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Whatever Happened to Melissa Harris-Perry?

When a Feminist Gets Bumped for a Pornographer

by GAIL DINES

Last week, midway through a leisurely Saturday afternoon, I got an email from MSNBC asking me to be on the Melissa Harris Perry Show a week later (July 7th). I was delighted to accept, as MHP is not your usual American journalist. A professor of political science at Tulane University, she is an outspoken African American feminist and a progressive voice in a media landscape dominated by right-wing talking heads. MSNBC is a rare media oasis in the U.S. where one gets to hear some actual critical analysis, so I—mistakenly, it turned out—thought this was going to be one of the few positive experiences I’ve had working with corporate-controlled media. In all honesty, after many years of being on talk shows in the U.S., I have come to expect very little in terms of integrity from the media. Their job is to boost ratings by making stories entertaining and light, and God help anyone who gets in their way.

I spent a long time on the phone with MHP’s producer talking about my research on the harms of porn and the ways women in the industry—especially women of color—are financially exploited and physically and emotionally dehumanized and debased. Given MHP’s feminist politics and her scholarly work on the representation of African American women in U.S. history, I was excited to do a show with an interviewer whom I expected would be engaging and thoughtful, in contrast to the usual adolescent sniggering I get from the male journalist who suddenly finds himself in the awkward position of interviewing a feminist who doesn’t think porn is fun.

But by the middle of the week things started to go very wrong. My last conversation with the producers was on the Sunday before the show, and I was told that I would get a call by Tuesday to confirm my travel details. Wednesday came, and no call. On Thursday, I got an email saying that the “segment is changing,” so they won’t need me. “Changing”… not canceled. To the uninitiated this might seem like splitting hairs, but I am an old hand at dealing with the media, and I have been in this position more times than I can count.

Let me explain how it often plays out: I get a call from a producer to do a show about porn, and in our pre-show discussion the producer is shocked to hear about what really goes on in the porn industry. He or she had no idea that hardcore porn (called “gonzo” by the industry and fans) is now mainstream on the Internet, that choking with a penis, slapping, hair pulling, and verbal abuse is the norm. The producer is horrified to hear that women in porn suffer repeatedly from rectal prolapse (because of pounding anal sex), and get diseases such as clamidia of the eye, gonorrhea of the throat, and fecal throat infections (because of the ATM act in which the penis goes from the anus to the mouth without washing). As we talk, I know exactly what is going on in the producer’s mind: they see their fun, hot-ratings-driver segment going down the tubes, and they are suddenly in the not-so-fun territory of cruelty, violence, and economic exploitation.

As if this weren’t enough, their would-be guest at the other end of the line uses the dreaded word “capitalism,” because, of course, there is no way to talk about the porn industry without a thorough analysis of how this predatory industry actually interfaces with credit card companies, banks, information technology, hotels, venture capitalists, and—wait for it—mainstream media. And now we are at a fork in the road. Either the interview is quickly terminated, or the producer is intrigued
and I am booked. But I know that until the moment the camera rolls, there is no guarantee that I will actually be on the show. Most galling is that if I’m replaced, it’s usually by some porn shill spouting on about porn as fun, feminist empowerment.

Not for one second did I think this would happen with the MHP show. (Seems I am a slow learner.) As soon as I got the email that the segment was “changing,” I could smell a rat. I emailed back and asked if the topic of porn was canceled altogether or if the producer had other plans for the segment. The response was guarded and awkward, so I Googled around to see if the segments of the upcoming show were listed anywhere, but found nothing. I assumed that I would have to wait until Saturday to see just how it had indeed changed, but it turned out that people who are smarter than I am at social media research were digging around to see what was actually going on. Bingo!

They came across a post on Jaclyn Friedman’s Facebook page saying that she was going to be on MHP with pornographer Tristan Taorminio. Now I understood what they meant by the “segment is changing.” Gone was a critical feminist analysis of the porn industry, and in its place was a “fun” discussion of women’s sexual agency, their fantasies, and their empowered choices to make porn. Any discussion of economic exploitation, predatory capitalism, violence, STDs, or rectal prolapses was clearly off the table. We were moving back into ratings nirvana with fluff pieces. Even cynical me was shocked. This was, after all, MHP, not some clueless talk show host.

So I sprang into action and emailed the producer. But this time I copied MHP. I wrote:

Since Dr. Harris Perry is an academic, you should be aware that the currency of our profession is  open debate with people representing different positions. You have chosen to do a segment that will draw ratings and titillate, at the expense of a more thoughtful analysis of the role of porn in our culture. Selecting Jaclyn Friedman (who has not studied porn in any rigorous way), and Tristan Taormino (who works for the industry, and has partnered with John Stagliano, a well-known producer of very violent porn) undermines Dr. Melissa Harris Perry’s integrity.

My sense is that Dr. Harris Perry is not aware of the level of violence against women in porn, nor the way that women of color are the most degraded and humiliated, as are black men. For example, one of the best selling porn series targeted to white males is called Oh no! There’s a negro in my daughter/wife/sister/mom. If she were, I doubt she would want a segment that renders invisible the lives of real women and men in the porn industry in favor of a piece that speaks to the lives of a small group of privileged women.

I also attached a link to my chapter on racism in porn from my book Pornland. Within the hour I get an email back asking “Is there a statement you would like to send me so we could include it in our show please?” To which I replied:

You can’t seriously think for one minute that I could offer a statement about the complexities of a global predatory industry that would in any way have an effect given the “direction” you have taken this show.… I find it a little strange that you ask for a statement from me, yet feel fit to give a pornographer such as Tristan Taormino air time.

Surprise! In place of the statement that I refused to make, they used my emails as my statement, without my permission. MHP read them aloud on the show, but not one of the guests or MHP engaged with the content. Instead, they went back to fun feminism, and the (at times incoherent) conversation turned to the need for women to make porn as a way to counter the effects of the multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Meanwhile, of course, not one person on the show actually pointed out that the overwhelming market for porn is men and that they are very happy, thank you, with their gonzo. And lest we get away from fun, let’s not even mention the physical and sexual violence that women in porn endure. Or, heaven forbid, the level of male violence that women outside the porn industry also have to live with.

I remember watching an MHP segment on MSNBC after she saw the movie The Help. I use this clip in my classes on racism in media because her passion and eloquence are so deeply felt. She is upset by the movie, and she is almost in tears when she explains how white-produced images of African American women deny the reality of their lives and render invisible the pain and suffering real black domestics endured at the hands of white employers. In another interview, MHP said that her fear was that The Help will become “the historical record because of its popularity, and that people who see the movie will come to believe that that’s really what happened“.

Clearly, MHP understands the power of media images to shape the way people think. If this is true of movies, then it is also true of other media genres, including porn. If MHP is upset at The Help for misrepresenting black women’s lives, then what about popular porn sites such as Bad Black Babes, Pimp My Black Teen, or Ghetto Gaggers, or any of the thousands of websites that show black women “enjoying” sexual degradation at the hands of black and white men? These images, just like the ones in The Help, are part of the media world that creates ideas, attitudes, and beliefs that undermine all women’s rights to full equality, dignity, and justice. I didn’t expect Taormino or the other guests to take this on, but I did expect a political science professor to be a little more savvy and intellectually inquisitive about how individual and collective perceptions are formed by cultural institutions.

My only explanation for MHP’s lapse in judgment is that she, like all media professionals, is held captive by the commercial imperative of corporate-owned media. This segment was clearly meant to be the lighter part of the show, a little relief from the more depressing issues she normally covers—for example, racism, poverty and inequality—as if these very issues don’t create the conditions for women’s entry into the sex industry in the first place. Not only did she squander a golden opportunity to do some real journalism; worse, in this segment, MHP went from being an academic to a talk show host, and along the way she compromised her integrity as a feminist.

GAIL DINES is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. Her latest book is Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality (Beacon Press). She is a founding member of Stop Porn Culture (stoppornculture.org).