Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality? (Part 2)

by Gail Dines

Gail Dines responds to Sarah Ditum, arguing that the feminist accommodation of porn reflects a distorted view of the realities of the industry.

First published: 03 April, 2012 | Category: Culture, Gender equality

This is the second part of our debate on feminism and pornography between Gail Dines, anti-porn activist and author of Pornland: How Porn is Hijacking Our Sexuality, and Sarah Ditum, a freelance journalist and writer and critic of anti-porn feminism. Here Dines responds to Ditum's opening piece, arguing that the feminist accommodation of porn reflects a distorted view of the realities of the industry. 


How wonderful that Pornland has evidently been what Sarah Ditum calls “astonishingly successful.” It is about time someone other than the pornographers got public airtime to talk about what is probably the most influential form of sex education today in the western world. The book has had its fair share of criticism, mainly from adolescent boys (by adolescent I refer to their emotional rather than chronological age) who, after much analysis and thought, decide that the problem with Pornland is that it was written by someone who “needs a good fuck.”

It is therefore a great relief that I get to write a response to what is a more thoughtful critique of Pornland. Ms. Ditum has clearly read the book (although she could use a closer reading; more of that later) and has argued—very reasonably, it seems to me—that I don’t spend much time defining porn, nor do I devote many pages to looking at the varied niche markets that have exploded in the last 10 years. She also accuses me, correctly, of giving short shrift to women directors and consumers, and focusing heavily on gonzo porn. Guilty, guilty, and guilty!

Rather than jumping into a point-by-point discussion, I prefer to first lay out, in more general terms, why I do what I do in Pornland. My failure to give a detailed definition of porn, or my refusal to celebrate porn as a diverse set of cultural products, comes not from laziness or oversight but a commitment to a radical political economy. Located within a wider Marxist framework, political economy is a way of studying how media images both produce and reproduce systems of inequality. It is concerned with macro questions of class, race, and gender oppression, and aims to understand how media as a system of images, messages, norms, and ideas construct hegemonic discourse in ways that serve the interests of the ruling class.

So political economists interested in how the news media shape people’s ideas about politics are not going to look at, say, the New Left ProjectSocialist Review, or the New Statesmanas examples of how most people in capitalism get their news. Instead they are going to go toThe Daily MailThe SunThe Mirror, BBC, ITV, and so on, since it is these outlets that shape the hegemonic thinking about political power, capitalism, and (in)equality. This does not mean that left-wing media are not of interest to study, but it will not be of much use to anyone who wants to understand why the rich continue to get away with robbing the workers blind.

Hence, why would I—a radical feminist who is interested in how porn shapes masculinity, patriarchy, and hegemonic discourse—spend my time looking at porn that maybe a handful of people get to see? Why would I bother with marginalized imagery that has virtually no impact whatsoever on mainstream culture? What I look at is what business and technology studies people call the “Dominant Design.” This refers to “a basic architecture of product or process that becomes the accepted market standard.” Today the dominant design of the porn industry is gonzo. This is not something I made up. It is not me “fixing the debate” or “propagandizing against all pornography,” but the reality of the porn industry today.

And don’t take my word for it. Go to the Adult Video News website and click on charts ( You will neither see that the majority of the top renters and sellers show “different body types as desirable,” nor will you see Comstock-like films where “couples talk about their relationship.” You will see, with mind-numbing repetition, gagging, slapping, verbal abuse, hair-pulling, pounding anal sex, women smeared in semen, sore anuses and vaginas, distended mouths, and more exhausted, depleted, and shell-shocked women than you can count. And so I do not have to waste my time coming up with a precise definition before I can figure out what it is I am looking at, since all I have to do to find it is type “porn” into Google. And … gosh! There it is!

And rather than relying on Ditum’s musings about the content of porn, why not go to peer-reviewed studies to see what is actually in popular porn? In one of the only studies of the content of contemporary porn[1], it was found that the majority of scenes from 50 of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted against the female performers. Physical aggression, which included spanking, open-hand slapping, and gagging, occurred in over 88% of scenes, while expressions of verbal aggression—calling the woman names such as “bitch” or “slut”—were found in 48% of the scenes. The researchers concluded that “if we combine both physical and verbal aggression, our findings indicate that nearly 90% of scenes contained at least one aggressive act, with an average of nearly 12 acts of aggression per scene.”

This does not mean that the more “innocent” images described by Ditum don’t exist. Of course they do. But they are marginal and not that compelling to someone trying to map out the macro impact of living in a society in which the average porn user is ejaculating to images of degradation and debasement. I am not against people doing research on the marginalized niche markets of porn. I’m sure there are interesting things to be unearthed about how sexuality is constructed in a patriarchal society by looking at these. But don’t ask or expect a radical feminist to do this as long as there is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry called porn that serves up images dripping in misogyny.

Ditum’s failure to understand how industries function within capitalism is evident throughout her criticism of Pornland. When she accuses me of being “thoroughly out of step with the industry” because some companies who make gonzo “have suffered revenue falls of 30–50%,” it is clear that she is misreading the economic data. Yes, some companies may well be suffering losses (my heart bleeds!), but this doesn’t portend the end of the porn industry. What has happened is that porn is now what economists call “a maturing industry,” and what we are seeing is fierce competition and increasing consolidation, which results in mergers, industry concentration, market segmentation, and the weeding out of small, less profitable companies. While DVD rentals and sales have indeed gone down since 2006, Internet video sales have gone up from $2.8 billion in 2006 to $4.9 billion in 2009. So much for the industry undergoing “drastic financial contraction.”

Like all good capitalists, the pornographers are on the lookout for new revenue streams and distribution channels. It is no surprise that one of the most popular seminars at the 2011 XBIZ Summit in Chicago was entitled “Adult Mobile: Markets, Metrics and Mechanics.” According to Juniper Research, global porn revenues for hand-held devices could reach $49.9 billion by 2013, an increase of 75% over 2008. In keeping with the need to build new markets, one of the panelists was quoted as saying: “The opportunity is massive outside of the U.S.… [A]s great as the U.S. is, there is a wide world beyond its east and west coasts.”

While the business practices of the porn industry are in themselves unremarkably normal business operations, they signal that porn is becoming a mainstream, normal business—a legitimate business that is being taken more seriously by Wall Street, the media, and the political establishment. The porn business is embedded in a complex value chain, linking not just film producers and distributors, but also bankers, software producers, Internet providers, cable companies, and hotel chains. These other businesses become allies and collaborators, with a vested interest in the growth and continued viability of the porn business. As Steven Yagielowicz stated in an article for XBIZ News:

The corporatization of porn isn’t something that will happen or is happening, it is something that has happened—and if you’re unaware of that fact then there truly is no longer a seat at the table for you. It’s Las Vegas all over again: the independent owners, renegade mobsters and visionary entrepreneurs pushed aside by mega-corporations that saw a better way of doing things and brought the discipline needed to attain a whole new level of success to the remaining players.

Rather than engaging in a serious economic analysis of the industry, Ditum offers a few quotes by pornographers such as Jim Powers as evidence that my detailed research on the business of porn is flawed. While Powers might be adept at directing movies where women are shown heaving and gagging as they are being choked by a penis, he is not a particularly reliable source when it comes to understanding the economic trajectory of this global industry.

Moving on…. It is strange how often I, a sociologist, feel the need to defend psychologists who study porn. I am no great admirer of experimental evidence, but I do feel strongly that we need to take seriously the weight of the evidence. I say this because people who say that there are no reliable studies or empirical evidence to show that porn has an effect are akin to climate-change deniers. They latch onto junk science and ignore peer-reviewed work. Again, I am going to stress the weight of the evidence, since in the social sciences you can’t take one study here or there but must instead explore the direction of the results.

I was surprised to find a very clear error in Ditum’s account of Pornland. She states that when I discuss the studies, I cite only one study, from 1989. She then goes on to say that this is poor scholarship. Damn right it is! Who can make a generalization from citing one study? Not me. I cite the 1989 study in footnote 6 of chapter 5. Then, in footnote 7, I cite Pamela Paul’s qualitative study from 2005, and then in footnote 12, I cite an article by Neil Malamuth, Tamara Addison, and Mary Koss from the Annual Review of Sex Research. I talk about this article in the book because it is a review of meta-analytical studies of the effects of porn. This means that Malamuth and his colleagues do a detailed analysis of over 30 years’ worth of studies. They do not “cherry pick” studies but instead examine the weight of the evidence and conclude that “experimental research shows that exposure to non-violent or violent pornography results in increases in both attitudes supporting sexual aggression and in actual aggression.”

Does Ditum think that Malamuth, one of the most respected researchers in the world in this field, is going to make some wild claim without first looking at the body of research that has accumulated over 30 years? Ditum wants “sturdy evidence” before she will accept that porn has an effect on consumers. If hundreds of peer-reviewed articles don’t constitute “sturdy evidence,” then I don’t know what does.

In most criticisms of my work I eventually get accused of what has become a capital crime in the academy, namely, essentialism. According to Ditum, I talk about a “natural sexuality” in Pornland, as if I, a sociologist, believe that there is such a thing. What I actually argue in Pornland is that sexuality does not stand outside of the culture within which it operates, given that we are all social beings. But this does not mean that as humans we are not able to develop a somewhat authentic sexuality that grows out of our own particular constellation of experiences, sub-cultural affiliations, relationships, peer groups, wants, desires, and aspirations. This stands in sharp contrast to the commodified, plasticized, generic sexuality that is produced by the porn industry. And yes, you may well find a niche porn film populated by women with diverse body types that doesn’t just focus on penetration of some female orifice, but then you also may find some worker co-op in capitalism that goes against the grain. Big deal!

In the end the debate between Ditum and me is much bigger than Pornland. It is a battle over the heart and soul of feminism. And what is at stake is not just a debate about porn, but ultimately the nature of this movement that made all our lives better. The battles are not between generations or waves (as some would argue) but between those who adopt a radical understanding of power, institutions, capitalism, empire, and liberation, and those who seek safety in a more liberal, don’t-rock-the-boat ideology that celebrates individual empowerment over collective social change. No surprise that this appeals to the more privileged group of women, since they have been the ones to benefit mostly from the crumbs thrown to women post-1960s.

Ditum, and similarly minded women who support an industry built on the backs of poor and underprivileged women, are empowered. To varying degrees they have economic, educational, and skin privilege that allows them to celebrate porn from a safe distance. They won’t be the ones taking it up the ass on camera, so they can afford to wax lyrical on the ways that porn can be “messy, sometimes unpleasant and sometimes delightful….” I remember giving a lecture at a hideous conference at Yale University Law School in which I was the only anti-porn feminist on a panel of six. Nauseated by the pro-porn drivel coming from the other panelists, I went to sit in the library at lunchtime, away from my “colleagues.” I got talking to the cleaner, a woman pulling a double shift on a weekend to pay for her daughter’s college tuition at the nearby public university. I wondered what this woman would have made of listening to a bunch of academics talk about porn as empowering for women when she was scrubbing floors for her daughter’s education. I bet she would have thought that these academics had lost their minds.

What feminism has lost is radical politics. I joined a feminist movement that refused to collaborate with patriarchy, but over the years I have seen it become something that has slowly but surely capitulated to the demands of the power structure. It is now as unthreatening as Cosmopolitan, since what is there not to love about a “feminist” who fights for the rights of men to jerk off to porn? And while we women debate each other about how difficult it is to define porn, the predatory capitalists are busy building new niche markets and developing new and improved ways to degrade and debase women. So please don’t ask us radical feminists to waste our time coming up with scholarly definitions. We have an industry to close down.


[1] ‘Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update’, Bridges et al., Violence Against Women, October 2010.



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