Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality? (Part 3)

by Sarah Ditum

In the third part of our debate on pornography Sarah Ditum argues that by not defining porn more clearly Gail Dines opens the door to censorship of any depictions of sexuality.

First published: 05 April, 2012 | Category: 

This is the third 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, Ditum argues that Dines fails to define pornography properly and that she has misrepresented the experimental research on the topic. (The debate so far: Ditum's opener; Dines's response).


I must clarify one thing: I did not accuse, or intend to accuse, Gail Dines of only citing one study to support the whole of Pornland’s argument. Clearly, she refers to several (though the use she makes of them is frequently dubious – as I’ll cover in more detail later when I discuss the Malamuth study). But when the body copy of a book claims that a “slew” of psychological studies exist to support an argument, it is disappointing to turn to the endnote for that particular assertion and find a citation for one lonely review from 1989. That is not a slew. And, with over two decades having passed since publication, it’s not even a recent non-slew. Sadly, this isn’t the only problem Dines appears to have with definitions, and it is far from the most damaging one to her argument.

At least I agree with Dines that pornography is an important topic. It causes intense anxiety within relationships. Individuals who consume pornography may be alarmed by claims that their media habits will drive them into a deadened emotional state where they can only feel sexual attraction for “real doll” models (yes, Dines does indeed make this extraordinary claim on page 75, and no, there isn’t any evidence for it). Porn has been described in the terms of high moral panic – not least by Dines herself – and many people have responded by getting very worried indeed. It’s right that we study it, discuss it, learn about it.

If only we knew what “it” was. Dines certainly isn’t going to tell us: “please don’t ask us radical feminists to waste our time coming up with scholarly definitions,” she concludes. “We have an industry to close down.” They might not be able to say exactly what that industry makes, but by God, they are going to close that industry down. Dines’ consistent, anti-intellectual pride in not defining the terms of her subject is depressing in an academic, and alarming for anyone concerned with freedom of speech.

It would be crass to accuse Dines of being anti-sex. I have not, and I would disagree strongly with anyone who presumed to speculate intimately about an intellectual antagonist. (Incidentally, Dines seems remarkably sure that I am too “privileged” to “take it up the ass on camera”. As far as I’m aware, my penetrative preferences and the documentation of them are not something she would know about, nor are they strict markers of class.) However, by refusing to define porn while being vigorously against it, she invites the repression of anything that somebody might define as pornographic.

In the UK, there has recently been a debate about whether it is practicable to install some form of opt-in for the reception of adult content via the internet. One persuasive objection to this, summarised by Dr Petra Boynton in this blogpost, is that it’s impossible to design a filter that would not inflict collateral censorship on all forms of discourse about sex. How would a filter tell the difference between a webpage that used terms such as “vagina”, “penis”, “dick” and “cunt” in a pornographic sense, and one that used them in an educational or self-expressive sense? The answer is, no filter can. The further answer is that some people – individuals who are anti-sex, and who do consider many forms of sex to be unwholesome or degrading – do not see that there is any distinction to be made. Earlier this year, for example, anti-sex education campaigner Lynette Burrows described the work of SRE teachers as “reminiscent of paedophilia”. As long as Dines’ refuses to define pornography in any term more precise than “gee, google it”, she is saving people like Burrows the bother of making their own arguments.

It is shocking that a radical feminist can’t recognise the radically anti-feminist applications her argument allows. We have had perhaps sixty years in which women have been able to speak with any degree of openness about their bodies, about sex and about sexual abuse. (The liberalisation of sexual culture has been important for men too, but I’m concerned here to show how Dines’ academic sloppiness is at odds with her ideology.) An assault on pornography without a proper definition may construe an assault on all those areas of discourse. Dines should be wary, not triumphant.

Dines is dismissive of my references to non-gonzo forms of pornography, claiming that gonzo is the overwhelming market leader. But how do we know? Are we counting every winsome, semi-dressed self portrait on the internet as pornographic? Do “pornified” pop videos – seen by millions more than any throat-fucking video will ever be – count? Dines has to say whether these things are pornographic or not. If they are, then her assertion that gonzo is the preeminent mode of porn simply cannot stand. And if they aren’t, why not? After all, all these things are perfectly valid and likely things for someone to have a wank over.

And since I’ve mentioned wanking, I can’t say I care for Dines’ sneering tone when she writes, “what is there not to love about a ‘feminist’ [nice scare quotes; I digress] who fights for the rights of men to jerk off to porn.” Here’s a thing I never expected to have to say: yes, men do have a right to jerk off, as do women. And they have a right to jerk off to whatever materials they find arousing, so long as those materials are produced without coercion or deception. If exposure to pornography were demonstrated to be a cause of harm to the psyche of the viewer, then it would be necessary to weigh up the public goods of a right to free speech and a right to a private life (in which an individual may make or consume pornography), against the public ill – if that ill could be proven. But it has not been proven.

Not by Dines in her book, and not by the Malamuth study which she proffers so enthusiastically. According to Dines, this meta-analysis proves 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”. Actually, while Malamuth et al tentatively endorse the idea of an association between pornography consumption and sexual violence, they stop a very long way short of asserting a causal relationship. I will quote from the paper at length: “on the basis of the research available, it is not feasible to gauge the relative importance of media influence generally, and of pornography in particular, in relation to other factors [...] It is unlikely that in and of itself any type of pornography exerts a powerful influence on large numbers of people.”

Dines’ use of this study to support her argument that all porn makes all users into sexual aggressors is to her discredit, and the disadvantage of all who would benefit from an open debate about the nature and influence of pornography. Furthermore, it is alarming that Dines is misrepresenting research in order to propagate an ideological line that is counter to human rights. That is a strong way to put it, but I do not see how else to interpret the work of an academic who shows such severe disregard for the caveats put in place by a report’s authors. Frankly, it makes me rather despair about the quality of the discussion that will be possible with Dines – at best, she is so committed to her hypothesis that she is subconsciously disregarding any subtleties that might undermine the clarity of her argument. At worst, an ungenerous reader could accuse her of simple dishonesty. In any case, neither is a great qualification for academic rigour.

Still, there are some charges I must defend myself against, including the idea that I show a “failure to understand how industries function within capitalism”. Dines then invites readers to be disgusted that pornography is a business run for profit, “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.” Well, yes – pornography is indeed linked to all these aspects of commerce and society, and has been for a very long time. Porn has been credited with launching the printing press, the VCR and DVDs. It generates money (even if, like the music industry, it isn’t able to generate quite so much as it could pre-internet or exert quite the same degree of control over its productions) and money links it to other businesses.

Does that mean, in Dines’ loaded words, that “these other businesses become allies and collaborators”? In the case of banks, no more than they are with any business for which they handle money. In the case of internet providers, no more than they are with any other business that produces digitally distributed media. In the case of hotels, no more than they are with any other business whose services they offer to their visitors. Hotel chains have no more of a vested interest in the “growth and continued viability of the porn industry” than they do in the growth and continued viability of the trouser press industry. If their customers didn’t want to watch porn, hotels would simply cease to offer it, and save themselves the expense of licensing adult channels. Porns’ economic relationships are not unique, and they no more make us residents of pornland than we are of miniature toiletries land (to really stretch out that hotel reference).

But what about the people who could be considered the ultimate collaborators – the performers? Where do they fit into Dines’ analysis? Given that she claims to be making a Marxist analysis, there’s surprisingly little mention of the workers at all, other than as unidentifiable victims. As we have established, pornography is an industry, and as in any industry, differentiation is a feature. For example, in the garment industry, there are sweatshops, where workers suffer horrific working conditions; there are employees in ateliers who are valued by their employees and enjoy decent pay and conditions; and there are independent seamstresses who make clothing for their own benefit or pleasure.

Campaigners against sweatshops do not argue for the end of clothes, but the reform of conditions (which may of course have a contingent effect on the ultimate product). Porn actress Lorelei Lee says, “I’ve had very few experiences on porn sets that I would classify as “degrading.” I’ve had infinitely more degrading experiences as a waitress or a barista in a chain coffeeshop than I’ve ever had on set. That, of course, has everything to do with working conditions and nothing to do with what I’m actually doing as my job.” An intelligent political engagement with porn would take an interest in understanding these working conditions, and improving them where they need to be improved.

Dines claims that, while she is not an essentialist, she thinks there is a “somewhat authentic” sexuality that could be discovered. But it will never be found through Dines’ approach of wild generalising and moral condemnation, which serves largely to introduce entirely baseless fears into relationships. (And not just sexual relationships: Sigrid Rausing, echoing Dines’ gruesome fearmongering about porn “creating” paedophilia, wrote last year that there was a “direct link between adult exposure to porn and the sexual abuse of children”. No such thing is proven, but I bet there were some mothers who read that and then felt terribly miserable about their male partners kissing the kids goodnight.) Pornland denounces an entity that has no definition, based on evidence that cannot support the intensity of Dines’ claims, with an implicit attack on two rights (the right to a private life and the right to free speech) that are correctly held to be key human rights. This is not a fight that anyone could reasonably expect to win; if Dines’ viewpoint were to win cultural ascendancy, the unintended consequences for sexual pleasure and understanding are potentially horrible.

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