7 Ways to Create a Sex-Positive Critique of Porn


One of the most common responses to the anti-porn critiques of pornography is that they’re sex-negative and all too often, that ends up creating a “no we’re not/yes you are” argument. And yet, whenever I read the anti-porn side of things, I’m struck by how often sex-negativity is woven into their claims, although in all fairness, that’s not always the case.

I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was that bothered me by the way that Gail Dines keeps talking about gagfactor.com, a website that focuses on men facefucking women. And then it hit me- there are two parts to it. First, Dines is trying to foment a moral panic. And second, she  simply doesn’t understand sex.

I can explain the first point better if I start with the second one. As someone who has been studying sex in all its wide and varied forms for over 20 years (my goodness, that makes me sound old!), I can attest to the fact that for any sexual act, there are people who enjoy it and people who are squicked by it. There’s a certain privilege inherent in being part of the majority- if you enjoy penis/vagina intercourse, you can be pretty confident that lots of other people share your taste. And it’s important to also remember that there are people who feel just as much disgust about your desires as you might feel about something less common. No matter what the act, some people love it and some people would never dream of doing it.

So what that means is that some people really enjoy being facefucked. I’ve spoken with plenty of people of all genders who enjoy it, whether with a partner’s penis, fingers, a dildo,  or other toys. It’s not for everyone- some people dislike fellatio, or deepthroating, or messy sex. Some people find it triggering, especially if they have experienced sexual assault. I’m hardly trying to suggest that everyone likes it. In fact, my guess is that a fairly small number of people enjoy being on the receiving end of it. I am suggesting that if someone gets turned on my it, there’s nothing wrong with that.

For the people who enjoy it, there are lots of possible reasons. It might be because they enjoy the sensation, or feeling submissive (although that’s not a requirement of the activity), the letting go, succeeding at the effort involved in learning to do it, the fact that it can get messy, some combination of the above, or something totally different. Any or all of these are perfectly fine reasons to do something, as long as both of the people doing it (or in the case of group sex, all of the people doing it), are enjoying themselves, getting what they want, and having their emotional, physical, and mental well-being cared for.

Now, I have a lot of problems with gagfactor.com and, in fact, I share some of Dines’ concerns. To put it simply, the site makes it very clear that it’s all about objectifying and humiliating the women. I wouldn’t even have a problem with that if it was apparent that the performers were acting out their fantasies and having fun. A lot of people have objectification and/or humiliation fantasies and there are perfectly safe and sane ways for folks to explore them. But it’s not clear to me from the site that this is what’s going on. Granted, I’m not willing to spend money to get a subscription and find out, so I could be misinterpreting things. But I doubt that the full scenes are significantly different from the promotional blurbs, if only because a bait-and-switch tactic rarely succeeds for long.

Having said that, where Dines shows that she doesn’t understand sex is that she doesn’t allow any room for people to enjoy facefucking, or humiliation play in ways that are, in the parlance of the BDSM community, safe, sane and consensual. The problem with sites like gagfactor.com isn’t the sexual acts they show, it’s the lack of visible consent or respect for the performers. Kink.com does a nice job of interviewing the performers afterward to show that they enjoyed the shoot, and that’s a business model that I’d like to see more sites adopt. The more a scene revolves around pushing boundaries and/or less common sexual or kink practices, the more valuable it is to show the consent and enthusiasm of the performers, in my opinion.

Also problematic is the fact that some people will model their behaviors on what they see in porn, although I think that everyone who blocks access to sex-positive, inclusive, and comprehensive sex and relationship education are the real culprits there. When we don’t see the negotiation, communication, and practice that go into exploring fantasies, how are people supposed to know that if they want to try something, there are things to talk about and figure out first? How is anyone supposed to know that some activities require practice and skill to do them safely? And how are people going to learn the difference between consensual, negotiated and bounded fantasy play and real-life humiliation and abuse? This is especially relevant for cisgender heterosexual men, given the momentum of sexism that pushes them towards disrespecting and abusing women.

But the solution isn’t to ban or restrict porn because the real source of the problem lies elsewhere. Instead, we need more and better relationship and sexuality education. We need a more nuanced language to talk about and teach about consent. We need better role models to demonstrate how to negotiate sexual relationships. If porn gets used as sex education, that shows that there’s a vacuum waiting for something to fill it. What would it be like if there were something better to do the job?

If Dines and her allies could make room for people to enjoy any sexual act without shaming them (as long as the aforementioned consent and well-being were honored), I’d be more than happy to talk with them about the challenges and problems that porn brings. And I know that some of their supporters will say that they do exactly that. But here’s where my first point comes into play- Dines uses people’s sex-negativity and disgust about sex to foment her anti-porn campaign.


One of the best ways to rally people behind a cause that has very little merit is to get them to not think about the details. And the easiest method to do that is to get them angry, scared, ashamed, or disgusted. These are all very difficult emotions and most people have very little practice at sitting with them, exploring what causes them, or articulating what it is that triggers them. In particular, disgust is an effective way to manipulate people because it’s really easy to blame the icky thing for how we feel. When someone wants to pass a law to restrict people’s actions without having to actually discuss the benefits, risks, and costs of those behaviors, disgust is an compelling tool to use. For an excellent read on the topic, check out Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law.

Gagfactor.com is an especially easy target for disgust, for reasons beyond the site’s clear focus on degradation. Messy oral sex squicks a lot of people and anyone with a sensitive gag or vomit reflex is likely to feel their gorge rise when seeing the site or hearing a description of it. The sympathetic vomit reflex can be seen as a survival-enhancing response in certain situations:

In groups of apes, group or sympathetic vomiting has been observed after one animal becomes ill after eating. Since the other animals in the tribe have likely eaten the same things, sympathetic vomiting may be used as a survival tactic. (from this site)

That means that this perfectly understandable and perhaps advantageous physiological response makes people susceptible to Dines’ moral panic techniques. If she can trigger disgust and then convince her listeners that their discomfort is because there’s something inherently wrong with porn, she gets a lot more support for her crusade. That’s a lot easier to do in a big crowd because each person will pick up on the disgust of the people around them, even if they wouldn’t have felt much of it themselves. And that makes it much easier for her to create a moral panic.

So why do I think that Dines’ strategies are sex-negative? Because she deliberately works to trigger disgust about a sexual practice in order to manipulate people into rallying to her call. Rather than opening up a dialogue about the real reasons that some porn is problematic or asking how the performers on the site feel about their experiences,  she uses tactics that depend on and deepen sexual shame in order to sway people to her point of view. And that makes them sex-negative. Facefucking is not inherently abusive, violent, or misogynistic any more than intercourse is inherently respectful, pleasurable, or egalitarian. As with any sexual act, it’s a question of whether you want to do it, how you do it, and how you feel about it during it and afterward. When Dines makes it sound otherwise, she reinforces sex-negativity. It doesn’t really matter whether she deliberately chose this strategy or happened to discover its effectiveness by accident.

So all of this has me thinking: what would a sex-positive approach to the question of porn entail? While I don’t think that this is a complete list, it’s a start. Note: these are not in any particular order. I think that each of these is just as important as the others and the fact that I have to present them in a linear fashion does not reflect on how I would prioritize them.

1) We would not judge a website’s or movie’s merits based on the sexual acts depicted. We would understand that we need to draw a distinction between a performer’s consent to and/or desire for a given act and how we feel about it.

2) We would strive to remember that our reactions, whether pleasant or unpleasant, reside within ourselves and that someone else can have a very different response. It’s the difference between saying “I enjoyed that” and “that was great.” Or “I feel disgust when I watch that” and “that’s disgusting.”

3) We would feel free to question whether the performers were well-treated, respected, and compensated for their erotic labor. We would trust them to speak about their experiences and not doubt their authenticity. And we would remember that people in any industry have stories of horrible experiences and of amazing experiences, so we would look for overall patterns, rather than highlighting a few individuals.

4) We would not hold porn to a different standard than we hold other industries to. We would remember that some of the problems within the porn industry are the result of capitalism, not sex, so we would resist blaming porn for them.

5) We would not shame anyone for their sexual desires or fantasies. Ever. We would base any assessment of their practices on whether the participants’ pleasure, health, consent, and well-being had been attended to. We would invite them to share their stories, trust what they tell us, and try to set aside our judgments and triggers.

6) We would offer people facts and research to bolster our arguments, without resorting to misinformation, lies, emotional manipulation, or moral panics. We would remember that the a collection of anecdotes does not qualify as data.

7) We would remember that porn is a vast and complex genre and we would find ways of talking about it that don’t ignore that diversity. We could do this by avoiding making sweeping statements that don’t reflect the experiences of many of the performers, producers, and viewers.

There’s nothing in this list that requires anyone to enjoy porn or ignore the challenges that it can bring. Like any other industry, porn has a lot of problems and I think it’s worth looking at them and seeking ways to address them. But until and unless Gail Dines and her allies change their tactics, I will continue to view their actions as sex-negative.

I’m sure that there are other steps we could take to develop a sex-positive critique of porn. I invite you to add your suggestions below. What did I miss when I made my list? I’d love to hear from you.

Post Tagged with ,

42 Responses so far.

  1. I would add, “Not attempt to impose censorship of pornography no matter how distasteful you find the imagery. That doesn’t mean you can’t critique it. Nor does it mean that anything goes in the production of live-action porn. But if the production is fully consensual, you cannot prohibit others from viewing it.”

    (I’ll add that I think the Dworkin-MacKinnon civil law approach is still very much censorship. Many anti-porn activists support this and then try to claim that it isn’t really censorship, hence, worm their way out of owning that they support censorship.)

    Sex-positive feminism as I understand it includes opposition to censorship as a core value, expressly so when it first started out in the ’80s. That’s something I think a lot of people lose sight of today. Notably, Nussbaum the utterly disappointing section on pornography in “Hiding from Humanity”. Then again, not sure if Nussbaum would call herself a “sex-positive feminist”.

    In any event, if one develops a critique of porn along sex-positive lines, I really don’t think there would be much left to be “anti-porn” about. One might very well oppose a lot of existing practices in porn, and one might even be critical of the messages found in the majority of existing porn, but anti-porn on a fundamental level? I think that requires a certain amount of sex-negativity.

    BTW, I’m sure the anti-porn folks would be pissed at the idea of sex-negativity as both you and I have used it. Their argument would be that they’re not against sex per se, just sex that “hurts women” or is “unequal”. But that’s where the proverbial devil comes into the details, because for the most part, they have some pretty rigid ideas on what kind of sex is egalitarian and pro-woman. And I find the idea of “sex according to my standards is the only right way” to be pretty sex-negative, whether its coming from religion or from feminism.

  2. Charlie says:

    So what mechanisms could be developed to ensure (to a reasonable degree) that “the production is fully consensual”? Does the industry need something beyond the “they’re all legal adults” approach?

    You’d know better than me- when people sign on to do a scene, how much is spelled out in advance? How well do performers know what they’re getting into? And how much does that vary from one company or website to another?

  3. Charlie says:

    @Lynn I hadn’t seen that. Hilarious!

  4. Lynn says:

    I know, right? It almost reads like something from the Onion: “It’s one thing to ask these porn “stars” to do degrading acts like have sex with animals or five guys or to be ravaged while shackled and chained. It’s quite another to ask them to be funny.”

    Huh?!?

  5. maymay says:

    Is that HuffPo piece intended as satire? Because if not…I don’t even know where to begin….

  6. Charlie says:

    Well, I took it as satire…

  7. [...] to see. (Some ethical porn websites already do this; Gag Factor does not.) Here’s a snip from 7 Ways to Create a Sex-Positive Critique of Porn: One of the most common responses to the anti-porn critiques of pornography is that they’re [...]

  8. [...] Soft on Porn on Mother Jones, which is why it was so refreshing to read Charlie Glickman’s 7 Ways to Create a Sex-Positive Critique on Porn. As per usual, Mr. Glickman provides enlightened words on how to create a productive dialogue that [...]

  9. Furry Girl says:

    On number 4, I agree, but I think you contradicted yourself. I also don’t like to see porn held to a different standard than other forms of entertainment. Earlier in your post, though, you talk about how important it is to show visible consent, such as what Kink.com does. (And I’m all in favor of how Kink does it, too.)

    But, there’s no other form of entertainment where it’s suggested that it’s morally/ethically desirable for an audience to see a consent process. When people are watching an action movie, which features stunts and degrees of athleticism not found in your average person, we don’t get pulled aside at the end of the movie to be reminded of the training a stuntperson goes through in order to safely be set on sire or fall off a building. We don’t see consent negotiation in really any form of entertainment, do we? I think it’s an unfair and inherently sex-negative expectation to have about sexual entertainment and sexual entertainment alone.

    What we need is not more consent interviews at the end of porn movies (though that’s great), but overall, as a culture, a better degree of media literacy and an understanding that (most) porn is not documentary footage or an instructional manual. Nor is any other form of *entertainment* an instruction manual- action movies, professional sports, or romance novels. But, changing a culture’s way of consuming media is a much more broad an issue than “Shut down gagfactor.com!”

    And, on another point, I’d add to your list the classic rallying cry of sex workers: “Nothing about us without us.” You shouldn’t talk *about* porn without talking *to* people in porn, and without labor issues being a core part of the entire discussion. You touch on that in number 3, but I think this should be the most important point on your list.

  10. Charlie says:

    I see your point about not holding porn to a different standard with respect to showing consent and how that’s in some tension with my desire for more visible consent in porn. And yet, given that we (as a culture) have such abysmal practices around sexual consent, it does seem to me that there’s a value in having porn model it, at least in some circumstances. If sexual negotiation and consent were more visible in general, if we had more nuanced language around it, and if we had more useful practices with respect to consent, it probably wouldn’t be a question for me.

    The fact is, most people haven’t watched other people have sex, so porn is the only example they have of what sex looks like. With respect to your example of action movies, we have plenty of real-life examples of driving, so when we see someone in a car chase scene in a movie, we know it’s not realistic. It makes it easier to recognize the fantasy of the movie. But with sex, unless we’ve actually witnessed real-life sex, we don’t have that to help balance things out and remind us that porn sex isn’t usually “realistic.”

    Whether porn makers intend their movies to be used as role models or not, the fact is that they are. There’s an amazing opportunity that’s being lost here, although perhaps that simply my sex educator hat coming through. And in movies that are intended to be more button-pushing or edgey, I think there’s even more reason to make consent visible.

    I’m not suggesting that all porn movies should be required to show consent. I simply think that it’d be great for some of them to show it.

    And you’re absolutely right about the labor issues aspect of this. I didn’t delve into that precisely because I believe in the “nothing about us without us” perspective. I didn’t order this based on importance- I think that each of this is as important as the others. I’ll amend my post to make that more clear.

  11. Well, this is all based on various things I’ve heard about the porn industry, so take it with a grain of salt.

    But from what I’ve heard, practices do vary from company to company. Most are above-board, but any idiot with a camera can shoot porn. For the most part, its pretty clear in advance what sexual acts will be done, and with whom, and for how much. The whole price structure of how much a performer is paid for a scene is based around this.

    Now I’ve also heard of less-savory shoots where bait-and-switch takes place. Get a performer to come out under the premise of being paid for, say, a solo masturbation scene, then drop it on her that the shoot is a double-anal. How that’s dealt with depends on the clout of the performer and her agent. An in-demand porn star with a good agent will be able to give a simple “no thanks” and demand a comp fee for having shown up. Somebody who’s a naive newcomer, perhaps with a “suitcase pimp” for an agent, or a low-level performer who’s been in the industry too long and is not in demand? They might end up giving in to something they don’t want to do.

    BTW, for a really good insiders perspective on the business and labor aspects of the San Fernando Valley porn industry, give a listen to this panel discussion from a few years back with Sharon Mitchell, Nina Hartley, and Ernest Greene.

  12. “It’s quite another to ask them to be funny.”

    Well, as a matter of fact:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALU3qbXBT6U

  13. Charlie says:

    ok, well that can be funny sometimes. :-)

  14. Ruby says:

    Thanks for this article, I found it very thought provoking and has helped me clarify some of my own confused thoughts on the subject.

  15. [...] The problem occurs when no context for the extreme sex acts is provided – there’s no indication that it’s a fantasy, no way of knowing if the performers were willing participants or if they enjoyed themselves. This is bad porn. If you don’t know that rough sex (for example) is a kink performed consensually, you might form the wrong idea about what it all means and it may negatively affect your sexual attitudes. I recommend Charlie Glickman’s discussion of bad porn for a further elaboration on this point. [...]

  16. Charlie says:

    Violet’s URL shortener got kicked out of Libya, so she she had to move it. The correct link is http://vbly.us/z07db which goes here, BTW. I’ve also fixed it in the original comment.

  17. Thank you for this very interesting post. In my book “New porn. By women, for women and men” I provide criteria with which to evaluate quality in porn films, in many ways expanding on the ones you articulate here.

  18. Nick says:

    “If sexual negotiation and consent were more visible in general, if we had more nuanced language around it, and if we had more useful practices with respect to consent, it probably wouldn’t be a question for me.”

    True, but is porn the place?

    Be it fighting, driving, swordplay, or gunplay, people who wish to engage responsibly are expected to inform themselves, play safely, and, most importantly, broadly disbelieve what they see in the theaters. It’s only in porn where this expectation is allowed to lapse.

    Stuntsmanship and proper gun use aren’t visible in film, either, and it’s arguable that it’s far more dangerous to use your fist or your gun like an action star than it is to use your tender bits like a movie star. Why didn’t Sylvester Stallone give a talk on gun cleaning after Rambo? Why didn’t Jackie Chan give a talk about safe punching after Rush Hour? Because the audience is expected to have good sense, to draw an immediate distinction between reality and fantasy.

    Moreover, part of a fantastic narrative involves rendering mechanics invisible in service of story. Watching a gun cleaning or a fight rehearsal would make for a more realistic and responsible story, and an unwatchable one–something more fantastic than fantasy, an afterschool-special straightjacket of teachable moments.

    We absolutely do need realistic, positive portrayals of sex–and firearms, and martial arts and the rest–but we needn’t staple them onto the films. Such a dumbing-down of the genre would reinforce the worst stereotypes of the porn audience as slobbering cretins: “They’re so clueless on consent they need an instructional video.”

    We can watch Jackass responsibly, for heavens’ sake. We can handle porn.

  19. Charlie says:

    @Nick

    Except that there’s plenty of experience that suggests that a significant number of people can’t. Quite a lot of folks mimic what they see in porn because they don’t know any better. I’ve talked with people who tried anal sex without warmup, done high-level bondage without safety knowledge, and tried to deepthroat (or tried to get a partner to deepthroat) without knowing how to do it safely. Any of those can cause discomfort or serious damage and many of these folks have said that they were just copying what they saw in porn.

    It isn’t the fault of the porn industry that people are using their products as sex education. I think you & I are on the same page with that. But something needs to change, somewhere.

  20. Nick says:

    There needs to be better access to reliable sex instruction, absolutely. I don’t think I would want porn holding that water, though; it would render porn unique among all human arts for being responsible for the soundness of the fantasies it portrays.

    A politics here alarms me; we don’t ask, in any other genre or medium, for artists to portray edifying fantasies, and I’m nervous about the consequences of porn producers to do so. Not only does it set up a good porn/bad porn dynamic–a great boon for those seeking to narrow sexual expression–but it creates a new aesthetic space where it’s no longer enough to create the most compelling performance possible. I can only imagine the whirlwind of requirements that “good” porn producers would eventually be asked to fulfill, above and beyond merely making good film.

    I welcome what you’re trying to accomplish, but I’m just too suspicious of an approach that would likely be interpreted in bad faith as an invitation to self-censorship, and worse.

    P.S.: The blog is amazing. Keep it up!

  21. [...] really great stuff on his blog and I really like his writings on Dines. He had this to say in his 7 ways to create a sex-positive critique of porn: So why do I think that Dines’ strategies are sex-negative? Because she deliberately works to [...]

  22. Yeah, I’m in near complete agreement with everything you’ve written, Charlie, about disgust and sex-negativity in Dines et al’s work, and on the need for more and better sexuality education. And I like your effort to come up with some pre-requisites for a sex-positive debate on porn. I wish anti-porn campaigners would take them on board… because I’d rather be part of an inclusive, intellectually honest and sex-positive discussion about problems in porn than feeling I have to be on the defence team for something that I don’t even particularly like.

    And to your great list I would add that (although it’s related to what is in there already):

    (1) we would be consciously inclusive of human sexual diversity and mindful of not alienating or inadvertently stigmatizing sexual minorities through our critique

    (2) we would not speak about porn users as though they were all cisgender heterosexual men, making other users invisible

    (3) we would research and discuss, but not make assumptions about, the relationships between the porn people watch and their attitudes, beliefs and sexual practices

    (4) we would acknowledge that no human sexuality does, has ever, or could ever exist outside of a cultural context, and would therefore avoid grounding our arguments in assumptions about some natural, essential sexuality and, related to that

    (5) we wouldn’t make the sexist assumption that women do/should only enjoy soft, loving, affectionate types of sex.
    :)

  23. Charlie says:

    @Ultrahedonist- yes to all of those things!!!

  24. Anna says:

    I haven’t read Gail Dines’ work, but I can say based on your article that you are failing to see the larger picture when you accuse Dines of being sex-negative. It isn’t as if we live in a bubble in which men and women feel equally safe and equally ready to discuss and even to feel their desires and fantasies openly. This is not because women are inexpressive, it’s because we live in a culture that silences women and punishes them for their expression. Gail Dines has her right to her own visceral reactions to gagfactor, which by your own words she should have a right to, and yet you insult her and call her sex-negative because of these reactions. And is it not possible to be sex-positive and anti-gagfactor? As soon as anti-porn and sex-positive become mutually exclusive, we have a major cultural problem. Why is porn the one sacred cow we can’t complain about? We can trash art, music, movies, celebrities, politicians, etc., but somehow a website called gagfactor has to be held above judgment and critique.  

    Larry Flynt has a regular feature in his magazine in which a huge cartoon penis is inserted into the mouth of a political figure that he hates, with the caption: “How would so-and-so look with a dick in his/her mouth?” The implication is that having a dick in one’s mouth is humiliating, degrading, is the worst way that you can insult someone. When he inserts that dick into the hated figure’s mouth, he is violating that person’s mouth and whole being, he is saying they are beneath contempt. And of course this provides an informed reading of of the images of girls in his magazine who are shown with a dick in THEIR mouths. 

    So maybe you think it’s fine that gagfactor makes the same claims, that it’s all about humiliating and degrading women. Maybe you don’t have a problem with that, but it’s going a bit far to suggest that no one should have a problem with that, and that if they do, they don’t understand sex. For most women, a site like gagfactor would be ludicrous at best and degrading at worst, although most would never admit it. That is not to say that there couldn’t be a percentage of sexually healthy women out there who love to be be face-fucked in their own bedroom. But Dines’ article is not about that, but about the fact that gagfactor is about humiliating and degrading women, and not just in “fantasy.” The reality is that most of these porn actresses at least have very shitty lives, little agency, and are very young. Many die young from drugs, murder, or suicide (the life-span of a porn star in 37 years of age). I don’t know if getting face-fucked is these girls’ “fantasy” as much as it is their inevitable reality, and I don’t think anyone much cares. But to deny that these images are made for an exclusively male audience, for male pleasure alone without consideration of mutual enjoyment, at the expense of parallel fantasies that would excite women, and possibly made to fill a market that caters to men who like to see women as low whores to be degraded, is to be in severe denial of how images and fantasies work and how the porn industry itself works.

    But please don’t conflate porn with sex, please don’t suggest that intelligent discussion of how these images work somehow makes a woman someone who “doesn’t’ understand sex,” and please don’t try to trumpet your advanced experience of sex as something that trumps Dines’ experience of sex.

  25. Anna, I don’t think that Gail Dines is sex-negative because of her personal desires or preferences. I think she’s sex-negative because she refuses to allow other people to experience sex differently than she does. I’ve spoken with enough people (of all genders) who have said that they enjoy both deep throat oral sex and face fucking, either with or without any connotation of domination or humiliation, for me to be willing to accept Dines’ view that it always means what she says it means. The fact that she doesn’t make room for these different experiences and opinions is part of what makes me say that she’s sex-negative.

    As far as I’m concerned, she’s welcome to do whatever she wants with whoever she wants. Unfortunately, she doesn’t extend that courtesy and respect to others. That’s the problem I have with her.

    I am totally with you- I think it’s entirely possible to be sex-positive and anti-gagfactor.com. I have real problems with the fact that they eroticize non-consensual humiliation. We can get into a conversation about sexual health and consensual humiliation play, if we want to, but gagfactor doesn’t care about that. I think that’s totally messed up and I don’t see any reason to defend them. And I want to see the conversation about porn integrate the notion that these act mean different things to different people, that some people do enjoy them, and that we can discuss how these porn companies operate without demonizing the sexual acts that some people find pleasurable.

    So yes, I think we can have those conversations and be sex-positive. I just don’t see Dines even trying to do that.

  26. Anna says:

    Charlie,

    Without having read what Dines wrote I can’t either agree or disagree with whether or not she allows people to experience sex differently than she does. I have read other writing by Dines however, and she never claims to have a problem with sex, but with porn. (She writes that saying equating being anti-porn with being being anti-sex is like equating being anti-MacDonalds to being anti-eating). She is not for example speaking out against what couples do in their own bedroom, which WOULD make her anti-sex and somewhat fanatical. She is talking about how these images work, how degradation and lack of agency works within a specific context. Of course there will always be exceptions, and there will always be women and girls who do enjoy being degraded and humiliated (that’s what she objects to, the degradation and the hatred, not the oral sex). But it’s simply illogical to claim that certain people enjoy abuse, therefore we have to throw the whole question of abuse out the window.

    But mainly the problem I had with what you wrote was the ad hominem attack on her sexuality, and the condescending statement that she “doesn’t understand sex,”which is really stupendously sexist coming from a so-called academic who should know better. 

    The term sex-negative is an inflammatory political label used against anyone who discusses porn with any kind of critical distance. You are saying that you have a problem with gagfactor too. Well that’s all Dines is saying as far as I know. She is saying that she has a problem with how sex is depicted on that website. I seriously doubt that she is saying that she has a problem with oral sex, rough sex, role-playing sex, masochistic sex. She does not have a problem with sex. She has a problem with PORN. 

  27. Anna says:

    …So in other words, say what you mean. Say that Dines needs to accept the fact that violent, humiliating porn is here to stay, and that you don’t give a rat’s ass about who it offends or humiliates.

  28. Anna, I absolutely agree that we need to look at how porn is produced and how people interact with it because there are plenty of ways in which much of it is deeply problematic. I don’t want anyone to be humiliated, hurt, or abused in the making or production of any erotic media. The fact that it happens is a serious problem that I want to see changed.

    However, what Dines does is foment disgust at specific sexual acts that some people actively pursue, enjoy, and safely participate in. Either she doesn’t understand that any sexual act can be done in ways that bring people pleasure and support their well-being (just as any sexual act can be done in ways that cause physical or emotional harm) or she actively ignores this fact. That’s why I said that she doesn’t understand sexuality. It’s the fact that she projects her assumptions onto the sexual act, rather than looking at the specifics of how a particular porn producer represents it. And it’s the fact that she links the sexual act with disgust, which creates shame for the people who actually enjoy it and removes support for an awareness of sexual diversity.

    I’d love to see a critique of porn that looks at the attitudes of the producers and viewers without falling back on the assumption that one sex act is good and the other is bad, because that is the root of sex-negativity. And as long as Dines or anyone else continues to claim that any kind of sex is inherently degrading (or for that matter, dirty, sinful, disgusting, or shameful), I will continue to argue that they are acting from sex-negativity because the real problem isn’t any specific act- it’s how it’s done, how the participants feel about it, and how it’s represented. The problem is that people’s consent, pleasure, and well-being are not being considered important.

    On that level, Dines and I are actually on the same page. Where we disagree is that she doesn’t make room for the range of experiences around that that exist in the world, and she uses shame and disgust to try to sway people. If Dines said something like “while sites like gagfactor.com eroticize humiliation and reinforce sex-negativity by representing these sex acts as degrading, these other sites show the same sex acts as pleasurable for both parties…”, I wouldn’t have these concerns with her rhetoric. But that’s not what she does and that’s a big problem.

  29. Anna says:

    To get the record straight, Dines is not anti-sex. She never has said that she has a problem with what people do in their own bedrooms. 

    But now I’ve read more Dines and more counter-arguments against Dines, and  interestingly, she is not that radical. She doesn’t advocate censorship, only regulation. I know that porn is already regulated, but that most of the regulations are not enforced. In my point of view, if the regulations would actually be enforced (the sex has to actually be consensual and not performed under coercion or duress, the performers have to actually be safe from harm and injury), the shape of porn would change, and we might actually get more erotica and more porn that was enjoyable to both men and women. 

    As for the “consenting adults” part of the law, I would make sure that the performers are actually adults for one thing, and think it might even be a good idea to change the legal age to 21. That would eliminate a lot of problems of consent and ensure more that the people who are performing actually want to be performing, and are able to give consent.  What distresses me is that there is almost no one advocating for these girls except people who want to stop porn all together, which is not a solution. But to actually enforce regulation of porn in my view is the same as regulating Wall Street or making sure the rich don’t make all the profits at the expense of the poor. Leaving it unregulated causes the industry to profit enormously while many of the performers get their lives and health wrecked for a relatively small amount of money. I wish that instead of the sex/ anti-sex argument we could get into a health and safety and human rights argument about this.

    I mean, feminists cry out against anal rape scenes in which there are three guys on one girl, and they should, because that girl is likely to get anal prolapse and have health problems in that area for the rest of her life. So I would have regulations that allow only one penis in a woman’s anus at one time, no ass-to-mouth because of the likelihood of parasitical infections, no gagging, no punching and slapping, etc. Because these are real physical traumatic events that happen to real women. And for the few women that may actually enjoy being punched or slapped, there are many more who concede to it out of financial duress or pressure. The producers dangle carrots in front of these girls – the more violent or extreme an act the more they get paid, and the more their star rises in the field. There are also legal limits to what a person can consent to, and it’s argued by some that a person cannot consent to being “actually” physically harmed. And as it stands these acts are already technically against the law (they violate laws about bodily fluids and physical harm). Would enforcing the regulations that already exist cause an undue amount of censorship and violate first amendment laws? What do you think? This to me seems like an interesting discussion.

  30. Anna, there are more ways to express sex-negativity than to judge what people do in their bedrooms. When someone talks about any sex act as inherently disgusting or degrading, then it absolutely affects how people feel about their private sex lives.

    I get that it’s hard to find language to talk about this. I have real problems, for example, with the way that some porn featuring black men and white women uses racism and fetishizes our cultural history around interracial sex. And yet, not all porn with black men and white women does that. So it’s important to talk about it in ways that makes it clear that the problem is the fetishizing of racism, not the interracial sex itself.

    I think similar things can be said about sex acts like anal sex, facefucking, gangbangs, slapping, etc. Many of these acts can be done in ways that all of the participants actively enjoy, whether on camera or not. That’s why I wrote this post- I want to make room for people to enjoy them AND address the fetishization of non-consent and degradation. As far as I’ve seen, Dines et al don’t bother to explore those nuances and instead, vilify the sex acts along with the problematic aspects of porn. THAT’S what I see as sex-negative- it’s the fact that she doesn’t separate the two out and in fact, actively uses people’s disgust at unfamiliar and (to them) triggering sex to gain support.

    I’m with you- part of the problem is the financial incentive/pressure and part of it is the age of many women in porn (and FTR, of some of the men in gay porn). I think the question of legal regulations is interesting, though so far, the government hasn’t been willing to look at things on the level you’re talking about. I’d like to think about that some more.

  31. [Bumping this up to the current because the points given both in the original post and the comments are as viable now as they were when they were printed]
    I am with Dr. Glickman in that there can be a sex-positive critique of porn that doesn’t slide totally into the briar patch of judgment and censorship.  The problem comes when so many sex+ critics of porn decide to invoke their personal squicks at expressions of speech or behaviors that may seem problematic because of their unconventionality (such as BDSM or extreme roleplay) but in which consensuality and rules of engagement are clearly stated. Or, when certain avant-garde critics simply use critique of porn that doesn’t fit their particular tastes as a crutch to condemn more mainstream porn merely because it appeals to the “wrong” demographic (mostly, men). It is much too easy sometimes to confuse personal taste with genuine critique of lack of mutual consent, mutual respect, and mutual pleasure. This isn’t to say that porn producers shouldn’t be held accountable for the treatment of performers/models, or that there shouldn’t be criticism of the more abusive and misogynistic forms of sexual media…only that one must be careful not to conflate diversity of sexual practice with activism to improve social and economic conditions that porn performers/models endure.
    As for Anna’s defense of Gail Dines: Sorry, but a woman who can’t even be bothered to even look up the definition of the term “gonzo” (it refers to a particular style of filming which the viewer is placed in the position of being an active part of the film, rather than a passive onlooker); when she attacks even those within porn who fight to devekop more progressive, female-friendly content and improve the working conditions of women and men within the industry, and who is so dismissive of real criticism that she can only respond with adhominen assaults and middle-school insults such as “He must live in his mother’s basement, jerking off to porn all day” or “She’s just a paid agent of the patriarchy, in denial about her rape and abuse”….well, that to me fits the definition of “sex-negative” right down to the letter. The fact that Dines is now openly and unabashedly favoring both the Iceland porn ban proposals and the European Parliament proposals (which are straight out of the same playbook as the Andrea Dworkin/Catherine MacKinnon antiporn “feminist” proposals of the 1990′s, simply updated for an Internet age), speaks volumes about her true agenda of sexual censorship and sex regulation.
    And..to say that Dines doesn’t judge what people do in their bedrooms is simply an exercise in denial, especially when she openly supports laws that would do exactly that: deny people the right to watch consensual sexual expression in the privacy of their own bedrooms; not to mention use the power of the state to deny women the right to create and profit from the distriburion of such content.
    [cont'd]

  32. Finally, as to the question of consent: To say that there is no right of “consent” when there is injury done is to muddle up the debate: since no one challenges the basic fact that those who are injured or deliberately harmed in the act of making a sexual scene do have the right to seek retribution for damages. However, by its very definition, rape requires the absence of consent, since by its very means, rape is an act of denial of consent through the violent physical sexual assault and battery of a person. (And, there is the non-sexual aspect of assault and battery, which require no mention of consent, either.)
    To say that a person’s consent doesn’t matter because they are pressured by economic constraints or other means ultimately denies that a person can have any say in their own autonomy….and ultimately denies them any agency in even improving their workplace conditions so that abuse doesn’t occur to begin with.
    Also…saying that “such things are already illegal, so enforcing existing laws is not censorship” ignores the fact that maybe the laws criminalizing such behavior should themselves be challenged on the basis of effectiveness and also scapegoating innocent people who do no harm but to themselves, but are punished and targeted on the basis of presumptions of morality rather than actual harm.
     

  33. Anna says:

    Anthony, 
    I had much better and more convincing comments after the first one I posted, which took me some time to write, but which were not approved by Mr. Glickman.
    I do understand your political points, and everything sounds good on paper, including that you can’t take someone seriously like Dines if she would advocate x and y. But there is a lot of rhetorical manipulation going on here, and I don’t believe that someone’s statements should be distorted and skewered because of other things they might do or say. 
    I am not in Dines’ camp in that I would NOT advocate censorship of any kind. Yet I think it’s good to have those voices out there that represent a political stance against the worst excesses of a misogynistic culture. The problem with much of pornography is that it tries to pretend that all pornography is good because it’s a form of free speech, whereas political arguments about all other cultural practices are so much more nuanced than that. Because of the free speech issue porn is protected fiercely by the left, and yet the porn Dines rails against is an example of something the left would traditionally would have loathed due to its catering to mass consumption and its practice of turning human bodies into machines of physically punishing and ultimately physically and financially unrewarding  labor.
    I  understand that the hysteria around this issue is due to the powers that would shut it down for good, but surely there is room for discussion around some of the more real and serious issues surrounding the industry, such as what the reality is for most of the female performers involved. Of course they have the right to do whatever they wish with their bodies, but there are many practices that have been outlawed in this country because they are considered inhumane ways for people to earn a living. One example is that freak shows have been outlawed. There is debate on either side of that issue, partly from people who used to be able to earn a living as freaks in sideshows but are no longer able to due to the law. But I assume that the law felt that people did not have the right to debase themselves and be laughed at by others even if they wanted to, because that law (unusual to say the least in such an extreme capitalist society) upholds human dignity over peoples’ right to earn a living in whatever way they choose. 
    I know that there are women out there who enjoy performing in porn and are in charge of their own lives and decisions, but the research I’ve done shows that the majority are drug users with few economic options who would like to get out if they could. I find the discussion about sex and porn among sex-positive scholars to be woefully limited, because most are living in a la-la land where women love everything they do in porn and everyone is nice and clean and happy. Most of us now seem to support an “anything goes” capitalist attitude to material that really does harm people, both performers and audiences.
    I’ve also found that cultural discussion surrounding women is hysterical and extreme on both sides of the aisle, from businessmen being dragged over the coals for paying a harmless compliment to an employee, to porn producers tricking young girls into performing acts that hurt and degrade them, and serving up the humiliation of women as the status quo for big cash. It’s sad too that there’s so much rage too surrounding these issues. Surely the right to earn a living is not the only human right. I don’t have the answer, but I think Dines’ arguments are thoughtful and are a good resisting voice out there.
     

  34. Anna says:

    Hi Anthony,
    BTW, there are a lot of really shitty conditions for poor people. Poor people get shitty food, have shitty jobs, and are treated in a shitty way. Most porn performers are poor, therefore they have the most shitty jobs. It would be great if there really was always consent, then this discussion would sort of be moot. But no one has 100% free will, and poor people have much less.

  35. Anna,
     Yes, poor folk do a lot of shitty things….but poverty isn’t defined by the things they do. Poverty is defined by not having enough resouces (particularly, money) to provide for themselves or their families. If they were doing things that were less “shitty” (or even essential or fulfilling) and weren’t being compensated enough to make a decent living, it would still be morally wrong.
    Also…in actual fact, most porn performers actually are paid a hell of a lot more than even the majority of working class folk in conventional jobs. This isn’t to say that they aren’t underpaid for their efforts and the use of their bodies, but they aren’t the most representative of destitution or impovishment. Try being an undocumented immigrant working for $3.50/hr, or a retail cashier working 30 hours a week at barely the minimum wage, with no benefits whatsoever, forced to rely on 200% interest payday loans to pay her bills and keep her home and family afloat. Compared to that, a porn performer making $1,000 for three hours of work on a shoot isn’t quite as “shitty” as you assume.

  36. Anna says:

    Anthony,
    It’s very difficult to have a conversation with someone who misunderstands and misconstrues nearly everything that I write. I am not in any camp or faction. You know much more about Dines’ positions than I do. I actually had to look her up when I saw this article to even see what she is about. My views come from lived experience and from being in line with certain marxist ideas. 
    But just briefly, it is not ME who is making the argument about human dignity – it is the law which prevents “freaks” from earning a living in side shows. But I mention it as an example of a law that tries to protect a class of people from being exploited, even if that law stands in the way of a financial transaction.
    Second, I really am NOT for censorship. I am not being sneaky and pretending anything. I am not a right-wing Christian out to take your porn away from you. You don’t know anything about me, but if you did you would understand that I am a public figure who has been involved with sex performance myself, and my work is championed by sex-positive groups. This is one reason it’s important for me to be clear at least with myself about the different sides of the industry and how I feel about them. I was even hired to do a column for Hustler magazine in which they wanted me to write sex articles along with nude photos of myself, but I declined because while I enjoy sexual expression, that is NOT a magazine I support. I had to look into the history of Larry Flynt and do some real research before I took a stand, because I like to be open-minded, but it’s a place where expression from the minds of women is not supported or encouraged, and where women who speak their minds are denounced as whores and bitches. (See, I’m having to defend myself and explain that I’m not some dried-up old cunt who hates sex). 
    And I don’t see poor people as victims without agency, but I do believe in society protecting its citizens from harm if it can, and at least having compassion if it can’t. Yes dignity is a personal issue, but there are issues surrounding human dignity that are universal. So for instance, a black person has the right to shine shoes. But what if having that job subjects him to racist abuse and humiliation? What if the economic circumstances are such that he can’t get another job? Then his agency is limited – NOT because he has no agency or because he is a victim, but because his opportunities are limited. 
    The fact that the sex industry pays better than a minimum wage job is why so many women are involved in it, and this is how they get exploited. And this is why i got involved in it at the age of 18. That first job paid really well, but it was not worth it because of the constant attempts at degradation and humiliation. Many men seem to have these madonna-whore complexes and to believe that sex, and women, are dirty. This poses a huge problem for women in the sex industry, who are regularly spat on and called whores and have their hair pulled and are kicked and abused, etc. In the bar where I worked it was only verbal abuse, but it was every night, and every night I had to go into the bathroom and cry. 
    Maybe I could have stayed in the industry if I was much tougher, and god bless the women that are tough enough to handle it, but I think it was a lot easier for women in the industry before the situations became so extreme and the trends so enormously geared towards humiliation of women on screen. Men constantly seeing women in those positions of being degraded only reinforces their hatred and fear of women.  I don’t wish it to be censored, because censorship is a slippery slope that leads to very bad things very fast, and I also like some of it (mostly the retro stuff), but I wish mainstream porn producers would have more imagination and sense of play and not just be driven by the dollar.
    I never said that the experiences I mentioned were those of all women in porn, but I know from extensive research that they’re pretty typical for many women. But you don’t have to interview women or to have had experiences yourself to know or sense this.  You just have to look at the films.
     
    You keep putting words in my mouth. I never said or suggested that there wasn’t a progressive side to the sex industry. But people like Nina Hartley are few and far between, and she does not represent the typical experiences of women in the porn industry. I never said or suggested that the industry was evil. I don’t like most of the mainstream stuf. But me liking or not liking it is irrelevant. What i am objecting to here is the use of tricky and underhanded rhetoric to undermine the arguments of thinking person (Gail Dines) who may have opposite views to yourself but who has legitimate arguments to make. She also does not hate progressive sex films as I understand. She specifically hates films in which the point is to humiliate women (both on the screen and by extension, in life).  If Dines actually thinks, as you say, that all porn is about rape and abuse of women then I part company with here there. But again, I reacted because I felt that Mr. Glickman had misrepresented Ms. Dines’ position.
    I think it’s really a shame that the religious right has teamed up with marxist feminists, because I think that’s where a lot of the confusion comes from, and what makes it so impossible to have an intelligent discussion around porn. I also don’t think there is anything “pseudo” about marxist-feminist arguments. These are real and considered political stances. They are not only always about wanting to impose limits on what other people do. Sometimes people need to express these feelings because they are in grief about how people are treated and want to help. I understand that there is  also a lot of anger on both sides, and I do think feminists have done some real damage with some of their own rhetoric. But I always believe in agitation and for the right to free-expression not just in porn and art, but also in actual SPEECH. And my research shows me that the sex-positive side, which I used to be with gung-ho, also has a lot to answer for.
    I think your statement “harms no one” is problematic. We know for a fact that certain people are harmed by the porn industry. Whether or not that harm goes beyond the pale of what people should be expected to bear in the workplace is up for debate.
    And what do you mean, “poverty isn’t defined by the things they [poor people] do?” Poverty DETERMINES what people do. I will state again that none of this means that i want to take away peoples’ rights to produce whatever they want, although you seem not to believe me. I still think the industry is sort of sad and very lacking in quality products. (I also feel that way about most of Hollywood product, yet I would never want to censor it, just ignore it). My real answer to it will probably be to make my own porn film that has the things in it I would like to see -stuff that can be sexy and exciting for both men and women. 
     

  37. Anna says:

    Mr. Glickman,
     
    I have to apologize. I had not realized that you had posted my comments, which I thought you had deleted. Also your responses were honest and not tricky, but I do get frustrated when people are called sex-negative when they are actually humiiiation-of-women-negative. 

  38. Anna, thanks. I’m with you. I’d like to find a way to address degradation of women without slipping into sex-negativity. But Dines and others don’t seem particularly invested in that. (See here and here for some other posts I’ve written about that).

     

  39. Just a note of clarification: I don’t believe that all critics of porn are necessarily “sex negative”…but I most certainly do believe that Dines’ (and most other abolitionist radicalfeminists’) critique *is definitely* sex-negative, because their main goal is pretty much the same as the Religious Right: to constrain sexuality under an extremely narrow parameter of behavior and practice. The only difference is that the radfems would empathize “love” and “equality” in the same way that religious fundamentalists would emphasize “family” and “marriage” and reproduction….otherwise, the structures and hierachy of sexual repression would be pretty much the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>