I recently attended a lecture by Robert Jensen, noted radical feminist, anti-pornography activist, and one of the producers of The Price of Pleasure, an anti-porn film that I’ve written about here and here. I went because I wanted to see what he was like in person. I’ve read some of his work, and I figured it would be useful to check his talk out.
A Little Background
Jensen’s lecture was hosted by St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA. It’s a Catholic college, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the name of the lecture series was “Defining You”, rather than something that conveys a message of “helping you define yourself.” Not that that has anything to do with Jensen directly, but it does set the stage for his perspective on porn.
There were about 90-100 people present. Almost all of them looked female, most of them appeared White, and there was quite an age range. Several college students came with their mothers, to judge by conversations I overheard.
I decided to record the lecture because I wanted to be able to quote Jensen accurately. Anything that appears in quotes below is what he said verbatim, although I cleaned up any extraneous ums and such. There weren’t many of those, however, since Jensen is an excellent speaker.
Right at the start, Jensen began by thanking St. Mary’s College and the Women’s Resource Center for giving him an excuse to get out of Texas. Apparently, he thinks it’s important to make it clear that although he teaches at the University of Texas, he’s not a Texan. I’m a little curious about that, especially since he reiterated it at the end, as you’ll see later.
Jensen then explained that he wasn’t going to show any images of the porn that he planned to discuss. I think this was great since it’s important to make sure that the audience knows what it’s getting. But he took that as an opportunity to do something interesting. Here’s what he said:
“First is to let you know that I’m not going to be showing any images, no actual pornography. I get different kinds of reactions. Sometimes, the women in the audience breathe a sigh of relief. And sometimes, the men say ‘oh, too bad. No porn. That’s why I came.'”
He then shared a story of one time that he said the same thing and three “big guys” who had sat in the front row looked at each other and left.
I’ll take him at his word that a few men come to his talks with the expectation of watching porn for free. I don’t think it’s all that common, and I’m willing to bet my house that it doesn’t happen nearly as often as the frequency with which women feel anxiety at the prospect of seeing explicit images or relief when they hear that they won’t. Leaving aside the possibility that some men might also feel relief or that some women might enjoy the sorts of porn he talks about, this was a pretty slick thing that Jensen did. He managed to imply that men come to his talks in order to see porn as often as women feel relief about not watching porn.
Of course, he didn’t say that in so many words, but to put those two ideas so closely together with the same qualifier (not, for example, saying that “every now and then, a few men say ‘oh, too bad. No porn. That’s why I came.'”), made it sound like those two things are comparably frequent. It’s like the patter of a three card monte dealer, distracting you so you don’t notice the sleight of hand. Since it made some of the women laugh, it looked to me as if he was creating group cohesion among the women at the expense of the men present. It also made me wonder how many of the women in the room were considering whether my motivation for coming to the lecture was to watch free porn, and what effects that has on Jensen’s audiences.
After a brief disclaimer about why a man is talking about feminism, explaining that he’s using a feminist critique rather than a religious critique (an especially useful distinction to make at a Catholic university), and situating himself in the lineage of Dworkin and Dines, Jensen further built cohesion among the women at the cost of the men’s safety.
“Now it’s late at night and you’ve all had a busy day, so we’re going to have a little audience participation to make sure we’re all in the game. So the first thing I want to do is sort of chart the landscape of pornography with which we’re familiar, to get some sense of where we’re all sitting in the world. So the first thing I want to do to help us with that, is I want all of the men to line up own here and one by one, I want you to come up to the microphone and describe the pornography that you most recently masturbated to.”
lots of laughs, and nobody comes up
“No volunteers for that one? OK, that was a joke. Here’s the reason I said that, is to recognize that when we talk about a subject like pornography, we’re not talking about some abstract subject out there. We’re talking about our own lives. We know that that is the primary use that men put pornography to. I don’t say that standing above. I have my own experiences with that.”
As an educator, I can see how an exercise like this might be really useful, if enough safety has been built into a class. But this was a lecture, without any groundrules, expectations of confidentiality, or anything else that skilled teachers often do when exploring challenging topics. There also wasn’t any information given to the women about how to respond- were they going to tut tut us? Shame us? Laugh at us?
Telling the men that we’re going to come to the front of the room and make ourselves vulnerable without creating groundrules or group expectations of behavior made the experience even more unsafe. It certainly made the women laugh, which looked to me as if it helped them bond more. Whether that was Jensen’s intention or not, it exacerbated the sense that this was an us versus them experience. Further, creating group cohesion by denigrating or shaming some of the people in the audience is simply not how one creates a space for participants to feel safe enough to explore the edges of their comfort zones.
Some people will point out that men need to learn to lean into their discomfort when talking about sexism and porn, and I would 100% agree with that. But if the goal of an exercise is to show that discussions of porn are about “our own lives,” there are many, many ways to do that and build safety for all participants instead of just most of them. In addition, it’s not clear to me how this joke actually demonstrates the personal nature of porn. I can think of a half-dozen ways to make that point more clearly without demonizing men.
Next, Jensen led a brief exercise during which he asked audience members to finish the sentence “Pornography is…” In order to give people “plausible deniability,” he invited us to respond either with the words that we think of or with words that someone else might use. That would have been fine, except that he specifically said:
“You can complete that sentence in the way that you believe pornography is, or you can complete the sentence as you expect someone you know would. Your brother, your father, your uncle.”
Not your sister, your mother, or your aunt. This creates an expectation of a dichotomy- there’s how you (presumably, a woman) will respond and then there’s how you imagine men will respond. Of course, there are some pretty clear gender-based trends in terms of how folks might answer, but they’re not universal. What message does this send to a young woman who thinks that porn is awesome? And for the men in the audience, why weren’t we invited to complete the sentence as the women in our lives might?
Implicit in these instructions is the clear message that Jensen was addressing the women in the room, rather than including the men. I absolutely understand the value of creating spaces for women to come together to explore these topics, but as far as I saw on the website, the event wasn’t listed as women-only. Further, neither of the two people associated with the university who made announcements (one of whom was a man) nor the person who introduced Jensen said anything about the event being specifically for women. And lastly, Jensen didn’t say anything along those lines, even though he certainly knew that some men were there (he and I chatted briefly about the fact that the time it was supposed to start was listed incorrectly on the website). So there was no reason for me to expect that I was intruding on a women-only space, or that Jensen wasn’t going to be addressing the entire audience.
In that light, the fact that Jensen was talking specifically to the women is especially significant. By doing so, Jensen deepened the split among the audience along gender lines, which exacerbates the sorts of sexism that he’s says he’s fighting. That’s especially ironic, given that he next explained that, in his view, “pornography is what the end of the world looks like” because he thinks that porn shows a world without empathy, without “decent human connection.” It seems to me that doing three activities that widen the chasm between men and women gets in the way of creating empathy and connection. If you want to help people build healthy relationships, shaming and vilifying are not particularly effective. And given that all three exercises were deeply rooted in the notion that men watch porn and women don’t, they reinforced gender essentialism, which I find particularly insulting.
Part of a Larger Pattern
All of this fits into a pattern of behavior that showed up over and over throughout the rest of Jensen’s lecture. It’s unfortunate, because he does have some really valid points to make. By choosing to frame his lecture in ways that reify the idea that “men are like this, and women are like that,” he might as well have done the whole Mars/Venus thing. In my experience as a sex educator, bridges are built when we start seeing the commonalities we share. I’m certainly not suggesting that we’re all the same, but rather, by talking as if the gender split is universal, Jensen did more to hinder the development of the empathy and connection that he says he wants than he did to create it.
Having made plenty of generalizations and essentialist statements about gender, Jensen got into the heart of his topic. He began by explaining two trends that “everyone would agree” on that he sees as the paradox of porn:
1) Porn is more mainstream and more normalized than ever before. It shifted from being marginalized to being mainstream, and graphic sexually explicit imagery is both more widely available and accepted than ever, though not universally.
2) The content of porn is more overtly cruel and degrading to women and more overtly racist than ever before.
The first thing to ask is whether “everyone” can agree on something if not everyone has seen a representative sample of both older porn and more recent porn. While I do agree with the first, I would reframe the second as “porn that is cruel to women and more overtly racist has become more common”. It’s also not clear to me how much if its being more common is because it’s a larger portion of what’s available, and how much that is due to the greater availability of porn overall. I think that’s a really good question to look into, and I’m not sure if anyone has. In any case, unless his audience members have watched a significant amount of porn, how can he honestly say that these are things that “everyone knows”?
It’s another slick maneuver. By taking one thing that’s pretty clear to anyone who has been paying attention to mass media in the last twenty years, and then linking it to something that not everyone will be aware of from direct experience, Jensen conveyed the impression that the second one is just as true as the first and that “everyone” would agree with it. He did it smoothly enough that he managed to get a lot of heads nodding. Jensen never asked the audience to share their level of porn experience, but that doesn’t matter because “everyone knows,” right? It’s another example of how he used smooth patter to convince you that you know which shell the pea is under.
Leaving aside the logical inconsistency, here’s his paradox of porn:
“In a civilized society, how can you have a media genre that becomes more widely accepted, more mainstream, more normalized at the exact same time that the content of that media is more overtly cruel and degrading to women and more overtly racist? One would think those trends would diverge, not come together.”
Hold onto this, because it comes back later. But before we can get into it, there need to be some disclaimers.
First, Jensen made it clear that he’s not critiquing art. In his view, art is one of the ways that people deal with the experiences “that are beyond our rational capacity to fully understand,” such as sex and God (his examples), or birth, death, love, and more. Now, I find this a rather compelling definition of art, although Jensen’s notion of what makes things mysterious says more about him than anything else:
“The role sex plays in our lives is quite mysterious. Think of all of the things that we might have done in our lives…All of the things that we’ve done out of sexual desire that, in retrospect don’t seem very smart. Things that I’ve done in my life out of desire that, looking back, I probably should have chosen differently. I don’t know about you, but my list would be really long. Really stupid things I’ve done out of desire.
Why? We don’t really understand what sex is. It’s kind of a mystery. And I think when human beings bump up against mystery, they make art. And that’s why there’s so much art about sex.”
I don’t think that the fact that people make less-than-wise decisions around sex is what makes it mysterious. The fact that people make bad choices is unfortunate, and in my view, is a sign that we need better sexuality and life skills education, and in some cases, therapy. But people make “stupid decisions” (a rather judgmental phrase) about a lot of things, including which clothes to buy, what car to drive, or what food to eat. That doesn’t make clothing, car buying, or eating mysterious. All it means is that people make bad decisions. Or perhaps more accurately, people’s decision-making processes are mysterious.
In my view, sex is mysterious because it’s unpredictable, because we never grasp it fully, because it touches a part of our selves that few other things do, because we don’t always understand many of our motivations until afterward, because it connects to every aspect of our individual and collective lives, because there’s so much variation in how people experience it, and because our relationships to it change over time (from day to day and year to year). But that’s not what Jensen offered as an explanation for the mysterious nature of sex. All he said was that he’d made some poor choices. That seems to sell sex short.
Nevertheless, Jensen argued that one of the functions of art is to help us grapple with the mysterious, and we don’t need to worry about it because porn isn’t art. Not only do “most of us have no trouble understanding it”, the “pornographers know the difference between art and pornography, ” too.
Why Is This A Problem?
The difficulty is that Jensen made it clear that while sexual imagery for the purpose of grappling with the mysterious is acceptable, he didn’t make any room for sexual imagery for the purposes of erotic arousal. Given the long cultural history of labeling anything to do with sexuality, the body, or pleasure as dirty/sinful/shameful/disgusting/dangerous, as well as the notion that intellectual and artistic pursuits are worthwhile or more valid, I think it’s especially important to question whether Jensen’s playing into that.
One of the common claims made against radical feminism is that it’s sex-negative, which seems to confuse a lot of radical feminists I’ve spoken with. But when Jensen or others make statements about the difference between art and porn without explaining why the intention of inspiring or heightening sexual arousal is problematic, in and of itself, it’s easy to interpret that as assuming that he’s saying that arousal is bad. And that is so deeply and inextricably connected to sex-negativity that it’s hard to not jump to the conclusion that a radical feminist critique is sex-negative. (For the record, I don’t think that it has to be.)
I find that unfortunate because, as I describe below, Jensen described porn as rooted in degradation of women. I think it’s entirely possible to create commercially-produced sexual imagery for the purposes of arousal that isn’t based on degradation. While we could debate whether a particular movie or act degrades the participants, I think it’s significant than Jensen didn’t even acknowledge the existence (or, if he thinks there is none, the potential existence) of that kind of media.
Another reason that Jensen’s art/porn distinction is a problem is that it doesn’t create space for art to be arousing. To be fair, when I asked him about that after the lecture, he said that he certainly knows that it exists but that there isn’t time in a 30 minute lecture to get into those nuances. I see that as another example of how he oversimplifies the issue. All it would have taken is a simple statement like “…and of course, some art is intended to also arouse or is perceived as arousing, regardless of the intention of the artist.” Is five seconds too long to take?
This is important because someone could easily come away from his lecture thinking that if it arouses, it isn’t art. Not only has that been a justification to attack and censor artists, it can create an internal confusion if someone sees art and gets turned on. Could they wonder if there’s something wrong with them for getting aroused by art? Or would they have to deny that part of their experience in order to “properly appreciate” it? One of the reasons some folks are uncomfortable with some art is because they find it arousing and confusing. And unfortunately, Jensen’s glossing over the complexities of this reinforces that.
Both the oversimplification of trends in porn and the false binary of art/porn create more confusion, rather than less. The irony is that Jensen’s goal, as I interpret what he said to me after the lecture, was to make things easier to understand. I can certainly attest to the difficulty in capturing the many facets of these issues in easily-understood soundbites. It takes a lot of practice to be able to do it. But he’s been talking and writing on this topic for a long time, so he’s had plenty of opportunities to learn how to do it. Since he hasn’t figured out how, I can only conclude that he doesn’t actually want to include those nuances in the discussion.
One of the difficulties in discussions about porn is coming to a common understanding of what the term means. Potter Stewart is famous for having said that’s it’s hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it.”
What makes something porn, according to Jensen? He said that the fundamental insight of the feminist critique is that porn isn’t just sex on film. It’s “sex in the context of domination. The primary dynamic is male domination & female subordination, eroticizing that hierarchy.” So what happens with sexually-explicit media that isn’t based on that dynamic? Jensen acknowledged that gay porn exists but since heterosexual porn is the bulk of the industry’s output, that’s what he focuses on. And he made no mention of any commercially-produced, sexually-explicit media that isn’t based on male domination & female subordination. (At the end of this post, I have lots of links to examples of that, btw.)
To prove it, Jensen described the content in porn (leaving out the mechanisms of production and question of the effects of porn on the viewers, in the interests of time). Out of the 13,000 movies that the industry has been cranking out each year for the last several years, Jensen claimed that there are two main categories: Features and Gonzo. Features include characters and some sort of a plot. Gonzo, on the other hand, gets its name from “gonzo journalism,” with its focus on breaking the conventions. It’s just sex on film with “no illusion of narrative” and tries to push the envelope of acceptability.
As someone who works in the sexuality industry, I can attest that these are two of the main categories of porn. Having said that, I’m curious to know why Jensen left out Wall to Wall (or as we call it at Good Vibrations, All Sex No Plot). There’s a lot of porn out there that isn’t interested in pushing the envelope and isn’t based on plotlines. They may center on a specific sexual act like oral sex or threesomes, they might focus on specific body types such as curvy women or redheads. And the sex that you’ll see in many of them is much like the sex in Features rather than the sex in Gonzo, but without a storyline to give it context. In fact, some Wall to Wall movies are simply compilations of sex scenes from Features. Wall to Wall is a significant portion of the industry, although nobody can give an exact number since it’s not tracked by anyone.
Within the category of Gonzo, Jensen identified five sexual practices that have become more common (and I agree with his assessment): double penetration, double anal, double vaginal, gagging, and ass to mouth. I also agree with Jensen when he said:
“…those five sexual practices are not routine in the intimate lives of most of [the people] in the audience who are sexually active in a heterosexual relationship. I’m not saying those practices never exist outside of pornography but I think that if you were to survey the American public, you would find very low occurrences of that.”
He did clarify that, to date, no survey of sexual experiences has asked about them, but I’m willing to agree that they aren’t the most common. But here’s where we diverge:
“So if these are sexual acts that don’t come out of the real world experiences of people, where do they come from and why are they there? Why did the pornography industry essentially invent these sexual practices? All of these practices at their core are about intensifying that domination and subordination dynamic.”
I know quite a few people who enjoy double penetration (simultaneous vaginal and anal intercourse) without a shred of domination and subordination. And while porn makers might like to take credit for inventing it, double penetration was mentioned in The Romance of Lust, an anonymous book that was published in four parts from 1873-1876. So it can hardly be described as a recent innovation, even if it has been popularized in modern porn.
I agree with Jensen that the way that these acts are often portrayed in porn have tones of dominance, although I’ve also seen movies in which the intention isn’t to show domination as much as “Wow! She’s so turned on, look at what she’ll do!” For many people, the ways in which intense arousal can lead folks to cross taboos is a powerful turn-on. It isn’t clear to me that that equals domination in every situation. After all, lots of people have had intense sexual experiences in which they or a partner did something at the edge of (or even beyond) their comfort zones because of the intensity the moment. And I’ve seen some porn movies where that’s what it looked like to me; there was no language of domination, there was nothing that implied that was there. It’s more of a “we’re so turned on that we’ll do anything” scenario.
For that matter, if someone is having a threesome and they like penetration with larger objects (like this dildo), then what’s the problem with having intercourse with two men at the same time? It can be logistically challenging, but some people simply like having large things in their vaginas or rectums. It may not be the most common sexual practice, but it certainly doesn’t have to be done with any intention of degradation.
The fact that Jensen has difficulty seeing how these sexual acts can have any meaning other than degradation is pretty apparent:
“I can not explain in any other way why an ass to mouth scene would be attractive to male viewers except for the degradation of that act? What else could it be? How else could that act intensify the pleasure of a man in sex, other than the degradation?”
As a sexologist, I suggest that if he can’t explain it in any other way, perhaps he might like to learn about sexuality and ask some people who do it. (I assume that he hasn’t, since he doesn’t mention ever having done so.) Given that his biography doesn’t list any actual training in sexology, human sexuality, or psychology, I wonder how his inability to explain people’s motivations is at all relevant, even though it does illustrate his willingness to make assumptions. This is especially ironic in light of his later suggestion that the way to deal with the issue of porn is to check our assumptions, as I quote below.
We can certainly have a discussion about the health risks of ATM (as it’s abbreviated in the porn world), what the meanings of taboo violations may be, and other related issues. Those are all significant and relevant issues, but in order to have those conversations, we need to be open to the possibility that people’s motivations are rarely so one-dimensional as Jensen would have us believe.
Of course, there are plenty of movies where degradation is the intention and in many of the ones I’ve seen, it looked non-consensual. I deny neither the fact that these movies exist nor the negative impact that they can have. What I take issue with, however, is the attempt to characterize these sex acts as universal in all non-Feature porn movies, and the claim that none of these can be done with any purpose other than to degrade the woman involved. It’s simply not true.
A Problem With Definitions
Making this even more difficult is that a lot of people (and certainly, almost everyone in the porn industry, the sex toy industry, the mainstream media, and legal circles) use the term “porn” to mean any sexually explicit media intended to arouse, especially if it’s sexually explicit. I think that the question of porn that is grounded in degradation or humiliation is important and well worth looking at, from a feminist perspective, from a sex-positive perspective, and from a wider social justice perspective.
But when Jensen took the word that almost everyone uses to talk about all erotic movies and then used it to talk about the subset of the genre that is based on degradation, it sounded as if he’s saying that all sexually explicit media is degrading. It seems to me that this is part of why debates on the topic seem endless. Some people say that “porn is degrading.” Others respond, “not all porn is.” And because each group is using the word differently, the discussion easily spirals out of control. It isn’t clear to me whether Jensen deliberately used the word differently than everyone else in order to confuse the issue, but it had that effect whether he meant it to or not.
Of course, Jensen isn’t the only person trying to talk about that nasty porn over there and the good kinds of sexual imagery, which may be called artistic, erotic, explicit, adult, or sensual. But as Anne Sabo writes, it’s possible to “re-vision” porn:
“Re-visioned porn…shows us sex that is pleasurable, intimate, and caring between women and men [I'd make that "people"] we can relate to. They meet their sexual partners on equal terms, and their sexual encounters—giving and receiving—are characterized by warmth and respect, and a mutual sense of adoration and affirmation. In contrast to the depressing porn Paul talks about [in Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families], this kind of porn offers us heartening stories about real people as they enjoy and explore their sexualities; providing us and our partners with helpful ideas and inspiration for our sexual lives.” (notes added)
In my view, the attempt to validate sexual imagery by calling it film, or erotica, or art has more to do with our deeply-rooted desire to validate sexual pleasure, rather than seeing it as a worthwhile goal, for its own sake. That doesn’t imply that all pleasure is good, since the consent and well-being of the participants and those affected by them are equally important. But when we fall into the trap of having to justify pleasure, we reinforce the sex-negativity that so much of our culture revolves around. Not to mention that the distinction is often quite classist. Black and white photos in a $75 book are art, while full-color photos in a $10 magazine are porn.
We need a way to talk about the portion of porn that is based on degradation without losing sight of the fact that that’s not inherent in the entire genre.
Further, given that the term “porn” has had that wider meaning for a lot longer than Jensen’s or Dworkin’s critique, perhaps the radical feminists could come up with a new term that specifies what they’re talking about. Giving a disclaimer at the beginning simply isn’t enough because so many people are used to the more common definition of the word. This attempt to redefine it confused things, especially since he didn’t mention anything about non-degrading porn. Alternatively, if Jensen is claiming all commercially-produced sexual imagery is degrading, then he needs to make that more explicit, rather than focusing on Gonzo and offering that as representative of the entire output of the industry.
A Simplistic Look At Racism In Porn
After talking about Gonzo as if it’s all the porn there is, Jensen turned to the issue of racism in porn. I have to say that I agree with him that porn is “the only genre where the worst stereotypes are still allowed to exist.” You’ll see movies with incredibly racist titles or themes in pretty much every mainstream porn store.
As an aside, I’ve seen a lot of movies that had incredibly offensive titles and yet, the content was unobjectionable. To forestall questions of how I, as a White person, could make that claim, some folks of color with finely honed awareness of the mechanisms of racism and sexism also watched them and decided that the actual movies were fine. It was the titles that were offensive, rather than the content or the dialogue.
From my experience in this industry, I can think of two interrelated reasons why that might be. First, when a customer is browsing at a porn shop and the DVDs are spine out, the makers need to be able to send a clear message about what the movie is about in order to catch peoples’ attention. The same thing happens on websites, where people scan the page quickly and manufacturers compete for clickthroughs. Second, stereotypes make it easy to convey that information in a way that people will get. So if you’re looking for a movie that features Black women, putting the word sistah in the title gets that across. Unfortunately, so does using far more offensive language, or using a font that looks vaguely like Chinese, or such. I don’t excuse it because it reinforces the mechanisms of racism and I want it to stop. I simply mention it because there are elements to this issue that Jensen didn’t address.
Of course, there is also a lot of porn that is blatantly and deliberately racist. It is absolutely true that “you can see every racist stereotype that you can imagine in contemporary pornography,” including the hot blooded Latina, animalistic Black women, Asian women as geisha girls (regardless of their actual ethnicities), and hypersexual & predatory Black men. You also won’t see any Asian men in straight porn since the racist stereotype is that they’re non-sexual.
Here’s where this starts to get interesting. Most “interracial” porn focuses on Black men having sex with White women, sometimes with a White man watching but not participating. Given the long history in the US around violence toward Black men who have sex with White women, Jensen admitted to having been rather at a loss to explain this trend in porn, especially since White men are reportedly the most common purchasers of this genre. Gail Dines explained to him that people who believe the racist stereotype of the hypersexual Black man will think that sex with a Black man is even more degrading to White women:
“Where do you go when you’ve exhausted the physical acts that can degrade women sexually? Well, you go into things like interracial porn, where you increase the degradation by forcing White women to submit to this demonized Black man. And there you see the racism and the sexism of the culture coming together.”
I’m quite sure that this is true much of the time. And I also don’t think it’s nearly as complete an explanation as Jensen claimed. For example, one of the reasons why people fantasize is that it can be a way to gain mastery over an issue that we feel anxiety around. Some men who enjoy cross-dressing do it because it gives them a chance to take a vacation from the rigidity of mainstream masculinity. One reason why some women have fantasies about being raped is because it allows them to imagine being sexual without having to ask for sex, and therefore avoid being sluts. (Bader’s book Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies gives a much more nuanced explanation of this complex phenomenon.) Given how much anxiety resides in US culture around Black men and White women having sex, I’m confident that for some people, their fantasies in this realm are rooted in that rather than a desire to degrade women.
This is especially likely given that some of these movies aren’t about humiliating the woman involved. Instead, they’re about putting down a White male character for not being enough for her. For example, one of the characters might be a White man who’s forced to watch. Or the dialogue might revolve around the White female character talking about how her husband doesn’t satisfy her. While the dynamics of racism are still quite apparent in these scenarios, it’s simply not true that the only foundation of these movies is the desire to degrade White women.
This is exactly the problem that I have with Jensen’s take on porn- he made a sweeping statement about a topic around which people have many different reasons, motivations, and desires. By collapsing them all into the single talking point that supports his model, he rendered that range of experiences invisible. I don’t think that his interpretation is always wrong. I just don’t think it’s always right, and Jensen consistently uses language that implies that it is. He’s trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
We could certainly have conversations about whether a particular fantasy is healthy to indulge because it helps us gain mastery over our anxiety, or whether it reinforces the fear and keeps us stuck. We could explore that on a societal level, as well as an individual level, and I think that would be a really valuable discussion to have. But to do that, we need to start with the understanding that the reasons we have these fantasies are complex. Mapping them all onto the idea that it’s only about degradation of women isn’t going to help us unpack it.
Follow the Money
The final element in Jensen’s “perfect storm of pornography” is capitalism. He and I are in a lot of agreement here:
“The success of any enterprise in capitalism is judged by one thing. And that is the ability to expand market share and increase profit. There are no moral values in capitalism…Individual people in capitalism may have moral values, but the system itself is profoundly amoral.”
In that context, of course some people will exploit racism and sexism to make money. I’m with him on that. But it’s only a perfect storm if you ignore the fact that not all non-Feature porn is Gonzo, that there can be different motivations for sex acts that he views as inherently degrading, that the issue of racism in porn is more complex than he described, and porn might not always be about degradation.
The Ongoing Pattern
I’m guessing that, by now, you’ve seen how Jensen consistently smoothed over the many ways in which his critique of porn doesn’t actually explain things as neatly as he made it sound. I don’t think that’s inherently a problem. In my view, no theory covers everything. Or to put it another way, the map is not the territory. And any honest researcher will make the limits of their model explicit. They’ll acknowledge that, at best, it explains part of the situation and offer suggestions for how to refine or extend it. But Jensen never did that. Instead, he made it seem like anything that doesn’t fit into his model is irrelevant or unimportant, and that did more to weaken his critique than anything else.
Glossing Over Difficulties With Sex
After he mapped out his so-called “perfect storm,” Jensen discussed why people resist discussing the topic of porn:
“When you bring up the subject and people are a little skitterish about it, sometimes the explanation for that is ‘Well, people don’t like talking about sex. This is a culture that has trouble talking about sex.’ Which my response is, “Oh yeah? Look around. This culture has trouble talking about sex? Has anyone turned on a television set recently? Has anyone looked at a magazine? Has anyone seen billboards? This is not a culture that doesn’t know how to talk about sex. It talks about sex all the time. The reason the feminist critique of pornography is so difficult to discuss is not because it raises questions about sex.”
It’s true that our culture talks about sex a lot, and that doesn’t mean that we actually know how to talk about sex in a way that helps us foster our well-being. If we did, therapists wouldn’t see so many couples in which each partner is stuck because they don’t know how to talk with the other. There wouldn’t be so many workshops and self-help books offering advice on how to talk with a partner. And there wouldn’t be so much silence and shame around it.
In my view, our obsession with sex is a symptom of our inability to create a positive relationship with sex. It’s rather like the way someone with an eating disorder might think or talk about food incessantly, or the way that a junkie will often focus on getting the next fix. The fact that we’re surrounded by images and messages about sex is hardly a sign that we know how to talk about it. I agree that people often resist feminist (and other) critiques on the topic because they’re challenging. And if we actually knew how to talk about sex in healthy ways, it’d be a lot easier to lean into the discomfort of those critiques because we wouldn’t be juggling both that and our unease with the topic.
We could explore whether the images and messages in porn help us move toward a world in which there is less discomfort around sex and sexual topics. We could discuss steps we could take to make that happen. And we can’t have those conversations until we understand that our cultural obsessions around sex are not a sign that we know how to talk about it.
Coming back to the paradox that Jensen outlined earlier, he offered this:
“The way you resolve the paradox, in most cases, is by checking your assumptions. And I said ‘in a civilized society’. And I think the existence of pornography in its current form asks us a very simple question. ‘How civilized are we’? That for all the ways in which social movements of the last half century have, in fact, pushed this society forward, it is in many ways a much more decent place to live…so we can mark the progress and also recognize that there’s something underneath that that’s very disturbing. And that we may not, in fact, be as civilized as we think.”
The message that our sexual fantasies and desires stand in contrast to (or in opposition to) “civilization” isn’t anything new. And the irony of his saying that we need to check our assumptions when he made it clear that he has plenty of his own is profound.
Further, the idea that the underlying fantasies our society has are a sign of our not being “as civilized as we think” ignores the fact that there’s more going on. For example, during the Q&A session, one attendee asked how much of the increase in racism and sexism in porn is a result of the increased equality in society. And Jensen’s response was this:
“You’re talking about what’s often called the backlash hypothesis. As women made gains…men pushed back in places where they could push back, and one of those is in the realm of private sexual behavior. I don’t think there’s a way to definitively establish that but it makes sense to me, that when anyone in a position of power is threatened and can not push back in certain realms, they will find other realms to push back in.”
I’m quite sure that that’s part of the story. And if one accepts the notion that one reason for our sexual fantasies is the desire to gain mastery over our anxieties, one could also suggest that as White heterosexual men have lost some socio-political control, their anxiety about their new roles is inspiring fantasies that then prompt this development in porn. I don’t offer that as an excuse for sexist or racist porn, but rather, I suggest that the simple answers that Jensen provided don’t explain the whole puzzle. And while I didn’t expect him to go into detail about alternative perspectives, I think it’s worth noting that he never acknowledged these other possible explanations. It’s one more example of his larger pattern.
Where’s the Pleasure?
In order to end things on a more positive note, however, Jensen offered this:
“[I]t seems to me that in the realm of sexuality, even more generally in our lives, there are really three things that we want. We want a sense of identity. We want to be part of groups, or at least feel connected to other people. And we all recognize our identity is partly in that social context. We also want a sense of independence. We want to feel like we are individuals who can make our own choices. And we all, also I think, want intimacy, in whatever form that takes. Sexual and otherwise.”
Leaving aside the fact that this is yet another instance of his saying what “we all want” or what “we all recognize,” I do like his notion of identity, independence, and intimacy being three things that most people want, at least to varying degrees. He followed that up by asking whether porn helps us find those three things:
“Does the contemporary pornography industry help us establish a sense of identity? Membership in groups that we can feel comfortable with? Does it help us really assert our independence? And does it help us really achieve the intimacy that we seek? And if it doesn’t, then I think it’s a sensible project to say that we want to move beyond pornography.”
It isn’t clear to me, though, why he left pleasure out of his list of things that we might want from sexuality. One possibility that I can think of is that if we include pleasure as a worthwhile goal, that makes it harder to argue for “moving beyond porn.” I find it really interesting that someone can talk so much about porn and can even say that “pornography exists in the world to arouse sexually and it works,” without including pleasure in the list of things people might want out of sex.
My working definition of sex-positivity as the “the perspective that the relevant measure of a sexual act or practice is the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people who do it and the people who are affected by it” fills in the gaps, but as I’ve said before, I don’t think that Jensen understands sex-positivity. And if he’s not including pleasure in his list of things that people want out of sexuality, he may not understand sex, either.
After a bit more discussion of why he thinks that the feminist critique is the best way to come to terms with the issue of porn, and acknowledging the many difficulties people face in looking at their relationships to it, Jensen praised St. Mary’s College for having such a strong feminist awareness, which he acknowledged as being both supported and hindered by the church. And then he wrapped up by saying:
“You’re ahead of the game compared to us at the University of Texas. So that’s my upbeat ending. It could be worse, you could be in Texas.”
While I might agree with that sentiment (which is why I live in the San Francisco area, rather than in Texas), it does seem remarkably self-deprecating. I can only assume that he has some good reason to live somewhere that he takes such pains to denigrate, both at the beginning and the end of his lecture. His job? Family that lives locally? He likes the heat? Who knows? But whatever his motivation, his repeated comments about how bad it is in Texas stood out to me. I don’t think there’s any reason for him to feel bad for choosing to live where he lives, but apparently he does.
Judgment and More Judgment
After the lecture, Jensen took a few questions. Not surprisingly, there was quite a bit more judgment coming. For example, in response to a question about how he got started in this work, he said:
“And as I always say, when I was 29 years old, I knew a lot about feminism. I knew that feminists were ugly women who couldn’t get dates. That’s what I knew about feminism. In other words, I was an idiot. I knew nothing. I knew what the culture told me.
Feminism, I would say that feminism is not a threat to men. It’s a gift to us, if we’re smart enough to accept it.”
While I wholly agree with the sentiment that feminism has a lot to offer men, I think his use of the phrases “idiot” and “smart enough” is significant. The clear implication is that men who don’t accept feminism are stupid, which is incredibly insulting and patronizing. There are a lot of reasons why people (not just men) don’t accept feminism, and to collapse them all into a lack of intelligence is a barrier to helping people change their minds.
In further explanation of the value of the feminist critique of porn, Jensen says that there is
“…a large number of people who’ve never heard of the feminist critique of pornography, but especially women who intuitively are uncomfortable with porn and their uncomfortable with the way their male partners use it. But because they’re isolated, and they’ve never heard of the critique, they think that they’re crazy.”
This ignores the fact that some women’s discomfort with their partner’s use of porn is rooted in a belief that masturbation is bad/sinful/disgusting (an especially noteworthy omission to make at a Catholic university), as well as the common idea that one has a right to claim all of one’s partner’s sexual energy (i.e. the notion that masturbation is cheating). By validating women’s discomfort with porn uncritically, and without unpacking the sex-negative reasons for it that can exist alongside concerns about how women are portrayed, Jensen once again built cohesion among women at the cost of men.
This line of thought makes it easier for people to attack their partners for their desires or practices by focusing entirely on the socio-political dimensions while ignoring the more personal aspects of it. I see a similar dynamic when couples with different levels of sexual desire get into arguments about whether the person with more desire is accused of being a sex addict. It’s an easy way to score points in a fight, but it doesn’t help things move forward. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t real problems in the porn industry or that there aren’t valid reasons for many women to have discomfort around it. But those aren’t the only reasons for women’s fears and we can make room for that without telling women that they’re crazy. But instead, Jensen glossed over the ways in which sex-negativity and masturbation-phobia often come into play.
For that matter, by talking about “the feminist critique,” rather than “this feminist critique,” Jensen made it seem as if the only way one could be a feminist would be to agree with this particular critique. Given how often feminists have fought over who gets to use the term and who doesn’t, this seems particularly divisive.
One On One
After the Q&A session, I went up to Jensen to ask him a couple of questions. One of them was what he thinks is so bad about sexually-explicit media for the purposes of arousal. His response was that porn isn’t going to help us deepen our understanding of sexuality or the inherent mysteries of sex. I tried to pin him down a bit more by acknowledging that and by asking again why porn for the pleasure is a bad thing, and he asked me why we need porn for the purposes of erotic arousal.
I would suggest that that’s the wrong question. After all, many people sometimes enjoy food that has no nutritional value or games that have no intrinsic benefit. I believe that as long as you aren’t missing out on the nutrition you need and you aren’t contributing to harming others, there’s nothing inherently wrong with something that serves no purpose other than to feel good. I know that the role that porn plays in many people’s lives isn’t as healthy as that, but that means that we need to move toward a world in which it is, rather than saying that porn is always bad.
The other question I asked Jensen is why he creates false dichotomies, such as art/porn and features/gonzo, without saying anything about the nuances and complexities that exist. He said both that nuances get lost in a 30 minute talk, and that he focuses on the issues that are more important because they’re bigger and cause more damage.
I get that, and I also think he would do better by making room for different experiences instead of demonizing porn (and by extension, porn viewers). I think his arguments would be stronger if he explicitly recognized that how people think about and use porn isn’t evenly split along gender lines, that there are people who are trying to make porn that shows genuine connection and passion between performers, that the reasons that people have fantasies are complex, that the lines between art and porn are fuzzy, and that the reasons that people feel discomfort around porn are personal as well as political. It might not be as conceptually elegant, but it would be much more honest and that’s what we really need. I’ve always believed that a theory that isn’t based on fact is a house on a shaky foundation, and although Jensen’s take on porn might be emotionally satisfying, it’s on very unsteady footing, indeed.
The Overall Pattern
At the risk of repeating myself, I think there’s a pretty clear pattern underlying Jensen’s lecture. He consistently made sweeping statements about gender, the meanings of various sexual activities and the motivations behind them, the nature of the porn industry, and sexuality. He framed his lecture in ways that denigrated and demonized men, reinforced an us-versus-them mentality, offered one-dimensional explanations for complex behaviors, and ignored the large body of research and writing on human sexuality. He also presented his take on porn as if it’s the only way to approach the topic with a feminist approach. None of this surprised me, since Jensen made it clear that he approaches the issue from the perspective of Dworkin and Dines, both of whom do all of those things.
One of the biggest problems I have with most of the current discourse on pornography is that most of it seems to be uncritical of its assumptions. A lot of the anti-porn folks use a rather limited view of sexuality, gender, fantasy, and sexology in order to craft an equally limited analysis of porn. On the other hand, many of the folks on the pro-porn side either boil it all down to personal choice (leaving out the issues of pleasure and well-being), ignore the very real ways in which porn both reflects and reifies some of the deepest problems we face, or accuse folks who point out those flaws of being sex-negative.
In my view, we need both of these perspectives. We need to honor and celebrate sexual pleasure, and we need to be willing to look at the ways in which the content and messages of porn shapes how we think about sex. We need to make room for the voices of people who enjoy being in porn (and not tell them that their choices are inauthentic or that they have false consciousness) and we need to make room for the voices of people who were treated badly or hurt while performing in porn (and not tell them that they’re making it up or that it’s their fault for making a bad decision).
Further, although Jensen didn’t address the mechanisms of porn production in this lecture, I know that there are some common industry practices that need to change. Performers, especially the women, are often seen as disposable; there’s frequently a financial pressure to move further along the spectrum towards the “more extreme” acts; the sex is usually designed for the convenience of the camera (as well as showing a small sliver of the incredible range sexual practices), rather than to portray genuine pleasure; and there is generally little or no attention paid to the well-being of the performers beyond STI testing. These are all issues, among others, that I want to see challenged and changed.
But that’s not going to happen unless each side is willing to look at the ways in which its blind spots are hindering things. It won’t happen if we’re not able to examine the assumptions we make and compare them to reality. It’s definitely not going to happen if we keep pretending that the stories we tell about what porn is like are always true.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to keep calling out the anti-porn folks for shaming people, and for using people’s squicks and disgust to justify their attacks. I’ll keep on writing about the actual research on the effects of porn, as well as the problems with how sex is portrayed, the problematic ways in which issues of consent are sometime glossed over, why porn is terrible sex education, and how it creates unrealistic expectations.
I want to see more sex-positive folks take these issues on. After all, if you’re on board with my working definition of sex-positivity, then I think we have a responsibility to look at the consent, pleasure, and well-being of porn performers, too. We have a responsibility to look at how porn shapes and influences viewers, and ask whether it serves their well-being. If we don’t, then we’re leaving it up to the anti-porn folks to set the terms of the debate, and that is not a road I want to go down. I want to see more development of a sex-positive critique of the porn industry.
All of these are the sorts of questions that many of the feminist and sex-positive porn makers are asking. They prove that you can create sexual media that focuses on the pleasure of the performers, that you can capture authentic connections on camera, that you can show a wide range of sex acts, orientations, genders, body types, and races and still make a hot movie, and that you can operate under a business model that doesn’t pressure performers to engage in acts that they don’t enjoy or that are beyond their comfort zones. Whether they’ll be economically viable will depend, in part, on whether viewers understand what it is that they’re doing and see the value in supporting their work.
I concede Jensen’s point that, at the moment, this is a fairly small part of the industry. And one way to change that is to stop pretending it doesn’t exist, to help get the word out, and to let people know how and why it’s different from the same old porn. Another way to change things is to support the folks who are creating it. If you want to see better porn (or if you prefer the term, better sexually explicit movies), then buy it instead of pirating it so the visionaries creating it can keep up the good work. Here are some good places to start, in no particular order: