For the past decade I have been actively involved in movements to resist the United States’ imperial military activity in the world and to critique men’s sexual exploitation of women in pornography.
So, when the organizers of a “Heroes and Healthy Families” conference for U.S. Marines asked me to speak about the harms of pornography, I was a bit conflicted.
I am always eager to speak to men about the reasons they should not buy women in the sexual-exploitation industries (prostitution and strip bars, as well as pornography), arguments rooted in a larger radical feminist critique of a patriarchal system that routinely socializes men to pursue dominance and conquest through aggression and violence.
Of course that pretty much sums up the mission of the U.S. military: Dominance and conquest through aggression and violence, in the service of deepening and extending elite control over the resources and markets of the world.
I would have loved to have told these young men that they not only should reassess their sexual exploitation of women but reconsider their decision to be part of the U.S. empire’s killing machine. But in the 30 minutes I was allotted during a daylong conference for 1,000 Marine non-commissioned officers (corporals and sergeants), I knew I would have my hands full just trying to talk about pornography.
Even though I didn’t have enough time to develop fully the feminist case against pornography, let alone try to weave in a critique of empire, I’m glad I was there — in part because I think some of the young men did take my critique seriously, but also because I learned something from the men who talked to me privately about their own conflicts with pornography.
Below is an edited transcript of the words I offered to those men. I am not naïve; the majority probably dismissed the critique of pornography and gave little or no thought to an analysis of masculinity and violence. But those private conversations indicated some of them were listening.
Porn owns you: Problems with online pornography
[Remarks to the 2010 “Heroes and Healthy Families Conference,” New Bern, NC.]
Mention “problems with online pornography” and many men will agree that it’s frustrating when porn videos take a long time to load on the computer.
So, I assume that many of you are asking, “What’s the problem with pornography?” After all, it’s just sex, and people have been having sex for a long time. It’s just a movie, and you don’t need to take it so seriously. Nobody forces the women to make porn, and they’re getting paid. And besides, I have right to look at what I want to look at. I mean, it’s not like porn causes rape.
What’s the big deal?
My task in the next half hour is to explain that porn is a big deal and that we should be concerned about men’s use of pornography.
I haven’t always held this view. When it comes to pornography, I have a pretty normal history for a guy from my generation. My grade school friends and I stashed a biker magazine in a secret hiding place, and we pulled it out regularly to stare wide-eyed at the pictures of women without tops. I ducked into my parents’ bedroom and looked at my father’s Playboy magazines. My junior-high friends and I snuck into theaters to see porn movies. And during my 20s I sometimes slipped into a porn store’s video booths or used porn magazines. And you know what I mean by “used,” right? I didn’t just watch pornography, I masturbated to pornography.
Those stories probably sound quaint to younger men who grew up online. But even though our digital world today offers instant access to any imaginable sexual image for anyone of any age at any time, one central fact about pornography hasn’t changed: Pornography is primarily a masturbation facilitator for boys and men.
And even though people today have an easier time getting pornography, and the pornography they get is more explicit and extreme, here’s another thing that hasn’t changed much: The ways that boys and men rationalize their use of pornography and scoff at criticism. Porn is just sex, just fantasy, just a way to relax. Porn is just not a big deal.
Here are three reasons it is a big deal.
First, the women who are used in the making of pornography are a big deal. They are people, human beings, just like you and me. The men in porn call them whores, but in fact they are people. And when things happen to them, they feel, just like we do.
Here’s what we know about “whores”: They don’t tend to come from wealthy families. They are more likely than other women to have been sexually abused as children. And they experience high rates of drug and alcohol abuse. Yes, women in pornography choose to perform, and they are paid. But we all recognize that choices are made in the real world under a variety of constraints; not everyone chooses from the same range of options. When you are using pornography, you are using those women.
But beyond debate about choices, let’s not forget: The women in pornography are real people. When you watch a pornographic movie in which a woman is penetrated anally and vaginally at the same time — a double penetration, or DP, in industry jargon — you are not watching a simulation. When you watch a double anal — a woman being penetrated anally by two men at the same time — that is happening to a real woman. Take a moment and ask yourself, how might that feel? If anyone is having trouble imagining that, come up on stage and I’ll ask a couple of your fellow Marines to take you through a double anal, and then you can report how it feels.
For that woman at that moment, pornography is not a fantasy. She’s not a whore. She’s a person, and she’s real.
Second, the stories that men tell in pornography are a big deal. Let’s think about the prevalence of multiple penetration scenes in pornography. Or gagging scenes, where men penetrate a woman’s throat so roughly that the woman gags. Or ATM, industry jargon for ass-to-mouth. That’s one of the stories that pornographers tell: A woman wants to take into her mouth a penis that was just removed from her anus or the anus of another woman.
Pornography is not just sex on film. It’s a particular type of sex based on a particular set of ideas. Sex in pornography is sex based on domination and submission — male domination and female submission. Pornography is the sexualizing of domination and submission. It’s about making male dominance sexy.
Pornographers tell stories about women as the whores in men’s imaginations. There are no whores in the world; there are only women who are prostituted for the pleasure of men. The idea of a “whore” exists in the imaginations of men. And in the world of pornography, all women are whores. In the story pornography tells, all women — even the ones who pretend not be to whores — want to be treated this way. That’s because in pornography, all women are whores. Women not only secretly want to be treated this way, but need to be treated this way if they are to be fulfilled as women. In pornography, it’s not that some women choose to be whores — all women are whores, by nature.
That means in the story that pornography tells, every woman you have ever known is a whore. Your sister is a whore. Your mother is a whore. The woman who lives next door is a whore. If your favorite grade-school teacher was a woman, she was a whore.
Oh yea, by the way, Suzy — you know, Suzy Rottencrotch, that lovely Marine slang term for your girlfriend — she’s a whore, too.
They are all whores. They all want to be fucked hard, fucked rough, fucked ugly. They all want to be fucked by all the Jodys (slang for the man who is having sex with a Marine’s wife or girlfriend) of the world. They all want you to ejaculate on their faces. That’s what whores want. That’s what women want.
And don’t forget, that means if you have a daughter, that’s what she wants, because she’s a whore, too.
Even if pornography is, in some sense, a fantasy, we might ask: Why these fantasies? What do these fantasies tell us about us?
Third, the consequences of men’s use of pornography are a big deal. Using pornography doesn’t affect you, of course. You’re too smart and mature and sensible for it to affect you. But what if it affects the guy sitting next to you?
I talk about “the story that pornography tells” because all mass media tell a story. Even a 15-second television ad tells a story. Human beings are a story-telling species, and the stories we tell matter. Stories help shape our attitudes, and our attitudes shape our behavior. Stories affect how we think and therefore how we act.
Go back to that advertisement: Businesses spend about $400 billion a year on the stories delivered in advertising. Would they spend that money if those stories didn’t have some effect on how people think and behave? How about parents — when they choose a book to read to their children, do they pick any book at random, or do they think about what kind of stories they want their children to hear?
There is a growing body of evidence from psychological laboratories, activists, therapists, and divorce lawyers about the effects of pornography. Wives tell us about how husbands become emotionally and sexually disconnected when they start using pornography habitually. Girlfriends report that their boyfriends who use pornography ask them to engage in sex acts that are routine in pornography but may be uncomfortable for her, such as anal sex. And increasingly some men are reporting that pornography has such a powerful grip on their sexual imaginations that they can’t become aroused or reach orgasm with a partner unless they are thinking about pornography.
And then there’s the question of men’s violence against women. Pornography does not cause rape. There was rape before pornography, and if pornography magically disappeared tomorrow there would be rape. Pornography does not turn otherwise nice men into savages. Pornography does not make men do it.
But pornography is part of a world in which men do it, in which men rape. Pornography is a de facto sex education curriculum for many boys, one of the places where we learn to use women for sex. Some men use pornography as a training manual, modeling their sexual abuse after what they see. Other men use pornography to groom young victims, persuading those victims that sex with an adult is OK by showing them pictures and films. And men report that addictive-like use of pornography can make it hard for them to distinguish between sexual fantasy and reality.
Here’s the unpleasant reality: We live in a society saturated with explicit material that presents women as sexual objects who find pleasure in being the targets of men’s cruelty in degrading scenarios. All those images are a mouse click away, and when you are bored with one image, there’s a more extreme image just another mouse click away. When you don’t want to deal with your partner, just click. When you don’t want to deal with your own emotions, just click. Just keep clicking. The pornographers hope you don’t ask questions about how you will feel when the clicking is over.
But as you click, remember this: You may own some pornography, but the truth is that pornography owns you.
Pornography is a big deal, just as the other two main sexual-exploitation industries — stripping and prostitution — are a big deal. These are the ways men buy and sell women’s bodies for their own pleasure. These are the ways men reassure themselves that they are strong and virile, in control. These are the ways men shore up their sense of being a “real man.”
The sexual-exploitation industries certainly deliver pleasure, and they do offer the illusion of control. But at what cost?
At what cost to the women who, in the words of several porn producers I interviewed, “get chewed up and spit out” by the porn industry?
And at what cost to you? Ask yourself that the next time you click the mouse. Men often say they use pornography to relieve stress, but for many men pornography creates stress. Think about that in the moment after you have an orgasm, in that moment when the intensity of the pleasure is over, and you’re left with yourself and that image on the screen.
In that moment, ask yourself who you are, and think about who you want to be.
In that moment, don’t worry about whether or not you’re a real man. Worry about whether you remember how to be a real human being.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center http://thirdcoastactivist.org. His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). Jensen is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.