Living in a Porn Culture

by Gail Dines, Alex Doherty

Gail Dines teaches sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. She is a founding member of Stop Porn Culture. She spoke to NLP’s Alex Doherty on her new book PornLand: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.”

First published: 15 April, 2010 | Category: Gender equality

Gail Dines teaches sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. She is a founding member of Stop Porn Culture. She spoke to NLP’s Alex Doherty on her new book PornLand: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.”

Could you tell us what your new book ‘Pornland’ is about? What do you hope to convey?

Pornland is about how porn and the porn culture shape our ideas about sexuality, relationships, masculinity, femininity and intimacy. Thanks mainly to the internet, the porn industry has exploded over the last decade, with over 13,000 films a year released to the market. With this explosion has come an increasing pornification of our society, where the images, ideologies and messages of porn filter down into pop culture. If you just turn on the television, flick through a magazine or look at billboards, you will see that porn has now become a blueprint for how the media represents women’s bodies. Whether it be Britney Spears writhing around almost naked in a music video, or Miley Cyrus draped over a stripper’s pole, the images that bombard us daily look much like soft-core porn did a few decades ago. Today there is almost no soft-core porn on the internet, because most of it has migrated into pop culture. What we are left with is a porn industry that is now so hardcore that even some of the big-name porn producers and directors are amazed at how far they can go. 

I travel the country giving lectures on the harms of porn, and I am still surprised as just how few women and older men really know what today’s porn looks like. For this reason Pornland delves into the content of contemporary porn by walking the reader through the most popular websites. Gone are the days of women posing seductively as they coyly smile into the camera. Instead, we enter a world of distended anuses, red raw vaginas, violent oral sex where the woman ends up gagging, and gallons of semen often smeared over the women’s faces and bodies. As all this is happening to her, she is being called a filthy cunt, whore, cumdumpster, slut etc. In porn the man “makes hate” to the women’s bodies because all the emotions and feelings we associate with love – joy, kindness, empathy, happiness – are missing and in their place we see contempt, loathing, disgust and anger.

As the porn industry becomes more cruel and violent, fans are becoming desensitized and are looking for more hard core content. According to porn director Mitchell Spinelli, fans are becoming “more demanding about wanting to see the more extreme stuff.” The problem for the porn industry is that there are only so many ways you can show a woman being anally, vaginally and orally penetrated, and there is little left to do to the woman apart from killing her. For this reason, the industry is always on the lookout for new niche markets and Pornland looks at two of the most popular: Interracial Porn and Teen Porn.  Both niches aim to spice up the porn by promising to show sex that can “split”, “rip”, and “tear” women’s orifices. For interracial sex the spice for the user is watching a black man “defile” a white woman, while for teen porn it is the potential harm that an adult male’s penis can do to an immature vagina and anus. 

The question I pose in Pornland is, what does it mean to grow up in a society where the average age of first viewing porn is 11 for boys, and where girls are being inundated with images of themselves as wannabe porn stars? How does a boy develop his sexual identity when porn is often his first introduction into sex? What does it mean for a girl or young woman to see herself as a desired object rather than a desiring subject? What do heterosexual relationships look like when sexual identity is constructed within this porn culture? These are not questions that can be answered by experiments, but rather belong more in the field of critical cultural studies, which takes as its starting point that we are cultural beings who develop our taken-for-granted ideas about the world out of the dominant (that is, hegemonic) ideologies that swirl around the culture.  To think that men and women can walk away from the images they consume makes no sense in light of what we know about how images shape our sense of reality. 

The book does not rehash the old “porn wars” arguments but instead takes a fresh look at how we can understand the porn industry as both a capitalist enterprise and as a producer of ideology that legitimizes gender inequality. It gets under the skin, so to speak, of the porn industry to reveal the cruel and dark underbelly that is so often glossed over in pop culture. 

It’s often stated that there are no definite links between pornography use and violence. What is your view on the matter?

As a sociologist who studies media, I do not think that it is useful to focus on the “Does porn cause violence?” question, because it reduces the effects of porn to violence. A more nuanced analysis asks us to consider the ways in which porn ideologies shape our gender and sexual identities. By way of example, let’s look at how media scholars understand the effects of racist images. Few would ask whether racist images directly cause violence against people of color. Rather, the question would be, how do such images legitimize, condone and cement racist ideologies that whites internalize by virtue of living in a racist society? Such images would most likely not turn an average white person into a card carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, but they would help to consolidate the way they think about race, whiteness and equality. 

When applying this to porn, I doubt that the average man will be driven to rape a woman just because he viewed porn, but that does not mean that the images have no effect. Men are already socialized by sexist ideologies before they look at porn, but nothing delivers such ideology as crisply, eloquently or as succinctly as porn. Porn doesn’t mess around; it tells men that women are whores who exist to be sexually used by men, that they are receptacles for penises rather than full human beings. In porn, women don’t need health care, safe housing, good jobs or free childcare; rather they need to be fucked in the most debased way that the pornographers can think of. The problem here, of course, is that women somehow have to convince porn users – those who are our partners, our fathers, brothers, employers and lawmakers – that what they are seeing in porn is a lie about women. What we really need to live a full life with dignity and human rights is real equality. This is a problem that all oppressed people have – how to convince your oppressor that you deserve equality – but no other group has their oppressor masturbating to images of them being dehumanized. Porn delivers to men sexist ideology in a way that is incredibly pleasurable, and it is this pleasure that masks the real harm that porn does to the economic, legal and cultural status of women. 

Why do you think so many women are at best indifferent to porn and the sexual exploitation industries and in some cases supportive of those industries?

This is a question that many of us in the anti-porn movement are preoccupied with. My experiences tell me that a good percentage of women have an outdated view of what porn is. They think of a Playboy centerfold from twenty years ago rather than the actual brutality that you see on sites such as Altered Assholes, Gag Factor, Anal Suffering, Fuck the Babysitter, First Time With Daddy, Ghetto Gaggers, and so on. After my lecture the majority of women are stunned because they had no idea how violent porn had become. Once they know, they feel very differently towards the industry. Their indifference gives way to both sadness and anger, and as an activist my goal is to harness that anger as a force for social change. 

Heterosexual women, especially young women, who condemn the porn industry are in a very difficult position because they will most likely date and marry men who are porn users. Many of the women I have spoken to who have asked their partners to stop have eventually had to leave them. For some women, it feels better to avoid the topic altogether and hope that his porn use does not spill over into their relationship. For those women who decide not to date men who use porn, they have a very small pool to pick from. Few people want to think that they will live their lives alone so they make compromises. If, however ,we are ever going to have real social change, then women need to stop compromising and start organizing. 

Another reason women tend to be indifferent is the way porn is represented in media. One of the results of living in a pornified society is the glamorization of porn in pop culture. Rather than showing it as a sleazy business that uses women’s bodies as bait, porn is represented as chic and edgy, and the few women who make it to the top – especially Jenna Jameson and Sasha Gray – are showcased as examples of just how great porn is for women. What’s missing, of course, are the stories of untold thousands of women who are spat out by the industry and end up unemployed or working as prostitutes. To get some insight into just how harsh the industry is for women, whom better to quote than Jenna Jameson herself: 

Most girls get their first experience in gonzo films—in which they’re taken to a crappy studio apartment in Mission Hills and penetrated in every hole possible by some abusive asshole who thinks her name is Bitch.  And these girls . . . go home afterward and pledge never to do it again because it was such a terrible experience.  But, unfortunately, they can’t take that experience back, so they live the rest of their days in fear that their relatives, their co-workers, or their children will find out, which they inevitably do
(Jameson, Jenna. 2004 How to Make Love Like a Porn Star.  NY: Harper Entertainment, p. 132)

The women who end up in the porn industry are usually working class and in a recession, porn, as it is represented in the media, is seen as a way to build a career. Many of the women who write about porn being empowering have real choices based on their class and race privileges, and hence can feel free to support an industry in which they will never have to work. 

For many women, there is a fear that being seen as anti-porn will mark them as prudish, which amounts to a social death in a porn culture. To question in any way the politics of heterosexual sexuality is to be misperceived as an anti-sex, man-hating feminist who screams rape every time a man and woman have sex. This is not a particularly appealing label for young women eager to meet a potential partner. Remember also that these women have been bombarded with pro-porn messages from women’s media and if they have heard of anti-porn feminists, it is most likely in a way that ridicules and trivializes our arguments. 

I have met a number of young women who do eagerly support porn as a form of female empowerment. Since porn is sold as edgy, chic and rebellious, support for the industry provides an identity that appears “hot.” This is attractive to men on the lookout for porn sex, and to be desired is, for women, to feel empowered. Getting men’s attention if we are giving a speech or asking them to do the dishes is not easy, but put on a porn star wannabe outfit and suddenly you become the most compelling woman in the world. That is, of course, until he is done with you and onto the next, since in a porn culture women are interchangeable, as long as they meet the standards of “hotness.” 

Those who critique porn are often accused of being anti-free speech. What is your take on this debate?

I am not going to spend much time on this because it’s what my colleague Robert Jensen calls a dodge, a way to close down any serious discussion on porn. My book does not address this issue as it is specifically concerned with the effects of porn and the porn culture on women and men. As a left-winger I see free speech as impossible under capitalism since corporations own much of the media and they use it to disseminate ideologies that legitimize capitalism and unequal power relations. The pornographers are capitalists and they control much of the speech on sexuality. Anti-porn feminists are repeatedly censored from mainstream media and silenced by the capitalist juggernaut that is the porn industry. 

Advocates of porn point to increasing consumption of pornography by women. What do you make of women’s use of porn?

I really question how much porn is actually being consumed by women. When I give talks to college students the women are usually shocked by what they are seeing. Few women I have met really know what is in gonzo porn so if women are using porn it certainly isn’t the porn that men use. My sense is that the porn women are using is more the feature type that has a (limited) storyline and is shot in a more up-market location than the usual gonzo. I have also heard that women tend to prefer woman-on-woman porn which makes sense since in many cases it is less cruel.

But before we try to answer this question, we need a reality check. An article in Adult Video News says that women make up only 15% of internet porn users. The author, Jack Morrison, makes the obvious claim that the products still appeal to mainly male users, and to attract women adult webmasters should create sites that involve interaction and education. According to Morrison:

Such sites would allow women to obtain advice, perhaps during teleconferences with experts, have elements of cybersex, and should play into women’s relationship fantasies. (i.e., a story of how a woman got a rich and powerful boyfriend because she knew how to give head better than any other woman - with instructions as to how she did it.) Such sites would be low on visual content, except as it serves the need for interaction and education. The site would have live interviews (with audience questions) with “hot” guys who tell what they like sexually. In other words, take the content of Cosmopolitan and Glamour, make it X-rated (not XXX), and provide for massive amounts of interaction.

Morrison assumes that women want rich and powerful boyfriends as a way to climb the social ladder and the way to get them is to give great oral sex. How sexist and reactionary is that? Porn is no friend of women and I strongly encourage women not to financially support an industry that exploits and degrades us for the sexual pleasure of men. 

You point to the use of racial difference to heighten sexual excitement. How does the industry behave on the question of race? 

To really appreciate how racist porn is let us take as an example the racist comments made by Don Imus when he described the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy headed ho’s.” Following a concerted campaign by the African-American community, CBS fired him amidst a public outcry and a mass exodus of corporate sponsors from his show. But what barely merited a comment was a press release issued three weeks later from the porn company Kick Ass Pictures, announcing its intention to donate one dollar from every sale of its new movie, titled Nappy Headed Ho’s, to the Don Imus retirement fund.

So the obvious question is why does the porn industry get away with a level of racism that would simply not be tolerated in any other media form? One answer to this is that porn, by sexualizing racism, renders it invisible. Instead of being seen for the racism it is, it is instead eroticized and classed as hot sex made hotter by the presence of a black male body that has historically been coded as deviant, animalistic and predatory. As Cornel West once said, one of the major stereotypes of blacks is that they have “dirty, disgusting, and funky sex.” What could be better than that for the pornographers?

Progressives have been amazingly quiet on the issue of racism in porn, and part of the reason, I suspect, is that they don’t want to get linked with the right wing groups that protest porn. But being silent on this issue ignores the fact that these images, like all racist images, impact on the way we construct our notions of reality, and the more white men use the images, the more they cement past racist images in the present. If this was acknowledged, then maybe we would also have to acknowledge that watching a woman being choked as she is called a filthy whore could affect the way we see women in the real world.

As you have noted dislike of porn is frequently conflated with a prudish dislike of sexual expression in general - Does “anti-porn” = “anti-sex”? 

To appreciate just how bizarre it is to collapse a critique of pornography into a critique of sex, think for a minute if I were criticizing McDonalds for its exploitive labor practices, its destruction of the environment, and its impact on our diet and health. Would anyone accuse me of being anti-eating or anti-food?  I suspect that most readers would separate the industry (McDonald’s) and the industrial product (hamburgers) from the act of eating and would understand that the critique was focused on the large-scale impact of the fast food industry and not the human need, experience, and joy of eating. The same goes for porn; what I am critiquing is not the human experience of sex or sexuality but the industrialization of sex. Sex in porn is not so much sex as a particular kind of representation of sex, formulaic, generic and plasticized. It is not a slice of reality. The pornographers construct sex in ways that debase and dehumanize women, and it is this debasement and dehumanization that makes porn sex “hot.” As a feminist, I am against anything that subordinates women.

All my adult life I have been fighting corporate power and I have had a community of people on the left. But once I turned my attention to the porn industry, the left became as hostile as the right. In my book I ask why is that people on the left – people who understand corporate power – suddenly forget that the pornographers are capitalists and see them instead as guardians of our sexual freedom? Since when did capitalists ever care about our freedoms? Pornography is like all industries, predatory and out to make a profit by any means possible. They commodify real human needs and wants as a way to sell products, and until we resist, the pornographers will continue to hijack our sexuality. 

Gail can be contacted at Stop Porn Culture will be holding a conference in June 2010 in Boston. For more details please go to:


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