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Feminism, Pornography, and Choice

You may think you know what porn is. But there is a good chance you don't. 

By 8.24.10

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Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality
by Gail Dines
(Beacon Press, 256 pages, $26.95)

You may think you know what porn is. But there is a good chance you don't.  In particular, if you are a woman, or if you grew up in the age prior to the Internet, the word "pornography" might evoke images of a blushing Playboy centerfold, or perhaps some flimsy-plotted film with a delivery man, a desperate housewife, and just a bit more sex and nudity than an R-rating would allow. In reality, mainstream pornography today is far more brutal, more graphic, and more violent than most could imagine if they hadn't seen it for themselves.

In her new book, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, Gail Dines draws on years of research to reveal just how extreme the porn industry has become. She takes readers deep into the world of hardcore porn, describing one nightmarish scene after another, full of men punishing and humiliating women sexually on camera.

The material she covers is truly shocking, and, often, difficult to read. I physically gagged more than once while reading her descriptions. Every sort of bodily waste and fluid, and every conceivable method by which a woman's body can be pushed to the limit, often at the hands of two or three men at a time, is commonplace in today's porn.

Forget about Hugh Hefner and his silk pajamas. These days porn is dominated by Gonzo filmmakers. In the Gonzo genre, the emphasis is on "real" rather than scripted scenes. Such films are cheap to produce. In the Internet age anyone with a camera and a computer can sell porn to the world. In order to stand out, porn producers are coming up with ever more extreme material. If the girl is crying, vomiting, or even bleeding, that's Gonzo gold. According to Dines, it is not uncommon for pornographers to film close-ups of the injuries that have occurred to the girl's body, once a scene is over.

Dines argues persuasively that porn today is not simply about men looking at naked women, or watching sex acts. Rather, the goal of much of it seems to be to depict the maximum amount of humiliation for the girl on screen. One website proudly offers its customers the opportunity to "access total degradation."

Almost as disturbing as the abusive material itself is the fact that so many men view it as a turn-on. Like drug users always looking for a more powerful fix, porn addicts are often shocked by how quickly they became desensitized to porn, seeking out increasingly bizarre material that they once found distasteful.

The average age of first exposure to porn for American males is eleven. Internet porn now serves as a de facto sex education for America's youth. To suppose that porn is mere fantasy, with no effect on the real world, is simply not credible. Dines reports that many young women come to her, complaining that their boyfriends expect them to act out the humiliating scenes they see in hardcore porn.

Dines is a feminist. She makes no effort to hide the fact. Her fierce opposition to porn is motivated chiefly by her objection to the sexual inequality it depicts. However, as a self-described "progressive," she finds herself uncomfortably aligned with social conservatives on the issue of pornography. Consequently, she has the tiresome habit of gratuitously singling out conservatives for attack, as though she were anxious to reassert her liberal bona fides. (Gee whiz, did you know Mitt Romney sits on the board of Marriot Hotels; and Marriot sells porn on pay-per-view?)

Dines also seems to have a problem with capitalism. Pornography is "first and foremost a business," she writes in one weighty passage, as though that fact alone were enough to damn the enterprise. Admittedly, smut peddlers are a greedy lot. But Dines never says exactly how Karl Marx might save our sexual culture. Once again, her main point seems to be that she is not a conservative.

It is easy to see why Dines and other anti-porn feminists have a hard time reconciling their "conservative" views on porn with their liberal views on personal choice. Feminists, after all, have been saying for a long time that a woman should be able to do whatever she wants with her own body. The question is: if a girl allows a man to urinate on her on camera in exchange for a thousand bucks, can a feminist really approve the transaction merely on the basis of the girl's consent?

Porn pits the principles of choice and equality against one another. As a liberal, Dines believes the basis of morality is the unrestrained freedom to choose any sort of lifestyle one desires. As a feminist, she also believes that gender equality is an inviolable moral standard.

In her epilogue entitled, "Fighting Back," Dines articulates feminism's moral confusion thusly: "We need to offer an alternative way of being, a way to envisage a sexuality that is based on equality, dignity, and respect." (This is her expression of equality-based morality.) She goes on to say, "Such a sexuality cannot be scripted by a movement because it belongs to individuals and reflects who they are and what they want sexually." (This is her expression of personal choice-based morality.)

Choice is the holiest word in feminism. To comprehend a moral order that originates outside the domain of personal choice, one must acknowledge a higher law -- one above human will. As a liberal, the very idea of a revealed moral standard conflicts with Dines's commitment to personal choice. Dines understands that porn is wrong; but I don't think she really understands why.

What is wrong with porn is that it debases the modesty and dignity of the human beings who make it, as well as those who consume it. In the sixties, feminists spent so much energy throwing off the strictures of religion and tradition. They never realized that chastity itself was a form of power. They never realized that the moral restraints they discarded were vital to the equality they so desperately wanted.

"Bras are a ludicrous invention," declared Germaine Greer in her 1970 feminist hell-raiser, The Female Eunuch. Two years earlier, the mythical burning of the bras at the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City had signified feminists' rejection of the strictures of male-dominated society -- especially in the realm of sexual mores.

The disappearing bra soon became a metaphor for feminism itself. The image is all too fitting. No metaphor could better capture the way in which feminism has left women exposed, when all along it was supposed to bring their liberation. By embracing sexual liberation as a fundamental tenet of the women's movement, feminists embraced the irreconcilable aims of getting under men and getting out from under them at the same time.

Feminists preach moral self-determination as an article of faith. The porn-saturated culture we now live in is, in this sense, of half their making. And for the same reason, Dines is unable to offer any real solution to the problem she articulates. Nevertheless, her book deserves attention because the porn industry is currently doing hardcore damage to an entire generation of young people, both conservative and liberal alike. If you have a strong enough stomach to read Pornland, you will gain a new appreciation for just how poisonous pornography is to our sexual culture.

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About the Author

Nathan Harden blogs about higher education at National Review Online.