Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality? (Part 3)

by Sarah Ditum

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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First published: 05 April, 2012


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20 Comments on "Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality? (Part 3)"

By Laura, on 05 April 2012 - 10:57 |

I completely agree Sarah. In fact, I think we would have MORE issues without any forms of pornography. 

By Duncan, on 05 April 2012 - 11:41 |

It strikes me neither one of you is getting the very core of the debate, that is wether or not porn is intrinsically wrong. It’s all very well that the current way porn is produced may or may not oppress women. encourage peaodphilia, damage our sexual relationships etc…. but regardless of wether these things are the case, the real question is ‘if all things are fair is porn actually morrally wrong?’ For me the answer is no, people have the right to watch erotic material tbat fits their preferences provided all the performers have consented.

By Sarah Ditum, on 05 April 2012 - 13:22 |

Duncan, of necessity I’m replying within the terms of debate laid out by Dines in her book. However, I’d say that in your formulation “if all things are fair is porn actually morally wrong?”, the idea of “fair” should include asking whether porn is an incitement to violence or sexual abuse, whether it’s essentially and inevitably misogynistic, whether its production can be consensual, etc etc. All those aspects affect the “fairness” of things, so it’s probably right that a discussion about pornography should deal with them.

By Quiet Riot Girl, on 05 April 2012 - 13:29 |

Duncan said:
It strikes me neither one of you is getting the very core of the debate, that is wether or not porn is intrinsically wrong.

I agree. But then the debate would be quite short. Because you either believe something to be wrong or not. And it comes down to ‘belief’ not any provable evidence of harm. I believe porn to be not morally wrong, at least, no more or less morally wrong than any other form of media. 


By Quiet Riot Girl, on 05 April 2012 - 13:48 |

I think Sarah could have challenged Dines about the focus on ‘misogyny’. Nearly all the porn I watch is m/m - ‘gay’ porn. How is that ‘misogynist’? This debate made me laugh a bit because it is between two feminist women who obviously don’t really watch pornography!


By Dominic Fox, on 05 April 2012 - 15:12 |

Porn is the product of relations and processes without which it would not exist. Something else - several other things, most probably - undoubtedly would; when we talk about people making sex films for their own amusement, for instance, we are talking about one of those things, although porn as a hegemonic activity inevitably casts a shadow over its small-time rivals.

If we focus solely on the “content” of porn, and restrict attempts to “define” porn to attempts to classify that content (e.g. to separate good from bad content), we fall into a kind of commodity fetishism. The content of porn is significant inasmuch as it crystallises certain relations (in Dworkin’s useful shorthand: “men possessing women”), and perpetuates a certain ideology; but it isn’t what the anti-porn argument is most fundamentally *about*. The argument is about the relations and the ideology, and the way in which the mass-manufacture and distribution of porn serve to reproduce them, to lock them in place.

If we can abandon this commodity fetishism, then I believe the terms of the debate will clarify: we will no longer be talking about “intrinsic” goodness or badness, but about social relations; about power, ideology and violence. We will be able to get away from these rather unreal discussions about whether particular acts or representations are inherently “degrading”, and be able to talk about how and why they are used by pornographers to degrade women - a use which does not preclude the possibility of non-degrading uses, but which works to hide that possibility from view.

Pornography is not the visibility of sex; it is an obstacle in the way of seeing sex in any other way than the way pornography would have us see it.

By Sarah Ditum, on 05 April 2012 - 18:09 |

Dom: that is an interesting position, but it relates so vaguely to general usage of the term “porn” as to be functionally useless in a conversation. It’s a Humpty Dumpty definition.

QRG/Elly: like Dines, you seem to feel v qualified to comment on my private life. I choose not to write about it. I mentioned Dines’ neglect of gay porn in part one, and it’s dire consequences for her model of pornography. It’s a subject that would deserves much more discussion. Sadly, I was called on to rebut the Imaginary Sayings Of Cleaners instead.

By Quiet Riot Girl, on 05 April 2012 - 18:43 |

Hi Sarah - porn is a very intimate part of our private lives. If you are not prepared to relate your grand theories of porn to your lived experience of it, then frankly I have no respect for your argument. My experience of both watching/reading and making/writing porn is that it is not misogynist at all. But that it does involve gendered power.

By Nahema, on 05 April 2012 - 19:22 |

The best definition of pornography is “What pornographers sell in porn stores.” Novels by D.H. Lawrence, replicas of the Venus de Milo, slash fiction, and Britney Spears video collections aren’t sold in porn stores. Has Ms. Ditum ever actually been to a porn store and seen any of the specious examples that she claims are undefinable?

Dines has presented information from the porn industry itself to back her claims. She cites financial numbers and synergistic corporate interests like someone who has critically engaged the industry on that industry’s own terms (for example, using Adult Video News to compile research.) That she has done her homework on the business aspects of the multi-billion dollar porn industry is quite clear.

Ditum’s reply is all speculation, no facts. She presents none of the voluminous information meticulously compiled by porn industry profiteers themselves, people who are not as confused as Ditum is about what they make and why it is sold in places called “porn stores.”

To continue with the WalMart analogy I made in my last reply, Ditum points to one woman working at the cash register and says, “See? She’s a woman who doesn’t feel discriminated against by WalMart the way hundreds of other women say they have been discriminated against.” Stacked against the empirical evidence Dines has presented about the industry that’s a very poorly reasoned counter-argument.

Finally, here is where I find Ditum most loses credibility:

“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.”

The expense of licensing porn channels? You think hotels are burdened by expenditures to make porn available?

Dines is 100% spot on when she says this person has a failure to understand how industries function within capitalism.

By Daphne, on 05 April 2012 - 20:09 |

Regarding m/m gay porn: it is not misogynist of course (even though one could argue that a protagonist is playing the ‘female’ part…). 

In m/m porn, there isn’t two different groups of people, identifiable through physical characteristics, where one identifiable group performs acts of physical or verbal violence on the other group.  For example, if we separated the white and black men in gay porn and in the overwhelming majority of scenarios,  the white men are cumming on the black men, the ‘n’ word is used frequently, the black men’s bodies are being physically forced into masturbatory devices for the white men’s orgasmic pleasure, etc. , would we say that it is racist? Would we feel the need to address the issue or just dismiss it as being without consequences while claiming that there still is a minority of gay porn that is not racist?  Or worse, would we try to reinterpret the whole thing in an attempt to portray it as not being racist after all?  I belive we would think that it is a serious issue that needs to be adressed and analyzed…

By Quiet Riot Girl, on 05 April 2012 - 20:35 |

HI Sarah I don’t feel qualified to comment on your private life. I personally do not think watching porn is any more private than watching telly! But sorry if you do and thought I was intruding.


By Quiet Riot Girl, on 05 April 2012 - 21:11 |

Daphne I don’t think you have watched much Femdom porn then, where the woman is doing all those things to the man. 

By Sarah Ditum, on 06 April 2012 - 08:39 |

Nahema: laws controlling obscene content (the ultimate legislative form Dines’ argument would take) would control media based on content, not where it is sold. Therefore the definition of porn as “what is sold in porn stores” is ultimately useless — even if porn stores were where people get their porn, which they’re not (you may have heard of something called “the internet”).

Honestly, it’s incredible to be charged with a lack of facts given the misleading use Dines makes of Malamuth. You may be sure that porn is 1) easily defined, and 2) always harmful, but I’m afraid the conviction doesn’t translate beyond your ideology.

By Quiet Riot Girl, on 06 April 2012 - 14:03 |

what about your ideology Sarah? That frames this as a feminist debate, accuses me of making judgements about your ‘private life’ - meaning your porn viewing. When you have entered into a public debate with a renowned anti-porn activist? Who judges people’s private decisions to work in porn or to watch it?

By Daphne, on 06 April 2012 - 15:56 |

It appears to me that Femdom is not widespread or mainstream since when looking for porn on popular websites, it is usually not even part of a category. I would not mind porn if misogyny was not a constant feature. Some may call it ‘gendered power’, and again, I would not mind if this genre was not so normalized as to practically enforce masochism in women. 

Also, I do not belive that when discussing porn on a theoretical or academic level, one should relate his/her personal experience of it. I personally had very unpleasant experiences of having been exposed to porn and being in relationships with porn users.  I know many women had similiar experiences. And while those experiences need to be taken into account, because it tells how people are concretely affected by porn, I try to not use my personal experiences as the basis of my reflections on porn as I know other people have different ones (even though I acknowledge that our personal experience taint our perspective on a subject).


By Nahema, on 06 April 2012 - 18:31 |

Sarah, defining porn as what is sold is porn stores is not irrelevant, and the existence of websites where pornography is sold (but not replicas of ‘David’ or Henry Miller novels) further proves my assertion. The industry’s own outlets for its products are the most definitive point from which to reasonably assess the content of mainstream porn media.

Please don’t put words in my mouth, I never said porn is easily defined or always harmful. I believe defining porn isn’t impossible and that the aggregate output from this multi-billion dollar industry built primarily on selling misogynistic content is a net negative for communities, relationships, and personal sexual health.

By David W Kasper, on 06 April 2012 - 18:52 |

It’s a phallusy that gay porn is excluded from oppressive representations. As far as I’m aware, it’s full of fetishized class and race inequalities (and many of its performers eventually make more money in the straight variety). Like straight porn, much of it seems marketed to men who view sex as a consumable object to be purchased from workers with nothing else to sell. A far higher proportion of black or “rough” boys make a living as prostitutes in parks than would be seen in in trendy gay clubs, and gay porn has this fantasy of a “rough” and “rebellious” but ultimately submissive underclass reflected in its representations. It also has as much of a ‘militarized’ POV as the straight variety. Perhaps even more overtly, with its supposedly ‘ironic’ use of uniforms, body fascism, ‘training’ rituals etc. Like most MSM, it serves to consolidate and rationalize oppression and inequality by making it appear ‘naughty’ or ‘sexy’ by pandering to the perspective of the privileged ie. men with enough disposable income to sustain an entertainment market. There may be more ‘alternative’ or ‘erotic’ subsections catered to, but they’re not powerful enough to make the narrative ‘rules’ that render porn coherent as porn.

By Iamcuriousblue, on 12 April 2012 - 09:21 |

Nail - hammer - head, Sarah! You make several points that I’ve also been making in this debate for several years. Notably that Dines utterly misrepresents Malmuth’s decidedly tentative conclusions. Even the correlations between violence in porn and violent behavior are only statistically supported for the most violent subset of men and the most violent subset of porn. Joshua Goldberg also blogged in detail about this study a couple of years ago, for which he was blogswarmed by so many hostile comments from the radical feminist blogosphere, he actually took down the post for a few days. Link here:

You also are seemingly reading my mind on the what anti-sweatshop activism looks like, and how ridiculous antiporn activism is by comparison. Antiporn activists try to pass their movement off as some great expression of anti-capitalism while making zero alliances with anybody who actually works on the “shopfloor” of that industry. On the other hand, Dines was happy to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders of Morality in Media a couple of years ago when they brought their right-wing morals campaign to Washington DC to try to lobby congress to “do something” about porn. This is “radical”? Hell, it’s not even liberal!

By Anthony Kennerson, on 19 April 2012 - 15:18 |

I see that many of the pro-Dines supporters are out and about attempting to smear Ms.Ditum and spread more distortive flak about the economy of porn. And, like everything else they say, it is all easily refuted.

Let’s take Nahema’s “porn is what is being sold at porn stores” fallacy first. As if most porn is being downloaded outside of market conditions free of charge through homemade websites and via uploads through “tube” sites, message boards, and Bit Torrents. As if the overwhelming majority of porn that is sold is essentially vanilla sex performed by couples, solo women masturbating, or women playing with other women. Using the AVN Top 200 (even the Top 200 for the year) as a gauge for what porn people are viewing is a bit like depending on the Billboard Top 10 in the age of iTunes and the former Napster…or relying on box office movie receipts in the age of Netflix. Dines is so far behind the curve on modern technology she might as well race to the caboose at the end of the train…that is, if she can still find one.

BTW…the relevance of D. H. Lawrence, Britney Spears, and slash fiction is that they all, in spite of not fitting the classic definition of “pornography”, have been consistently attacked and demonized as “porn” (and in Lawrence’s case regarding Lady Chatterley’s Lover, actually jailed on obscenity charges). Dines’ open-ended definition of “pornography”, as Ms. Dictum made so abundantly clear, opens the door wide for genuine right-wing antisex ideologues to widen the dragnet of what constitutes “obscenity”...but, I guess that that’s a price that she is willing to pay in order for her and her radical fundamentalist “feminists” to create her perfect porn-free world…right??

Also…everything Iamcuriousblue said.’

By Dominica Richie, on 12 January 2013 - 15:46 |

HI Sarah, I think we have to discover many niches of sexual behaviorism to fully live our life. For example Female Domination.

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