My thesis: The pornography industry does the worst to women and brings out the worst in men. Let me explain this claim.
I am a retired University of Texas professor who began studying the pornography industry in 1988, which led to a doctoral dissertation, scholarly articles, and three books on the subject. The conclusions I reached in my academic work about the harms of pornography led me contribute to the feminist anti-pornography movement, focusing on organizing public education events and writing for general audiences. These academic and activist activities are connected: Every year, more and more scholarly research in psychology and sociology is published that validates the insights of that feminist analysis, which makes the social movement more important than ever.
Today I want to speak about the centrality of the feminist critique to understanding pornography, in the context of a larger feminist critique of sexual exploitation and men’s violence. I emphasize this for three reasons.
First, there are feminists who defend, and even celebrate, the pornography industry. Instead of confronting the sexual exploitation of women that is at the heart of the industry, these feminists claim to be defending “sex workers” or supporting “sexual expression.” The pornography industry does not treat the women who perform with even the minimal protection that should be accorded to workers, because exploitation is at the core of both the “entertainment” they produce and the process by which it is produced. The industry’s business model will never promote expression that is consistent with human flourishing. It is crucial to challenge pro-pornography feminism with a critique that has been developed by women in the feminist anti-pornography movement, which includes many survivors of the sexual-exploitation industries.
Second, there are other critics of pornography who work from conservative and religious frameworks. While there are some shared values and similar arguments made by feminist and conservative critics, the feminist analysis is part of a larger challenge and resistance to patriarchy, a system of institutionalized male dominance.
Third, it is important for men to support a critique of pornography based in feminism. An increasing number of men are rejecting the use of pornography because of the negative effects on their own sexual imaginations and sexual lives, especially when they are caught in addictive-like patterns. This self-awareness is a positive development, but only a first step. Men have a responsibility to join a feminist movement that puts the harm to women and children at the center of a critique of pornography.
The phrase “Commercial Sexual Exploitation” in the title of this inquiry is crucial, because it keeps the focus on the reality of women’s experiences. The term “sex industry,” commonly used by pornography’s supporters and apologists, obscures the nature of the exchange. Pornography—along with prostitution, stripping, massage parlors, escort services—is centrally about men buying and selling objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure. That’s why I use the term “sexual-exploitation industries,” to accurately name the business model. My colleagues on this panel—Gail Dines, Clare McGlynn, and Laila Mickelwait—will elaborate on the harms that result from these industries, and suggest policy options that offer the best hopes for justice.
I came to this understanding later in life. As a young man, I had liberal pro-pornography views and mocked a feminist critique that I didn’t really understand. But when I used pornography, I always felt unsettled. At some level, I think I knew that tying my own sexual pleasure to the use of objectified female bodies was at odds with my best self. Then I encountered the feminist critique, expressed most powerfully by Andrea Dworkin in her groundbreaking book Pornography: Men Possessing Women. Dworkin and other feminists not only challenged my superficial liberal politics but also spoke to my uneasy relationship to the dominant masculinity norms of the culture, which are expressed so blatantly in pornography: the obsession with control and the goal of conquest.
Back then, the feminist critique was a compelling analysis of the pre-internet pornographic world. More than four decades later, the steady intensification of sexism and racism in pornography makes that analysis more compelling than ever. But in that same time period, the feminist critique has been steadily pushed to the margins in liberal institutions, especially universities.
I think this ideologically driven rejection of such a compelling analysis is the result of fear and denial. The fear is an understandable reaction to how intensely cruel and denigrating pornography has become. It can be frightening to look at how the abuse of women has become routine sexual entertainment. The denial is of how deeply embedded in everyday life—including our sexual lives—the sexist norms of patriarchy are. A denial of the brutality of the sexual-exploitation industries is rooted in a fear of what a feminist critique reveals about all our lives, from global politics to the most intimate spaces in our lives.
My last point: A feminist critique of the sexual-exploitation industries is, for me and the feminists I have worked with, part of an expansive critique of all forms of power that are so routinely abused. Activists in the movement to challenge commercial sexual exploitation also highlight abuses of power in all the forms around us: racism, economic inequality and global exploitation, militarism, ecological degradation. A feminist critique of pornography is not separate from, but is one part of, a larger progressive/ecological critique of illegitimate concentrations of power.
To bring these together, I will conclude by quoting myself, from my book The End of Patriarchy. I suggest that we ask a basic question whenever we encounter a new idea, political project, or policy proposal: “Is this likely to help people create and maintain stable, decent human communities that can remain in a sustainable relationship with the larger living world?”
Based on more than three decades of research and activism, I can state without hesitation or reservation that pornography and the other sexual-exploitation industries are an impediment to stable, decent human communities. Men’s practice of buying and selling objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure is inconsistent with human flourishing.
Pornography’s defenders typically respond with, “Well, if you don’t like porn, don’t watch it.” Indeed, many people choose not to watch it, but no one can escape an increasingly pornographic culture. Choosing not to watch pornography doesn’t eliminate the harms created by an industry that does the worst to women and brings out the worst in men.
[This is an expanded version of testimony delivered to the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, November 2, 2021.]