By Alan Bean
This site has had little to say on the subject of pornography. Our primary agenda is shutting down the machinery of mass incarceration; a subject far removed, one would think, from a discussion of popular culture. But if Robert Jensen is right, pornography is fundamentally about patriarchy, and patriarchy is about hierarchy: the powerful maintaining a dominant position over the powerless. So maybe there is a connection, and not just because, as Jensen suggests, there may be a link between the explostion of internet pornography and sex crimes.
As Michelle Alexander suggests, we can’t reform the criminal justice system until we move away from the cruel and punitive public consensus driving the prison boom. How do we move from a society built on a foundation of hierarchy, control and domination, to a society rooted in equality, love and conversation.
The piece pasted below is a conversation between Robert Jensen, a fifty-two year-old journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and a twenty-four year-old writer for UT’s F-Bomb blog who keeps trying to argue for a kinder-gentler form of pornography. Jensen argues that the social impact of the porn industry has changed radically in recent years and doesn’t think that’s a good thing for women or for men. Jensen, by the way, is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, so he’s given this matter a great deal of thought.
FBOMB: If you could briefly describe, what is the problem with pornography?
Robert Jensen: Well, let me first sort of step back. There has long been a conservative, typically religious critique of pornography that poses the problem of pornography as being in conflict with what is traditional family values, which is sexuality confined to a heterosexual marriage. That’s the critique you’ll hear most often in the culture is that conservative, typically religious critique. The feminist critique of pornography approaches it from a very different perspective and says that, in patriarchy, in a society structured around male dominance, one of the ways that dominance is reinforced and perpetuated is in men’s sexual use and abuse of women. One way to say this is, in patriarchy women are routinely presented to men as objectified bodies for male sexual pleasure. One of the vehicles for the routine presentation of women to men as objectified bodies for male sexual pleasure is what I would call the sexual exploitation industries: prostitution, pornography, stripping. These are ways that men buy and sell primarily women’s bodies. Pornography, like prostitution and stripping, is one of those methods of buying and selling women’s bodies. So from a feminist critique, the problem is the way in which those sexual exploitation industries reinforces male dominance, and leads to predictable consequences, primarily for women and children.
FB: So you’re saying that pornography is male dominance made sexual and made into a commodity, has that changed sexuality in general?
Jensen: Well, I think the way you just summed it up is very clear. The leading feminist critic on this is a women named Andrea Dworkin, who died a few years ago but who did some of the most important writing in 1970s, eighties, into the nineties on this, made that argument. That pornography is a way of making male domination and female submission sexy. It’s a way of eroticizing male domination and female submission. It’s not the only vehicle for that. It’s not as if men’s use and abuse of women sexually within patriarchy began with the contemporary pornography industry. It obviously predates that. Pornography, the way I would say it, in a mass mediated visual culture, like the United States for instance, pornography is a powerful vehicle for reinforcing male dominance. Now your question was?
FB: How has pornography changed modern Western sexuality? Or influenced it I should say.
Jensen: I would go back and answer a question you didn’t ask but let me explain what we mean by the term pornography. Sometimes when there’s a critique of pornography, people say, “Well there’s always been pornography.” Which is not accurate. It’s probably true that as long as human beings have had a creative capacity, as long as human beings have been able to make art, that one of the themes of art has been undoubtably sexuality. That’s because art is one of the ways that human beings try to make sense of those aspects of our lives that are beyond purely rational calculation. There’s a lot of religious art because struggling with God cannot be done purely rationally. There’s a lot of art that explores sexuality and passion because that’s also an arena that goes beyond the purely rational. To say that there’s been human beings making art about these things for a long time is not to say the pornography has been with us forever. When the feminist critique approaches the question of pornography, it understands pornography as a fairly contemporary phenomenon that emerges… there have been sexuality explicit images for instance, available through every communication technology, through the printing press, through all things that came after it. Pornography as a large scale commercial industry, as we understand it today, is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the United States, it really kind of expanded dramatically, starting in the 1960s and seventies, especially the 1970s. There were some court decisions, changes in social mores more generally, and in the 1970s you start to see the rapid growth of pornography. It picks up in the 1980s and the nineties and of course, in the digital era it’s expanded beyond anyone’s imagination. So we have a fairly short time where we can say that pornography has flooded the culture and we might start to ask what are the consequences of that? So when you ask me the question, what have been the affects? We’re looking at a fairly short period of time to assess that. And I tend to be cautious when making observations and declarations about complex social questions, and this is one where I would be cautious. But I do think there is mounting evidence about the role of pornography in contemporary sexuality. One thing to recognize is that we’re not talking about just pornography. We’re talking about social changes more broadly than that. But I think pornography is a crucial part of this. And I would say, just stepping back, the culture is more pornofied or pornographized or whatever word you want to use, than ever before. And that we can see some consequences or we can make some observations about patterns. Here’s one pattern: The content of commercial pornography, the industrially produced pornography that dominates the market, is more overtly cruel and degrading to women today than ever before and that that trend has been steady and intensifying in recent years. We can also say that pornography is more overtly racist than ever before, and that trend has been intensifying. We can also say that pornography is more mainstream, it’s more widely accepted and more widely used than ever before. Well what are the consequences of that? Well, here’s some things I’ve observed and other people that are involved in this issue have observed. Men, especially younger men, who use pornography habitually report that pornographic scenes tend to capture their sexual imagination. I’ve had young men tell me for instance that they cannot become aroused without thinking about pornography, that they cannot have an orgasm without thinking about pornography, I’ve had young men suggest that their sexual imagination is so tied to pornography that they cannot have a sexual relationship in the real world without conjuring up pornographic scenes. I’ve heard some older men say that but it’s particularly a pattern I think in younger men. So you can see from men’s self reports that these effects are serious. If you look at men and heterosexual women’s reports, you’ll see two trends. One is women saying that when their male partners, whether it’s husbands or boyfriends or whatever, when they begin using pornography habitually they retreat from intimate contact, in other words one scenario is for men to become so consumed with, obsessed with masturbating to pornography that they lose interest in intimate relations in a real life situation. The flip side of that is women reporting that their male partners begin wanting to perform sexual acts that they’re seen in pornography and were not previously a part of their sexual lives. They start to want these acts. I mean I’ve heard from many, many women about when anal intercourse became routine in heterosexual pornography, that women saw male partners starting to ask or even demand anal sex when that had not been a part of their previous sexual lives. And as the sexual acts in pornography- especially these multiple penetrations, these very aggressive sex acts, what they call gagging; oral penetration of a women’s throat in a very rough and aggressive fashion, ejaculating on to women- all the sorts of things that are standard pornographic fare, women are saying they’re seeing an increase in the demands made by male partners. So, those are effects that I think are fairly direct and one can observe from the testimony of both pornography users, who are primarily male, and their female partners when we’re talking about heterosexual porn. The more complex question is, does pornography, especially this degrading and cruel pornography, especially when it turns into overtly violent pornography, that more complex question is, does that have an affect on rates of sexual aggression? That is, in a society flooded by pornography, are we going to see increased rates of rape or child sexual assault or those sorts of things? And I think that’s the question that’s harder to answer definitively because it’s very complex. It’s hard to make definitive judgements about the effects of media on behavior. What we know is that media, which is just a form of story telling right? Mass media, movies, whatever it is, is just one form of storytelling, that make sense?
Jensen: We know that in human societies, stories are powerful, yes?
Jensen: Whether it’s children’s bedtime stories or novels we read or television shows or movies, we know that storytelling is powerful and it can affect people’s attitudes. Would you agree with that?
Jensen: Of course. It’s sort of obvious. And we know that the attitudes we form will eventually affect our behavior. I don’t think that’s a terribly controversial statement either. So we know that storytelling shapes attitudes, that attitudes affect behavior, but we don’t always know exactly how that works. But that’s the chain that we’re talking about; stories, attitude formation, behavior. And the question, if you flood a culture with overtly cruel and degrading pornography, especially in settings that are often racist, is that going to have an affect on levels of sexual violence? My own reading of the evidence, which is a combination of both experimental studies that psychologists do in the laboratory, and the kind of personal reports that I was talking about previously, my reading of that is that it’s likely that at the very least, overtly violent or at leas the most cruel and degrading pornography does likely lead to increased rates of sexual violence. I think that it’s not hard to imagine that even more so-called tame, or run of the mill pornography, which in the end, as I said earlier, is about presenting women as objectified bodies for male sexual pleasure, that even that can tend to support attitudes that are consistent with high rates of sexual assault. But again, I tend to be cautious about making claims. But I do think that there are plenty of reasons to be concerned. The problem also is that when pornography and a kind of pornographic value increasingly defines the culture, our understanding of what is and is not sexual assault might be changing. In other words, if let’s just say for the sake of discussion, if women come to expect that men want more aggressive sex, sexual acts that may previously have felt like a violation, women may be more likely to accept. These are all complex questions that don’t have simple answers. How old are you if I may ask?
FB: I’m 24.
Jensen: Okay, you’re 24 I’m 52. So I’m roughly twice your age. The difference between the world in which I grew up, and the world in which you grew up, in some counts is the same world. It was a world pretty much defined by male dominance, pornography was available when I was a kid, there were obviously serious problems with sexual assault. But the world in which you live is a much more intense version of that I think. And I don’t think one can, as I said, glib assertions. But I think that the connection between pornography, especially the widespread use of pornography that’s overtly cruel and degrading to women, by an entire generation now that’s had essentially unlimited access to it, I think both from the self reports of men and women and the experimental studies we should be very concerned about what kind of world we are creating.
FB: Well, as I understand it you’re making a distinction between pornography as simply filmed copulation, or images of copulation, and then pornography as something that’s very loaded with patriarchal power dynamics. Are there any kinds of porn or erotic art that you see as not being based on male dominance and less harmful?
Jensen: Sure there are but you have to look at the relative amount of these different types of sexual material. So if you look at the commercial pornography industry, which prior to the Internet was pretty much the sole source of that kind of material, graphic sexually explicit materials, what we call hardcore stuff, the commercial pornography industry has produced material that has become, as I said, increasingly more patriarchal, cruel and degrading to women, and that trend is unquestioned. I mean that’s obvious, even people in the industry will acknowledge that that is in fact the case. Okay, so that’s a significant chunk of the market, that’s the vast majority of the material that’s out there. So, if you look at your generation for instance is more likely to produce their own sexually explicit material, but if your sexual imagination has been formed in a pornographic culture, it’s not surprising that the sexually explicit material you might produce looks a whole lot like the commercial pornography you’ve been exposed to. Now that material, there is a range of that material, it’s not all the kind of harsh extreme cruelty that we’ve been discussing, there’s a spectrum of it. But even the most tame and so-called mild hardcore porn is still primarily the presentation of, and I’ll use the phrase again because I think it sums it up, it’s still primarily the presentation of objectified female bodies to men for sexual pleasure. That’s patriarchal sex. And that’s the sort of baseline for pornography, from that it gets more extreme, more cruel, more degrading, more violent. And I think if you actually look at the market that’s the vast majority of the material. Now you’re asking, can there be anything outside of that? And the answer is of course there can be. But the truth is there isn’t much outside of that.
FB: Well, I guess what I’m asking is… I agree with you completely that the majority of porn on the market is commercially produced porn that is absolutely representing these negative trends that you are describing. But, if my generation is trying to escape that, is saying, “We’re done with this. We’re trying to move in a more positive direction.” How can we do that through pornography, by reclaiming the medium?
Jensen: Right, and the question is, is the goal of creating a, let’s call it for lack of a better term a more egalitarian sexuality, the first question is, “Why do you need to do it through pornography?” In other words, I think the fundamental question for your generation especially is, “Why do you need pictures?” If you want to reconstruct and reclaim sexuality around more egalitarian lines, and if pornography as it has been produced in this culture is an impediment to that, why is there an assumption that the change has to be through better pictures? That’s an assumption I would challenge. I think that, again in some sense I grew up in a world with television and movies and all the things, but your generation is very different than mine. And I think your generation, younger generations, have an assumption that the way to change things is through media. You’re the most mediated group of human beings that has ever existed on the planet.
FB: By far.
Jensen: And maybe the answer is not, how do you make better pictures, maybe the answer, how do you learn to live in a world not defined by pictures? And I think, the real question here is, and I think it’s a question that is complex, but I think the real question is, is there something about sexuality that- something about the nature of intimacy and privacy and the exploration of emotion and body- that doesn’t lend itself to graphic sexually explicit images. Now that’s a question I don’t have a simple answer for. But your question as it was posed, and it’s posed to me often, is based on an assumption that mediation is the way to deepen our understanding of our own sexualities. What if mediation is not the way? What if in fact there’s something about sex that makes it more likely that we will deepen our understanding and reach a more egalitarian sexuality by not reproducing more images, what we might call perhaps better images, but in fact trying to transcend that mediated culture and explore things in more direct ways. That’s what I think is the fundamental question. Now, you and I both know that that’s a difficult question to ask in a generation that really does feel that reality, that the world is almost more real online than it is in the- I don’t know what you call it- in the real world. To me the online world and media are not necessarily the place I look first to reconstruct a healthier more egalitarian, more fulfilling sexuality.
FB: I feel like that’s like telling an independent filmmaker who’s complaining that mainstream movies are garbage, that they should just go and write a book instead because…
Jensen: No, it’s not at all. No, it’s not at all. Because I think film is a powerful medium. I’ve produced a film and I go to see films and I use documentary films in my classes. I’m not contesting… I’m not saying that visual images or film is never a vehicle for telling stories in very powerful ways. I’m asking whether their might be something about the nature of sexuality that the way to explore sexuality is not necessarily through graphic sexually explicit images. I’m not saying don’t tell stories about intimacy, love, sexuality, desire, passion. I mean that’s at the core of a lot of art. I’m asking that to do that effectively does one need to make graphic sexually explicit film? Is that the vehicle for it? So I’m not saying that filmmakers don’t make films, I’m saying to people who have grown up in a pornographic culture in which graphic sexually explicit films are the norm, I’m asking people to consider whether we might need to break with that.
FB: Would you consider written erotica to be in the same category as filmed or photographed pornography?
Jensen: I think written erotica that is based on male domination and reinforces that same eroticsing of male domination and female submission is pornographic, and I obviously don’t endorse it. I think that the written word, like any other form of storytelling, can be used to explore these issues, again around passion, and intimacy, and sex. I think the question is, now writing is a very different experience than watching a film, when we’re talking about… well, do I think writing can be a vehicle for exploring those things? Yes. But the same questions arise, is writing that simply describes the mechanics of sex the most powerful way to explore what sexuality means to our lives? In other words, what I’m saying is that when media, whether it’s writing or film or whatever, treats sex like a mechanical act, is there something lost? And again, I want to emphasize, I’m suggesting that I have the answer to that question, or that there’s a single answer to it. I’m suggesting that in this hyper-mediated culture, where there’s an assumption that we work everything out through mediation, the idea that we’re going to work out a healthier sexuality through explicit sex on film is an assumption I would challenge.
FB: Would you offer up an alternative means of fixing this problem?
Jensen: Yes. I would. Yes. It starts with conversation. That’s when two human beings are in a room talking to each other. Now that’s a radical idea, but I actually think, here’s the way I would say it; The longer I studied this issue and sort of observed the culture and the older I get personally, the more I think of sex as a form of communication. Now sex plays a lot of roles in our lives, obviously it can have a purely procreative function. Sex is a way young people can explore their own bodies but at the core for me, sex is a form of communication. It’s the way we communicate with others. It’s a way we communicate with ourselves in some sense as well. And I think that, understood that way, the question is what’s the best way to do that? And in my experience, the best way is in direct face to face human contact. And it begins very much in conversation. It doesn’t mean that stories that are produced by one person for a larger audience for instance, don’t have a role in challenging us and helping us think through this, but in the end if people say… well, let’s say if somebody comes to me and says, “Listen I agree. It’s a pornographic culture and it’s mostly destructive. It’s based on male dominance and it leads to negative consequences. But I want to change that.” My response would be, change that by coming together, in face to face interactions, not just intimate interactions with a partner necessarily, but discussions with friends in whatever the setting might be, and start talking face to face. And that’s part of a larger concern that in this hyper-mediated culture we are losing some of those abilities. And I don’t say this simply as an old guy criticizing young people, because I think my generation is… the same could be said of my generation. It’s not a critique of specific people within the culture, it’s a critique of the culture.
FB: But at a certain point I think those conversations, when they stretch out to reach a larger audience they naturally move through media. I’m part of group that hosts erotic reading series where women and men of all different ages and sexualities are reading pieces of literature that some is erotica and some is journalistic about sexuality, and that’s exactly what you’ve described, it’s a conversation. But then now they’re putting out a podcast and so if a podcast gets put out where it’s someone story, that’s an erotic story, is that now becoming pornography and is that now problematic?
Jensen: I don’t think you can answer that question generally. It’s in context. I can imagine stories that explore these kinds of issues that you’re talking about that are shared with a larger group, that are shared with an audience, and are extremely engaging and challenging. I can also imagine stories that are simply pornographic in the negative way we’ve been saying, under the guise of trying to… I think both things probably happen. My goal is not to shut down conversation or exploration. My goal is to challenge the assumptions about how that has to go forward. Let me give you an analogy: The way we think about physical health in this culture. Now for most people the assumption is, if you’re sick you go to the doctor. So if you have a physical problem, you go to to the doctor and the doctor prescribes some sort of intervention. Well there’s a whole other perspective that many people pursue which is to ask what are the underlying conditions in my life that might be leading to bad health. Maybe it’s diet, maybe it’s that I’m not physically active enough, maybe there are aspects to my life. So we can look at health in very different ways that way. And I think, just as I would suggest that the culture sometimes is too quick to look to doctors to intervene to make us healthy, instead of looking at background conditions, that in the struggle to claim a healthier sexuality sometimes we too quickly want to mediate rather than engage in other ways. But I’m not saying that as someone prescribing a certain approach. I’m suggesting a cautionary corrective to a culture that’s obsessed with mediation.
FB: So what I’m curious about, is I understand that you’re not trying to prescribe any remedies, you’re just bringing up the problem. But for a student who reads this column let’s say, and agrees with you and says, “You’re right. A lot of the pornography that I look at is violent and this is a problem.” He or she has a choice of abstaining from pornography completely or of trying to pursue pornography that they don’t feel has those problems in it, that is more egalitarian, that is more positive, contains better body images, less violence…
FB: What path do you recommend, if you do recommend a path?
Jensen: Well, at this point all I can… A recommendation is based on a fairly long history of talking to people about this, because I do a lot of public speaking and I go give talks on other campuses and I hear back and I have my own personal experience. So if I were to give advice, which I don’t give very often because nobody seems to listen to it anyway- if people listened to my advice maybe I’d be better at giving it- my advice would be before, okay let’s say we’ve got the situation you explained, let’s say there is a heterosexual couple- I mean these issues can also play out in the gay world and the lesbian world but most of what I’ve studied is the straight world so that’s what I confine my comments to- but let’s say you’ve got a very typical situation. You’ve got a young man who’s been using pornography, masturbating to pornography ever since he was a teenager. He’s now in college and he’s in a relationship with a young woman who maybe has exposure to pornography but it’s rare that pornography has played the same role in women’s lives as it has in men’s. And let’s say that they recognize that the kinds of attitudes this pornography is cultivating in this guy toward women and toward sex are generally unhealthy, that his ability to be in his own body sexually has been kind of overwhelmed by this pornography, and they want to change. That’s the kind of situation you’re talking about. Correct?
Jensen: I think my recommendation would be, the first step would be, instead of saying, “Where can we go find some images to look at?” Either separately or together, why don’t we disconnect from mediated sex for a while and see what it’s like to be in each other’s presence and explore that. I think the problem with that advice is that when you have a generation that has grown up wired basically their entire conscious lives, it’s hard to imagine, and I understand what you’re saying, I think it is hard to imagine and I’m suggesting that struggling to imagine that, and to actually do that, to engage in un-mediated interaction around sex, is potentially the most radical thing you can do. In my own life I can attest that that has been for me the way to disconnect from the pornographic world in which I grew up in. Now admittedly, the pornographic world I grew up in, which was really the 1970s and eighties, was considerably less intense and overwhelming than today. And I can see where young people would say, “I got into this through media and I need to get out through media.” And I’m just suggesting, to at least consider the possibility, that there is that other path.
FB: I definitely understand what you’re saying but if we’re looking at the pornographic landscape and we’re criticizing it for how much of it is harmful, like you say and I agree, then how can we change that landscape if everyone who notes that problem disconnects from media and moves out so that the part of pornography that is helpful or positive continues to be a minority because the people that approve of that aren’t looking at it because they’re unmediated?
Jensen: Well, there’s an assumption in your question that it’s really possible in a patriarchal world to reshape the pornographic landscape. I think actually, it’s based on experience, it’s much more likely that if people did embrace the sort of approach I’m talking about, it would have a far more dramatic effect than simply making more. Because one thing about media images is it’s not just what the image is and what the person who makes the image is intending, it’s also how images are used. So let’s say you have a guy who, and this is something I’ve heard from him, a guy has used really intense degrading porn and he realizes that that is extremely unhealthy, and then he pulls back and starts using more tame porn that’s more female friendly or something, he still is in that cycle of essentially using women, using objectified women, just in less harsh and degrading… well is that really the way out? My own observations are that it’s not. And that people actually have a much harder time getting out of that cultural dynamic that we’re talking about through “better porn” than they do through disconnecting from mediated explicit sex. But you know none of this is like a chemistry experiment where you can run a quick experiment and figure out what’s going to work. I mean we’re talking about our best guess, about a world that is in serious crisis from my point of view. And I don’t have a neat and tidy answer. People often want to, and I’m not saying you’re doing this, people want to suggest that the feminist anti-pornography critique is just a bunch of shrill people who want to turn off everybody’s pleasure and create this very rigid world. That’s not my intention, that’s not the intention of any of the people I know in the movement. It’s to just question the assumptions about a patriarchal world, a mass mediated world, and a pornographic world. That’s all.
FB: Do you think there’s something about sex in a patriarchal society that naturally eroticizes male dominance over women?
Jensen: Yes but I wouldn’t say naturally because it implies there’s something natural about it. I think in a patriarchal world all interaction between men and women tends to be defined by a domination/subordination dynamic and sex is just one of those interactions. Other forms of social interaction and professional interaction yes. And I think that the feminist anti-pornography critique comes out of a very radical feminist agenda that is not limited to the elimination of pornography or prostitution. It’s a social critique that not only looks to undermine and transcend patriarchy, but other forms of hierarchy as well. This is the political movement where I learned that the problem is fundamentally one of hierarchy. And that’s true in race relations, it’s true in gender relations, it’s true in economic relations, it’s true in international relations. The question is how do we move to a world in which there aren’t assumptions of hierarchy? A world not built on hierarchy. And gender hierarchy I think is one of the crucial ones because it is the form of hierarchy that has existed for the longest period of time in human history.