ZNet book interview: Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity

By Robert Jensen

Published in ZNet · September, 2007

Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, by Robert Jensen (South End Press, 2007)

Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, is about? What is it trying to communicate?

Nearly 20 years ago I started working in the feminist movement to end violence against women, with a focus on the analysis of sexist depictions in mass media, especially pornography. In those 20 years, progressive forces have lost ground, as the pornographers have been successful at making increasingly misogynistic and racist “adult entertainment” a more widely accepted part of mainstream pop culture. I wrote this book to try to make sense of that apparent paradox. How could it be that a media genre that is more and more overtly cruel and degrading to women, and more and more openly racist, has become more accepted? If we are a civilized society, how could that be? The book tries to resolve that paradox. The short answer is: We aren’t so civilized — our culture is based on a domination/subordination dynamic that is so normalized that we often don’t see it. If we look at the realities of life for many people in a predatory corporate capitalist economy and under the U.S. empire, we see that this culture routinely accepts cruelty and brutality in the service of power and privilege.

Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

Writing this book was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life, because confronting the reality of pornography can be so emotionally draining. The book draws on my academic research on pornography and my political activism, but it also is personal and includes a lot of critical self-reflection about being raised as a man in this culture. To do that honestly is to recognize how deeply we men are socialized into dominance, and how one key element of that training is in dominance through sex. It’s also not easy for women to confront these realities about how so many men view them. One female friend told me she thought it was important to read my book, but that she could only read about five pages at a time. It’s not easy for men or women to deal with this, but I think we have no choice.

What are your hopes for Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

In a world where conservatives are quick to label anyone who resists patriarchy as a “femi-nazi” and liberals routinely defend misogynistic pornography as sexual liberation, there’s a lot of public-education work needed to articulate a left/feminist analysis of sexually explicit media. I hope this book contributes to that project. With two feminist colleagues, I’ve also helped develop a feminist anti-pornography slide show (in PowerPoint, with a script) that people can present to community groups and in college classes. People can get more information about that resource by emailing [email protected].

All of this is part of an effort not only to highlight the corrosive, destructive nature of the pornography industry but also to keep our focus on all the oppressive systems that structure our society: patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism. Pornography — and the sex industry more generally, including stripping and prostitution — is a place where we see these systems working together. The profit motive in capitalism leads to the production of misogynistic and racist material that often is connected to the exploitation of people in the Third World. As the subtitle of the book suggests, part of the struggle against these systems requires that men rethink our commitment to masculinity, which means approaching these issues in the context of ideological systems and structures of power. My goal is always to connect the issue to these larger systems.

I have no illusions that a pornographic culture can be reversed quickly, but I hope this book helps advance feminist, anti-racist, and left critiques that are so essential to real liberation.