Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality? (Part 1)

by Sarah Ditum

In the first piece on a debate about pornography and feminism today, Sarah Ditum challenges the equation of feminism with opposition to porn..

First published: 02 April, 2012 | Category: Culture, Gender equality

This week NLP is running a debate about the approach that leftists and feminists should take towards pornography. The debaters are Gail Dines, an anti-porn activist and professor and author of Pornland: How Porn is Hijacking Our Sexuality, and Sarah Ditum, a freelance journalist and writer on politics and culture, who is a critic of anti-porn feminism. We begin with Ditum's critique of Pornland, followed by Dines' reply tomorrow, and rejoinders from each later in the week. 


Here’s a wry contradiction to kick things off: the main problem with debates about pornography is a lack of explicitness. Anti-porn campaigners have plenty of ideas about what porn does. It advances misogyny, they might contend, or it encourages violence against women, or it dehumanises and debases its users and participants – Gail Dines’ book Pornland, which has proved astonishingly influential over the last 12 months or so, advocates all of these positions. What anti-porn campaigners generally do not offer is a clear definition of what porn is.

Maybe that sounds like quibbling. After all, most of us would know pornography when we see it. But there’s no definition of pornography in UK law: “obscenity” is covered by the Obscene Publications Acts (obscene material is defined as that with “tends to deprave or corrupt”), and there’s also the legal category of “extreme pornography”[2] (“grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character”) introduced in 2008. But these definitions are intended to be narrow, and there’s obviously a huge volume of material that is pornographic, and yet doesn’t fulfill the criteria for with obscenity or extremity.

The dictionary definition, conversely, is wide. Here is the OED’s most recent take on pornography: “The explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc., in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings; printed or visual material containing this.” Suddenly, the field of pornography is a vast and muddy place. Amateur-authored slash fiction – in which fans of a book, film or TV show invent non-canon relationships of varying profanity between favourite characters – is probably in, according to this definition. Shoots of topless girls in lad mags like Nuts or Zoo are in (but the magazines are not pornographic works as a whole, because they include sport and lifestyle features).

Photographer Terry Richardson’s work[3] makes stylistic reference to pornography in a way that elicits an aesthetic response as well as an erotic one (aesthetically, a viewer of his work in a fashion magazine registers that these pictures look pornographic); but when he photographs porn star Sasha Grey for porn mag Penthouse[4], does that make him a straight up pornographer? Footage of an amateur couple having vanilla sex for a webcam is pornographic, and so is footage of a male performer choking a female performer on his penis while she performs oral sex on him, but there’s a profound difference in character between the two. Does describing each alike as “pornographic” really tell us anything?

Slashfic, lad mags, high-end sleaze and gonzo hardcore can all be critiqued on various grounds – one thing I want to be clear about in this debate is that not all pornography is alike, and it’s possible to be an enthusiastic consumer of some forms while being ambivalent about others and thoroughly dismayed by others besides – but the point here is that these disparate artifacts of human sexuality all come under the rubric of porn. The obvious answer that an anti-porn campaigner would give is that all this is evidence of the “pornification” of culture, but that strikes me as cripplingly insufficient: is there a form of discourse that is sexually explicit, and design to turn viewers or readers on, but would somehow escape the implied criticism of being labelled porn? The question of what porn actually is, is especially critical for those who’d like to control it. We need to identify a thing before we can study it, never mind control it.

In Pornland, I believe that Dines’ comes up with the least useful and most dishonest definition available. While she uses the word pornography to discuss her target, and expands her argument in the broadest cultural terms (she enumerates the ways in which pop videos, HBO and Hollywood cinema have all contributed to the process of “pornification”), the material on which she bases most of her discussion is the sub-genre of video pornography known as gonzo. (From the introduction: “I want to make it clear that when I talk about ‘porn’, I am referring mainly to ‘gonzo’.”)

On page 88 – that’s several chapters into the case she has been building against porn – Dines finally offers what could be interpreted as her working definition of pornography. It is, she writes, “depictions of cruel acts that one group [ie men] is perpetrating against another group [ie women].” (It’s notable that Dines elects not to look at gay or lesbian pornography, thereby depriving herself on an opportunity to test her thesis about porn’s modelling of male-female sexual relationships by comparing it to the presentation of male-male or female-female relationships.) In other words, she has defined porn a priori as cruel.

This means that, while Pornland appears to be asking the question, “is porn cruel to women?” it’s actually and absurdly asking the question, “is porn that is cruel to women cruel to women?” The answer to that is transparently “yes”, but by fixing the debate in this manner, Dines is propagandising against all pornography, while telling us little-to-nothing about the way that the online explosion of accessible sexually explicit material has transformed our sex lives, our relationships and our culture. And that’s a shame, because she’s missed the chance to address one of the most interesting questions going.

The pornography industry has changed drastically over the last decade – so much so that, despite Dines’ insistence on talking about “porn industry” as though it’s some homogeneous, multi-erectioned entity, in some areas it’s barely correct to talk about there being an industry at all. While it remains possible to make considerable sums of money from the publication or transmission of pornography, the internet has helped to separate production and distribution abruptly. Whereas as formerly businesses such as Playboy or Vivid would produce pornographic material and then make money by selling it in physical form (magazine, video or DVD), the internet has changed that: torrent sites, tube sites and online communities can all turn substantial profits[5], but pornography production has experienced a drastic financial contraction.

Sussanah Breslin’s essay 'They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They?'[6] is a stark, absurd and sometimes grim portrait of the porn industry in the San Fernando valley – once a money-churning production line, but where now most companies engaged in the production and distribution of pornography have suffered revenue falls of 30-50%, according to Breslin. She talks to porn director Jim Powers, whose previous credits include the Gag Factor series, focused on rough deep-throating. This is exactly the kind of material Dines believes to be in the ascendancy, and yet Powers’ assessment of his prospects is bleak: “The market is saturated with porn, the internet is pirating porn left and right, and the economy is in the shitter [...] Porn destroyed itself [...] It completely destroyed everything.”

In other words, when Dines describes how “pornographers (being the savvy businessmen they are) develop techniques to groom reluctant gonzo viewers”, she’s thoroughly out of step with state of the industry. The owners of, say, Xtube have no investment in the type of pornography its users want to watch: all it needs to do is offer enough material, of enough different kinds, to keep users on the site. Pornography is not free of abuse and exploitation, but nor are abuse and exploitation part of its mission statement as Dines suggests. A liking for cheesecake snaps does not put you on the slippery slope to downloading child porn (a contention that Dine’s makes, based on the self-justifying testimony of a small group of paedophiles).

The problem, again, comes back to that definition. If we accept that porn is ipso facto cruel, then it makes sense to ask whether porn inures its users to violence against women. But if we reject Dines’ synthetically narrow idea of what pornography is, then the causal relationship between porn use and misogynistic violence becomes more difficult to believe in. And if we look for evidence, it starts to fall apart completely. Dines claims in the text that there are “a slew of psychological studies to support [the] claim” that “porn does indeed help to shape the worldviews of men who masturbate to it”, and yet in the endnotes she only cites one review from 1989. This is poor scholarship, but at least it’s reflective of the general insufficiency of the whole field of study. As Dr Petra Boynton points out[7], “The evidence base on the effects of pornography is not particularly clear, given that many studies are limited by small samples; riddled with experimenter expectancy effects and demand characteristics; poorly designed and poorly reported lab-based research that often features male undergraduates who’re not representative of the wider population.”

Boynton continues: “It’s not to say all porn research is bad, but because the majority of studies are so flawed it’s very difficult to draw any clear conclusions from them – particularly around direct causal links between images and actions. Unfortunately this confusion leads to both pro and anti pornography groups cherry-picking particular studies to suit their respective agendas.” We just don’t know what the effects of porn are. And until there is some sort of sturdy evidence showing that porn as a whole is objectively harmful, I’d argue that campaigners like Dines would be much better off addressing the ideological faults of porn work-by-work (or at least, genre-by-genre) rather than attempting to portray the entire range of things-to-which-one-might-have-a-wank as patriarchal assaults on the culture. There are, after all, high freedom of speech stakes here: a more open culture about sex and sexuality has contributed greatly to sexual equality and the demise of homophobia, as well as often being helpful to individuals in negotiating their own relationships. It would be disastrous if a peremptory reaction to an unsubstantiated risk led to the rolling back of the important freedoms we have to talk about sex.

But Dines holds one particularly strong view which appears to make pornography anathema, and perhaps renders the idea of sexual culture repugnant to her. I suspect this view is not unique to her: I believe it forms the unspoken basis of many anti-porn arguments, whether they are made from a feminist or a conservative position. Dines frequently contrasts the ideal of “natural” sexuality with “porn” sexuality – the latter being phony or inauthentic, tainted by commerce and mass production. It’s quite a romantic, pre-industrial ideal. It’s also essentialist (this is a sexuality that comes from within and is a spontaneous emanation of relationships, rather than being shaped by outside sources), and consequently, it strikes me as profoundly anti-feminist.

Dines claims that porn portrays “acts that most girlfriends or wives would absolutely refuse to do” (pg 64), encouraging men to seek what she describes as “porn sex” involving “ejaculating on their partner's face or pounding anal sex” (pg 67). I don’t plan on claiming that these are universal features of women’s fantasy lives, but I am uncomfortable with Dines’ claiming that most women would absolutely refuse to do them. Some women actively seek these experiences, some heterosexual couples may be able to successfully negotiate them as part of their sex life, and in some couples, it might well be the woman ejaculating on the man’s face or performing pounding anal sex on him. In real-life practice, these things are unlikely to look much like they do in hardcore porn clips (and there are sex education courses, such as that provided by Bish Training[8], aimed at helping young adults negotiate the gulf between between what they see portrayed in pornography, and the actualities of non-porn intercourse). But the fact that something is a subject of pornography doesn’t preclude it from being a happy part of a consensual sex life.

Dines (pg 68) says that, “Missing from porn is anything that looks or feels remotely like intimacy and connection, the two elements that make sex interesting and exciting in the real world.” Once again, it’s necessary to point out that porn is too big and unruly a category for generalisations like that to stand – if you’re looking for “intimacy and connection”, Comstock films offers a series of “erotic documentaries”[9] in which couples talk about their relationship before having sex on camera. But it’s also important to point out how narrow Dines’ idea of sex is: novelty, transgression and performance are also things that make sex interesting and exciting. And it seems frankly unkind to insist that the only acceptable explicit material is that focused on relationships when, obviously enough, not everyone who uses porn is in a relationship.

Missing from Dines’ account of porn is any sense of women as consumers or creators of porn. For all the iniquities of the industry, pornography is not inherently anti-female. Dines complains about the way porn standards have spread through wider culture so that the hard-bodied, fake-titted bleach blonde has become a societal standard, but one thing that’s hard to miss while looking at porn is range of bodies represented, from gamines to BBWs to butches. It could be countered that this is simply diversity of objectification, but I find it genuinely cheering that pornography presents all these body types as desirable. And that is one thing that pornography in the age of the internet is able to reflect for perhaps the first time: the variety of libido. Porn in the internet age means we no longer have to masturbate to someone else’s ideal. If you can’t see what you enjoy – or if you simply get a bang from showing other people what you enjoy – then you can make your own, with nothing more sophisticated than a digital camera. Rather than “hijacking our sexualities”, as the subtitle of Pornland has it, pornography can be a tool for discussing and discovering our pleasures and preferences.

Until anti-porn feminists like Dines are able to define porn effectively, acknowledge its benefits as well as its faults, and admit to their own lack of evidence, I struggle to see why their arguments should be given the exposure that a flawed work like Pornland has received. And unless they can make a compelling and well-evidenced case, I trust that feminists like myself will be able to hang on to our political credentials without hanging up our intellectual faculties. In one way at least, Pornland’s success in penetrating public debate shows one thing: there’s a need and a desire among people to talk about how porn affects us all. (Also, it’s never a bad sell to put “porn” in the title and a sex boot on the cover.) The next stage is to take that debate out of the negative and dishonest framing that Dines has applied to it. Vast, messy, sometimes unpleasant and sometimes delightful, pornography deserves a better debate.











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