Pornography undermines our humanity: interview with True Feminism

By Robert Jensen

Published in True Feminism · August, 2010

Warning: This article has adult content.

SD: How did you get involved in women’s studies?

RJ: When I went to graduate school in 1988, I was lucky to have a chance to read radical feminist work and meet feminists working to end men’s violence and the sexual exploitation of women. I realized that feminism not only creates for women a path to resist patriarchy, but also gives men a way to deal with the ways in which patriarchy undermines our humanity. Feminism offers men a chance to be fully human. I also realized that radical feminism’s struggle against male dominance was based on a deep critique of the hierarchy and domination/subordination dynamic that permeates society, especially along race, gender, and class lines. For me, it opened up a new way of understanding the world that made justice seem possible.

SD: If pornography is anti-woman, then what about the men who work in the sex industry?

RJThe domination/subordination dynamic that defines the sexual-exploitation industries of pornography, stripping, and prostitution is rooted in men’s use and abuse of women. But that domination/subordination can play out in other kinds of relationships, such as in the gay male world. There are also men who perform in the heterosexual pornography industry, of course, but they are not the targets of the cruelty and degradation that is routinely directed at women.

SDProstitution advocates often claim that prostitution helps reduce the crime rate. Do you think this is true?

RJ: There’s no evidence of that, and it’s counter intuitive. So, I see no reason to accept the claim.

SD: How did you get involved in making “The Price of Pleasure”?

RJ: I had worked with the filmmakers on one of their previous projects. When they expressed interest in making a documentary on pornography, I was eager to help. There are few resources like this film available, and it has proved to be an important part of efforts to educate the public about the realities of the industry and the images it produces.

SD: Why do some feminists advocate prostitution and pornography?

RJ: I do not find their arguments about the liberating potential of pornography persuasive, and I think they typically avoid an honest assessment of the industry and the images it produces. I find the radical feminist critique of the sexual-exploitation industries to be a more compelling account of the world that I observe.

SD: How does pornography differ from sex?

RJ:Pornography is primarily a masturbation-facilitator for men. It’s one of the ways that men use women for sexual pleasure. It’s a mediated form of prostituted sex.

SD: Does adult pornography have an impact on child pornography?

RJ: The adult pornography industry is careful not to use minors in the production of their films. But they do produce films that present women who are over the age of 18 in child-like settings, with clothing and styles that evoke childhood — what is sometimes called pseudo-child pornography. The classic examples would be a pornographic film that presents the women as students in a high school or babysitters. I don’t think we have enough evidence to know whether this cultivates in male users a desire for actual child pornography or sex with children, but there is reason for concern.

SD: Psychologist Sigmund Freud, in “Civilization and its discontents,” argued that all male aggression comes from sexual repression and it was the patriarchal family that places restrictions on male sexual activity. How can patriarchy then be the enemy?

RJ: Freud was wrong about some things, including this. The patriarchal family, which was devised by men, is a way to control women, not constrain men.

SD: How does capitalism contribute to pornography?

RJ: Capitalism is a predatory economic system that encourages exploitation, of people and the resources of the earth. Capitalism’s demand for profit undermines other values, such as respect, dignity, and equality. In a patriarchal society, it’s not surprising that profits can be generated by the sexual exploitation of women and that pornographers pursue those profits without concern for the consequences.

SD: What do you think of Playboy magazine?

RJ: Playboy sells objectified female bodies to men for sexual pleasure. It’s the soft end of the pornographic spectrum, but some women have told me that they think it is as destructive as the hardcore material that degrades women in overt ways; they believe that their male partners’ ideas of what makes a female body attractive are shaped by soft-core material like Playboy. Those perceptions can negatively affect relationships.

SD: How has pornography influenced mainstream media and television?

RJ: Mainstream pop culture is much more pornographic in recent years. The codes and conventions of pornography – the way pornography presents women sexually -find their way into the mainstream. More explicit and degrading sexual situations that look a lot like soft-core pornography are increasingly common in mainstream media.

SD: What advice would you offer men who view pornography?

RJ: Don’t. I think we men are much better off when we disconnect our sexuality from mediated images of explicit sex. Images that present women as sexual objects to be used for our pleasure undermine our ability to be fully human. Even if men don’t care about harm to women and children, we should abandon pornography for our own sake.