Men and pornography: Real men, real choices

By Robert Jensen

Published in Voice Male Magazine · March, 2007

[A talk given to the Pornography and Pop Culture conference at Wheelock College, Boston, March 24, 2007. An edited version appeared in Voice Male magazine, Spring 2007, pp. 8-10, 20, 24.]

Remembering Andrea Dworkin

I would like to start by speaking about the person whose absence I suspect many of us feel keenly, Andrea Dworkin. If not for her work, I am sure I would not be here. Perhaps none of us would be here, and it seems fitting that we take a moment to acknowledge that.

Andrea shook the world, and after that shock we all had a choice. Would we duck and cover, and look for a way to avoid what she demanded that we face? Or would we have the courage to look at the world through her eyes and see where it led us? It wasn’t easy for me to do that. It took me more years than I want to remember to start that process, and it remains a difficult road to walk. But when I finally quit looking for a place to hide and stepped onto that road, the possibility of a new world opened up for me. In my case, Andrea’s work was my first entrée into radical politics, a way of seeing not just men’s oppression of women but other illegitimate hierarchies, connected to race in white supremacy, to wealth in a predatory corporate capitalism, and to national identity in a world dominated by the U.S. empire.

I am wary of canonizing individuals or ascribing to them too much power to change the world; coming to this with left/feminist politics, I believe in the power of people, not leaders, to change the world. But I want us to take a moment to recognize Andrea Dworkin, not because we have to agree with every aspect of her analysis or political strategy. Instead, I simply want to honor her insight, dedication, courage, and — most of all — her humanity.

Women’s pain and the humanity of men

That humanity leads me to want to take a moment to recognize the emotional nature of our work on this issue. Over these two days, we will be doing a lot of thinking, which is crucial to developing the analysis needed. But we are here not just as a result of analysis, nor are we here simply to discuss the analysis. The vast majority of us also are here because we not only know things but feel them. For me — and I suspect for many others — it’s both exhilarating to be here and incredibly painful.

Exhilarating because we so rarely are in a setting where we see a feminist critique of the patriarchal, pornographic culture validated by so many people. Painful because we all understand the reality that brings us here.

In short: This hurts. It hurts because in this world in which we live, there is suffering beyond description. Some of that suffering we see on the news, for example, when the reports of the consequences of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq become difficult for mainstream society to ignore. Some of that suffering is out of view, behind closed doors, where men’s violence is still too often hidden away as a private affair. And some of that suffering is filmed and sold for the sexual pleasure of others.

That pain, and Andrea’s understanding of it, is for me at the heart of a message we must take to men. My brothers and I are capable of barbaric violence and of sexualizing that violence; we too often find pleasure in the abandonment of our own humanity. I say “my brothers and I” not to claim that all men are violent or use pornography but to emphasize that there is a common socialization that produces such behavior and a common responsibility to end it. And, just as important, there is a common humanity to which we can appeal. In a specific moment, a man might abandon this humanity, but that does not mean that no appeal to our humanity is possible. Although it may seem odd, I learned that most profoundly not from other men, but from Andrea Dworkin.

Despite her reputation as a “man-hater,” it seems clear to me that Dworkin loved people and that she saw men as people, refusing to give up on us. No one was fiercer in naming men’s violence and holding men accountable, but that does not mean she abandoned all hope in men.

In her speech to a men’s group in 1983, “I Want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape,” I read a profound compassion for men. Here’s what she told those men:

I don’t believe rape is inevitable or natural. If I did, I would have no reason to be here. If I did, my political practice would be different than it is. Have you ever wondered why we [women] are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.

I think that faith is important to hold onto as we fashion strategies for talking to men, demanding that men end their use of pornography, and enlisting men as allies in a feminist movement for justice. This brings me to my title, to real men and real choices.

Real men

First, let’s talk about what I don’t mean by the term “real men.” I am not referring to some concept of an “authentic” masculinity, to some notion of what it means to be a real man. In this sense, there are no real men. Masculinity, like femininity, is a trap, a way to constrain human beings — wildly variable in our capacities — into predetermined social roles that define and confine rather than open up and liberate.

But in shaping a political strategy, we must take note of where and how real male humans really live in the real world. After many years of talking to men, in formal research interviews and informally, here’s what I’ve concluded:

Although we can never know who they are, there likely are some men who are beyond the reach of the call to love and justice, probably forever. Some men are so committed to dominance and male supremacy that they have, for all practical purposes, lost their souls. There are no doubt complex explanations for this, but in practical political terms, these men are not the target audience. The same can be said of some white people, some rich people, some Americans. For whatever reason, some people in positions of privilege and power seem beyond the reach of an appeal based in empathy and shared humanity. Coming to terms with that rather sad reality is difficult, but necessary. The good news, however, is that we don’t have to win over every single man to change the culture.

Our focus should be on the men who are struggling. These are the men I know and speak with often. That is the man I am. We struggle to make sense of our socialization. We struggle to be decent in a world in which it’s easy to simply accept our privilege and power. Often, we fail. But there’s a case that can be made to those men, a combination of an argument from justice and an argument from self-interest. The argument from justice is simple: Participating in the sexual exploitation industries — pornography, prostitution, strip bars — is incompatible with a serious commitment to our stated principles; there can be no gender justice in a world where some women can be bought and sold.

But we also have to offer to men a vision of the world that offers them a way out of the masculinity trap. I’m thinking of two young men I talked with recently, both of whom acknowledged regularly using pornography for masturbation. I liked both of them, not because we were bonding as men-over-women, but because I could see myself in them. They were both fundamentally decent young men with generally progressive values, locked in painful struggles with themselves and the culture.

Let me be clear: I am not equating their struggles and pain with the struggles and pain of women in patriarchy. We all know that this system does not subject men and women to the same kind of injuries, physical or psychological. But we have to acknowledge that many men struggle and feel distress over the way in which patriarchy undermines our humanity. I emphasize this not to elevate men’s pain to a central place, but because if we don’t take account of men’s pain we may not be able to change the world to end men’s violence against women.

I was slow to understand this, and ironically it was Gail Dines who helped me — or, perhaps, forced me — to see this. Gail has a son, and we have talked often about her hopes for a world in which her son, and boys and men like him, can find space to be fully human. Gail has often told me that I can be too hard on men, that in my anger — at men and at myself — I was missing an essential aspect of this work. I was missing the universal love that Andrea Dworkin expressed, not only for women but for men. It took me longer than it should have to fully understand that feminism — especially the most radical feminism — is rooted not in contempt for men but in holding men accountable out of a faith in human beings.

That’s what I want for my son. Like Gail, I have one child, a boy. And, like Gail, I want my boy to be a decent person in a world where being decent is the norm. I don’t want him to be a man. I want him to be a human being. My boy came into this world as a human being. He deserves the chance to hold onto that humanity, as we all do. And if we don’t find a way to allow our boy children to do that, I fear that our girl children have no chance.

Real choices

The pornographers and their apologists have done a masterful job of focusing the debate on the choices of women who participate in the industry. If women choose to perform in pornography, who are we to condemn them? I agree; I have never condemned the women in pornography, nor has anyone in the feminist anti-pornography movement. Many complex questions arise from women’s participation in pornography, none of which are my subject today. Instead, I want to refocus on men and our choices. The questions I want to ask are not about why women choose to perform in pornography, but why men choose to masturbate to pornography. What does that choice that a man makes to masturbate to pornography mean for women, and what does it mean for the man?

My argument is simple: When men choose to spend their money on pornography, they are (1) contributing to the subordination of women in the sexual exploitation industries; and (2) robbing themselves of the possibility of being fully human.

On (1): For the sake of argument, let’s assume that some women who perform in pornography make completely free choices to participate, as women in the industry often assert that they do, with absolutely no constraints or limitations on them. That could be the case, though it doesn’t alter the unavoidable conclusion that some number of women in the industry — likely a majority, and quite possibly a significant majority — choose under conditions that make choice much more complex (histories of sexual abuse, economic hardship, perceived and/or actual lack of opportunities, within a culture that glamorizes the sex industry).

In most cases, the consumer has no reliable way to judge which women are participating in the industry as a result of a meaningfully free choice. When a consumer plays a DVD at home, he has no information that could help him make such a judgment. Therefore, he likely is using a woman whose choice to perform was not meaningfully free.

But what if he had that information about the nature of the conditions, objective and subjective, under which the women made that choice? Even that is not so simple. 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 DVD, he is creating the demand for pornography that will lead to some number of women being used — that is, being hurt in some fashion, psychologically and/or physically — no matter what he knows or thinks he knows about a specific woman. [For a cogent discussion of this argument in the context of prostitution, see M. Madden Dempsey, “Rethinking Wolfenden: Prostitute-Use, Criminal Law, and Remote Harm,” Criminal Law Review (2005): 444-455. ]

So, men’s choices to buy or rent pornography are complicated by two realities. First, he likely can’t know the conditions under which women made their choices, and hence can’t know how meaningful the choices were. And second, even if he could make such a determination about specific women in a specific film he watches, the demand for pornography that his purchase helps create ensures that some other women will be hurt.

On (2): During a discussion of negative sexual experiences, I once heard a man say, “There’s no such thing as a bad orgasm.” I assume that he meant getting off was getting off — no matter what the circumstances or methods, it was always good. But there are, of course, bad orgasms. There are orgasms that hurt people, mostly women and children. And there are orgasms that keep men cut off from ourselves.

In using pornography, we men not only objectify women but also objectify ourselves. In my experience, which is also the experience of many men I’ve talked to over the years, we feel ourselves go emotionally numb when viewing pornography and masturbating, a state of being “checked out” emotionally. To enter into the pornographic world and experience that intense sexual rush, many men have to turn off some of the emotional reactions that typically are connected to 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. For me, while watching pornography over the past decade as a researcher, I could feel it happen, that emotional numbness, that objectifying of self.

Meg Baldwin, a feminist law professor at Florida State University who left academic life to run a women’s center, once gave me more insight into this process. Baldwin, who has worked for years with women who are prostituted, said one of the common experiences of those women is coping with the unprovoked rage and violence that johns will direct at them. Baldwin told me that after hearing countless stories about this reaction by men, she concluded the rage was rooted in this self-objectification. She sketched this process:

Men typically go to prostitutes to have a sexual experience without having to engage emotionally. Yet when they are in the sexual situation, they sometimes find themselves having those very same emotional reactions they wanted to avoid, simply because our emotional lives cannot be completely controlled. When they feel those things they wanted to suppress, the johns lash out at the most convenient target — the women who they believe caused them to feel what they didn’t want to feel.

If Baldwin is right — and, based on my own experience, I believe she is — we could say that men turn women into objects in order to turn ourselves into objects, so that we can split off emotion from body during sex, in search of a sexual experience in which we don’t have to feel. But because sex is always more than a physical act, men seeking this split-off state often find themselves having strong emotional reactions, which can get channeled into violence and cruelty.

Again, the women in those situations endure the violence connected to men’s inability to be fully human. But this system also doesn’t produce truly healthy lives for men. Is an orgasm really worth all that? I think there are lots of bad orgasms in a world in which men are socialized to suppress the complex emotional realities involved in sex. Women suffer the consequences in dramatic ways. Men often suffer quietly, until they lash out. When men can’t face our own pain, what are the changes we can empathize with women’s pain?

What is sex for?

I want to conclude by talking about sexual morality.

Before you all run for the exits, let me explain what I don’t mean by that term. I don’t mean sexual morality in the typical way the phrase is used in this culture, the “morality” of so-called family values. We must reject, of course, the patriarchal impositions of some traditional set of sexual norms that tend to be rooted in the control of women, the dominance of men, and the denial of the humanity of lesbians and gay men. Over the years many of us have shied away from any talk about the moral issues involved in sexuality out of a fear of being lumped in with those reactionary forces.

But we must not be afraid to talk about the need in any culture for there to be a collective conversation about the simple question, “What is sex for?” For liberals and libertarians, the question isn’t central; sex is for whatever any individual or group of individuals want. For religious conservatives, the answer is dictated by patriarchal tradition and sex is something dangerous that must be tightly controlled.

That’s why pornography is so attractive to both liberals and conservatives. Liberals celebrate it and march into the adult bookstore proudly; conservatives decry it as they place their order online.

It’s pretty clear what sex is for in the world of pornography. In an Adult Video News story on gonzo directors, the writer described the typical viewer as “the solo stroking consumer who merely wants to cut to the chase, get off on the good stuff, then, if they really wanna catch some acting, plot and dialog, pop in the latest Netflix disc.” In other words, sex is for a simple physical sensation, delivered as efficiently and quickly as possible, with no concern for who is used in the process or how they are used. In that world, pornography will always be attractive because pornography works: It delivers that orgasm. Once a man has accepted that understanding of sex, the quest is for the best pornography to deliver that orgasm with the most intensity, and other considerations — about the costs to the people who make pornography, the politics of the images, or the harms that may result from the industry — drop out of sight.

For me, the question “what is sex for?” is one of those questions that is meant to never be answered. The point isn’t to try to take the mystery of sex and contain it. The point is to understand the importance of the question and create the conditions for an open, honest, searching — and likely unending — discussion of it. The goal is not to run from the complexity of the question but to understand how the joy in that mystery can be deepened by collective conversation aimed not at control and domination, but at liberation and equality.

The feminist anti-pornography movement is, of course, fundamentally political — it’s about changing a fundamentally unjust distribution of power. But at the core of any politics is the most basic moral question: What are people for? What kind of animals are we? What does it mean to be human in the modern world? Part of that question is wrapped up in the meaning we make of male and female, part of which is coming to judgment about what sex is for.

All these are fundamentally moral questions, and the long-term success of our politics depends on having answers that can speak to these questions, with which we all struggle, or should be struggling.