Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality? (Part 4)

by Gail Dines

This week we have run a debate abot pornography and feminism between freelance writer and journalist Sarah Ditum and anti-porn academic and activist Gail Dines. In this last part, Dines argues that opposition to porn ultimately derives from a philosophical commitment to equality and the idea that human life should not be commodified. (The debate so far - Ditum's opener, Dines' response, Ditum's rejoinder.)


This debate feels like a marriage gone sour. After years of fighting with the same person, you know exactly what they are going to say, and with equal tedious predictability, you know what your response is going to be. It is a bit like fighting by numbers. This debate has been going on for thirty years, so instead of me arguing about capitalism, free speech and definitions of porn, I am going to end this debate by saying that there is no solution. There is no single study (or multitude of studies) I can cite that will shift those who sympathize with Ditum, and to be fair, this holds true for feminists who are anti-porn. At root what we have here are deep philosophical differences about the nature of agency, freedom, capitalism, sexuality, heterosexuality and power.

I am a radical feminist who is opposed to the commodification of human life. I do not believe that we should let a capitalist media industry shape our culture, sexuality, and gender relations, and I am opposed to the systems of inequality that supply the sex industry with human flesh. Women, and men, end up in the sex industry because they are the losers in the capitalist roulette. Yes, you may very well know someone’s cousin’s best friend who has a law degree but chooses to do porn, but this does not change the reality of how the vast majority of people end up in the sex industry. Take away capitalism, racism, and sexism, and tell me how you will staff the sex industry. Remove all the systems that make life unbearable for a majority of people on this planet, and my bet is that you will have not have thousands of women who volunteer to be in porn so that nameless men, who think they are nothing more than a cumbucket, can jerk off to them.

The ascendency of a toxic mix of neoliberal ideology and postmodern notions in the academy makes it almost impossible to recognize structures of power and the reality of exploitation, or to argue against the idea that we are all rational individuals freely choosing an empowering lifestyle. This insidious virus has infected feminist thinking, resulting in a feminism devoid of any political or structural analysis. This ridiculous turning away from feminist roots has made radical feminists look like relics of a bygone era who hold on to outdated notions of systematic power and systemic inequality that limit the life chances of women and shape the choices we make. We look like a bunch of party poopers who refuse to celebrate all that great agency young women now have as they are encouraged to strip, wax, and fuck themselves into empowerment.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Republicans have declared war on women’s bodies, women still earn less than men, are still the ones who are responsible for child care, are still raped, harassed, molested, trafficked, and are increasingly having to deal with men who are stuck in perpetual adolescence (what the sociologist Michael Kimmel calls Guyland, the parallel universe to Pornland). These men are their buddies, their bosses, their politicians, their lawyers, their doctors, and their partners. Guyland men continue to make laws that limit women’s lives economically, medically, legally and politically, because -- like for all adolescent boys with hard ons -- women who are not fuckable are invisible to them.

I have no studies up my sleeve to prove to Guyland men that women deserve true equality. As with civil rights, this is a political principle, not an empirical question. In any event, studies do not change the world. The only thing that makes a difference is collective organizing and education, and that is what radical feminists do. We believe in a future free of oppression, and a cornerstone of this future is a world free of commodified sex and a media landscape that does not reproduce patriarchal culture. This is a truth we hold dear and there is no study, argument, or theory that will persuade us otherwise.

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First published: 07 April, 2012

Category: Culture, Gender equality

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17 Comments on "Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality? (Part 4)"

By Minxy, on 07 April 2012 - 11:49 |

I think you forget that men get raped, oppressed, abused, molested, trafficked as well as women, especially young men. Stop acting like women are these weak, helpless things - that’s not what we need for our image. Yes, the world is still unequal. Well done. It’s still racist and homophobic too. You should spend less time trying to stop an unstoppable industry and more time helping the women who are forced into it, stopping child pornography or making sure women get paid the same as men. Also…what the hell is wrong with waxing? 

By tony, on 07 April 2012 - 13:59 |

excellent article - the social structural determinations are vitally important in a consideration of the phenomonon itself.  particularly appreciated the point about someones friend with a law degree who chooses to do porn - i am sure such people do exist but the point is they exist as a tiny minority; it is poverty and desperation which provides the overiding impulse to enter the business.

By Peter Tiarks, on 07 April 2012 - 15:55 |

There is no single study (or multitude of studies) I can cite that will shift those who sympathize with Ditum, and to be fair, this holds true for feminists who are anti-porn. At root what we have here are deep philosophical differences about the nature of agency, freedom, capitalism, sexuality, heterosexuality and power.

This is clearly not clearly not true. Speaking personally, I do sympathise with Sarah Ditum, but if Dines could show an actual way that it would be possible to stop the distribution of porn without inflicting massive collateral damage on freedom of speech generally, I’d be prepared to be reconsider my position. She’d also have blown one of Ditum’s strongest arguments out of the water. The fact that she hasn’t even addressed it speaks volumes.

Even if there were deep-seated philosophical differences, what difference would it make? Couldn’t Dines show why Ditum’s philosophical assumptions about agency, sexuality, etc. are wrong. Maybe she doesn’t have enough space to do a really good job of it, but surely she could have had a go. The fact that she’s used all the available space finding different ways to say “I’m a radical feminist and she’s a privileged white woman” makes it look very like that’s her only argument.

The only thing that makes a difference is collective organizing and education, and that is what radical feminists do. We believe in a future free of oppression, and a cornerstone of this future is a world free of commodified sex and a media landscape that does not reproduce patriarchal culture. This is a truth we hold dear and there is no study, argument, or theory that will persuade us otherwise.

When exactly did Dines realise this? I mean, if it was before the debate, why have one? No-one’s going to be convinced either way, right? And if it was during the debate, am I the only one who thinks that that’s just a touch convenient?

By Alondra, on 08 April 2012 - 01:27 |


Thank you for your wise words. I really admire your courage to stand and speak up for us against all the criticism.  When people are deeply willing to justify actions all excuses (even the most illogical ones) turn into reasonable arguments. Humanity has been able to justify genocides, war, slavery, discrimination, etc. Same seems to account for porn, disguising lack of opportunities, exploitation, cruelty, etc with empowerment and freedom. In my opinion, the high price of porn is not worth it. Everybody has the right of an erection by the means of their choice but not when it comes at the expense of so many others. As if porn was the only way to engage in liberating sexual activity.

Your extensive study does not deserve to be compare with arguments lacking basis. You have done an amazing work and many of us have great respect for it.

By Sarah Ditum, on 08 April 2012 - 09:32 |

I’ve written here about my experience of doing this debate, if anyone’s interested in further reflections and background: I’m genuinely disappointed that Dines didn’t support her case better. All my questions are unanswered. What is porn? How is it harmful? What does “being against it” entail? Is it possible to prevent it? And why would preventing porn stop unequal pay and attacks on abortion rights? (Worth mentioning here that Santorum and Romney have both made anti-porn statements, alongside their assaults on abortion rights.) I entered this debate because I wanted to hear Dines’ case without the obscuring cloud of phony science and scaremongering. Now it seems there isn’t a case at all without those things.

Tony: seems to me that if pornography is a consequence of broader inequalities, the battle should be wih inequality rather than pornography itself. If your account is correct, then Dines’ campaign not only fails to address the underlying cause, it also represents a diversion of energy away from much more pressing issues. More directly to your point, it’s a bit of a tedious category error to say that many in the sex industries are damaged and oppressed, therefore all are. However little you care to believe it, there are people who make pornography of their own volition, and it’s necessary recognise the good parts of the industry before you start inventing remedies for the bad.

Minxy: preach!

By epstein, on 09 April 2012 - 09:50 |

Wasn’t the topic supposed to be the effects of unfettered access of endless porn floating about the interwebs?  This was fun to read, but I don’t link i learned much aside from how to argue.  I have sympathies towards Gail’s politics, but they seem to overwhelm any pragmatic interest.  What and how are certainly empirical questions, even if why is political.  
Porn does not require an industry at this point.  Porn’s heightened presence in our culture is due to what people are casually seeing for free, not what they are paying for.  Whatever powerful political-influence-wielding industry there is would certainly want production and access tightly controlled.  And total prohibition always invites even more unsavory elements to emerge.  Just yelling “shut it down, shut it down” is deeply silly.  

By womononajourney, on 09 April 2012 - 10:28 |

“I think you forget that men get raped, oppressed, abused, molested, trafficked as well as women, especially young men.”

Why should an abuse only be taken seriously because it happens to men, too? Yes, men are raped, oppressed, molested and trafficked by other men. In that sense, they are treated *as though* they are women. Think of what one male survivor of the Abu-Grahib torture scandal said: “I felt like a woman.” In other words, to be raped and sexually tortured is what is done to women.

“Stop acting like women are these weak, helpless things - that’s not what we need for our image.”

Well, women aren’t weak and helpless if we can engage in thoughtful debate, nor if we can engage in protest, demonstrations and civil disobedience, as women do worldwide.

If women are treated in an abusive manner in pornography and prostitution, I’m not sure how
pretending this isn’t so is going to “help our image.” I guess videos of women holding rattles and dolls while being fucked by their “dad” somehow does help our image?

By adi, on 09 April 2012 - 12:03 |

Thank you Gail!

Peter Tiarks: If I understand you right you go on the record agreeing that porn is in principle wrong because exploitative? Your point is only that you believe that the negative side-effects of (any?) attempts to curb porn are so bad that we all things considered for now should not go for such policies?

I chose not to comment on the sarcastic parts of Peter’s comment.

Sarah Ditum (replying to Tony’s statement that only a tiny minority end up in porn because of other factors than poverty and desperation): “More directly to your point, it’s a bit of a tedious category error to say that many in the sex industries are damaged and oppressed, therefore all are.”

Sarah here misrepresents what Tony wrote. Tony clearly made a claim about most cases, not all cases. The most cases claim is enough for a promising line of argument for policies to dismantle the porn industry.

I am curious what Sarah means by her comment to Minxy, an explanation of that would be appreciated. Minxy’s post exhibits several fallacies and a tone that I trust Sarah as a serious interlocutor would want to distance herself from.

By Daphne, on 09 April 2012 - 12:06 |

If pro-porn feminists still wonder what porn is and how it is harmful, I guess Ms. Dines is right when she says that this debate leads nowhere.
Even my 15 year-old nephew knows that porn is highly misogynist and influences how people view sex.
If one wonders if porn is harmful, there are plenty of online discussions on this topic.  Men admit that porn changed their expectations of sex and affected the way they view women. Women talk about how porn affect their self-esteem and makes them feel pressured to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing. Sexologists also provide valuable information on how porn is hijacking our sexuality. One sexologist was telling that before the huge increase and availability of internet porn, girls were usually asking if it will hurt, when talking about their first sexual experience. Now, girls are asking if they have to do anal sex the first time they make love.
Porn may show a variety of bodies, but overall it mainly stick to the same model and it also set standards so that now many boys find pubic hair on a woman to be gross.  Minxy was asking ‘what the hell is wrong with waxing?’ The fact that it is more a dictate than a choice maybe? (by the way, congratulations for being the one to come up wiith ‘what about the menz’... always a winner in a feminist debate).
I think everybody agrees that coercion exists in the porn industry and that informed consent is crucial.  I participated in an online discussion about the portrayal of men in advertising; what image and messages some of it is sending and how it may affect boys, etc. Interestingly, nobody came up with the argument that the men who participated in these advertisements were consenting to it…. If people think that the images we consume does not affect us at all, we should tell it to the people in marketing who run the media, the companies and even politics.

By Tom, on 09 April 2012 - 12:55 |

I think you’ve given yourself away with your last argument there. By saying no study will convince you, you’ve effectively said ‘I don’t care what the actual evidence shows, I’m right’, in much the same way creationists reject evolution despite all the evidence supporting it.

Also, ‘women who are not fuckable are invisible to them’. As a man who can actually see other qualities in women than ‘fuckability’, I find that pretty offensive; there are a great deal I’ve worked and trained with and under and sexual attraction didn’t come into it at all. The idea I should consider them differently wouldn’t have even occurred to me were it not for people like you spouting that claptrap. Feminism is important to make sure women get treated fairly and evenly, but ‘all men are evil’ stereotypes like you should just be ignored, lest you put people off the work of your counterparts who respect men and simply ask the same respect and opportunities for women. Thankfully I’m not judging all feminists by your pisspoor example, I’d ask you not to judge all men as knucklehead chauvinists

By adi, on 09 April 2012 - 14:54 |

Tom: I read Gail’s “no studies” sentences to point out the difference between empirical claims and political philosophical claims. The latter can’t be proven through empirical studies. I do, however, think political philosophical convictions can be argued for (and against) in a constructive and rigorous way and I wish Gail would say that too. The fact that this exchange between Gail and Sarah likely will not convince either of them to change their view shouldn’t lead us to be skeptical about long term argumentative progress.

In your second paragraph you say you find Gail’s claims about Guyland offensive. But Gail talks of the problem of women “increasingly having to deal with men who are stuck in perpetual adolescence”. That is not a claim about all men. It is a claim about a group of men that is increasing. And I don’t understand why you personally would find a claim about a negative tendency that many men have offensive. I don’t.

By Pete Tiarks, on 09 April 2012 - 15:09 |

If I understand you right you go on the record agreeing that porn is in principle wrong because exploitative? Your point is only that you believe that the negative side-effects of (any?) attempts to curb porn are so bad that we all things considered for now should not go for such policies?

Well I’d make the much weaker claim some forms of porn do some harm, that I’m open to persuasion about how much harm, and that this is going to affect my feelings about the sort of measures I think would be reasonable to stop it.

But yeah, mostly what concerns me is the right-to-privacy/right-to-free-expression question.. If Dines had made more of a effort to address some of those concerns, she would have assuaged the worries of a lot of people like me, for whom porn is a marginal issue. At the moment, when I hear people talking about the evils of porn, I reflexively associate it with the Christian right trying to censor stuff and interfere with people’s private lives. Dines suggests that she doesn’t have a lot of time for those sort of folks, but from my point of view, she looks functionally indistinguishable from them (obviously this is just going on what she’s said in the debate. I’m sure in practice I’d get along much better with Gail Dines than Rick Santorum).

I know this wasn’t a debate about free speech and privacy as such. I also know I shouldn’t expect everyone to talk about the issues that interest me. But I do think those issues are both very important and obviously relevant here. I’m likely to be very unsympathetic to people who actually seem to be going out of their way to ignore them.

And she did seem to be ignoring it. Once the issue had come up, it would have been perfectly natural, for Dines to have said something along the lines of “Look, I know legal definitions are difficult, and I know that we need to be careful about censorship, but there are lots of things we could try that wouldn’t be too intrusive, that would target the more harmful sorts of porn. Measures X, Y, and Z would target only Gonzo porn, and would have minimal effects on human rights…” This would have kicked the definitional issue into touch, or at the very least made Ditum seem very pedantic if she kept going on about it. More to the point, the debate would have advanced, points of agreement might have been reached, and the people like me, who are mostly worried about this debate from a free speech/privacy perspective, would have felt considerably less worried about the whole anti-porn project.

What she did instead was say that really it all came down to how radical you were. At which point I decided that either there were no human-rights friendly anti-porn policies, or that radical feminism’s leading thinker on the subject had exactly no interest in them. Either way, I came away feeling that, however worthy the intentions, anti-porn feminism is going to be absolutely toxic for the issues that I care about.

Show me I’m wrong.

By adi, on 09 April 2012 - 19:05 |

Thanks for the reply Peter! I understand your position better now. I won’t review Gail Dines arguments for now but let me reply on other things in your comment.

I do think some anti-porn policies would have unacceptably privacy intrusive effects. An 100% effective total porn ban would. But I’m not certain that all anti-porn policies would have unacceptable effects.

One policy path is to target the economic underpinnings of large scale internet based born distribution. There are today youtube like, free access, ad revenued “porn hubs” that draw a large number of viewers. My impression is that especially a lot of younger people primarily access porn that way. Raised access costs (in time, money and effort) could lead to a decrease in porn consumtion caused sexist attitude formation.

I know that is only a sketchy example. But the point I want to make for now is that there are a lot of possible policies to investigate once we take our eyes off complete criminalization. We need to carefully investigate and evaluate such policies.

I will end by admitting being a bit rude. You see I jumped into this discussion knowing that I really don’t have the time presently to continue discussing it (work work work). So while I will check back and with interest read any replies I won’t post more. I hope and think the discussion will continue anyway.

By Jim, on 23 April 2012 - 23:44 |

Anyone have any theories of why Gail Dines doesn’t seem to be rcnahieg out to these women?I posit that most people, Dines and many in the pro-porn activism communities included, are not very good at rcnahieg out to others they do not already know. I wouldn’t put much stock in this one way or another; it’s a human failing, not a specific failing of hers.If you want to combat Dines’ negativity, I would therefore suggest you (and I, and all of us who want to put out more good intention in the world) work hard at making ourselves more willing to connect to others who are different from us, who run in different social circles, and who may not have heard about us if we were not willing to be vulnerable and put ourselves out there in a personal way.Clearly this is something Gail Dines does not really do, so we may as well do it more, and first. smile

By Boaz, on 27 August 2012 - 09:15 |

I would just comment on Minxy’s original commnet, where she suggests that Gail Dines should “spend less time trying to stop an unstoppable industry”.

I’d suggest its not her place to tell Ms. Dines where to put her energy and time.  If one sees the porn industry as a negative, ugly, exploitative establishment, then it would seem a very worthy goal to work towards reducing the power of this industry, even if it may seem to be an impossible task. 

You may think more good can come of other ways of engaging with the injustices in the world, but if you agree that the porn industry is for the most part a negative force acting against human dignity, then why criticize someone for working to end or reduce this?

One could make a similar argument about the arms industry.  They profit on the conflicts and pain and violence of others.  One may say that they are just too powerful, and better to support Doctors without Borders and the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations that work to help victims of war.  But why not also call out those who profit from sales of arms?

From what I’ve read so far, Gail Dines seems to have the stridency of conviction of a real zealot that may not always serve her and does not always engage well with other with a slightly different perspective.  But her targeting the porn industry and working to reduce its power looks to be a very worthy goal to me, and her efforts deserving of respect.

By Boo, on 27 December 2013 - 05:29 |

A disappointing end to the debate - it feels like in response to Ditum’s quite valid points and further questions, Dines has announced “Well, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree!” with the implication that Dines is correct and Ditum is too stubborn to see her side. Which is misleading at best.

By Johaun, on 18 March 2014 - 05:14 |

This is an interesting bit of information on the study Dines uses. On Page 79 reports that “We cannot conclude on the basis of these analyses that pornography is a cause or an outcome of sexually aggressive tendencies (or both), although the association does not appear to be a spurious relationship”. On page 84, they explain that “scientific causal models may ... be better framed in terms of the confluence of several factors”, not in the ‘but for’ test familiar to people who study or practice law. That is, ‘but for porn, x wouldn’t happen’. It concludes that there seems to be a correlation between particularly sexually aggressive men and very frequent pornography use, suggesting the need for “increased research attention on the use and impact of pornography in men at elevated risk for sexual aggression”. However, the “current findings do suggest that for the majority of American men, pornography exposure (even at the highest levels assessed here) is not associated with high levels of sexual aggression”.

Sarah Ditum made this same point, and hit the nail on the head. Instead of responding Dines said the debate was over and she did not address the issue. The logic that she is using would suggest that because I play video games like Halo and like action movies, that I should be a killing machine.

Dines has been accused of using anecdotal evidence to make her claims. And until she can present cold hard facts to back it up, all it will be is anecdotal claims from a very passionate person. The peer reviews she cites come from members in her own group or have similar stances, so it’s biased.

Sarah called her out on very logical questions and assumptions and it seems Dines only had responses that were based more in emotion.

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