by Gail Dines and Robert Jensen
[An edited version of this essay appeared in the Houston Chronicle.]
The #MeToo movement fights back against sexual harassment and assault, rejecting the idea that women exist for men’s sexual pleasure.
But alongside the growing success of that movement, the pornography industry continues to thrive by presenting explicit images that sexualize exactly this idea — that women exist to serve men’s desires, whatever those desires might be, no matter how much humiliation and suffering they impose on women.
The contradiction is obvious: As men are being held accountable for using their power to manipulate and abuse women sexually, the pornography industry continues to socialize men into that very behavior. It’s time for the #MeToo movement — and feminism more generally — to make a critique of pornography part of the project of ending violence against women.
U.S. society is awash in entertainment and advertising that presents women as sexual objects, and nowhere is the sexualized objectification more intense than in pornography. Does it matter? Yes, for obvious reasons: Mass media images have an important role in shaping contemporary culture, and profit-seeking corporations shape media images. We will never shift the cultural norms that support sexual violence as long as a multi-billion-dollar industry produces images that socialize men and boys to see girls and women as legitimate victims of male sexual exploitation and abuse.
The #MeToo movement should not ignore the problem of pornography.
In the past half-century, everyone knows that the pornography industry has expanded dramatically, especially online. Porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined, with Pornhub alone receiving 33.5 billion visits in 2018. Pornhub boasts “that’s as if the combined populations of Canada, Poland and Australia all visited Pornhub every day!” In addition, research has found that young people are increasingly exposed to porn — either intentionally or by accident — through Snapchat and Instagram, which are becoming gateways for increased hardcore porn use among teen boys.
What people may not know is that the sexual practices which have become standard in the industry — multiple penetrations of a woman by more than one man at the same time, aggressive oral sex to the point of gagging, and lots of overtly racist scenarios and language — have intensified the message of male dominance. As this cruelty toward women has deepened, boys’ and young men’s use of these images has become so routine that pornography is the default sex education for the contemporary United States, and much of the rest of the world.
A caveat: To recognize that a mass media genre such as pornography has a role in shaping the sexual imagination does not mean that pornography “causes” sexual harassment and rape. Pornography is not the only place where boys and men are trained to control women for sexual pleasure. But studies show that it is a key component of that training for many, and ignoring this reality is dangerous.
Another caveat: Criticizing the pornography industry is not an attack on the women who perform in pornography, many of whom deal with serious psychological and physical harm from the routine body-punishing sexual acts they endure. A critique of the industry is part of a feminist challenge to men’s abuse of power in all its forms.
With increasing awareness of the corrosive nature of everyday male dominance and white supremacy, why is there so little honest conversation about this flood of misogynist and racist images? Why are people who raise concerns so quickly labeled prudish or anti-sex? Why are so many people afraid to bring a critique of pornography into the conversation about men’s abusive sexual behavior?
Most men reject the use of coercion and violence to force women into sex. Thanks in large part to the #MeToo movement, more men are examining their lives and modifying their behavior when challenged by women. However, fewer men are willing to explore how pornography goes to the heart of the way they experience sexual pleasure, through a sense of power and control. It is harder to convince men to let go of the quick and seemingly easy orgasms that pornography provides. (Our focus is on heterosexual men, but this concern about socialization can apply to gay porn as well.)
Heterosexual women use pornography, but at much lower rates, and many of the women who object to the images stay quiet. Is this hesitancy rooted in a fear of what the men in their lives might be watching? Men often hide their pornography use from partners, and women often don’t want to know what those men are watching.
The pornography industry wants us to be afraid to speak up. Porn producers surround their misogyny and racism with platitudes about free speech, and like any industry, they spend money on PR and lobbying to protect their profits.
We do not support censorship but instead advocate an approach that defines the issue as a public-health crisis, rather than a moral one. What we know from research is that pornography consumption among men is not an individual problem — it is a societal one, and as such, it requires a collective response. (Other movements that have successfully used a public-health framework include drinking and driving, smoking, and shaken-baby syndrome.)
And we encourage others to raise their voices to challenge the porn industry’s celebration of sexualized male dominance. A rejection of that dominance in pornography comes from the same source as a rejection of sexual harassment and assault — a demand for real freedom and autonomy for women, which makes possible a richer and more fulfilling life for everyone.
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Gail Dines, professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, is president and CEO of Culture Reframed. She is the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.
Robert Jensen, an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, is the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity.