Pornography and Gender Politics Within Neoliberalism
Professor Gail Dines is one of the world’s leading anti-pornography feminists, an accomplished author, and activist. Currently, professor Dines teaches women’s studies and sociology, while Chairing the American Studies department at Wheelock College, in Boston, Massachusetts. Professor Dines is the author of several books, her latest, PORNLAND: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality, examines how men’s and women’s lives, sexuality and relationships are shaped by porn culture. She was recently interviewed by Vince Emanuele, the host of the Veterans Unplugged Radio program.
Vince Emanuele: Professor let’s begin by discussing the overall scale of the pornography business. When did this trend begin?
Gail Dines: I think if you really want to talk about the growth, you’re really looking at a $97 billion dollar a year industry. That’s a rough figure. It’s actually very difficult to come up with any accurate figures of revenue for the porn industry. If you really want to understand how the industry became so big, then you really have to understand the role the internet played in the process of demand and consumption. First of all, the internet made pornography affordable, accessible, and anonymous. Those are the three things that have actually increased consumer demand. Now what you see is a move away from the Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler soft-core, to medium soft-core pornography, towards a more hard-core industry.
And one of the reasons for this is because so many men are using so much pornography at such an early age now, that what you see is a boredom factor. So in a way the pornography industry has dug a whole for itself, because it’s gotten so hard-core so fast, that they really don’t know how to keep up with demand. Remember, we’re talking about an industry–a global industry. They don’t want to break the law. So they have limits to what they can, and can’t do to the female body. You can’t actually murder her on the screen, but they do everything else they can possibly do to her on the set. So, the industry has become huge because of the internet and a global player because of the size and scope of the industry. Once you have so much money involved, then you can have your own public relations groups, lobbying groups, you can buy politicians and cozy up to the all the capitalist enterprises. Overall, we’ve seen a massive change in the scope and size of pornography in the post-internet world.
Emanuele: And how about particularly in American culture? If you look across the globe, do you see various cultures and nations that are dealing with this issue better, or worse than America?
Dines: Well, let me begin by saying the level of pornification and hypersexualization of this culture, and Western culture in general, has taken people by surprise. I’ve been traveling around the world giving lectures about this issue and most of the countries I’ve been absolutely do not know what to do about it, because they’re beginning to see changes int he social construction of the identities of young people and some of it is due to pornography, not all of it, but I would say a fair amount is due to the porn industry. First, in the United States, where the vast majority of pornography is made, something like 70-80% of the world’s pornography is made in Los Angeles, California. Of course, that pornography, via the internet, gets shipped all over the world.
So, think about this for a minute: there’s a handful of predatory capitalists, living in the Los Angeles area, who are actually shaping the sexual template of the Western World. This is a form of sexual colonization. It’s their imagery, and the way they think about sex. Let’s be clear, pornography is not sex. Pornography is the industrialization of sex. And just like America controls most industries, it too controls the porn industry. Now, other countries are indeed trying to get a handle on this. For example, Canada is having a lot of conferences and discussions around what to do. I’ve been to Norway where they’re talking about it. I’m going to Iceland soon to a government conferences on how to limit access to pornography, and what to do about the pornification of their society. This country, as far as I can see, is doing the least amount of any Western country. At least as far as I can see.
Emanuele: How can we talk about this process of pornification within the framework of neoliberal economic policies and the hyper-commercialized culture we live in? Especially in terms of materialism and the commodification of sex? How does this fit within the framework of a process of commodification of our culture as a whole?
Dines: Let’s begin to think about this. For example, let’s take the fashion industry. You know, the fashion industry really dictates fashion and how people dress worldwide. The food industry creates tastes for food worldwide. It’s the same with the sex industry. The sex industry, worldwide, creates a specific taste. Specifically, pornography is the commodification of sexuality. That which belongs to us, they’ve industrialized it, commodified it, and sold it back to us in a form that is completely unrecognizable. The hypersexualization of culture is really an intertwined network of industries which include the fashion industry, media industry, and music industry.
They’re all working together. So when you think about this from a structural-Marxist approach, one of Antonio Gramsci’s great insights was the way in which way in which hegemony seamlessly ties together a way of thinking about the world that fits into various industries. What you actually have here is a series of industries working together to create an image of women, sexuality, masculinity, and hypersexuality that holds a very coherent narrative: men are by nature sexually predatory–that’s the message. Women are increasingly conforming to that image of what men are being shaped to enjoy.
Women are being told that if they want to be worth something, they have to compare themselves to the Paris Hiltons’, Brittany Spears’, Beyonce’s, and Rihanna’s of the world. The thing about human beings is that we’re social beings. You know, you’re 13, or 14 years old, trying to construct your gender identity, and as a cultural being what do you do? You wander through society and look for the values, norms, and images of what it means to be male or female. And today, there’s only one image: the hypersexualized image of gender. Along with hypersexualization, there comes a very important wardrobe you have to wear.
Now we’re back in the fashion industry. You have to have a body that’s well toned, tall, and usually white. It helps to be white in this culture and in the porn business as well. Since these industries are working together to produce these images, what you’re now seeing is a lack of authenticity as people attempt to develop their identities and sexualities. I don’t believe for a second that people are born to crave fast food burgers. But if you create a culture with fast food burger restaurants everywhere, people eventually begin craving fast food burgers. The same goes for the porn industry: I don’t believe for a minute that people are born and crave pornography, or the desire for pornographic sex. But I do believe they become socialized that way in this culture.
Emanuele: How is this effecting people not only at a social and cultural level, but also at the psychological level? Or how is this physically changing people’s brains and physiology? Particularly males in this society, who are often exposed to this material at a much younger age than their female counterparts?
Dines: Well, there’s no question. Statistically speaking, the average age of when people first view pornography is 11.5 years old. Now, let me just talk about the pornography for a minute, because some people may be thinking about Playboy, Penthouse, or maybe even Hustler. Let me say that those days are long gone. When I’m talking about pornography, I’m talking about the mainstream pornography that the industry is producing in Los Angeles. And it’s now what they call “Gonzo,” Which is shorthand for very, very hardcore, abusive and cruel imagery.
So when a twelve year old boy with no credit card types “porn” into Google, this is what he comes up with. He’s not pulling up images of women with no clothes, laying in a cornfield with a coy smile. Those days are long gone. In fact they have migrated into pop culture. What’s left is this very, very hardcore imagery. Let me say, I’m not a psychologist, but I do speak with many of my psychologist colleagues who are seeing the fall-out from this trend. What they’re seeing is younger and younger boys addicted to pornography. I have to be honest, I didn’t buy into the addiction model at first. I thought it was just an excuse for men to use porn.
But if you put me in a room with therapists, all they want to talk about is the porn-addiction they’re seeing in their offices. They’re absolutely overwhelmed with younger, and younger men. Interestingly, the addiction looks like every other addiction: they can’t using it, their lives are falling apart, and what happens in the real world is once they start getting into pornography, their actual interest in sex with another human being goes ride down. They’re now used to industrial-strength sex and most women are only willing to have vanilla sex, or at the very least not “Gonzo” style sex.
But that’s boring to these guys. So men are really shifting what’s referred to as their “sexual-template.” It is still mainly men whose template has shifted. For them, sex that has a level of intimacy and connection is actually boring. Whereas sex, which is about abusing her, defacing her, demonizing her, that’s become the normalized sex that a lot of men want. As I mentioned before, I travel around the globe, and particularly in the United States and it’s the same message everywhere from small schools in Utah, to Ivy League Universities on the East Coast. So now you have a sort of homogenized sexuality taking over.
Emanuele: Are there historical examples of this taking place within other imperial societies? Looking back at history, I’m thinking of some of the sexual exploits of the former Roman and Greek Empires? Does it matter that we’re living in a collapsing imperial society in the United States? Especially as our culture, society, and economy continue to decline here in the US?
Dines: I think that would be true if we didn’t have the internet. Because if you look at the Scandinavian countries, they’re having the same problems with pornography, but not with regard to their culture, political systems, or economies. I don’t think it’s about the decline of the United States of America. I do think, as a globe, we are facing a massive economic, environmental, political and social crisis. I think pornography, on some level, buys into this individualized, narcissistic sexuality, which is the kind of individual neoliberalism creates.
This neoliberal discourse on individualism makes it very difficult to explain to people why this is a problem because they simply say, “Well, if you don’t want to look at porn, don’t look at it.” And, “If the women choose to be in porn, that’s their choice.” Now, that’s the neoliberal approach: the idea that free individuals are making free choices based on the fact that they’re rational beings. We need a more collective understanding. For instance, what does it mean if we bring up our boys on hardcore pornography? What kind of men are we going to create? These men are going to grow up and be politicians, doctors, and lawyers. They’re going to become very important change agents in this culture.
So what I’m worried about, in a culture where women’s bodies are disposed of, and abused, is how men are going to do very simple tasks, such as create health care policy? What’s going to be men’s view of women when they’ve been trained by the pornographers to view women in a very specific way? What’s going to happen when these men become teachers and have young female students? What’s going to happen when they’re sitting judges and take rape cases? My fear is that sexuality does not stay in one part of the brain. It seeps into every part of people’s lives.
I think the bigger question is what’s our society going to look like in 10-15 years when all these boys who’ve been brought up on “Gonzo” pornography start becoming adult males in our society? That’s what scares me. What’s going to happen when they attempt to date women? I already see the fallout. Anyone who’s around women, they talk about their rapes and sexual assaults. They talk about what it’s like to date men who are using porn. I don’t know if guys know this, but many women find men who use porn quite creepy. They can feel it sexually. Again, these are very difficult questions to ask in a society that glamorizes the individual.
Emanuele: How can we tie talk about this within a society that often time negates that fact that we’re living in a patriarchal context? Some people might ask, “What do you mean we’re living in a society where men dominate?” Sure, maybe we can talk about the economic sphere, but that’s it. Usually, we don’t talk about patriarchy in culture, or day to day activities.
Dines: This is a very good question that I often get from my students. I tell them if you want to understand what kind of society you live in, go for a stroll in the park, on your own, around 11:00pm. Of course none of them will do that. Why? Well, because they’re scared of being raped. So the first thing to remember is that women in our culture are always afraid of being raped. We look at every stranger who’s a man as a possible, or potential rapist. We have this sort of inbred fear of men. And this is what happens in a culture where you have these images and forms of patriarchy.
Look at the fact that the poorest of the poor are women and children. Wherever you go, the least fed, the least literate, the most underemployed, and overworked are always women and children. As long as you have men in power who don’t see females as human beings, and the pornography business plays into this, and the problem with this is that we must get men to start seeing women and children as human beings who have a right to a life of dignity. When do you see women and children discussed in Presidential debates? It’s as if women and children don’t even exist. Look at the major boards of companies. They’re virtually all ran by men. Sure, the New York Times has weekly columns on women doctors, and so forth. But, in reality, most women are in low positions and low-wage labor jobs. That’s patriarchy.
Emanuele: We also know that since World War I, the vast majority of those killed in armed conflict have been women and children. Of course with the mechanization of warfare in the 20th Century those trends continued.
Dines: Wow, I didn’t know that. But it makes perfect sense. I mean, look at what’s happening in the Congo, with rape being used as a weapon. And of course those young men who are killed in warfare are the sons of the working-class and poor. The middle and upper-classes are not sending their sons to war, you know?
Emanuele: When I came back from the Marine Corps, I joined the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War, and throughout the time we’ve been active, there have been several situations which have forced us to reevaluate how we’re functioning as an organization. For example, we’ve become more conscious of creating safe spaces for women, and making sure our leadership positions are being filled by women and men in an equitable fashion. Plus, through various studies, it’s become almost common knowledge that 1/3 of all the women serving in the armed forces are dealing with military sexual trauma, assault, harassment, or rape.
Dines: And how they deal with the PTSD. The way that this country deals with the PTSD in veterans is just an embarrassment. I don’t think they understand how PTSD completely destroys these peoples’ lives. If you have untreated PTSD, you’re barely living a life, you know? Plus there’s very little money put into that. It’s a shame. Just think of the War-Economy and what could be done with all that wasted money. You know, in a capitalist society, war is good. It creates tons of jobs and makes 1% of the population rich. I always tell my students that the nature of the beast under capitalism is the society we live in.
If you’re going to be pro-capitalist, then you really can’t complain about the world we’re living in. What we see is the result of capitalism. It’s not an unfortunate byproduct of capitalism, or some aberration of capitalism. Capitalism is the 1% feeding off of everyone else; the destruction of the environment; the growth of the porn industry–all of these are built into the capitalist system and society. I think if we’re serious about changing these things then we must demand a new economic system that just and equitable for everyone–not just a better version of capitalism, but a whole new system.
Emanuele: What’s your advice for those who seek to be male allies in this process? Especially folks who are very serious about organizing and activist work? In short, what’s your advice for men in this culture?
Dines: First of all, stop using pornography. That’s the first thing you have to do and it’s non-negotiable. Then you have to retrain yourself to base your sexuality on commitment, intimacy, and connection. So, there’s a lot of work to do for individual men on the personal level. Now, on the collective level, we have a group called Stop Porn Culture, which is an activist group. I would say to join our group. Go to events. Go to conferences. Become activists. Start talking to your friends about these issues. Often, the problem is that when we go out to do anti-pornography events, it’s mainly women. That’s a problem because we need men to show other men what’s wrong with pornography.
Many men are not used to listening to women. So when we go out there, we really don’t get listened to. So we need men who are pro-feminist, and believe in gender justice and equality to join us. But not just to “help women,” but to understand that what we offer them as feminists, is the sort of humanity that patriarchy has destroyed. Let me tell you that I have a son. And from the day he was born this society told him what it meant to be a “man.” And everything he learned about being a man was everything we thought was antithetical to being a loving, decent and caring human being. In many ways, I think feminism is men’s best friend. We are the group out there who’s fighting for men’s humanity. We, unlike the pornographers, do not think men are born predators. We do not think men are born rapists. We actually believe men deserve a decent life, and I don’t see many other groups fighting for that.
Emanuele: Within this process, how important is it to establish and develop alternative forms of media?
Dines: I think that’s all very good and well, but I really feel as true leftists, we must begin to dismantle a system that continues to reproduce itself. If we all focused on alternative media, we’d simply develop a counter-hegemonic view of the world and continue fighting those who have bought into the system itself. It is ridiculous that five major corporations own virtually all of the media. That’s what we need to go after. How dare ABC, CBS, News Corporation, GE, Viacom and these various companies control our culture?
Emanuele: Okay, understanding that five corporations own 95% of everything we read, see, or hear, I’m wondering how important it is to set up alternative forms of media, particularly with a feminist and anti-patriarchal ideological bent? Particularly, occupying the air waves?
Dines: The truth is, how do we do that? As a teacher I can tell you that most of my students don’t know about NPR, which is barely progressive, actually not really at all but it’s better than most things. If most of my students stumbled across an alternative media site, they wouldn’t even know what to do with it. They wouldn’t begin to understand what’s in it. So I think there’s a small number of the population that’s good for. But I can tell you that when I go out lecturing, these things don’t exist to the vast majority of America. And even if they understand it, you have to have some sort of existing knowledge to really understand the critique. There’s a lot of work to be done. I think one of the things we need to be doing is organizing against corporations. While organizing people, you should be telling them what’s wrong with the fact that five corporations own practically all the media. That’s the kind of education to be done. Certainly we should be doing alternative media, but that speaks to too few people to make major change.
Emanuele: How would you respond to those who say that pornography could be an empowering and liberating experience? Can we disconnect sexual exploration from pornification?
Dines: This is a crucial question. Yes, of course we can. The feminist anti-porn critique is not about what couples do in the bedroom. It’s a critique about a global industry, just as you would critique the fast food industry. Whatever couples do in their bedrooms is none of my business, okay? Now, take a global industry that circulates these products throughout the world and shapes the sexual template and, yes, as a feminist, that’s my business. I often get called “anti-sex.” Let me say something, if I were critiquing the fast food industry, nobody would accuse me of anti-eating. They would understand I’m critiquing an industry, not eating.
So, to call someone who critiques pornography anti-sex, is to confuse pornography with sexuality. One is a human desire for creativity and fun. The other is an industrial product. Can pornography be empowering for women in it? In the industrial setting, the answer is no. And I’ve researched more than almost anyone in the world about these issues. In the industry today, women last approximately three months. The reason is that their bodies cannot handle the damage done to them. So you tell me how an industry that destroys your body in about a three month period is empowering for those involved? An industry that causes chlamydia of the eye, gonorrhea of the throat, and anal tears to the point that some women’s anuses dropped out of their bodies. How can any of this be empowering?
Emanuele: No, well, any of the interviews, or anecdotal evidence that I’ve seen, or people I’ve spoken with about this topic, it seems to be a completely horrific experience, and completely exploitative. Particularly in the Los Angeles area where the majority of this material is produced.
Emanuele: If you could, any last recommendations for those who will listen to, and read this interview? How would you recommend people get involved? And how can people access your work?
Dines: First, you can go to www.stoppornculture.org, where we have lots of resources, slide shows, and you can go to YouTube to watch my videos. Plus, you can go www.gaildines.com and watch some of those lectures and videos. Get involved with our organization. You can’t take this on as an individual, you have to fight this system in a collective manner. Remember, you’re fighting a global industry. On a more personal level, which always matters, is for men to stop using pornography. You have to retrain yourselves to be develop a sexuality that is life-loving and based on gender equality, not gender inequality. For women, we have to stop capitulating to patriarchy, ad stop doing what men want us to do. We have to stop dating men who use pornography. Lastly, as women, we need to argue that we want sex on our terms, and that’s nothing like what the pornography industry produces.
Emanuele: Thank you very much for your time, Gail. It was a pleasure to speak with you today.
Dines: Oh, well, thanks for the interview. It was very enjoyable.
VINCE EMANUELE is the host of the Veterans Unplugged Radio program, which airs every Sunday, from 5-7pm(Central) in Michigan City, Indiana on 1420AM “WIMS Radio: Your Talk of the South Shore.” (www.veteransunplugged.com) Vince is also a member of Veterans for Peace, and serves on the board of directors for Iraq Veterans Against the War.