Radical feminist critiques of pornography have been vindicated by developments in the decades since they were first articulated.
The radical feminist critique of pornography remains the most compelling analysis of sexually explicit material available, yet it is routinely marginalized in the dominant culture and in feminist circles. Why? Patriarchy is woven deeply into our lives, and denial or avoidance of the pathology of patriarchy is common. In Part Two, I will explain how this critique, and radical feminism more generally, is not a threat but a gift to men.
In the more than three decades that I have been advocating the radical feminist critique of pornography, the most common question I have heard from women is, “Why do men like pornography so much?”
Not all men use pornography, of course, and some women use it as well. But the pornography industry knows that the vast majority of its customers are men, and hence the majority of pornography reflects what pornographers believe men will watch—and come back to watch again—which helps shape contemporary sexual imaginations. Many women find this pornography, and men’s use of it, to be distressing. They want to know why men—including the men in their lives, particularly male partners and male children—find pornography so enticing, use it so routinely, and ignore requests to stop.
The simple answer is, “Because pornography works.” That is, graphic sexually explicit images spark intense sexual arousal that facilitates masturbation. Said bluntly: Pornography produces orgasms, reliably and efficiently.
“But there’s no intimacy in that kind of sexual experience,” women point out. “Exactly,” I respond. “Pornography offers men sexual pleasure, with what feels like total control over oneself and women. Pornography offers men a quintessential sexual experience in patriarchy—pleasure without vulnerability.”
But appearances are deceiving; that sense of control, over self and others, is both illusion and delusion. Men would benefit from understanding this. I certainly have benefited, and that understanding came through radical feminism.
By taking seriously this critical perspective on pornography, I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: Radical feminism is not a threat but rather a gift to men. When I encountered the radical feminist critique of pornography, it struck me as the most compelling analysis of sexually explicit material available, which is just as true today and is more needed today than ever. In this essay I defend these claims by drawing on not only the available evidence, but also my own experience. First, a bit of history.
In 1979, during what is generally referred to in the United States as the second wave of feminism, Andrea Dworkin published Pornography: Men Possessing Women, her landmark book analyzing the patriarchal underpinnings of the rapidly expanding pornography industry. That same year, Women Against Pornography marched on Times Square in New York City to protest the dominant culture’s embrace of pornography under the cover of a so-called ethic of sexual liberation. The emerging radical feminist anti-pornography movement demanded accountability from both the pornographers and the mostly male pornography consumers, and challenged the left/liberal ideology that tried to rationalize the exploitation.
This libertarian ideology used to defend pornography made simple claims that were especially attractive to male consumers: Sex is a natural part of human life, and pornography is just pictures of the variations of normal human sex, produced for consenting adults who should have the freedom to view if they choose. The libertarians’ response to the feminist challenge, in short: Don’t be a prude—there’s nothing to worry about.
The movement’s response, articulated so powerfully by Dworkin, in short: Pornography is not “just sex” but a vehicle for eroticizing the domination/subordination dynamic that is central to patriarchy, a system of institutionalized male dominance. Pornography is male dominance sexualized through modern communication technologies. Pornography does not free our sexual imaginations but keeps us trapped within the patriarchal project of protecting male power. A feminist critique of pornography is not conservative moralizing but rather an analysis of the harms to women—those used in pornography, those hurt by men using pornography, and all women living in a society in which their subordination is made into sexual entertainment.
The radical feminist anti-pornography movement’s challenge to male dominance was the subject of intense debate in the late 1970s and ‘80s, in the United States and around the world. But the pornography industry and the sexual liberal ideology—espoused not only by men but also by some in the women’s movement—has prevailed. The world has grown steadily more pornographic—more images, more intensely eroticizing the domination/subordination dynamic, more widely accepted in the dominant culture than ever.
Take a minute to consider the curious nature of that victory—a pornography industry that grows ever more ruthless in its exploitation of women also becomes more normalized. And at the same time, a critique that offers the most compelling way to understand the industry is increasingly marginalized. Why? A simple explanation: Patriarchy is woven so deeply into the fabric of our lives that many people cannot see its effects, and many others choose to turn away rather than face the pathology of patriarchy, which is on full display in contemporary pornography.
The pornography that Dworkin analyzed for her groundbreaking book was, by today’s standards, relatively tame. The amount of graphic sexually explicit material had increased steadily after Playboy published its first issue in 1953, but when the feminist anti-pornography movement was first organizing, home video was in its infancy and an early version of the internet was being used almost exclusively by government officials, scientists, and academics for communication and research. Pornographers of the 1970s pushed the boundaries of acceptability in magazines and films, but carefully. Then came home video and the new genre of “gonzo” pornography, which pushed those limits more aggressively. Then came the internet, where it seems there no limits on sexualized dominance remain.
Today, not only in the United States but anywhere in the world where people are online, culture is pornography saturated. Pornography is more easily accessible than ever, to any child with a keyboard as well as to adults. The content of mainstream pornography has become steadily more overtly cruel and degrading to women, and more overtly racist. Images of men’s sexual exploitation of women are routine, and images of sexual violence (real or simulated) are so common that they pass without comment. Aggressive sex, carried out against a background of misogynist slurs against the women, is routine. Scenes of women being aggressively penetrated (orally, vaginally, and anally) by multiple men at one time are routine. Oral sex designed to make women gag is routine. My longtime friend and co-author Gail Dines sums it up best with the term “body-punishing sex,” the bread and butter of the pornography industry.
Child pornography—sexually explicit material made using minors, what is now increasingly called “child sexual abuse material” to make it clear that it is a record of an assault—remains clearly illegal everywhere in the United States, and the profit-driven pornography industry generally steers clear of those risks. Instead, they produce pornography using young-looking adult women presented in youthful outfits set in activities such as babysitting, what Dines calls “pseudo-child pornography.”
Every form of hierarchy is sexualized in pornography. The racism in pornography is overt, drawing on crude racial stereotypes about both men and women of color, larded with racial slurs that have long been rejected in public discourse and polite company. The industry offers images of black and brown men who are naturally sexually violent, nasty black women, hot-blooded Latinas, demure Asian geishas—every racist fantasy imaginable in white-supremacist societies such as the United States can be found in pornography.
If pornographers have a “creative” problem today, it’s that they have run out of ways to intensify the sexual charge of male dominance without risking criminal penalties. One pornography producer told me in the early 2000s that he had no idea what new trends in the content of pornography might be coming, because he couldn’t imagine anything more extreme than the existing pornographic sexual practices. “I’ve filmed everything that I know how to do to a woman’s body,” he said, with a shrug.
Some caveats: This brief account identifies patterns in pornography. Given the millions of pornographic films and images in the world, of course there is considerable variation. One can find pornography with different themes, some produced by people who identify as feminist and egalitarian. Some pornography targets female viewers. There is a considerable amount of pornography produced for gay men, and a lesser amount for lesbians. The pornographic world, like the world in general, is diverse. But within that diversity are patterns, and the patterns in pornography are clear: The bulk of the market focuses on heterosexual sex for predominantly male viewers, and much of that sexualizes domination and subordination.
Nearly five decades after radical feminists first highlighted the misogyny and racism in pornography—misogyny and racism that has now intensified beyond what anyone could have imagined in those early years—one might expect the dominant culture to recognize, belatedly, that the feminist anti-pornography movement has offered important insights that deserve consideration. In the context of a greater awareness of men’s harassment, abuse, and violence against women in the wake of the #MeToo movement, one might expect greater interest in the relationship between pornography’s sexism and women’s everyday experience.
In short: The feminist anti-pornography movement, exemplified in the writings of Andrea Dworkin, was right. The evidence to support this analysis continues to grow. The women who first made those arguments—Catharine MacKinnon, Diana Russell, Laura Lederer, and many others—could not have known how right they would turn out to be, how accurately they saw into the nature of men’s sexual exploitation of women in pornography.
But today this radical feminism is not only marginalized in the dominant culture, but also in women’s studies departments and many feminist organizations. Postmodern and liberal approaches that do not challenge the pornography industry have come to dominate academic and political feminism in the United States. Radical feminism is often dismissed as being out of date, a philosophy for a previous era. At the University of Texas at Austin where I taught for many years, several female students told me that when they offered a radical feminist critique of pornography in their women’s studies classes, other students—and even some faculty members—refused to engage the argument. Some told me they kept quiet to avoid being shunned by classmates. One told me that classmates laughed at her arguments without offering a response.
Robert Jensen, an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. He can be reached at email@example.com or online at robertwjensen.org.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, and a member of the board of Culture Reframed.