be enough to change people, but they often aren’t. So, arguments from self-interest are important, too.

Men should stop buying and renting pornography because it is the right thing to do. They also should do it because it is in their self-interest.

To explain that, I want to tell a story from my experience at the 2005 convention of the pornography industry, the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, which I attended as part of a team working on a documentary film called “’Fantasies’ Matter.” At the end of our first day filming at the convention, the film’s director/editor, Miguel Picker, and I walked out of the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas without saying much.

We had just spent the better part of the day together on the exhibition floor, which featured about 300 booths visited by thousands of people. Miguel had been behind the camera, and I had been interviewing pornography performers, producers, and fans about why they make, distribute, and consume sexually explicit media.

We had spent the day surrounded by images of women being presented and penetrated for the sexual pleasure of men. All around were pictures and posters, screens running endless porn loops, and display tables of dildos and sex dolls. I had listened to young men tell me that pornography had taught them a lot about what women really want sexually. I had listened to a pornography producer tell me that he thinks anal sex is popular in pornography because men like to think about fucking their wives and girlfriends in the ass to pay them back for being bitchy. And I interviewed the producer who takes great pride that his “Gag Factor” series was the first to feature exclusively aggressive “throat fucking.”

Miguel and I had spent the day surrounded by sex for sale, immersed in the predictable consequence of the collision of capitalism and patriarchy. We had talked to dozens of people for whom the process of buying and selling women for sex is routine. When that day was over, we walked silently from the convention center to the hotel. The first thing I said was, “I need a drink.”

I don’t want to feign naivete. As a child and young adult, I used pornography in fairly typical fashion. I have been working on the issue of pornography since 1988. I have talked to a lot of people about pornography, and in very short and controlled doses, I have watched enough of it to understand how corrosive it is to our individual and collective humanity. But I had never been to the industry convention before; I had always found a reason to avoid it. As Miguel and I left the hall, I understood why.

“I need a drink,” I said, and we stopped at the nearest hotel bar (which didn’t take long, given how many bars there are in a Las Vegas hotel). I sat down with a glass of wine. Miguel and I started to talk, searching for some way to articulate what we had just experienced, what we felt. But all I could do was cry.

It’s not that I had seen anything on the convention floor that I had never seen. It’s not that I had heard something significantly new or different from the people I had interviewed. It’s not that I had had some sort of epiphany about the meaning of pornography. It’s just that in that moment, the reality of the industry, of the products the industry produces, and the way in which they are used — it all came crashing down on me. My defenses were inadequate to combat a simple fact: The pornographers have won. In the short term, the efforts of the feminists who put forward the critique of pornography, the sex industry, and men’s violence have failed. The pornographers, for the time being, have won. The arguments from justice lost. The pornographers not only are thriving, but are more mainstream and normalized than ever. They can fill up a Las Vegas convention center, with the dominant culture paying no more notice than it would to the annual boat show.

And as the industry has become more normalized, paradoxically, the content of their films becomes ever crueler and more overtly degrading to women. The industry talk is dominated by talk of how to push it even further. Make it nastier. Make it, in the terms of one industry observer, “brutal and real.” That’s the way the pornographers and the customers like it: Brutal. Because brutal is real. And real sells. It is real, and that’s at the heart of the sadness. What was reflected on the convention floor was not just a truth about pornography, but a truth about gender and sex and power in contemporary culture, as well as a truth about the brutality of capitalism. At the end of that day, I was more aware than ever that the feminist critique of pornography is not simply a critique of pornography but about the routine way we are trained to be sexual, about the eroticization of domination and subordination. Feminism, as I learned it, is a full-bore attack on systems of illegitimate authority, of which male dominance is one, along with white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism.

And at that moment, all I could do was cry. It was a selfish indulgence, because at that moment, my tears were not for the women who are used and discarded by the industry, or the women who will be forced into sex they don’t want by the men in their lives who use pornography. The tears were not for girls and young women who bury their own needs and desires to become sexually what men want them to be. I wish I could honestly say that was front and center in my mind and heart at that moment. But the truth is that my tears at that moment were for myself. Those tears came because I realized, in a more visceral way than ever, that the pornographers have won and they are helping to construct a world that is not only dangerous for women and children, but also one in which I have fewer and fewer places to turn as a man. Fewer places to walk and talk and breathe that haven’t been colonized and pornographized. As I sat that, all I could say to Miguel was, “I don’t want live in this world.”

I think at that moment Miguel didn’t quite no what to make of my reaction. He was nice to me, but he must have thought I was going a bit over the top. I don’t blame him; I was a bit over the top. After all, we were there to make a documentary film about the industry, not live out a melodrama about my angst in a Las Vegas hotel bar.

The next day Miguel and I hit the convention floor again. At the end of that day, as we walked away, I made the same request. We sat at the same bar. I had another glass of wine and cried again. Miguel, I think, was glad it was the last day. So was I.

Two days after we left Las Vegas, Miguel called me from New York. This time he was crying. He told me that he had just come to his editing and recording studio and had put on some music. Miguel is not only a director and editor, but a very talented musician. He’s one of those people who understand the world through music. He told me that he had put on music that he finds particularly beautiful, and then the floodgates opened. “I understand what you meant in the bar,” he said, speaking through his own tears.

I tell that story not to glorify two sensitive new-age men. Miguel actually is a sensitive person, though not very new-age. I’m not new-age, and I don’t feel particularly sensitive these days. I feel harsh and mean. I feel angry most of the time. I spend most of my days on political organizing. I don’t write poetry. I’m from North Dakota. People from North Dakota don’t write a lot of poetry. We shovel snow.

I tell that story because it’s never been clearer to me that in the struggle over pornography, the sex industry, and men’s violence, it is not enough to be right and to make arguments solely about justice. The central insights of the feminist critique of pornography are, I believe, right. I think it is the most compelling way to understand the issue. If anything, that critique of pornography is truer today than it was when the founding mothers of the movement first articulated it in the late 1970s.

But we live in a society in which the pornographers have won, in the short term. Their products are more widely accepted and available than ever. Much of the culture has bought the “pornography is liberation” and “pornography is freedom” lines. To the degree that an anti-pornography position can get traction in the dominant culture, it comes from right-wing groups that have co-opted the language of feminism — the political language of harm — as a cover for a regressive moralism that rejects the values of feminism. Those same right-wing groups typically resist a critique of the capitalist commofication of everything, an analysis crucial to understanding pornography.

At this moment, being right is not enough. We have to find ways to tap into the humanity of people, a humanity that is systematically diminished and obscured by capitalism and patriarchy, as well as the explicit racism in pornography. That’s the argument from self-interest that men must hear. Men get something very concrete from pornography: They get orgasms. For most men, it’s an extremely effective way to gain physical pleasure. But it comes at a cost, and the cost is our own humanity. To be a man in this sense is to surrender some part of your humanity. I speak from experience here: It’s a bad trade-off. No orgasm is worth that much.

That’s why the experience that Miguel and I had on the floor is important. On that day, the concentrated inhumanity of the pornographic world overwhelmed us. I went onto the convention floor knowing a lot about pornography. I left the floor feeling it more deeply than ever before. We know a lot about the pornography industry and its effects. We know there is a compelling critique. We have to be willing to feel it, as well.

Feeling and thinking our way forward, together
I realize that this task is difficult: We have to help men understand the depravity of their own pleasure. We have to make them feel that sense of desperation, articulating it in a way that leads people to action not paralysis, hope not despair, resistance not capitulation. We have to make them face what pornography does to us all, men and women. For men, we have to make them face that to be a pornography user is to be a john, to be someone who is willing to buy women for sex, someone who sees sex as a commodity, someone who has traded his own humanity for an orgasm.

Those realities are not easy for women to face either. I can’t speak for women, of course, but I assume that it is not easy to be a woman and understand how pornography portrays women and their sexuality, and to know that men like it. Put bluntly, in pornography, women are reduced to three holes and two hands. In pornography, women are reduced to the parts of their bodies that can sexually stimulate men. Women are not really sex-objects (which at least implies they are human) but more fuck-objects, simply things to be penetrated. I imagine that is not an easy thing to face when you are faced with pornography all around you. I imagine it is not easy to realize that this is the world in which women learned to be sexual.

Men have some difficult realities to face. So do women. I understand how painful those realities can be, because I have struggled, and continue to struggle, with them, and I have talked to many other people about their struggles. Sometimes I feel like I know too much. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t have all these pictures in my head. Sometimes I wish I had never heard the stories of women’s pain that I have heard.

But I never wish I were back where I was 20 years ago, because 20 years ago I also was in pain, albeit a very different kind. In some ways, that old pain was easier to mask, but it was impossible to escape. This newer pain might be more intense at times, but it is a necessary part of the process that has changed my life for the better. I don’t really like it, but I accept the need for it, because this pain can lead somewhere. It can lead to a long and difficult, but ultimately rewarding, process of trying to revision sexuality. It can lead to involvement in a political movement to change the world that, even if not successful in the short term, holds out the hope for not just personal but societal transformation. Confronting the violence and pain of the world, both outside and inside me, has led me to meet many amazing people whose friendship and love has sustained me through difficult times.

When we talk like this, one of the predictable rejoinders is that we are trying to impose strict sexual rules on others. As one prominent pro-pornography feminist scholar, Linda Williams, put it in a recent interview, “Really, who are [anti-pornography activists] to tell us where our sexual imaginations should go?”

I agree. No one can tell others where their sexual imaginations should go. Imaginations are unruly and notoriously resistant to attempts at control. But our imaginations come from somewhere. Our imaginations may be internal in some ways, but they are influenced by external forces. Can we not have a conversation about those influences? Are we so fragile that our sexual imaginations can’t stand up to honest human conversation? It seems that pro-pornography forces live with their own fear of sex, the fear of being accountable for their imaginations and actions. The defenses of pornography typically revert to the most superficial kind of liberal individualism that shuts off people from others, ignores the predictable harms of a profit-seeking industry that has little concern for people, and ignores the way in which we all collectively construct the culture in which we live.

I have no interest in telling people where there sexual imaginations must end up. But I would like to be part of a conversation about the direction in which we think our sexual imaginations can move.

So, I am afraid of the sex that pornography creates because it hurts people. But I am not afraid of talking about an alternative to the cruelty and brutality of the pornography industry. I need that conversation. I can’t do this on my own. I’m not smart enough and I’m not strong enough. I need help. I know the direction I want to move, but I stumble on the way. I have made mistakes that have hurt others and hurt myself. I can correct some of those mistakes on my own, but none of us can do this completely on our own.

So, can we start talking about how to move our sexual imaginations toward respect, toward empathy, toward connections based on equality not domination? Can we give up enough of our fear of the unknown to try to imagine together what that might look like?

This culture tends to talk about sex in terms of heat: Who’s hot, what kind of sex is hot. What if we shifted to a language of light? Sex not as something that produces heat, but something that shines light. Can we talk about moving toward the light? The light that is inside me and inside you. The same light that is inside Dynamite.

I want to live in a world in which Dynamite can tell us her name, not the pornographers’ name. I want to live in a world in which we hear her about her hopes and dreams and desires, not the pornographers’. I want to live in that world not just for her sake but for my own, because it is that world in which I can find my own authentic hopes and dreams and desires.

We have given the pornographers far too much power to construct our sexual imaginations. It is our world, not theirs. It is our world to take back. This is not just about taking back the night, but taking back the whole day, taking back the culture’s imagination, taking back the way we see men and women and sex. If we do not, I fear that the light inside us will dim. Our hopes and dreams will be increasingly shaped by the pornographers. And our hopes for a desire based on equality, maybe even the dream of equality, may not survive. I am afraid of that.

We all need to work to make sure that does not happen. For Dynamite’s sake. For your own. For all of us.