Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Is Feminism Dead?

Is feminism dead?
Posted by Courtney E. Martin
27 November 2007

What picture pops into your mind when you read the word feminist? Is it a woman layered in petticoats with a big, swooping hat, picketing the white house for her right to vote? Is it Gloria Steinem in her aviator glasses, sleek, straight hair hanging down both sides of her pretty face?

These are the dominant images that so many people associate with feminist history, and for good reason. The first image—the suffragist—represents the so-called “first wave” of feminist history. These women, philosophizing and organizing, from the late 1800s through the 1930s, were primarily focused on legal and institutional changes that would allow women to gain more power and autonomy.

The “second wave,” then, was most active in the 1960s and 1970s, and was concerned with social and psychological liberation (think dishes, contraception, and objectification). This era is best explained by its most effective slogan: the personal is the political. (Disclaimer: This, of course, is only a modern western history I’m referring to. Feminism has taken all kinds of triumphant and fascinating forms in other parts of the world, at other times.)

But what about now? Is feminism, as Time magazine and other short-sighted publications like to claim, dead?

Well of course not. My vibrant community of feminist friends and I are, last time I checked, breathing. Our hearts are pumping new feminist blood. Our minds—the most educated in history—are formulating visions of what feminism can and will be in the twenty-first century.
We are sometimes called “third wave,” though perhaps it could even be argued we are the fourth, after our Gen X older sisters and mentors (women like Deborah Siegel, Daisy Hernandez, Jennifer Baumgardner, Amy Richards, Sarah Jones, etc.).

My vision of feminism is defined by three major components: educated choice, genuine equality, and radical authenticity. Ask my friend Jessica or my pal Daniel and you will get slightly different answers, but you can bet that we’ll all be talking in the same general language and in the same philosophical country.

Educated choice: Both men and women need to have access to choices and, even more, they need to have the tools necessary to make good choices. It is not enough to just say that women should have access to abortions, for example. They also need to know all of their options and feel like they have a full understanding of the health risks and quality of life issues that each entails; they also need to have the economic provisions to make whichever choice fits their lives and values best.

Genuine Equality: We all deserve the same opportunities, the same access. This is a pretty straight forward concept in theory, but in practice, it is hellishly complicated. Take something like U.S. college admissions. Sure anyone can apply to Harvard, but not everyone comes from a family that can pay for an SAT tutor or has the cultural capital to encourage college. Until the U.S., and other western industrialized countries, recognize the way that networks and subtle class/race/gender dynamics influence supposedly non-discriminatory institutions, our work will not be done.

Radical authenticity: This facet of feminism gets talked about far too little in my opinion. A visionary twenty-first century feminism should aim to support both men and women to be their most authentic selves in the world, shedding prescribed gender roles and really getting in touch with their authentic desires, passions, and ethics. Feminist workplaces, for example, would nurture both men and women having present relationships with their children and fulfilling work lives. Men should be empowered to express a complex range of emotions, just as women must learn how to handle conflict healthily and assertively and take care of themselves, not just everyone else.

The most exciting thing about feminism, is that it is ultimately about leading more fulfilling, ethical, joyful lives, characterized by more healthy and genuine relationships. Who could argue with that?

What Feminism Isn't

Ugly, boring and angry?
Posted by Courtney E. Martin

As I travel across the country speaking about feminist issues I like to take a quick survey of the audiences. I ask them “What are the stereotypes you’ve heard about feminists?”After a few timid moments, folks start shouting a flood of unsavory characteristics: ugly, bitchy, man-hating, boring, angry, bra-burning.

The wild thing is that whether I am in a lecture hall in Jacksonville, Illinois, or a woman’s club in suburban New Jersey, or an immigration center in Queens, New York, whether I am among 15 year-olds, or 25 year-olds, or 60 year-olds, whether the crowd of faces that I see are mostly white, or mostly of color, or a welcome mix of all—this list tends to be almost identical.

I tell those in the audiences as much, and then I ask, “So how did all of you—from such vastly different backgrounds—get the exactly same stereotypes about feminism? Why would feminism be so vilified?”And to this they usually shrug their shoulders.

I believe that feminism has attracted so many unsavory stereotypes because of its profound power and potential. It has gained such a reputation, been so inaccurately demonized, because it promises to upset one of the foundations on which this world, its corporations, its families, and its religions are based—gender roles.

If you asked diverse audiences to give you stereotypes about Protestantism, for example, you would have some groups that starred at you blank-faced and some that might have a jab or two.

If you asked about the history of civil rights, even, you would get a fairly innocuous, probably even partly accurate sense of the progress afforded by sit-ins, freedom rides, and protests. But you ask about feminism and the whole room erupts with media-manufactured myths, passed down from generation to generation. Some of these stereotypes can be traced to events or controversial figures in the women’s movement, though they are still perversions. That whole bra-burning thing came out of the 1968 Miss America protests in which feminists paraded one another around like cattle to show the dehumanizing effects of beauty pageants, but they didn’t actually burn any bras.

There have surely been some feminists who despised men and advocated for female-only spaces; others have undoubtedly resorted to an angry m.o.; there were probably even a few shabby dressers (though, I have to tell you, us third-wave gals tend to be pretty snappy).
More recently one of the most pervasive misperceptions about what feminism purports to do is actually perpetuated by strong, intelligent women; I refer to the mistaken belief that feminism is solely about achievement, competition, and death-defying acrobatics (sometimes called multitasking). I like to think of this as “shoulder-pad feminism”—the do it all, all at once circus act that so many of my friends and I witnessed growing up in households headed by superwomen.

The ugly truth about superwomen, my generation has come to realize, is that they tend to be exhausted, self-sacrificing, unsatisfied, and sometimes even self-loathing and sick. Feminism—and the progress it envisions—was never supposed to compromise women’s health. It was supposed to lead to richer, more enlightened, authentic lives characterized by a deep sense of wellness.

Feminism in its most glorious, transformative, inclusive sense, is not about man-hating, nor is it about superwomen. For what it is, come back tomorrow…

Monday, November 19, 2007

Getting Off--An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, by Robert Jensen.

King of the Hill

The object of the children's game King of the Hill is to be the one who remains on top of the hill (or, if not an actual hill, a large pile of anything or the center of any designated area). To do that, one has to repel those who challenge the king's supremacy. The king has to push away all the other kids who charge the hill. That can be done in a friendly spirit with an understanding that a minimal amount of force will be used by all, or it can be violent and vicious, with both the king and the challengers allowed to use any means necessary. Games that start with such a friendly understanding can often turn violent and vicious. This scenario is also used in some video games, in which a player tries to control a specific area for a predetermined amount of time.

In my experience, both male and female children can, and did, play King of the Hill, but it was overwhelmingly a game of male children. It's one of the games that train male children to be men. No matter who is playing, it is a game of masculinity. King of the Hill reveals one essential characteristic of the dominant conception of masculinity: No one is ever safe, and everyone loses something.

Most obviously, this King-of-the-Hill masculinity is dangerous for women. It leads men to seek to control "their" women and define their own pleasure in that control, which leads to epidemic levels of rape and battery. But this view of masculinity is toxic for men as well.

One thing is immediately obvious about King-of-the-Hill masculinity: Not everyone can win. In fact, by definition in this conception of masculinity, there's only one real man at any given moment. In a system based on hierarchy, by definition there can be only one person at the top of the hierarchy. There's only one King of the Hill.

In this conception of masculinity, men are in constant struggle with each other for dominance. Every other man must in some way be subordinated to the king, but even the king can't feel too comfortable -- he has to be nervous about who is coming up that hill to get him. This isn't just a game, of course. A friend who once worked on Wall Street, one of the preeminent sites of masculine competition in the business world, described coming to work as like "walking into a knife fight when all the good spots along the wall were taken." Every day you faced the possibility of getting killed -- figuratively, in business terms -- and there was no spot you could stand where your back was covered. This is masculinity lived as endless competition and threat. Whatever the benefits of it, whatever power it gives one over others, it's also exhausting and, in the end, unfulfilling.

No one man created this system. Perhaps no man, if given a real choice, would choose it. But we live our lives in that system, and it deforms men, narrowing our emotional range and depth, and limiting our capacity to experience the rich connections with others -- not just with women and children, but with other men -- which require vulnerability but make life meaningful. The Man Who Would Be King is the Man Who Is Broken and Alone.

That toxic masculinity hurts men doesn't mean it's equally dangerous for men and women. As feminists have long pointed out, there's a big difference between women dealing with the constant threat of being raped, beaten, and killed by the men in their lives, and men not being able to cry. But we can see that the short-term material gains that men get in patriarchy -- the name for this system of male dominance -- are not adequate compensation for what we men give up in the long haul, which is to surrender part of our humanity to the project of dominance.
This doesn't mean, of course, that in this world all men have it easy. Other systems of dominance and oppression -- white supremacy, heterosexism, predatory corporate capitalism -- mean that non-white men, gay men, poor and working-class men suffer in various ways. A feminist analysis doesn't preclude us from understanding those problems but in fact helps us see them more clearly.

What feminism is and isn't to me

Each fall in my seminar class for first-year students at the University of Texas, I lead a discussion about gender politics that will sound familiar to many teachers. I ask the students about their opinions about various gender issues, such as equal pay, sexual harassment, men's violence, and gender roles. Most of the women and some of the men express views that would be called feminist. But when I ask how many identify as feminists, out of the 15 students in any semester, no more than three (always women) have ever claimed the label. When I ask why, the typical answers are not about the political positions of feminism but the perception that feminism is weird and that weird people are feminists.

This pattern is no doubt connected to the assault on feminism in the mainstream culture, captured most succinctly in the phrase "femi-nazi" made popular by right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh. One response to this by some feminists has been to find a least-common-denominator definition of the term, to reassure both men and women that feminism doesn't really aim to undermine established gender norms and isn't threatening to men. I believe that to be the wrong strategy. If feminism is to make a meaningful difference in the sex/gender crisis we face, and contribute to a broader social change so desperately needed, I believe it must be clear in its challenge to the existing order -- and that inevitably will be threatening to many men, at least at first. Feminism, then, should get more radical than ever.

In general, the term "radical" conjures up images of extremes, of danger, of people eager to tear things down. But radical has another meaning -- from the Latin, for root. Radical solutions are the ones that get to the root of the problem. When the systems in which we live are in crisis, the most honest confrontations with those systems have to be radical. At first glance, that honesty will seem frightening. Looking deeper, it is the radical ideas that offer hope, a way out of the crisis.

Because these ideas are denigrated in the dominant culture, it's important to define them. By feminist, I mean an analysis of the ways in which women are oppressed as a class in this society -- the ways in which men as a class hold more power, and how those differences in power systematically disadvantage women in the public and private spheres. Gender oppression plays out in different ways depending on social location, which makes it crucial to understand men's oppression of women in connection with other systems of oppression -- heterosexism, racism, class privilege, and histories of colonial and postcolonial domination.

By radical feminist, I mean the analysis of the ways that in this patriarchal system in which we live, one of the key sites of this oppression -- one key method of domination -- is sexuality. Two of the most well-known women who articulated a radical feminist view have been central to the feminist critique of pornography -- the writer Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, a lawyer and law professor. The feminist philosophy and politics that have shaped my thinking are most clearly articulated by those two and others with similar views.

What I also learned from this radical feminism is not just a way of critiquing men's domination of women but a broader approach to understanding systems of power and oppression. Feminism is not the only way into a broader critique of the many types of oppression, of course, but it is one important way, and was for me the first route into such a framework. My real political education started on the issue of gender and from there moved to issues of racial and economic injustice, the imperialist wars that flow out of that injustice, and the ecological crisis. Each system of power and oppression is unique in its own way, but there are certain features in common. Here's my summary:

How do we explain the fact that most people's stated philosophical and theological systems are rooted in concepts of justice, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people, yet we allow violence, exploitation, and oppression to flourish? Only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths, engaging in cruel and oppressive behavior openly and with relish. Feminism helped me understand the complex process, which tends to work like this:

The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.

Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits.

People are typically hesitant to give up such privileges, pleasures, and benefits.

But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of those in the subordinated class.

Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of equality and human rights, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.

One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are "natural."

So, oppressive systems work hard to make it appear that the hierarchy -- and the disparity in power and resources that flow from hierarchy -- is natural and, therefore, beyond modification.

If men are naturally smarter and stronger than women, then patriarchy is inevitable and justifiable. If white people are naturally smarter and more virtuous than people of color, then white supremacy is inevitable and justifiable. If rich people are naturally smarter and harder working than poor people, then economic injustice is inevitable and justifiable. And, if human beings have special status in the universe, justified either on theological or biological grounds, then humans' right to extract from the rest of Creation whatever they like is inevitable and


For unjust hierarchies, and the illegitimate authority that is exercised in them, maintaining their own naturalness is essential. Not surprisingly, people in the dominant class exercising the power gravitate easily to such a view. And because of their power to control key story-telling institutions (especially education and mass communication), those in the dominant class can fashion a story about the world that leads some portion of the people in the subordinate class to internalize the ideology.

For me, feminism gave me a way to see through not only male dominance, but all the systems of illegitimate authority. I saw the fundamental strategy they held in common, and saw that if we could more into a space in which we were true to our stated ideals, we would reject those systems as anti-human. All these systems cause suffering beyond the telling. All of them must be resisted. The connections between them must be understood.

Enforcing masculinity

Systems of oppression are interlocked and enmeshed; perhaps the classic example is the way in which white men identify black men as a threat to the sexual purity of white women, requiring white men to maintain control of both black people and white women. While keeping in mind those connections, we can train our attention on how each individual power system operates.

This book attempts such a focus on masculinity. The King-of-the-Hill Masculinity I have described is articulated and enforced in a variety of places in contemporary culture, most notably athletics, the military, and business, with underpinnings in the dominant monotheistic religions. We can look at all those arenas and see how masculinity-as-dominance plays out. In all those endeavors, the quality of relationships and human values become secondary to control that leads to victory, conquest, and closing the deal.

We teach our boys that to be a man is to be tough, to be acquisitive, to be competitive, to be aggressive. We congratulate them when they make a tough hit on the football field that takes out an opponent. We honor them in parades when they return from slaughtering the enemy abroad. We put them on magazine covers when they destroy business competitors and make millions by putting people out of work. In short, we train boys to be cruel, to ignore the feelings of others, to be violent.

U.S. culture's most-admired male heroes reflect those characteristics: They most often are men who take charge rather than seek consensus, seize power rather than look for ways to share it, and are willing to be violent to achieve their goals. Victory is sweet. Conquest gives a sense of power. And after closing the deal, the sweet sense of power lingers.

Look around in the contemporary United States, and masculinity is paraded in front of us, sometimes in displays that border on self-parody:

George W. Bush dons a flight suit and lands on an aircraft carrier; the self-proclaimed "war president" announces victory (albeit somewhat prematurely). John Kerry, fearing a masculinity gap, serves up a hunting photo-op in the 2004 campaign to show that not only does he have combat experience that Bush lacks but still likes to fire a weapon.

Arnold Schwarzenegger moves from action-movie hero to governor of California, denigrating opponents he deems insufficiently tough as "girly men."

Donald Trump, a businessman famous mostly for being famous and attracting conventionally attractive female partners, boosts a sagging public image with "The Apprentice" television show that pits young wannabe executives against each other in cutthroat competition.

And then there is sex, where victory, conquest, and dealing come together, typically out of public view. Masculinity played out in sexual relationships, straight or gay, brings King of the Hill into our most intimate spaces. Again, this doesn't mean that every man in every sexual situation plays out this dominance, but simply that there exists a pattern. When I speak to mixed groups about these subjects, I often describe the sex-as-dominance paradigm, and then I ask the women in the room if they have any experience with men behaving in such fashion.

There is considerable rolling of the eyes and many exasperated sighs at that point. I present it in light-hearted fashion because to put it too harshly makes most mixed audiences very nervous.

And then there is pornography, where brings the private imposition of masculinity into public, putting King-of-the-Hill sex onto the screen.

Pornography's whisper to men

We think of the call of pornography as crass, like a carnival barker's. Like the neon lights of Times Square in its pornographic heyday. Men go to buy pornography in the "red-light" district, the "combat zone." Pornography seems to shout out at us, crudely.

But in reality, pornography speaks to men in a whisper. We pretend to listen to the barker shouting about women, but that is not the draw. What brings us back, over and over, is the voice in our ears, the soft voice that says, "It's OK, you really are a man, you really can be a man, and if you come into my world, it will all be there, and it will all be easy."

Pornography knows men's weakness. It speaks to that weakness, softly. Pornography ends up being about men's domination of women and about the ugly ways that men will take pleasure. But for most men, it starts with the soft voice that speaks to our deepest fear: That we aren't man enough.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Robert Jensen, Getting Off

Pornography and the End of Masculinity
By Don Hazen, AlterNet. Posted September 22, 2007.
Mainstream porn has come up with more ways than ever to humiliate and degrade women. Why then, is porn more popular? Includes an excerpt from Robert Jensen's new book, Getting Off.

In his new book, Robert Jensen forces the reader to face the music about the effects of a porn industry gone gonzo and the need to reassess the trappings of masculinity as the source of increased violence against and degradation of women.

I have always been part of the collective liberal progressive libertarian value system that accepts pornography as a legitimate expression of the First Amendment. Part of that thinking is that women participate in porn films of their own free will and that porn often represents fantasies -- though sometimes quasiviolent or degrading -- that people actually have. So as long as people are merely acting in porn films and there is no coercion, or law-breaking, it is acceptable.

But I've changed my mind. No, I'm not a prude, or anti-sex. Nor do I think there should be a national campaign to snuff out all porn. In fact, I sometimes watch certain kinds of porn. But what has become clear to me is that, under the guise of the First Amendment, a huge and powerful porn industrial complex has grown out of control. And a big part of its growth is fueled, not just by the internet, but by continually upping the ante, increasing the extremes of degradation for the women in tens of thousands of films made every year. I am convinced, although it is, of course, difficult to document, that the huge audiences for porn and the pervasiveness of the themes and behaviors of degradation are having a negative impact on the way men behave and the way society treats women.

Sexism and attitudes toward women were supposed to have gotten better after the 1960s and the feminist movement. The sons of boomers were going to be different. And while perhaps that is true in some cases, what we have instead is more violence against women and more social acceptance of demeaning male attitudes and behaviors that would have been considered out of bounds 20 or 30 years ago. As a society, we've gone backwards.

Part of my thinking on pornography has been shaped by seeing what is on the internet myself, and part, by reading Robert Jensen's powerful and provocative book, excerpted below: Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Jensen has convinced me that something as powerful as the porn industry and its sexual extremism must not be kept under the rug due to liberal shoulder-shrugging about the First Amendment. The porn industry should not enjoy our collective denial in terms of its real-world impact on women -- and men -- simply because we might be berated by First Amendment purists or be uncomfortable grappling with complex issues of sexual expression.

The debate must be pushed, and the consciousness raised. Many will say, don't mess with the issue because it's a slippery slope and could lead to the repression of other freedoms. I've concluded we need to take that chance. Male attitudes are potentially being shaped by ugly and sometimes disgusting abuse toward women. And tens of thousands of young women are being seduced and intimidated into lives of extreme public humiliation on-screen. The impact on their lives over the long run could be devastating.

The advent of Gonzo
One phenomenon in porn is the ascension of Gonzo films. There are two styles of films -- one are features that mimic, however badly, the Hollywood model of plot and characters. But the other, Gonzo, has no pretensions, and is simply the filming of sex acts, which, Jensen writes, while also occurring in features, are "performed in rougher fashion, often with more than one man involved, and more explicitly degrading language, which marks women as sluts, whores, cunts, nasty bitches and so on."

The Gonzo films, which have come to dominate the industry, also emphasize the newer trend of sexual acts, which include: double penetration -- anal and vaginal -- and ass to mouth, or ATM, where anal sex is followed by sticking the penis in the women's mouth. In addition, many of these films include men, often in multiple numbers, ejaculating into the faces and mouths of the women performers. The women usually swallow the semen, but also can share it mouth-to-mouth with a female partner. For Jensen, the most plausible explanation of the popularity of these acts is that women in the world, outside of pornography, don't engage in these acts unless forced. "Men know that -- and they find it sexually arousing to watch them in part because of that knowledge."

As Jerome Tanner, porn film maker, explains, "One of the things about today's porn and the extreme market, the gonzo market, is so many fans want to see much more extreme stuff that I'm always trying to figure out ways to do something different. But it seems that everybody wants to see a girl doing a double penetration or a gang bang. ... It's definitely brought porn somewhere, but I don't know where it is headed from there."

Mitchell Spinelli, interviewed while filming Give me Gape, adds: "People want more. They want to know how many dicks you can shove up an ass. It's like 'Fear Factor meets Jackass.' Make it more hard, make it more nasty, make it more relentless."

Jensen clearly decided in writing his book that the often overwhelming reality of the behavior and values of the porn industry must be experienced by the reader, at least in written form, to understand what the issues are. Thus, in the book, he describes porn scenes, quotes dialogue in the porn films, and includes interviews with porn actors to help capture what they are thinking.

Some of this is a little hard to take. Here is one example:
Jessica Darlin tells the camera she has performed in 200 films, and she is submissive. "I like guys to just take over and fuck me and have a good time with me. I'm just here for pleasure." The man who enters the room grabs her hair and tells her to beg the other man. She crawls over on her hands and knees, and he spanks her hard. When he grabs her by the throat, she seems surprised. During oral sex, he says, "Choke on that dick." She gags. He grabs her head and slaps her face then forces his penis in her mouth quickly. She gags again.The other man duplicates the action, calling her a "little bitch." Jessica is drooling and gagging; she looks as if she might pass out. The men slap her breasts, then grab her by the hair and pull her up. Later in the scene, "One man enters her anally from the rear as she is pushed up against the couch. The other man enters her anally while his partner puts his foot on her head. Finally one grabs her hair and asks here what she wants. 'I want your cum in my mouth,' she says. 'Give me all that cum. I want to taste it.'"

Jensen writes, "In researching the porn industry, one of the most difficult parts is writing about the women who perform. Men see women in porn films as objects of desire (to be fucked) or ridicule (to be made fun of.) When porn performers speak in public, they typically repeat a script that emphasizes that they have freely chosen this career because of their love of sex and lack of inhibition." Nina Hartley is one former porn star who frames her experience in the porn industry as empowering -- a feminist act of a woman taking control of her own life. But Jensen notes that while "we should listen to and respect those voices, we also know from the testimony of women who leave the sex industry that often they are desperate and unhappy in prostitution and pornography but feel the need to validate it as their choice to avoid thinking of themselves as victims."

Robert Jensen -- radical man
So that you understand, Robert Jensen is a true radical. His positions on masculinity, race and pornography are way out of the mainstream. He thinks that concepts of masculinity make men less than human and should be junked. "Men are assumed to be naturally competitive and aggressive, and being a "real man" is therefore marked by the struggle for control, conquest and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants and takes it."

In writing his book, he turns to one of the most vilified feminists, Andrea Dworkin, as his guide. One of Dworkin's books, Intercourse, enraged many readers. "In it, Dworkin argues that in a male supremacist society, sex between men and women constitutes a central part of women's subordination to men. (This argument was quickly and falsely simplified to "all sex is rape" in the public arena, adding fire to Dworkin's already radical persona.)" But Jensen embraces Dworkin for best understanding pornography and notes that "her love for men was so evident."
Like many stubbornly pure radicals who in the end have provoked change, Jensen, by sheer dint of the power of his arguments, forces one to examine the contradictions and the consequences of our acts, assumptions and opinions. And, by the way, Jensen has a different definition for radical, preferring the Latin "root" for its meaning. "Radical solutions are the ones that get to the root of the problem." For Jensen, the question becomes: "How do we explain the fact that most people's stated philosophy and theological systems are rooted in concepts of justice, equality and inherent dignity of all people, yet we allow violence, exploitation and oppression to flourish."

Jensen's book is a serious effort to deconstruct pornography and connect it to the society in which it grows and, in some ways, dominates. He addresses in detail the arguments that justify porn and the research that may connect porn to violence. His narrative, interwoven in the book, is about a lonely journey to shed the straight jacket of masculinity, and the pain and lack of acceptance that goes with the territory as he relentlessly pushes his ideas into the public domain.

In the end, the book grapples with a fundamental question. "If pornography is increasingly cruel and degrading, why is it increasingly commonplace instead of more marginalized? In a society that purports to be civilized, wouldn't we expect most people to reject sexual material that becomes ever more dismissive of the humanity of women? How do we explain ... increasingly more intense ways to humiliate women sexually and the rising popularity of the films that present those activities?" Jensen concludes: "... this paradox can be resolved by recognizing that one of the assumptions is wrong. Here it is the assumption that the U.S. society routinely rejects cruelty and degradation. In fact the U.S. is a nation that has no serious objection to cruelty and degradation."

Robert Jensen is on a quest. And he has taken a major step forward in his journey in producing a book that the reader can't run away from or casually dismiss. It is filled with facts, data, intelligent observation and analysis, as well as examples of the raw product of an industry gone gonzo. I know this may sound like a cliche, but I guarantee that after reading this book, almost no one will think about pornography in the same way again.
This essay is excerpted from Robert Jensen's new book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, published by South End Press. Jensen also has helped produce a slide show in PowerPoint with a script about the feminist critique of pornography. For information on how to get a copy, email stoppornculture.

After an intense three hours, the workshop on pornography I have been leading is winding down. The 40 women all work at a center that serves battered women and rape survivors. These are the women on the front lines, the ones who answer the 24-hour hotline and work one-on-one with victims. They counsel women who have just been raped, help women who have been beaten, and nurture children who have been abused. These women have heard and seen it all. No matter how brutal a story might be, they have experienced or heard one even more brutal; there is no way to one-up them on stories of men's violence. But after three hours of information, analysis, and discussion of the commercial heterosexual pornography industry, many of these women are drained. Sadness hangs over the room.

Near the end of the session, one woman who had been quiet starts to speak. Throughout the workshop she had held herself in tightly, her arms wrapped around herself. She talks for some time, and then apologizes for rambling. There is no need to apologize; she is articulating what many feel. She talks about her own life, about what she has learned in the session and about how it has made her feel, about her anger and sadness.

Finally, she says: "This hurts. It just hurts so much."

Everyone is quiet as the words sink in. Slowly the conversation restarts, and the women talk more about how they feel, how they will use the information, what it will mean to their work and in their lives. The session ends, but her words hang in the air.

It hurts.

It hurts to know that no matter who you are as a woman you can be reduced to a thing to be penetrated, and that men will buy movies about that, and that in many of those movies your humiliation will be the central theme. It hurts to know that so much of the pornography that men are buying fuses sexual desire with cruelty.

It hurts women, and men like it, and it hurts just to know that.

Even these women, who have found ways to cope with the injuries from male violence in other places, struggle with that pornographic reality. It is one thing to deal with acts, even extremely violent acts. It is another to know the thoughts, ideas, and fantasies that lie behind those acts.
People routinely assume that pornography is such a difficult and divisive issue because it's about sex. In fact, this culture struggles unsuccessfully with pornography because it is about men's cruelty to women, and the pleasure men sometimes take in that cruelty. And that is much more difficult for people -- men and women -- to face.

Why it hurts
This doesn't mean that all men take sexual pleasure in cruelty. It doesn't mean that all women reject pornography. There is great individual variation in the human species, but there also are patterns in any society. And when those patterns tell us things about ourselves and the world in which we live that are difficult, we often want to look away.

Mirrors can be dangerous, and pornography is a mirror.

Pornography as a mirror shows us how men see women. Not all men, of course -- but the ways in which many men who accept the conventional conception of masculinity see women. It is unsettling to look into that mirror.

A story about that: I am out with two heterosexual women friends. Both are feminists in their 30s, and both are successful in their careers. Both are smart and strong, and both have had trouble finding male partners who aren't scared by their intelligence and strength. We are talking about men and women, about relationships. As is often the case, I am told that I am too hard on men. The implication is that after so many years of working in the radical feminist critique of the sex industry and sexual violence, I have become jaded, too mired in the dark side of male sexuality. I contend that I am simply trying to be honest. We go back and forth, in a friendly discussion.

Finally, I tell my friends that I can settle this with a description of one website. I say to them: "If you want me to, I will tell you about this site. I won't tell you if you don't want to hear this.

But if you want me to continue, don't blame me." They look at each other; they hesitate. They ask me to explain.

Some months before that someone had forwarded to me an email about a pornography site that the person thought I should take a look at -- slutbus.com. It's a website to sell videos of the slutbus. Here's the slutbus concept:

A few men who appear to be in their 20s drive around in a minivan with a video camera. They ask women if they want a ride. Once in the van, the women are asked if they would be willing to have sex on camera for money. The women do. When the sex is over, the women get out of the van and one of the men hands the women a wad of bills as payment. Just as she reaches for the money, the van drives off, leaving her on the side of the road looking foolish. There are trailers for 10 videos on the website. All appear to use the same "plot" structure.

In the United States there are men who buy videos with that simple message: Women are for sex. Women can be bought for sex. But in the end, women are not even worth paying for sex. They don't even deserve to be bought. They just deserve to be fucked, and left on the side of the road, with post-adolescent boys laughing as they drive away -- while men at home watch, become erect, masturbate, obtain sexual pleasure, and ejaculate, and then turn off the DVD player and go about their lives. There are other companies that produce similar videos. There's bangbus.com, which leaves women by the side of the road after sex in the bangbus. And on it goes.

I look at my friends and tell them: "You realize what I just described is relatively tame. There are things far more brutal and humiliating than that, you know."

We sit quietly, until one of them says, "That wasn't fair."

I know that it wasn't fair. What I had told them was true, and they had asked me to tell them.

But it wasn't fair to push it. If I were them, if I were a woman, I wouldn't want to know that. Life is difficult enough without knowing things like that, without having to face that one lives in a society in which no matter who you are -- as an individual, as a person with hopes and dreams, with strengths and weaknesses -- you are something to be fucked and laughed at and left on the side of the road by men. Because you are a woman.

"I'm sorry," I said. "But you asked."

In a society in which so many men are watching so much pornography, this is why we can't bear to see it for what it is: Pornography forces women to face up to how men see them. And pornography forces men to face up to what we have become. The result is that no one wants to talk about what is in the mirror. Although few admit it, lots of people are afraid of pornography. The liberal/libertarian supporters who celebrate pornography are afraid to look honestly at what it says about our culture. The conservative opponents are afraid that pornography undermines their attempts to keep sex boxed into narrow categories.

Feminist critics are afraid, too -- but for different reasons. Feminists are afraid because of what they see in the mirror, because of what pornography tells us about the world in which we live. That fear is justified. It's a sensible fear that leads many to want to change the culture.
Pornography has become normalized, mainstreamed. The values that drive the slutbus also drive the larger culture. As a New York Times story put it, "Pornography isn't just for dirty old men anymore." Well, it never really was just for dirty men, or old men, or dirty old men. But now that fact is out in the open. That same story quotes a magazine writer, who also has written a pornography script: "People just take porn in stride these days. There's nothing dangerous about sex anymore." The editorial director of Playboy, who says that his company has "an emphasis on party," tells potential advertisers: "We're in the mainstream."

There never was anything dangerous about sex, of course. The danger isn't in sex, but in a particular conception of sex in patriarchy. And the way sex is done in pornography is becoming more and more cruel and degrading, at the same time that pornography is becoming more normalized than ever. That's the paradox.

The paradox of pornography
First, imagine what we could call the cruelty line -- the measure of the level of overt cruelty toward, and degradation of, women in contemporary mass-marketed pornography. That line is heading up, sharply.

Second, imagine the normalization line -- the measure of the acceptance of pornography in the mainstream of contemporary culture. That line also is on the way up, equally sharply.

If pornography is increasingly cruel and degrading, why is it increasingly commonplace instead of more marginalized? In a society that purports to be civilized, wouldn't we expect most people to reject sexual material that becomes evermore dismissive of the humanity of women? How do we explain the simultaneous appearance of more, and increasingly more intense, ways to humiliate women sexually and the rising popularity of the films that present those activities?

As is often the case, this paradox can be resolved by recognizing that one of the assumptions is wrong. Here, it's the assumption that U.S. society routinely rejects cruelty and degradation. In fact, the United States is a nation that has no serious objection to cruelty and degradation. Think of the way we accept the use of brutal weapons in war that kill civilians, or the way we accept the death penalty, or the way we accept crushing economic inequality. There is no paradox in the steady mainstreaming of an intensely cruel pornography. This is a culture with a well-developed legal regime that generally protects individuals' rights and freedoms, and yet it also is a strikingly cruel culture in the way it accepts brutality and inequality.

The pornographers are not a deviation from the norm. Their presence in the mainstream shouldn't be surprising, because they represent mainstream values: The logic of domination and subordination that is central to patriarchy, hyper-patriotic nationalism, white supremacy, and a predatory corporate capitalism.

See more stories tagged with: porn, pornography, violence, domestic violence, rape, humiliation, abuse, sexuality, masculinity
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet. Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books). He can be reached here and his articles are online here.

Is Pornography Harmful?

Is Pornography Really Harmful?
By Michael Bader and Vivian Dent, AlterNet. Posted November 7, 2007.
In response to Robert Jensen's controversial book, Getting Off, two clinical psychologists debate the intersection of violence and sexual fantasy.

Pornography is a mirror that shows us how men see women, writes Robert Jensen in his latest book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. And with mainstream porn becoming increasingly degrading and violent toward women, looking into that mirror can be unsettling.

That's the theme running through Jensen's book, which AlterNet excerpted in late September. The excerpt, viewable here, stirred a fiery debate among readers, with dozens of commenters defending pornography as a healthy form of sexual expression and dozens more condemning it as dangerous. For all the discussion, a lot of questions remain: Can men who view violent pornography separate fantasy from reality? Do men who are aroused by this type of porn want to hurt women? What influence does porn have on the people who view it? Under what conditions can it be healthy? Harmful?

In a quest to better understand these issues, AlterNet decided to ask some experts. Below, clinical psychologists Michael Bader and Vivian Dent go head-to-head on pornography and why people watch it.

But first, a refresher from Jensen's book:

Although few admit it, lots of people are afraid of pornography. The liberal/libertarian supporters who celebrate pornography are afraid to look honestly at what it says about our culture. The conservative opponents are afraid that pornography undermines their attempts to keep sex boxed into narrow categories.

Feminist critics are afraid, too -- but for different reasons. Feminists are afraid because of what they see in the mirror, because of what pornography tells us about the world in which we live. That fear is justified. It's a sensible fear that leads many to want to change the culture.
Pornography has become normalized, mainstreamed. ... As a New York Times story put it, "Pornography isn't just for dirty old men anymore." Well, it never really was just for dirty men, or old men, or dirty old men. But now that fact is out in the open. That same story quotes a magazine writer who also has written a pornography script: "People just take porn in stride these days. There's nothing dangerous about sex anymore." The editorial director of Playboy, who says that his company has "an emphasis on party," tells potential advertisers: "We're in the mainstream."

There never was anything dangerous about sex, of course. The danger isn't in sex, but in a particular conception of sex in patriarchy. And the way sex is done in pornography is becoming more and more cruel and degrading, at the same time that pornography is becoming more normalized than ever. That's the paradox.

The paradox of pornography

First, imagine what we could call the cruelty line -- the measure of the level of overt cruelty toward, and degradation of, women in contemporary mass-marketed pornography. That line is heading up, sharply.

Second, imagine the normalization line -- the measure of the acceptance of pornography in the mainstream of contemporary culture. That line also is on the way up, equally sharply.

If pornography is increasingly cruel and degrading, why is it increasingly commonplace instead of more marginalized? In a society that purports to be civilized, wouldn't we expect most people to reject sexual material that becomes evermore dismissive of the humanity of women? How do we explain the simultaneous appearance of more, and increasingly more intense, ways to humiliate women sexually and the rising popularity of the films that present those activities?

As is often the case, this paradox can be resolved by recognizing that one of the assumptions is wrong. Here, it's the assumption that U.S. society routinely rejects cruelty and degradation. In fact, the United States is a nation that has no serious objection to cruelty and degradation. Think of the way we accept the use of brutal weapons in war that kill civilians, or the way we accept the death penalty, or the way we accept crushing economic inequality. There is no paradox in the steady mainstreaming of an intensely cruel pornography. This is a culture with a well-developed legal regime that generally protects individuals' rights and freedoms, and yet it also is a strikingly cruel culture in the way it accepts brutality and inequality.

The pornographers are not a deviation from the norm. Their presence in the mainstream shouldn't be surprising, because they represent mainstream values: The logic of domination and subordination that is central to patriarchy, hyperpatriotic nationalism, white supremacy and a predatory corporate capitalism.

Standing Up for Sexual Fantasy
By Michael Bader, DMH

Porn is not harmless. But neither is it an important cause of sexual violence or misogyny. Partisans on both sides of this debate have littered their arguments with distortions, hyperbole and cheap rhetorical tricks. We have to wade through a lot of bullshit to get to the truth.
When representatives of the media conglomerates that produce $10 billion of porn each year come out and talk about the "free choice" of the women starring in their videos and the harmless "entertainment value" provided to male consumers, they're making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. The actors in these films are degraded, underpaid and used up by an industry with the morals of a slaughterhouse, despite what Jenna Jameson and Nina Hartley say. The women come into the industry with the self-esteem of earthworms, histories of physical and sexual abuse, and are often plunged into alcohol and drug abuse as a way of coping with their jobs. When the apologists from the porn industry point to the "voluntary" nature of this work, they are using a legal technicality as a fig leaf to cover up the normative pathology and exploitation in this industry.

Furthermore, with the near-universal availability of porn, there are now thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- of men who have become addicted to it. Spending between 10 and 50 hours/week glued to their computer or TV screens looking at porn, talking dirty in chat rooms, seeking out greater and greater taboos to violate, these particular men are being victimized, their relationships betrayed, and their families and friends cheated of their presence. Such men were likely never really connected to others in healthy ways before the advent of porn, of course, nor can it be convincingly argued that the absence of this outlet would make them so, but like any addict, their compulsion makes any other options impossible, including that of getting psychotherapeutic help. The presence of a casino doesn't cause the tragedies that sometime result, but neither are casino operators morally innocent.

So much for harmless porn.

On the other hand, it is amazing to me how literal and concrete is the thinking of anti-porn advocates like Jensen who watch a porno, note its sordid and dehumanizing story line, and then assume that the man masturbating to it must really hate women and secretly want to dominate and devalue them. The shock value of the story line (to the extent there is one) is intended to carry the weight of an argument that is basically superficial. After all, if some guy gets off on watching 10 men ejaculate on a woman's face -- while she begs for more -- he must be either a misogynist watching his wishes come true or one in the making.

Except that he's not. I've treated dozens of guys who might get aroused by such scenarios who don't hate women at all. They have decent and loving relationships with women. And most important, they are able to distinguish between a fantasy and reality, something that Jensen seems both unwilling and unable to do.

What turns them on in porn scenarios depends crucially on the fact that the woman is depicted as excited. If she were depicted as primarily hurt and humiliated, these men would instantly lose their interest and erections. If there is one nearly universal common denominator in heterosexual porn it is that the women in it are generally portrayed as easily, constantly and powerfully sexually aroused, driven wild by whatever men want to do with and to them. For most men, this fact is crucial to their arousal, not because they're looking for a rationalization for their violent impulses but because they are guilty about feeling strong, selfish and masculine; feel overly responsible for and worried about women; and secretly believe that women are unhappy and relentlessly dissatisfied with men and their own lives. In the service of masturbation, these portrayals of "women in heat" momentarily reassure men against their fears, relieve their burdens and offer them a freedom they find lacking in relationships with real women. The sexual fantasies expressed in pornography, as well as those of their own private invention, are arousing to men not because women are being hurt but because they're not.
Pornography is the visual enactment of a sexual fantasy. That's fantasy -- to be distinguished from reality. That's fantasy -- to be distinguished from an intention, wish or even attitude. A fantasy occurs in the imagination. The imagination is creative, capable of all sorts of tricks and distortions. Recently, for example, I had a daydream -- a fantasy -- that my brother had suddenly died. In the daydream, lots of people came to console me in my grief. Now, in reality I love my brother and don't have a shred of resentment toward him. What I did have at the time was a need for a certain kind of love and attention. The meaning of my daydream was not "you wish your brother was dead." The real meaning of my daydream was, "You're so guilty about wanting attention that you think the only way you can get it is if you suffer a terrible tragedy." The meaning of a fantasy is often the opposite of its plot; whatever the meaning, it's subjective and can't easily be inferred from its story line.

Over the last 10 years I've studied sexual fantasies. I've discovered that they have a fascinating but secret logic. Imagine this scenario: A guy grows up in a family in which he feels responsible for and guilty toward his mother, who he sees as unhappy and weak. He develops an implicit or default view of women as unhappy and weak like his mother. Unfortunately, it's difficult for him -- for anyone in this situation, for that matter -- to get really excited by a woman if he experiences her as unhappy and weak. That's just the way our minds work. We can't get maximally aroused if we're worried, guilty and responsible. Fortunately, our imaginations come to our rescue, and we construct some type of fantasy or preference in which this barrier is momentarily overcome. For example, this guy in question might be attracted to strong, dominant or tough women because their energy reassures him that he can't hurt them and doesn't have to feel responsible for them. Or he might like to be on the bottom during sex or even lightly restrained for the same reason. It's easy to see in these cases that if the scenario -- really, just another type of fantasy -- involves a strong and excited woman, his unconscious worries about women are temporarily negated and he can get aroused.

Lots of porn features strong women -- picture the dominatrix -- and the male viewer gets aroused for precisely this reason. But many other types of porn address these same issues but in a different way. For example, often the woman is portrayed as dominated, hurt or even degraded, but in the porno she's excited and eager. Men are doing these bad-looking things, but the women are enjoying them. Our psyches are amazing things, really. They interpret the depiction of a woman's arousal as signifying her health and happiness! And thus you find in almost all porn that women appear aroused. Their arousal subliminally says to the male viewer, "I'm not hurt ... I'm even happy!" In fact, were these male viewers confronted with a woman's real pain and fear, they would immediately extinguish their excitement. In other words, they know the difference between fantasy and reality. They don't primarily want to hurt woman. What they really want is to be strong, selfish or masculine in ways that excite women, not degrade them. Porn provides them with imaginary scenarios in which this wish is safely gratified.

This fact accounts for the absence of any reliable, repeatable studies that prove that exposure to pornography increases the likelihood that the men consuming it will act badly toward women. Among the reasons for this robust finding (or lack thereof) is that the men who were studied intuitively knew the difference between fantasy and reality, between the women on the screen and their girlfriends or wives. Add to this the fact that men, themselves, often don't understand what they're feeling or why, and you have a good understanding of why porn researchers who interview men to explore the effects of porn on male attitudes cannot come up with any convincing evidence that it poses a danger.

Now, Jensen is correct when he points out that there is a growing species of porn that is explicitly violent and that appears more extreme in its treatment of the women appearing in it. Know as gonzo or extreme porn, it features such things as gagging, double anal penetration, gangbangs, bukkake (in which a group of men masturbate on a woman), and face slapping. Again, despite their irrationality, the scripts almost always call for the woman to get aroused by and seek out such abuse behavior. One might fairly say that it's a sad commentary on the state of our culture and that of the male psyche that such depictions sell so well. But the reason that the commentary is so sad isn't because it reflects what men want to do to women. It's sad because men in our culture are so disconnected from themselves and women, and often feel so helpless in their efforts to make women happy, that they require these kinds of fantasies to get aroused, to masturbate, fantasies that temporarily reassure them that they're connected to women in the most selfish and aggressive way possible and that, in the end, the women are turned on and not hurt.

Now, there is a subtype of these pornos that feature -- that make explicit and central -- the woman's suffering, her fear, humiliation, helplessness or some combination thereof. Some men require the actual suffering of a woman to get turned on. Such men have almost always been victims themselves of frightening and traumatic abuse as children and develop such fear and hatred of women that the only safe way they can experience pleasure is through turning the tables on their "persecutors" and doing to women what they feel was once done to them. Out of this cauldron come rapists and other men who get sexually excited by the infliction of fear and pain on women. Were snuff films to actually exist, these would be their customers.
Jensen would have us believe that this category of men is huge and that its numbers are maintained and replenished by porn. I see no evidence of either of these assumptions. My research, clinical and otherwise, suggests that this type of man is rare -- dangerous, but rare. Second, there is no basis for claims that porn causes this type of sexual violence. All kinds of porn, including the gonzo variety, are found in various European countries, which have extremely low rates of sexual violence. Sexual violence has been seen in recent years in countries like Bosnia and Rwanda, where there is almost no porn. The fact that men can become sexually violent under extreme conditions is a fascinating and troubling fact, but I see no evidence that porn has ever been causally linked to such transformations. Instead, I think that other factors are much more important, including various types of deprivation, the creation of paranoid identity myths, messianic leaders and propaganda, economic competition, cultural scapegoating and ignorance. In the absence of evidence, to argue that such sexual violence, much less male violence in general (as Jensen suggests), is caused or even exacerbated by porn is simply to substitute our own fantasies for reality. Since men who watch porn don't make such a mistake, we shouldn't either.

Context, Please: Internet Porn and Sexual Degradation
By Vivian Dent

When I hear claims that "Porn's this" or "No, it's that," I often feel a similar incredulity as when Bush begins a sentence with, "The American people demand ..." Says who? When? Why?
What does it mean -- what can it possibly mean -- to discuss "pornography" or "men" or "women" or "sexuality" outside the environments where they exist? Porn today usually involves a solitary, online interaction between a man and sexual images. In this encapsulated world, porn's intensity builds steadily. More and more is available; it's accessible at any time for any length of time; and it portrays a wider and wider range of subjects, activities, and fantasies. I believe all of these changes have transformed what porn "is" and how it affects both men and women. And I'm concerned that we know far too little about the implications of these changes.
To introduce my ideas, I'll begin by listing some things about people, porn, sexuality, and the web that we might be able to agree on.


Men are very different one from another. So are women.
People behave differently in different physical and emotional settings. When we feel secure, effective, loving, and lovable we have a different range than we do when we feel worthless, terrified, miserable, enraged, or hopeless.

Men and Porn

A lot of men use porn just to get off. It has a minimal, perhaps even beneficial, impact on the whole of their lives and relationships, including their sexual relationships.
Some men get seriously addicted to porn, with all the damage and pain that severe addictions bring.

Some men use porn as an inspiration for, or a weapon in, efforts to hurt or degrade real women, often enough their wives and girlfriends. [By the way, I know all this can apply to men with men, or to women with women for that matter, but I'll stick to heterosexual relationships for now and let others fill in the gaps.]

Women and Porn

Some women like porn. Some are indifferent to it. Some are disgusted, horrified, frightened, or humiliated by it.

Some women really enjoy getting into the sexually edgy scenarios that porn can inspire.
But some play along, wanting the relationship, or wanting to prove themselves strong enough, sexy enough, tough enough. A lot of these women end up feeling used, damaged, and degraded by their experiences.

Relationships and Sexuality
Under certain circumstances, which we think of as normal, men have sex with a willing partner.
Sometimes both people come out of the encounter very, very satisfied.

Sometimes one or both feel bad, even awful, before, during, or after -- even though the sex was consensual.

Sometimes a man knows perfectly well that he's degrading or hurting his partner; and he gets off on that.

Sometimes the damage is accidental, and he'd be horrified to know it happened.
Sexuality without Relationship

Under certain conditions, men have violent sex with unwilling partners.

In wartime, men who would never have imagined themselves hurting a woman have become rapists.

Sex lives at the intersection of love and aggression. Aggression infused into love and desire makes sex exciting. But violence and sadism can take over. Then sex becomes an expression of power, and part of its excitement is its capacity to dominate, humiliate, even destroy the other.
The cultural switch that tips sexuality into violence can get thrown suddenly. Witness Rwanda, where lunatic broadcasts and a history of injustice turned citizens into mass murderers and rapists. Witness Abu Ghraib, where war, contempt, and an inexcusable lack of structure and training allowed young soldiers to become gleefully perverse torturers.

The Internet
The Web does not breed civility. People write things in emails they would never consider saying directly. Worse, under cover of anonymity, people insult, threaten, and genuinely menace other people's reputations and lives. Consider the posting of addresses of doctors who perform abortions, or the viciousness shown toward the parents of a teenage girl who snuck out with the family's Porsche, crashed, and died. Not everyone loses social sensitivity in the anonymity of the web. But it's a lot easier to let fly with ugly emotions online than in voice-to-voice or face-to-face encounters.

The Internet and Porn
Porn is available every instant of every day.

It's inexhaustible; people are constantly posting new samples.

It's lost its public context -- the long-outdated context of a movie theater, the more recent context of a store where you have to go in, show your face, and rent your videos. No one knows; no one sees. The only interaction is you, your mind, your body, a screen, and whatever you watch there.

And, as it becomes more private, more and more porn is apparently becoming more degrading to the women involved.

So: increased degradation, decreased social influence, and increased amounts of time spent with only one's fantasies for company. I'm protesting any account of porn that refuses to take this context, very carefully, into account. In the accompanying article, Michael Bader talks about men in therapy who discover that their ostensible desire to see a woman in a gangbang has to do with their need to know that women can really enjoy men, masculinity, and sexuality. OK; I'll trust his clinical experience. But I think he's missing the point that these men aren't just watching pornography alone -- they're talking about it with their therapist, a man who sees them as good and loving and who's encouraging of their sexuality. That's a social context, and a strongly supportive one at that.

But I don't see that what Bader is saying necessarily applies to the legions of men who believe that the women they desire could never love or desire them, who feel demeaned, disrespected, alienated, and lost. A lot of men get angry when they feel like that; no surprise there. Does porn ever encourage any of these men to take their anger out on women? When, why, under what conditions? Again, I don't want to imply that I think those men are on their way to producing snuff flicks, or something equally absurd. I do want to say that the questions deserve real attention.

In the early 1970s, Zimbardo's famous prison experiment took a group of male undergraduates, screened them carefully for psychological stability, and then randomly assigned them the roles of prisoners or guards. The experiment was designed to last two weeks, but within six days, according to the Stanford Prison Experiment Web site, "The simulation became so real, and the guards became so abusive, that the experiment had to be shut down. ... Half the prisoners were released early due to severe emotional or cognitive reactions." None of the guards quit, however. And nothing in the extensive pre-experiment personality testing predicted which guards would become abusive. Zimbardo concluded, "Abusive guard behavior appears to have been triggered by features of the situation rather than by the personality of guards."
Bader claims that men watching pornography can reliably and consistently understand the difference between fantasy and reality. I have some doubts: People are not at their most grounded and realistic when it comes to sex. And, again, I believe context matters a lot, especially when cruel or degrading scenarios provoke intense excitement, both sexual and violent. On a concrete level, a lot of kids and some isolated guys do use porn as a kind of "how-to" manual for sexuality. Porn's getting more extreme could lead them into some very unfortunate blunders. Plus, there's a long and sorry history of men rationalizing the sexual abuse of women with the words, "She really wanted it;" "She was asking for it." Is there a risk, even if just for some men, even if just at some times, in reinforcing a fantasy that women really want to receive the cruelties some men imagine inflicting on them?

I also suspect there are psychological consequences to seeing repeated enactments of violent sexuality, of fantasies that until recently existed pretty much exclusively in our imaginations. Sex and violence share a slippery boundary. At Abu Ghraib, young soldiers' anger and fear became sexualized violence in very short order. How much do we really know about the tipping point where emotional pain turns to satisfy itself in sexual cruelty? Bader's right that "We can't get maximally aroused if we're worried, guilty and responsible," and that feeling confident of the other's pleasure offers one source of relief from these fears. But he neglects the fact that denying the humanity of the other can stifle guilt just as effectively -- at least for some people, at least in some circumstances, at least some of the time.

We've created a brave new world where porn is constantly available in steadily more intense forms, with few or no social controls limiting access. Whatever the truth about pornography 20 years ago -- and we don't seem to know much for sure -- "the situation," as Zimbardo puts it, has changed. And I think we need to pay attention.

Michael's Rebuttal to Vivian
Vivian speculates that there are conditions under which porn might trigger an increase in male sexual violence. These conditions include the privacy of the Internet, the increased availability of extremely degrading porn, and social conditions like Abu Ghraib and Zimbardo's prison experiment. Porn is getting worse and more ubiquitous and this is apparently provoking or reinforcing harmful male sexual behavior.

Unfortunately, there's simply no evidence for this claim. At the same time the availability and alleged misogyny of porn is increasing, the incidence of sexual violence is decreasing. Societies with more porn and Internet usage than ours have much lower rates of sexual violence. And, again, despite how extensively it has been studied, there is no research that shows that exposure to porn increases the aggressiveness or sexism of a man's interaction with women in his everyday life.

Now, I would agree with Vivian that a fair number of men -- and women, for that matter -- feel hostility toward each other. And some of them -- both sexes -- act this out in the bedroom. They might criticize each other's performance or attractiveness. A man might unconsciously but intentionally refuse to "read" his partner's cues about what she wants or enjoys, or he might detach the moment after he is satisfied. A woman might be consistently critical of a man's ability to satisfy her, or make him feel bad for wanting sex too often. In these cases, the hostility of one partner hurts the other one.

But the fact that people can hurt each other in their myriad transactions around sex, while tragic, doesn't bear on this debate at all. My primary point was not that men don't ever feel hostility toward women but that the fact that they get aroused by porn isn't evidence of it. Men don't have a primary wish to see or participate in a gangbang at all -- in fact, doing so would horrify them. They desire pleasure and connection, like all of us do, but the conditions under which they can safely experience this involve somehow counteracting their worry and guilt about women, a condition that is satisfied in these imaginary porn scenarios. My point was that you cannot infer, as Jensen does, that a porn script reflects what the male viewer actually wants to do to women. The unconscious mind makes use of the porn script in ways that an outside social observer can't possible divine.

In a sense, this brings me to another point of agreement with Vivian. It isn't clear at all what the causes or effects are of the growing incidence of rougher and more extreme scenarios in porn today. Is the essential psychology of porn the same but merely taking more dramatic forms or is this trend something qualitatively new? There does seem to be a tendency in our sexual imaginations to seek out deeper and deeper taboos to challenge or violate, provided it's safe to do so. I see no evidence that such potential for escalation in a world of fantasy poses a threat to women in the real world, but I'd be foolish to deny that it could do so in the future in ways unknown to us now. And I have been impressed with the ways that the anonymity and ubiquity of Internet sex invites certain men to retreat from social and family life. The content of porn is less important here than the private ways that it is constantly available. Perhaps, in the end, the problem lies with a society in which men are disconnected and unable to find comfort in ways other than masturbation.

Vivian's Rebuttal to Michael
When Michael Bader describes sexual cruelties in his response to my article, he moves directly from criminal assaults to the petty cruelties of everyday life. He skips over the area where porn concerns me most deeply -- its potential to encourage the dehumanizing of women in consensual, or quasi-consensual, sexual encounters. We know that boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, and men that women had thought or wished were boyfriends are posting explicit content without the woman's consent. What else is going on in or because of our new online world that hurts women, diminishes their agency, transforms their sexual pleasure into fodder for their humiliation?

Porn doesn't just provide relief from inhibiting fantasy; it serves up inspiration for sexual games. A lot of people, men and women, enact scenarios derived from porn. A lot of people also push the limits of their sexual experiences. Depictions of violence or degradation -- particularly when the woman seems to be loving it -- encourage the fantasy, in men and women so inclined, that the games can get meaner without damage being done. A "real" woman would feel excited, not humiliated, frightened or hurt. And having porn so constantly and immediately available makes the gap between wish and action that much narrower. I'm not talking mutually enjoyable kinkiness here; I'm talking about situations where porn can nudge a man toward taking his pleasure at a woman's expense, whether in ignorance or with full intent.

Michael's argument rests heavily on a lack of conclusive evidence linking pornography with mistreatment of women. Yet in studies of groups, individual differences easily cancel each other out. According to a recent New York article, we can't even prove that exercise promotes weight loss. It seems that a fair number of people work out, get hungrier, and eat more, gaining weight in the process. This finding doesn't negate the experience of all those folks who got more active and dropped a few pounds, however. They're built differently -- or they're living in contexts that successfully encourage their efforts.

Perversity -- by which I mean getting aroused by degrading or dehumanizing another person -- exists. Sadism -- sexual sadism -- exists. People make tragic and terrible sexual mistakes. (Read On Chesil Beach if you have any doubts.) Michael's experience, as a clinician and I assume as a man, has led him to appreciate how greatly a man's love and desire for a woman can be underappreciated. Mine, as a fellow clinician and as a woman, has led me to recognize how very badly things can go wrong, and how devastating it can be when they do.

I'm sure that Michael and I agree that none of us is born taking pleasure in another's pain and degradation. Yet in certain contexts, people -- even people who under different circumstances are loving and concerned -- get very excited in just this way. I believe that the current solitary, nonstop, and increasingly vicious realm of pornography can foster just this kind of excitement. And so I believe we owe it to ourselves, as men, women and a society, to take it seriously.

See more stories tagged with: pornography, gonzo porn, violent porn, violence against women, sexual expression, sexual fantasy, robert jensen, getting off
Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, and a forthcoming book, Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It -- And Men Don't Either. He has also written extensively on psychology and politics for Tikkun Magazine and AlterNet. Dr. Vivian Dent is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Feminist Theory Bibliography

Whitney Smalley

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Baumgardner, Jennifer, and Amy Richards. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the
Future. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
Bean, Kellie. Post-Backlash Feminism: Women and the Media Since Reagan-Bush. McFarland
and Company, Incorporated, 2007.
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Boyd, Neil. Big Sister: How Extreme Feminism Has Betrayed the Fight for Sexual Equality.
Douglas and McIntyre Group, 2004.
Brannon, Linda. Gender: Psychological Perspectives. Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 2007.
Bravo, Ellen. Taking on the Big Boys: or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business, and the
Nation. The Feminist P At CUNY, 2007.
Cannold, Leslie, and Rene Denfeld. The Abortion Myth: Feminism, Morality, and the Hard
Choices Women Make. Wesleyen UP, 2001.
Chesler, Phyllis. The Death of Feminism: Whats Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom.
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Since 1970. University of Pennsylvania P, 1996.
Dowd, Maureen. Are Men Necessary: When Sexes Collide. Penguin Group, 2006.
Faludi, Susan. Backlash: the Undeclared War Against American Women. Crown Group, 2006.
Farrell, Warren, James P. Sterba, and Steven Svoboda. Does Feminism Discriminate Against
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Gubar, Susan. Critical Condition: Feminism At the Turn of the Century. Colombia UP, 2000.
Halley, Janet E. Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break From Feminism. Princeton UP,
Lingard, Bob, Peter Douglas, and Lyn Yates. Men Engaging Feminisms: Pro-Feminism,
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Oakley, Ann, and Juliet Mitchel, eds. Whos Afraid of Feminism: Seeing Through Backlash. The
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Sterba, James P., ed. Controversies in Feminism. Rowman and Littlefield, Inc., 2000.
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Comparitive Study of State Feminism. Oxford UP, 2002.
Superson, Anita M., and Ann E. Cudd. Theorizing Backlash: Philosophical Reflections on the
Resistance to Feminism. Rowman and Littlefield, Inc., 2002.
Valenti, Jessica. Full Frontal Feminism: a Young Women's Guide to Why Feminism Matters.
Avalon Group Incorporated, 2007.
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Weiss, Penny A. Conversations with Feminism: Political Theory and Practice. Rowman and Littlefield, Inc., 1998.