Gail Dines’ Pornland imagines a smut-free world. Here’s a better idea.
Show a male turkey a wooden spoon with a fake female turkey’s head attached, and he’ll immediately try to seduce it, fanning out his tail and gobbling as furiously as he can.
Restrain your laughter. After all, show a male human a Victoria’s Secret catalog, and he might disappear into the bathroom for a few minutes. Sometimes all it takes to stir the blood is a reproduction of a woman. (Or a man. But as we delve into our review, we’ll be discussing porn from Dines’ primarily hetero perspective.)
These days, Victoria’s Secret catalogs are pretty tame. Few people would think of them as pornographic, although some spreads do resemble early Playboy issues. The bar for pornography is set pretty high.
Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, argues that our culture’s fondness for more explicit material is responsible for a multitude of sins, not least of which is the sexuality hijacking mentioned in her title.
She says porn isn’t just harming women; it’s harming men as well. It’s generating unhappiness, violence, and crime. It’s drastically altering our cultural norms and taboos. It’s turning coming-of-age boys today into mindless, porn-consuming robots, incapable of forming a healthy physical bond with any other human being.
Which all sounds pretty grim, you have to admit, and indeed is all the grimmer for the chilling body of evidence Dines assembles to support it.
She cites the comically overdone sexist and racist stereotypes that pervade the standard porn “narrative.” Beyond that, many projects that push boundaries even further have made an art form of misogyny and degradation. For example, Paul F. Little, a porn producer who goes by the name Max Hardcore, has a line of extremely violent work that depicts rape, humiliation, urination, and vomiting—all starring women dressed as prepubescent girls.
But what’s most worrisome to me is the amount of seemingly unstoppable capitalist power that has built up behind the adult entertainment industry. The estimated worldwide market for porn is worth around $100 billion, and shows no signs of shrinking or even slowing down. Pay-per-view porn in hotels is worth $500 million all by itself, and, by some estimates, home cable customers spend an equal amount.
Dines’ beef is not only with the industry. With just as much vitriol, she goes after those who defend porn as harmless, or as a natural part of the male sex drive, or even as a positive tool for embracing human sexuality. Why do we assume, Dines asks, that men (or anyone) can so easily separate the images they see in pornography from the relationships they have with real people—sexual or otherwise? Isn’t it proven, she argues, that violent video games impact human behavior?
Dines argues that porn and other media inscribe their values upon us in a way that’s out of our control. Another camp would argue, however, that most viewers are capable of thoughtfully decoding the messages in media, and forming their own opinions about it.
Both positions have a great deal to recommend them. Television studies have shown that the more TV we watch, the more firmly we buy into gender stereotypes. Education isn’t a factor—even people with cultural studies degrees are susceptible. Other studies have shown that we interpret mass media in ways that diverge from its apparent “message.”
Crucially, these latter findings apply to highly generic media such as romance novels and episodes of the old Adam West Batman—media with the type of predictable narratives that, Dines says, make porn so hard to resist. Yet people can resist these messages—at least partially. To turn Dines’ own question on her, why suppose things are any different for porn consumers?
We may be passive dupes at times. But we’re capable of being active media connoisseurs as well. Indeed, Dines’ book is full of examples of porn consumers thoughtfully dissecting both the semiotics of porn and its effect on their lives, relationships, and sexual preferences—it’s just that she doesn’t acknowledge those examples as the sort of critical consumption that she then swears porn users can’t possibly engage in. (Maybe she should read more Tom Matlack.)
A truly compelling critique of porn culture needs to accommodate the tendency in its consumers to objectively examine their own habits. The porn industry doesn’t strap its consumers into chairs with their eyelids stretched open, Clockwork Orange–style, the way Dines seems to suggest.
It seems porn users really are weaving their interpretations of these images into larger narratives about their personalities, sexual preferences, and attitudes toward eroticism and the women in their lives.
The men who tell Dines that they picture porn stars while having sex with their girlfriends—and that doing so makes them feel terrible—are not having their “existing notions of sexuality” cemented by porn, as Dines claims. Rather, they’re struggling to reconcile the many conflicting notions of sexuality presented to them.
It seems to me that the porn industry, however predatory and destructive it may be, is only one half of the problem; the growing population of willing-to-go-along-with-it johns is the other. So the question we really need to ask is not how best to fight the porn producers (Dines’s solution), but how best to bring about change in the porn consumers, who, while they can explain all the negative effects porn has on them and their relationships, can continue beating off to it as if nothing were the matter.
“Porn is a funhouse mirror reflecting whatever we want to see in it,” Susannah Breslin concludes in her essay “They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They?” “If Porn Valley is America’s dream factory, it bears keeping in mind that its dreams are all yours.”
For many, porn is simply an indulgence. It has the potential to be positive, as producers like Tristan Taormino can prove. But the industry condones some criminal extremes—not just in its depicted content, but the treatment of its players and its unregulated testing policies.
Pornographers ought to be held responsible for abuses. Industry practices, even for amateur online productions, must be more stringently regulated. Working to legitimize the industry, as Jezebel writer Megan Carpentier argues, will help, in addition to other benefits: “a significant decrease” in exploitation, and “increased opportunities for women to participate in the higher-earning aspects of the production.”
But real change has to come from consumers, who can vote with their wallets and their cursors. Change has to come from dialogue, open discussion, and consumer education, so the porn we choose to watch, as Carpentier says, “is made with the consent and pleasure of the participants.”
Dines would say, of course, that if I suggest we don’t entirely eliminate porn, I’m just buying into the culture it has helped create, and am facilitating and condoning an irredeemable form of exploitation. Porn has brainwashed me and hijacked my sexuality, and it ain’t about to let go.
But while that might make for good copy, it effectively shuts down any possibility of debate, or, for that matter, of achievable change. Defining something as evil isn’t going to fix it. And if we suppress it, refuse to acknowledge it, and hand it over to the bowels of the unregulated Internet underworld, it can’t get anything but worse.