Why Porn? Why This Porn? Why So Little Concern?

By Robert Jensen

Published in MerionWest.com · June, 2021

[This essay was presented at the online conference on Interpersonal Violence Interventions – Social and Cultural Perspectives at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, June 10, 2021. This version contains some explicit language that was not included in the web version.]

In my book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, which was published in 2017, I suggest that when we evaluate a political project or a social practice we should ask a simple question: “Is this likely to help people create and maintain stable, decent human communities that can remain in a sustainable relationship with the larger living world?” As we deal with today’s multiple, cascading social and ecological crises—including, but not limited to, global wealth inequality and climate change, the kinds of problems that make the fate of the human species uncertain, even in the short term—we should challenge ourselves with that question.

Of course the world is complex, and we have limited capacity to predict the consequences of our actions, so there rarely are easy answers to that question. It can be hard to figure out which political activities and social practices will benefit society and ecosystems over the long term and which will cause unacceptable harm. But in some cases, it is easier than others to make that assessment. For me, it is straightforward when evaluating contemporary pornography, the graphic sexually explicit material that saturates the culture.

What do I mean by pornography? Some discussions get off track early by treating pornography as an abstraction and using overly expansive categories such as “sexual expression.” So, to be clear, today we are talking about the graphic sexually explicit material that:
• is easily accessible online by almost anyone of any age;
• serves as a masturbation facilitator for many boys and men;
• is the de facto sex education curriculum for many boys and girls; and
• over the past five decades has become steadily crueler and more degrading to women, as well as more overtly racist.

Is this pornography helping people create and maintain stable, decent human communities? Is this pornography fostering the kinds of relationships, both intimate and communal, that help people cope with the challenges of everyday living?

My unequivocal answer is no.

I want to explore this conclusion by asking why pornography is so prevalent, why themes of domination and subordination are so prevalent in pornography, and why so many people defend or celebrate it, even in progressive and feminist circles.

If this seems like a hyperbolic or melodramatic opening, consider the dating advice that a sex researcher at a U.S. university says she offers to male students she works with: “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.”

That advice may seem rather obvious to many of us. Why would an educator find it necessary to offer a warning about these particular sex acts? Where would young men get the idea that such acts are appropriate intimate activity? Why are progressives not more concerned?

Why So Much Porn?
Humans likely have used their creative capacities to explore the power of sexuality in art for as long as we have been making it. Sexuality’s power is largely a mystery to us, and through art, we explore those aspects of our lives that cannot be fully understood through logic and evidence. That leads people to suggest that “there’s always been pornography,” but this statement is deceptive. Yes, there is a long history of people exploring the mystery of sexuality through art. But a profit-driven pornography industry devoted to selling graphic, sexually explicit material is a new phenomenon, and the forms it takes are not merely an extension of pre-historic cave paintings.

Changes on cultural, legal, and technological fronts starting a half-century ago led to an expansion of the pornography industry that makes it impossible to estimate how much graphic sexually explicit material exists in the world. Starting in the 1960s, challenges to traditional sexual mores and changes in obscenity law opened up space for more pornography. New communication technologies—starting with the mass-marketed VCRs in the 1970s, then DVDs in the late 1990s, and the internet in the 2000s—created new distribution methods for an expanding industry that was no longer as constrained by social or legal restrictions.

It is tempting to focus exclusively on the role of the internet, which is today the primary vehicle for delivering pornography and has made pornography dramatically more accessible, including to children who only need to lie about their age when asked in order to access this material. But the analysis I am presenting applies not just to pornographic websites but a wide range of graphic sexually explicit material, including “old-fashioned” pornography magazines.

What is the attraction of mass-mediated sex, especially for the primarily male consumers? One obvious answer is that pornography works. It delivers an intense sexual experience that many men find useful in facilitating masturbation. But the human imagination, unaided by mass-mediated images, has long been adequate for masturbation. What else does pornography offer?

For the remainder of this presentation, I am going to focus on heterosexual pornography, the material that depicts primarily heterosexual activity for heterosexual men, who are the primary consumers. What this pornography offers is a sense of control over women. Although a wide variety of pornographic images is available, the dominant theme in heterosexual pornography is men controlling women, men directing women to perform sexual acts that men desire, even if those acts are uncomfortable or painful for women. That sense of control is intensified by the newer technologies, starting with the VCR, which allowed consumers to select the parts of a pornographic film they want to watch—fast-forwarding through material of little interest, repeating scenes of greater interest, focusing on the specific body parts they find most arousing. Pornography delivers scenes in which all men can be in sexual control of any woman, through technologies that allow an individual viewer to control the action.

Pornography also provides a sexual experience that requires no vulnerability on the part of the viewer. Sexual activity in real life with a partner, even when there is no expectation of an ongoing relationship, involves some level of emotional exposure. In the experience of sexual pleasure there often is real intimacy, an opening up to another person. In such moments, another person can see us, sometimes in ways we do not want to be seen.

Pornography provides the pleasure without that vulnerability. For men who are trained to fear vulnerability and therefore are uncomfortable with emotional intimacy, pornography provides the illusion of a human connection without emotional engagement. There is no need to negotiate a complex, often messy, sometimes distressing relationship with a real person. Digital technologies never say no to their users, and the female performers in pornography never say no to male viewers.

What are the effects of the use of pornography, especially habitual use? That inquiry is sometimes reduced to the question, “Does pornography cause rape?” As with most attempts to establish links between mass media and violence, there is no simple answer to that question. That is especially true in a society in which rape is so common that both rapists and rape victims often will self-report actions that meet the legal definition of rape without labeling the experience as rape. Rather than make definitive causal claims, I suggest we consider ways that pornography might change how people understand what constitutes rape, and the ways that pornography makes rape inviting.

But we should go beyond a focus on the connection of pornography and sexual violence. Men increasingly report that their use of pornography can become so addictive that they cannot function sexually with a partner without imagining pornographic scenes, and in some cases cannot function at all (what is called porn-induced erectile dysfunction). Some men also report that they had no interest in rough sex acts until they viewed that kind of pornography. Evidence also comes from women’s reports. I have had many conversations with heterosexual women who said that male partners who habitually used pornography often withdrew from sexual intimacy in the relationship as pornography dominated their sexual experience, while other women have reported that male partners began to demand sexual acts that were uncomfortable or painful. That should lead us to consider not only why so many men use pornography, but what kinds of images they are viewing.

Why This Porn?
Even if there were no connection between the use of pornography and the cultivation of attitudes, and no effects of changed attitudes on behavior—and there is evidence to believe those connections exist—we should still ask why pornographic images look the way they do.

To repeat: a wide variety of pornography is available, and one can find most any type of graphic sexually explicit material through a simple web search. But that diversity of images should not distract us from recognizing patterns in those images, which Andrea Dworkin and other feminists identified as far back as the 1970s: Pornography routinely sexualizes domination and subordination. The primary dynamic is male power and domination along with female subordination and submission, but any inequality dynamic that exists has been sexualized in pornography.

A bit of history is helpful. Let us go back to that period when the pornography industry moved from a largely underground existence to a more visible place in society, selling magazines and screening movies in public. The industry quickly exhausted what we might call the standard sexual script in pornography—little or no foreplay, oral sex (primarily performed by women on men), vaginal intercourse, and occasionally anal intercourse. As the amount of pornography being produced increased, pornographers who wanted to expand market share and profit had to keep viewers from becoming satiated and drifting away.

The first of those changes was the more routine presentation of men penetrating women anally, in increasingly rough fashion. Why anal sex? 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 do not want anal sex, he said. So, when men get angry at their wives and girlfriends, they think to themselves, “I’d like to f— her in the a—.” Because they cannot necessarily do that in real life, he said, they enjoy seeing 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 or that clearly are painful.

Where did the industry go from there? Here are several pornographic sex practices that followed the normalizing of anal sex, acts that typically are not part of most people’s real-world sex lives but are common in pornography:
• DP (industry slang for 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 (the “money shot”), especially on their faces (a “facial”). During pornographic scenes it is common for men to call women sluts and whores, to describe them as dirty, and to insist that the women enjoy this rough treatment because they are dirty sluts and whores.

An important reminder: While pornographic films are of course edited, these are not simulated sex acts. In a scene featuring double anal, a real woman is penetrated by two men anally at the same time. As Andrea Dworkin said, “pornography happens to women,” and we have to always remember that what we see in a pornographic film happened to a real woman.

Pornography eroticizes not only male domination and female subordination, but other forms of power and inequality. One example is the pornographic genre 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 (sexually animalistic black women, demure Asian women who love serving white men, immigrant women at the border who are easily exploited) and racist language. 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. That draws on the racist stereotype of black men as a threat to the purity of white women, while at the same time asserts that the white woman is this promiscuous type who seeks such defilement.

More recently, 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 usually stays away from actual child pornography, or what is now called child sexual abuse material. Still, the industry routinely uses young-looking adult women in childlike settings to create the impression that an adult man can have sex with the high school girl of his fantasy. 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.”

These developments indicate that Dworkin and other early feminist critics were right. Pornography is not simply sex on film, but sex that caters to men’s desire for power and control over women in a patriarchal culture. Pornographers are not rebels. Instead of challenging patriarchy, white supremacy, and global inequality, they make money by tapping into and reinforcing those systems of power.

Contemporary pornography is not the exploration of the mystery of sexuality, but rather the opposite—it drains sexuality of its mystery. The contemporary pornography industry is not interested in sexual expression, but rather in profiting from sexual exploitation.

Why So Little Concern?
Progressives usually reject exploitation and challenge inequalities in power. Feminists usually critique the exploitation of, and discrimination against, women in patriarchy. If those are core commitments of those political movements, then why is there so little critique on the left of pornography and why is the critique of pornography so often rejected by liberal and postmodern feminists? When it comes to men’s routine sexual exploitation of women, why do people who typically focus on systems of power that generate inequality suddenly turn into liberal individualists who ignore systems?

That is the current state of the pornography debate. The radical feminist critique articulated first by Dworkin and others in the late 1970s has been rejected on the left and marginalized within feminism, especially academic feminism. The systematic sexual exploitation of women has been rebranded as “sex work” in order to undermine the radical feminist critique of men’s exploitation of women.

The evidence suggests that the radical feminist critique is more compelling than ever, yet it is routinely ignored or attacked, even by people whose politics typically focus on challenges to illegitimate systems of power. For those who defend or celebrate pornography, everything is legitimated by the choices of individuals. If a practice involves only so-called “consenting adults,” that is the end of the story. That liberal perspective downplays the material conditions under which people make choices or how choices are influenced by ideology and power. When it comes to the sexual-exploitation industries, critical theory goes out the door and good old liberal individualism rules the day.

I will not pretend to analyze the motives of those who hold such views, but it is important to recognize that patriarchy—a system of institutionalized male dominance—is the oldest system of social control and is deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life. Even people committed to radical feminism struggle to transcend patriarchal norms and training. All the systems based on domination cause immense suffering and are difficult to dislodge, but we should remember: White supremacy has never existed without patriarchy. Capitalism has never existed without patriarchy. Imperialism has never existed without patriarchy. From patriarchy’s claim that male domination and female subordination are natural and inevitable have emerged other illegitimate hierarchies that also rest on attempts to naturalize, and hence render invisible, other domination/subordination dynamics.

Patriarchy is at the core of the story of inequality, and a radical challenge to patriarchy is not easy.

Radical feminism addresses patriarchy by going to the root, challenging men’s claim to own or control women’s sexuality and reproductive power. That includes not only a rejection of men’s use of coercion and violence to compel women to engage in sexual activity—sexual assault and sexual harassment—but also a challenge to men’s claim of a right to buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure in the sexual-exploitation industries, which is the term I use for not only pornography but also prostitution, stripping, massage parlors, and escort services.

This shift is especially hard because it means challenging ourselves. Most men are socialized into that conception of sexuality, of men experiencing sexual pleasure through dominating and controlling women. When men ask each other, “Did you get any?” in reference to a date with a woman, they are not asking about levels of emotional intimacy. They are asking whether a man obtained sexual gratification by using a woman’s body. And just as men are socialized to see themselves as sexual subjects who have a right to dictate the terms of sexual activity, women are socialized to see themselves as sexual objects.

Of course, some men and many women reject this training. But after decades of talking to many men, and reflecting on my own experience, I know how hard it is to break free of that socialization. Conversations with women indicate they have struggles of their own to escape patriarchy’s lessons in subordination and submission.

Teachers who have included this kind of critique—not only of pornography, but also mainstream television and movies, fashion magazines, and social media—have to help students cope with heightened levels of both anger and fear. It is common for female students, once they have started to critique popular culture, to report being in a state of constant rage, as they realize that every time they look at a billboard, open a magazine, turn on a television, or go online they will now see how routine the sexual objectification of women is, how often male power is glamorized, how glibly the society treats violence against women. “I’m overwhelmed by it and angry all the time,” a student once said to me. “And I can’t understand why everyone isn’t angry.”

For men, it is easy to avoid being overwhelmed by simply accepting the system and “being a man” as patriarchy has trained us. That seems like the safest path, but if we do that, I think we surrender the chance to be fully human. That is why I say as often as possible that radical feminism is not a threat to men but a gift to us.

For women, well, I learned that my job is not to tell women what to think or what to do. But I have known many women who embraced a radical feminist critique and in collaboration with others have found ways to live with that awareness.

The Paradox of Pornography
This leaves us with what in my book Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity I called the paradox of pornography. In my adult life, two trends are uncontroversial to observe: First, pornography has become more widely available and accepted. Second, the pornography industry has steadily produced images that are more overtly cruel and degrading to women, as well as more overtly racist than ever before. As the amount of pornography produced increases and becomes more normalized, the intensity of the degradation it portrays does, too.

That seems to be a paradox. In a civilized society, how can a media genre become more mainstream at the same time that it becomes more misogynist and racist? If pornography is increasingly cruel and degrading, why is it increasingly commonplace?

As is often the case, this paradox can be resolved by recognizing that one of the assumptions may be wrong. How civilized a society are we? How much do we really care about the principles that we claim to hold around dignity, equality, and solidarity? How much do we care about those principles when they would interfere with our pleasure? Those are troubling questions, especially for those of us living in the privileged sectors of affluent societies. This paradox should lead us to wonder why it is so easy to turn away from the exploitation of others. It should lead us to recognize that digital media are not only an exciting new way to tell stories but also can cut us off from our own inner life, from other people, and from the larger living world.

I will end with more questions that I think should trouble us.

I pose these questions specifically to men: Do we value easily obtainable sexual pleasure more than we value the physical and psychological well-being of women? Before we try to avoid the question by saying, “Well, women choose to perform in pornography,” let us face a more important question: Why do we choose to use women in pornography for our own pleasure?

I pose these questions to us all: If we defend or embrace the pornography industry, can we really expect to create and maintain stable, decent human communities that can remain in a sustainable relationship with the larger living world? Are pornography and the other sexual-exploitation industries consistent with a world defined by social justice and ecosystem health?

The world is not simple. But for me, this question has a simple answer. No.

———————————–

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