Pornographic distortions: The struggle for intimacy in the 21st century
By Robert Jensen
Published in Feminist Current · March, 2021
[An edited version of this essay was recorded for presentation at the online Canadian Sexual Exploitation Summit hosted by Defend Dignity, May 6-7, 2021. Some of the ideas are drawn, and updated, from my 2007 book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, which is available as a free PDF at https://robertwjensen.org/books/getting-off/.]
Let’s start with the world according to pornographers:
Sex is natural. Pornography is just sex on film. Therefore, pornography is natural.
If you do not accept the obvious “logic” of that argument, you are a prude who is sex-negative.
But what about the intense misogyny in pornography?
You’re a prude.
But what about the explicit racism in pornography?
What about the physical and psychological injuries routinely suffered by women used in pornography?
You’re prudishly sex-negative.
What about the consequences of conditioning so many men’s arousal and experience of sexual pleasure to these sexist and racist images?
You’re sex-negatively prudish.
If your concerns about pornography flow from spirituality, you must be a religious nut.
If your concerns about pornography are based in feminism, you must be a man-hater.
Sadly, this is often how attempts to discuss the social problems flowing from the production and consumption of contemporary sexually explicit media play out—especially in conversations with liberal, progressive, and leftist men, and with some feminists who describe themselves as pro-porn or “sex positive.”
My goal is to mark those responses as diversions; focus on the content of pornography and its underlying ideology; examine why such material is so prevalent; and discuss why this matters for our attempts to create a truly sex-positive society that fosters meaningful autonomy for girls and women.
So, “pornographic distortions,” refers both to the ways in which pornography distorts human sexuality, and the way in which pornography’s defenders distort the views of critics. Let’s start with the latter.
For the record, I am not a religious nut nor a man-hater.
I am a secular progressive Christian. By that, I mean that I was raised in a predominantly Christian culture, and the narratives and ethics of Christianity remain relevant in my life, even though I don’t accept all Christian doctrines and I long ago rejected the supernatural claims associated with a conventional interpretation of the faith tradition (i.e., a virgin birth and resurrection as historical facts, the possibility of miracles, the existence of a divine entity). But those stories and moral frameworks have influenced how I see the world, in conversation with many other philosophical and political traditions that I find helpful. I see no reason to ignore this aspect of my life.
I work from a radical feminist analysis of patriarchy. By that, I mean that I recognize institutionalized male dominance as morally unjust and not only an impediment to women’s freedom but to social justice more generally (that’s feminism), and central to patriarchy are men’s attempts to own or control women’s reproductive power and sexuality (that’s radical feminism). I see no reason to be afraid of that analysis.
In more than three decades of work in the feminist anti-pornography movement and the larger struggle against men’s violence and exploitation of women, I have worked with a wide range of people motivated by religion and/or feminism. I have met many lovely people, from a variety of backgrounds and with a wide range of experiences, who reject the pornography industry’s cynical approach to human sexuality and are committed to challenging the routine abuse of women in the sexual-exploitation industries. I have yet to meet someone who is a prude or sex-negative. Such people exist, of course, but they aren’t a part of the movement I am part of. Most of us in the anti-pornography movement struggle to understand the complexity of sexuality, which is true of most people I meet. Some of us in the movement have sexual histories marked by trauma, which also makes us pretty “normal,” given how routine sexual violence is in patriarchal cultures. Our goal is the end of patriarchy by challenging the patriarchal practices that do so much damage to so many of us. We struggle to make a truly sex-positive culture possible.
That’s as much time as I am willing to spend trying to persuade people that I’m not crazy or hateful. Let’s move on to the more important task of understanding how and why the pornography industry offers such a destructive picture of human sexuality.
The pornography industry
Let’s start with terminology. I used the term “sexual-exploitation industries” to include prostitution, strip clubs, massage parlors, and escort services, along with pornography and other mediated forms of commercial sex. Applying a feminist analysis, all of these enterprises are ways that men buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure. Boys and vulnerable men are also exploited in these industries, but the majority of these businesses offer men the opportunity to buy women and girls.
Pornography is also a form of mass media. Applying a media analysis, we examine the production process, the stories being told, and audience reception. How is pornography made and who profits? What are the patterns and themes in pornographic images and stories? How do the consumers of pornography use the material in their lives and with what effects?
I’ll focus here on the content of pornography, but first let’s recognize the importance of understanding production and reception.
How is pornography made? Andrea Dworkin, the writer/activist so central to the feminist critique, always emphasized that what you see in pornography is not simulated sex. The sex acts being performed on a woman that appear to be uncomfortable or painful were done to a real woman. Did that woman choose that? In some sense yes, but under what conditions and with what other choices available? What constraints did she face in her life and what opportunities did she have? And whatever level of choice she made doesn’t change the nature of the injuries that women sustain. Before we even ask about women’s choices, we should focus on men: Why do men choose to use pornography that exploits women?
There are many different genres in pornography, but the bulk of the market is heterosexual sex marketed to heterosexual men, who use it as a masturbation facilitator. There is a long debate about the relationship of pornography use and sexual violence, a question with no simple answer. But, as advertisers have long observed, exposure to media messages can affect attitudes and attitudes shape behavior. We know that people, especially young people, are prone to imitating behaviors they see in mass media that are presented as fashionable or exciting. Consider the advice a university sex researcher offers to male students: “If you’re with somebody for the first time, don’t choke them, don’t ejaculate on their face, don’t try to have anal sex with them. These are all things that are just unlikely to go over well.” Why would such advice be necessary? Those acts are routine in pornography, and pornography is the de facto sex education for many boys and young men.
My focus here is on pornographic images, specifically those produced by the heterosexual pornography industry. We’ll use a simple definition for pornography: Graphic sexually explicit material that is designed to produce sexual arousal, with a focus on material produced for men, who are the majority of the consumers. While women’s use of pornography has increased in recent years, the industry still produces material that reflects the male sexual imagination in patriarchy.
A bit of history is useful in understanding these images. The pornography industry operated largely underground until the 1960s and ‘70s, when it began being more accepted in mainstream society. That led to a sharp increase in the amount of pornography produced, a trend that expanded dramatically with new media technologies, such as VCRs, DVDs, and the internet.
The industry’s desire to increase profits drove the development of new products, in this case a wider variety of sexual acts in pornographic films. The standard sexual script in pornography — little or no foreplay, oral sex (primarily performed by women on men), vaginal intercourse, and occasionally anal intercourse — expanded to keep viewers from becoming satiated and drifting away. In capitalism, competition for market share produces “innovation,” though more often than not innovation means a slightly different version of products we didn’t need in the first place. In that sense, pornography is a quintessentially capitalist business.
The first of those changes was the more routine presentation of men penetrating women anally, in increasingly rough fashion. Why anal? One longtime pornography producer whom I interviewed at an industry trade show explained it to me in explicit language, which I’ll paraphrase. Men know that most women don’t want anal sex, he said. So, when men get angry at their wives and girlfriends, they think to themselves, “I’d like to fuck her in the ass.” Because they can’t necessarily do that in real life, he said, they love it in pornography.
That man didn’t realize he was articulating, in his own crude fashion, a radical feminist critique: pornography is not just sex on film but rather sex in the context of male domination and female subordination, the central dynamic of patriarchy. The sexual experience in pornography is made more intense with sex acts that men find pleasurable but women may not want.
Where did the industry go from there? As pornographers sought to expand market share and profit, they continued to innovate. Here are several pornographic sex practices — acts that are typically not part of most people’s real-world sex lives but are common in pornography — that followed the normalizing of anal sex:
• double penetration (two men penetrating a woman vaginally and anally at the same time);
• double vag (two men penetrating a woman vaginally at the same time);
• double anal (two men penetrating a woman anally at the same time);
• gagging (oral penetration of a woman so aggressive that it makes her gag);
• choking (men forcefully grasping a woman’s throat during intercourse, sometimes choking the woman); and
• ATM (industry slang for ass-to-mouth, when a man removes his penis from the anus of a woman and, without visible cleaning, inserts his penis into her mouth or the mouth of another woman).
Other routine acts in pornography include slapping and spitting on women, pulling women’s hair, and ejaculating on women’s bodies (long called “the money shot”), especially on their faces (what has come to be called a “facial”).
Even pornographers acknowledge that they can’t imagine what comes after all this. One industry veteran told me that everything that could be done to a woman’s body had been filmed. “After all, how many dicks can you stick in a girl at one time?” he said. A director I interviewed echoed that, wondering “Where can it go besides [multiple penetrations]? Every hole is filled.” Another director worried that pornography was going too far and that porn sex increasingly resembled “circus acts.” “The thing about it is,” he told me, “there’s only but so many holes, only but so many different types of penetration that can be executed upon a woman.”
One pornographic genre that explores other forms of degradation is called “interracial,” which has expanded in the past two decades. Films in this category can feature any combination of racial groups, but virtually all employ racist stereotypes (the hot-blooded Latina, sexually animalistic black women, demure Asian “geishas” who live to serve white men, immigrant women who are easily exploited) and racist language (I’ll spare you examples of that). One of the most common interracial scenes is a white woman being penetrated by one or more black men, who are presented as being rougher and more aggressive, drawing on the racist stereotype of black men as a threat to the purity of white women, while at the same time revealing the white woman to be nothing but a slut who seeks such defilement. This racism would be denounced in any other mass media form but continues in pornography with little or no objection from most progressives.
Finally, in recent years there has been an increase in what my friend Gail Dines calls “pseudo-child pornography.” Sexually explicit material using minors is illegal and is vigorously prosecuted, and so mainstream pornography stays away from actual child pornography. But the industry uses young-looking adult women in childlike settings (the classic image is a petite woman, almost always white, in a girls’ school uniform) to create the impression that an adult man can have the high school cheerleader of his fantasy. Another popular version features stepfathers having sex with a teenage stepdaughters. This material is not marketed specifically to pedophiles but is part of the mainstream pornography market for “ordinary” guys.
Dines’ summary of contemporary pornography captures these trends: “Today’s mainstream Internet porn is brutal and cruel, with body-punishing sex acts that debase and dehumanize women.”
Radical feminist critique
For those familiar with the radical feminist critique of pornography, these trends are not surprising. If the pornography is not just the presentation of explicit sex but rather sex in the patriarchal domination/subordination dynamic, then pornographers will find it profitable to sexualize any and all forms of inequality.
This analysis, developed within the larger feminist project of challenging men’s violence against women, was first articulated clearly by Andrea Dworkin, who identified what we can call the elements of the pornographic:
• Objectification: when “a human being, through social means, is made less than human, turned into a thing or commodity, bought and sold.”
• Hierarchy: “a group on top (men) and a group on the bottom (women).”
• Submission: when acts of obedience and compliance become necessary for survival, members of oppressed groups learn to anticipate the orders and desires of those who have power over them, and their compliance is then used by the dominant group to justify its dominance.
• Violence: “systematic, endemic enough to be unremarkable and normative, usually taken as an implicit right of the one committing the violence.”
Although there is variation in the thousands of commercial pornographic films produced over the years, the main themes have remained consistent: (1) All women always want sex from men; (2) women like all the sexual acts that men perform or demand, and; (3) any woman who resists can be aroused by force, which is rarely necessary because most of the women in pornography are the “nymphomaniacs” of men’s fantasies. While both men and women are portrayed as hypersexual, men typically are the sexual subjects, who control the action and dictate the terms of the sex. Women are the sexual objects fulfilling male desire.
The radical feminist critique demonstrates not only that almost all sexually explicit material is pornographic, in the sense of reflecting and reinforcing patriarchy’s domination/subordination dynamic, but that pop culture is increasingly pornified. Pornography is a specific genre, but those elements of the pornographic also are present in other media, including Hollywood movies, television shows, video games, and advertising.
Let’s ask a simple question the pornographers would prefer we ignore: What kind of intimacy is possible in a pornographic world? I don’t mean just in pornography, but in a world in which this kind of pornography is widely used and widely accepted. Let’s go back to the connection between media use and behavior, which is complex. Does repeated exposure to advertising lead us to buy products we would not otherwise buy? Do violent scenes in movies or video games lead to increased rates of violence in people with a predisposition for violence? Definitive judgments are difficult, but we know that stories have the power to shape attitudes and attitudes effect behavior. We know that orgasm is a powerful reinforcer. We have plenty of reasons to be concerned about how the sexist and racist messages in pornography might influence the attitudes and behavior of pornography consumers. And we have plenty of reasons to be concerned about how the normalizing of pornographic images throughout the culture might shape how we all relate to our own bodies and understand sexuality in ways we aren’t aware of.
That all seems obvious, but industry defenders continue to assert that pornography is just fantasy and we shouldn’t police people’s fantasies. They want us to believe that in this one realm of human life — the use of sexually explicit media as a masturbation facilitator, primarily for men — people are unaffected by the power of stories and images. Even if that implausible claim were true, we still should ask, why are these particular fantasies so popular? When pornographers entered the mainstream and faced fewer restrictions, why did they create so many fantasies around male domination and female subordination? Why did they sexualize racist fantasies? Why did they encourage adult men to fantasize about having sex with teenagers? Why are pornography’s fantasies so routinely cruel and degrading to women?
There isn’t a neat and clean separation of our imaginations and our actions, between what goes on in our heads and what we do in the world. Even if we don’t know exactly how mass-mediated stories and images — what the pornographers and their supporters want to label as “just fantasy” — affect attitudes and behavior, we have reasons to be concerned about contemporary pornography.
And following Andrea Dworkin, let’s also not forget the women used in pornography. For men to masturbate to a double-anal scene, a woman must be penetrated anally by two men at the same time. Do we care about that woman? Do we care about what ideas those men carry around in their head? Think back to the advice the sex educator gives to young men, counseling them to stop behaving the way that pornography taught them to behave. Do we care about the female partners of those men?
These are not problems of a few individuals. I’ve talked to many young women who have told me that when they were in middle school and high school, they conformed to boys’ pornographic notions of sex without realizing what was happening to them. Some of those same women have told me that they would prefer to date men who don’t use pornography but they’ve given up because such men are so hard to find. I’ve talked to many adult women who don’t want to ask their boyfriends or husbands whether they use pornography, or inquire about what kind of pornography they might use, because they are afraid of the answer. I’ve talked to gay men who say that some of the same problems exist in their community.
I’ve talked to a lot of men who defend their pornography use and are unwilling to stop. But in recent years I’ve talked with more men who realize the negative effects of using this pornography but find it hard to stop. They report compulsive, addictive-like use of pornography, sometimes to the point of being unable to function sexually with a partner. These men feel profoundly alienated from themselves, from their own bodies.
Heat and light
The radical feminist critique of the misogyny and racism in pornography isn’t about denying humans’ sexual nature. It is not about imposing a single set of sexual norms on everyone. It’s not about hatred of men. The critique of the domination/subordination dynamic in pornography is about the struggle to transcend the patriarchal sexuality of contemporary culture in search of a sexuality that connects people rather than alienates us from each other and from our own bodies.
I have no simple prescriptions for how to move forward, though I see no way forward without a radical feminist critique. We struggle for intimacy, for connection, for something that feels more authentic than the pornographic script. We can start by recognizing how we have all been socialized, whether through traditional religion or secular society or both, into patriarchal values. That’s bound to be painful — for men when we realize we’ve been trained to dominate sexually, and for women when they realize they have been trained to accept sexual subordination.
I will end with an idea I first articulated 25 years ago and continue to ponder. A common way people talk about sex in the dominant culture is in terms of heat: She’s hot, he’s a hottie, we had hot sex. In a world obsessed with hotness, we focus on appearances and technique — whether someone looks the way we are socialized to believe attractive people should look, and the mechanics of sex acts. We hope that the right look and the right moves will produce heat. Sex is all bump-and-grind — the friction produces the heat, and the heat makes the sex good.
But we should remember a phrase commonly used to describe an argument that is intense but which doesn’t really advance our understanding—we say that such an argument “produced more heat than light.”
Heat is part of life, but what if in our sexual activity, our search for intimacy and connection, we obsessed less about heat and thought more about light? What if instead of desperately seeking hot sex, we searched for a way to produce light when we touch? What if that touch could be about finding a way to generate light between people so that we could see ourselves and each other better?
If the goal is knowing ourselves and each other like that, then what we need is not really heat but light to illuminate the path. How do we touch and talk to each other to shine that light? I am hesitant to suggest strategies; there isn’t a recipe book for that, no list of sexual positions to work through so that we may reach sexual bliss. There is only the ongoing quest to touch and be touched, to be truly alive. James Baldwin, as he so often did, got to the heart of this in a comment that is often quoted and a good place to conclude:
“I think the inability to love is the central problem, because the inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And, if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And, if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive.”
Robert Jensen is Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He collaborates with the Ecosphere Studies program at The Land Institute in Salina, KS.
Jensen is the author of The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas, 2021). His other books include The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (2017); Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (2015); Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (2001).
Jensen is host of “Podcast from the Prairie” with Wes Jackson and associate producer of the forthcoming documentary film Prairie Prophecy: The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson.
Jensen can be reached at [email protected]. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw