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Porn and the misogyny emergency

Gail Dines and Sharon Smith discuss whether porn should be a priority for the women’s movement

Gail Dines

Without doubt, the porn question has, since the 1970s, been the most controversial and divisive issue in the women’s movement. Radical feminists see the production and consumption of porn as a form of violence against women, while liberal, and many postmodern, feminists argue that it is an issue of sexual freedom, fantasy, choice and, in some cases, sexual liberation. The battle is actually one based on theoretical differences, since radical feminists situate their arguments within a wider social theory that owes much to a left-wing analysis of the role of images, culture, ideology and power in capitalist society.

Specifically, left-wingers argue that the role of corporate-controlled media is to produce and reproduce ideologies that legitimise actual material inequality. Marx was one of the first to argue this, but since then thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci, Noam Chomsky and Robert McChesney have examined how corporate media frames our understanding of capitalism in ways that obfuscate the realities of economic inequality. By producing ideas about freedom, meritocracy, hard work and personal responsibility, the media renders invisible the systems of inequality inherent in capitalist economics.

Similarly, radical feminists see porn as a major producer of sexist ideologies that normalise, condone, legitimise and glorify women’s subordinate status. Porn doesn’t create the conditions of this subordination, although it does require systems of inequality to produce a class of women who have few economic choices. Importantly, porn – with its reactionary ideas about women’s ‘natural’ role as fuck objects and its misogynistic representations of women enjoying humiliation and degradation at the hands of men – creates ideologies that support legal, economic and cultural sexism.

The feminist case against porn is more urgent than ever, given the degree to which mainstream porn has become so cruel and brutal. Many women I speak to have a hopelessly outdated view of porn and hence can’t understand why radical feminists spend so much time critiquing the industry and its images. A great example of this naivety is a recent article in the Guardian in which journalist Zoe Williams makes a ludicrous argument in defence of porn, saying that she does not accept that ‘the act of filming two people having sex is necessarily demeaning to women’. When was the last time Zoe Williams actually looked at mainstream porn?

For those of you who think that radical feminists exaggerate or cherry-pick the worst of the porn industry, I have an experiment for you. Type ‘porn’ into Google and click around the most well-travelled websites that appear. With mind-numbing repetition you will see gagging, slapping, verbal abuse, hair-pulling, pounding anal sex, women smeared in semen, sore anuses and vaginas, distended mouths, and more exhausted, depleted and shell-shocked women than you can count. You will not see two people having sex; you will see images depicting a level of physical cruelty that would not be out of place in an Amnesty International campaign.

One of the only studies of contemporary pornographic content found that the majority of scenes from fifty of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted against the female performers. Physical aggression – including spanking, open-hand slapping and gagging – occurred in over 88 per cent of scenes, while expressions of verbal aggression – calling the woman names such as ‘bitch’ or ‘slut’ – were found in 48 per cent. The researchers concluded that ‘if we combine both physical and verbal aggression, our findings indicate that nearly 90 per cent of scenes contained at least one aggressive act, with an average of nearly twelve acts of aggression per scene’.1

That this is the major form of sex education for men should be taken very seriously by the women’s movement. The same men who get off from women being brutalised and called cunts, sluts and cum-dumpsters are the ones who go on to become politicians, corporate executives, judges, media professionals, policy makers and bankers. In other words, they become the economic and cultural elite that shape the material and ideological world that determines how women – and their children – will live. Most of them will become partners and fathers. To assume that porn is mere fantasy and does not impact on the way men think and feel is to ignore decades of research on how images frame our social construction of reality.

Porn is an industry, and like other industries it shapes the way we live. The fashion industry shapes the way we dress, the food industry the way we eat, and the sex industry the way we think and have sex. To argue otherwise would be to make the ridiculous claim that the only industry that has no power in the real world is porn. Once you do a left-wing analysis of the industry, the arguments of the liberal and postmodern feminists seem somewhat naive and unsophisticated.

Porn needs to be taken very seriously. As long as we have an industry that disseminates images of women as willing and legitimate victims of male sexual cruelty, we will never have true gender justice. Until men can see women as full human beings who deserve the same rights and dignity as they do, we will continue to have a gender-stratified system that discriminates against women and children.

Sharon Smith

I admit that I am not well acquainted with the current state of internet pornography, but I certainly trust Gail Dines’ research – and I share her revulsion. Nevertheless, pornography is just one of many aspects of women’s oppression and, as I will argue below, is not a ‘producer of sexist ideologies’ but one reflection of the oppression of women under capitalism.

Even the sexual objectification of women comes not only from the pornography industry but perhaps even more pervasively through commercial advertising which uses women’s bodies and acts of seduction to sell everything from beer, automobiles and movie tickets to, of course, fashion and cosmetics.

But for every media image that treats women as sex objects, there is another that glorifies motherhood – depicting women as most fulfilled when they’re tending to all aspects of their families’ needs, from providing healthy, home-cooked meals to ensuring that clothes are washed and toilets cleaned with only the highest quality products.

These contradictory images reflect the duelling ideals imposed upon girls from childhood: the aspiration both to achieve a prescribed standard of physical beauty and to become a devoted wife and mother. While marketed as airbrushed, white, heterosexual commodities, neither of these ideals reflects the material reality for most ordinary women.

The beauty ideal in the fashion industry is so thin it often overlaps with anorexia and other eating disorders. Currently, fashion models weigh 23 per cent less than average women. Runway models are typically 178 centimetres tall and weigh between 54 and 56 kilograms; the average woman in the US today is 163 centimetres tall and weighs 64 kilograms.

Likewise, motherhood no longer takes place in the traditional heterosexual nuclear family, with half of all heterosexual marriages ending in divorce and increasing social acceptance of same-sex relationships. Nevertheless, working mothers are fed a steady diet of guilt from media experts for leaving their children in child care; most, however, continue to do so. In 2008, 71 per cent of women with children under the age of eighteen were working or seeking work; the figure for women with small children was nearly 60 per cent.

However little they reflect reality, media images certainly serve the capitalist class well. Individual capitalists earn billions through sexually objectifying women, not only through prostitution and (as Dines notes) the lucrative pornography industry, but also through the mass marketing of cosmetic surgery, Botox injections and diet pills and programs, alongside the fashion and cosmetics industries.

But the entire capitalist class benefits most from women’s unpaid labour for their families. If society had to pay for all the labour that women perform within the home – housework, cooking, laundry and, especially, child care – it would cost the wealthiest people in society (the 1 per cent) trillions of dollars every year. In 1995, the United Nations Development Program reported that this unpaid and underpaid labour amounted to $11 trillion worldwide – and $1.4 trillion in the US annually (a figure that has undoubtedly grown since). Whether women work outside the home or not, they are expected to perform the bulk of family responsibilities free of charge: the family ideal dictates that women are the ‘homemakers’ and men are the ‘breadwinners’ despite dramatic changes in the lives of real families.

The notion that women’s primary responsibility is nurturing their families justifies yet another saving for the capitalist class: they can pay women lower wages than men. Women’s wages are today standing at roughly 75 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Media images reinforce the material reality of women’s second-class citizenship but do not produce it. When the ruling class (aided by its media minions) is most successful in the endeavours I’ve described, those people who are most oppressed by capitalism are also those that society holds in most contempt. This is not true only for women, but also for LGBTI people and all those suffering from racism and national oppression. In the case of women, this contempt helps to explain why misogyny has taken centre stage in mainstream US discourse.

Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh created a media firestorm when he called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a ‘slut’ and a ‘prostitute’ after she testified in favour of access to contraception. But such crudities have not come only from hypocritical conservatives like the pill-popping, serial-husband Limbaugh. Comedian Bill Maher, a vocal (and generous) Obama supporter, recently called right-winger Sarah Palin a ‘cunt’ and a ‘dumb twat’ – to roaring approval from his audiences.

Bible-thumping Republicans jousting for ‘family values’ votes have taken aim at attacking all aspects of women’s sexual and reproductive freedom in this election year. Debates over abortion and contraception that seemed settled in the early 1970s are raging once again, degrading women at every juncture.

‘Planned Parenthood, we’re going to get rid of that,’ pledged Republican front-running presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently. The state of Texas has effectively already done that, refusing federal funding for its Medicaid Women’s Health Program solely to prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid money. As a consequence, 130 000 low-income women now have no access to contraceptives, cancer screenings and basic health care at clinics that do not provide abortions. Texas has also mandated transvaginal ultrasounds (a procedure that uses an invasive vaginal probe without consent – rape, as legally defined in that state) for women seeking early abortions, followed by a 24-hour waiting period.

For decades, Christian conservatives have sustained an unrelenting attack on all the gains that were won by the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Mainstream feminist organisations have retreated behind the Democratic Party that, seeking the ‘centrist’ vote, continually tacks rightward.

We are experiencing a ‘misogyny emergency’ in the US, and the most dangerous agents of this attack are Christian conservatives, not pornography executives. We need a new movement that is committed to fighting against everything that they stand for. The spontaneous spread of Slutwalk protests over the last year, followed by the rise of the Occupy movement, offers the hope that such a movement is on the cusp of emerging.

Gail Dines

There is little for me to disagree with in Smith’s response to my article. She is perfectly correct in that we are experiencing a misogyny emergency and that this plays itself out on the material level of human existence. Right-wing politicians are out for women’s blood, and they seem caught up in a frenzy of program-cutting and limiting access to contraception and abortion. No disagreement from me on this.

The point of debate seems the degree to which porn is implicated in the attack. As a left-wing media theorist, I do not see the material destruction of women’s lives as disconnected from the ideological onslaught that claims that women are a bunch of sluts and cum-dumpsters who enjoy degradation and debasement. As Marx so eloquently argued, those who control the material means of production use their economic power to produce an ideological system that renders invisible the harm done to the oppressed. Pornography is ground zero for this ideological attack, and porn images provide the visual justification for the hateful policies that Smith so well catalogues.

It is no accident that left-wing media critics, from Marx to Gramsci to Chomsky, have developed sophisticated understandings of ideology as a form of social control. They understand that systems of inequality are never secured once and for all, thus part of the work of the elite is to produce a hegemonic ideology that convinces both the oppressor and the oppressed class that the system is fair, just and unchangeable. To drive a wedge between the material and the ideological, as Smith does, is to ignore the complex ways that systems of inequality produce and reproduce themselves across time and place.

Porn tells men that women are fuck objects who are deserving of male control and abuse. In porn, women don’t need equal pay, safe housing, child care, health care or equality, they just need a good fucking and lots of ‘jizz’. What makes a slut happy is not access to good jobs, but an anal pounding that leaves her red and swollen – and, of course, ready for more. This is much like the minstrel shows that swept America during slavery where whites could see how slavery was the best thing for blacks given their stupidity, their penchant for violence, watermelon and, of course, their inbred laziness. Indeed, blacks didn’t want freedom, since they were happy singing, dancing and raping white women. Porn is patriarchy’s minstrel show.

Another way to explain the connection between the material degradation of women and the porn industry is to understand how capitalism, racism and sexism intersect to produce a class of women who, through lack of options, ‘choose’ to work in the sex industry. Study after study shows that these women are disproportionately drawn from the poorest classes, and thus the porn industry relies on systems that produce material inequality to supply them with female flesh.

I hope Smith is right and we are beginning to see some change in the air, but I do not have any faith whatsoever in any man, Left or Right, who has learned his sex education from porn. For real change to happen, men need to see women as full human beings with an absolute right to equality. Try telling that to the guys who jerk off to SUCKMEBITCH.COM.

Sharon Smith

Dines argues correctly that our main point of difference is ‘the degree to which porn is implicated in the [current] attack’ on women, but she is incorrect in her claim that I ‘drive a wedge between the material and the ideological’. I fully agree with Marx’s argument that ‘the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force’.

The ruling class uses its enormous ideological arsenal to heap contempt on those that it most discriminates against – but ideology is effective precisely because it is tied to existing material reality. As the alarming state of US mainstream discourse demonstrates, the use of misogynistic images has reached such an extreme because three decades of attacks on women’s right to control their own bodies have already taken such a severe toll. When Mitt Romney pledged to ‘get rid of’ Planned Parenthood, his threat was so effective because Texas has already done so.

The commodification of women’s bodies through prostitution long preceded the notion of a third party viewing sex for entertainment, and the rise of prostitution was intricately connected to the rise of the traditional nuclear family. It emerged as the flip side of the family ideal, which required monogamy for women only to ensure that a man’s wealth was passed on to his biological heirs – while men were free to pursue sex outside of marriage. As Marx’s closest collaborator Friedrich Engels described, ‘monogamy and prostitution are indeed contradictions, but inseparable contradictions, poles of the same state of society’. I doubt Engels could have imagined the degree to which the sexual commodification of women would turn into a massive industry.

But the pornography industry is just one of many components of the ruling class’ ideological arsenal which simultaneously spits out images of women’s bodies as both sexual receptacles and breeding machines. These images can easily intersect, as they did when Sandra Fluke’s appearance at a congressional debate led to Limbaugh’s accusation that she was ‘having so much sex, it’s amazing she can still walk’. Nevertheless, each of these two images is distinct – one depicting women as dehumanised sex objects and the other as pre-programmed for motherhood – each designated as a service for men yet also neatly fulfilling the needs of capital.

Ruling-class ideology is not, however, unassailable; its success depends on acquiescence from below. It is highly susceptible to the rise of resistance, and extreme ideological excesses such as exist today historically portend such resistance. This is how, for example, the enormous sexual repression of the 1950s gave way to the rise of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s. The Slutwalk protests of 2011 arose as a semi-spontaneous revolt against a Toronto police officer’s claim that women who do not want to be raped should not dress like ‘sluts’. The next step is to transform this spontaneity into organisation.

1 Robert Wosnitzer & Ana Bridges, ‘Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-selling Pornography: A Content Analysis Update’, paper presented at 57th Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association, San Francisco, 2007

Gail Dines is professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. She is the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality and a regular commentator on TV and radio.

Sharon Smith is the author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, and Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation (second edition forthcoming in 2012). She is a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review.

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