Radical feminist critique of pornography is the key to liberating men from their role as a force of domination and helping them embrace humanity.
In my previous article, I summarized the development of the radical feminist critique of the misogyny and racism in pornography and noted the culture’s unwillingness to engage, let alone embrace, that critique even as it has become more compelling. Now I will explain how this critique, and radical feminism more generally, is not a threat but a gift to men. Arguments from justice and self-interest are particularly useful in helping men understand how a radical critique advances not only women’s liberation but for our own. The power of arguments from justice and self-interest are particularly useful in helping men understand the radical feminist critique of pornography.
Radical feminism is not dead, nor is the feminist critique of pornography. Radical feminist women, along with a few men, refuse to capitulate, continuing to analyze and write, to organize and educate.
Two feminists who have been most important in deepening my understanding are Gail Dines, the founder of the education/advocacy group Culture Reframed and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, and Rebecca Whisnant, a philosophy professor and co-editor of Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. I worked with them on a slide show in the early 2000s titled “Who wants to be a porn star? Sex and violence in today’s pornography industry” for an earlier group, Stop Porn Culture. The critique offered by Dines and Whisnant, and a growing number of younger women who are embracing radical feminism, is more compelling than ever as a way to understand this pornography-saturated culture.
The basics of the radical feminist critique have not changed. Radical feminism continues to challenge the patriarchal claim that men have a right to own or control women’s sexuality and reproductive power. A rejection of pornography is not prudish but progressive, and resistance to pornography is not an attack on freedom but a call for greater freedom. When feminists speak out against the sexual-exploitation industries—not only pornography but also prostitution, stripping, live sex shows, sex tourism—they are demanding that society take seriously its claim to support liberty and justice for all.
What is lost when a society continues to turn away from the radical feminist critique, even as that analysis becomes more compelling than ever? Obviously, girls and women suffer the psychological and physical injuries that come when sexual exploitation is not only tolerated but celebrated, as do some boys and vulnerable men. But all men also lose, because radical feminism is not only a powerful tool for women’s liberation but also a gift to us. When men join that movement, we are not only acting as allies to women but struggling to claim our own humanity.
For years I have been making this point: We men have a choice. We can “be a man,” in the way that patriarchy defines that—by seeking that dominance over women and, by extension, anyone else deemed weaker. Or we can be a human being. We can’t be both. To embrace masculinity in patriarchy is to surrender some of one’s humanity. To claim to be fully human requires us to reject what patriarchy asks us to be, which includes rejecting all the ways men buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure.
Radical feminism is a gift to men, offering us a way to struggle to be fully human rather than claiming the dominance that patriarchy promises us. We need not pretend we can individually transcend patriarchy simply by making feminist choices in our personal lives, but committing to personal change is part of a political struggle. We can recognize that we were socialized in a patriarchal society and pursue critical self-reflection. I can report such self-reflection is liberating—but also difficult, intensely painful at times, and a lifelong struggle.
My introduction to pornography came, as it does for so many boys in the post-Playboy world (I was born in 1958), in grade school, long before I was old enough for sexual intercourse. From magazines furtively passed among boys and hidden for repeated viewing, we moved on to movies (a middle-school group of friends successfully snuck into a few X-rated movies, through a back door with a defective lock), and eventually as an adult, going into pornographic movie theaters and bookstores through the front door. Like many, I felt conflicted about my use—the sexual arousal was intense, but it left me feeling uncomfortable. I sought intimacy and meaning in my sexual life, but I settled for stimulation that left me feeling isolated.
I wouldn’t begin to understand that discomfort until my introduction to the feminist critique, at the age of thirty when I returned to graduate school and studied the legal debates surrounding sexually explicit material. With a lifetime of training in a patriarchal society and no experience with feminism, I initially scoffed at the feminist critique, assuming it was the work of angry and alienated women—after all, that’s what I had long been told feminists were.
Within a few weeks of reading feminist work and meeting feminists, I realized I had a lot to learn. Within a year, I was committed to a feminist perspective and on my way to writing a dissertation exploring the pathology of pornography. Moving to the faculty at the University of Texas, I began trying to fashion an academic career and activist life that I hoped could make some small contribution to radical feminism and other movements for social justice and ecological sustainability.
In the mid-1990s, some of the foundational books of the anti-pornography movement that had been written in the 1980s needed to be supplemented with new work that reflected changes in technology and the culture. That led Dines, Ann Russo, and me to write Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality. One chapter included an analysis of recent trends in video pornography, which Dines and I wrote together based on a qualitative analysis of best-selling videos. We wanted to analyze what most consumers were watching, not simply pick out the most misogynistic films that would prove our point. After visiting pornography stores (this was before pornography moved online) and interviewing the clerks, we sat down with a stack of those popular VHS tapes and began the laborious work of identifying the patterns in the films, what media researchers call the “codes and conventions” of the genre.
More than two decades later, all I remember from those hours of work is one moment when Dines asked me to pause the video. We sat there, after watching countless scenes in which men’s denigration of women was presented as sexually arousing, and Dines—her arms wrapped around herself seeking some kind of self-comfort—said, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.” We sat quietly for a while. There was nothing to say. The work was painful, not only knowing what the women were being put through but also knowing how many men would masturbate to these images. Dines had to cope with knowing that men routinely see all women, including her, as objectified female bodies for men’s sexual pleasure. I had to cope with knowing that I had been socialized to see women that way. Like Dines, I felt a deep sense of grief, but I also was aroused by the films.
I continued to research and write about pornography and the feminist critique until the publication of my 2007 book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. For that book I did a similar qualitative study of pornographic films, on DVD at that point, drawn from the most popular titles in industry rankings. I had intended to review fifteen, but when I took the tenth DVD out of the player, I stopped. I thought to myself, if I look at any more of this I will die. It sounds melodramatic, but I had reached my saturation point. Every film looked pretty much just like the others—which meant my research was over—and I just couldn’t do it anymore.
For anyone raised with unearned advantages—men in patriarchy, white people in white supremacy, the citizens of powerful countries in a world structured by empire—facing that privilege is not automatic. Such unjust systems of power work to obscure the harsh realities of hierarchy. When we are willing to confront those realities, reckoning with the human suffering that undergirds our material comfort is particularly painful, as is realizing how long we have ignored that suffering.
Why go through all that? The most obvious answer is that we should be motivated to act on the moral principles we claim to hold, such as all people’s rightful clam to dignity and equality. We should “do the right thing” when our principles demand it. Such an argument from justice is not always adequate motivation for any of us, however, which is why I also offer men an argument from self-interest: Radical feminism is a gift to us. But it may not be so obvious why embracing radical feminism makes our lives better. How is giving up a privileged position in my self-interest?
So, back to my initial claim: The sense of control over others and self that pornography promises is both illusion and delusion. I use these terms not with clinical precision—I am not now, nor have I ever been, a psychologist—but in an everyday sense. By illusion, I mean a misperception about something in the world. By delusion, I mean a deeper misunderstanding about something that is fundamental to one’s place and way of being in the world.
The illusion of pornography is that we control the sexual images we consume. The pornography industry offers a wide variety of sexual practices to spark an individual’s imagination, variations that seem limitless online. We feel as if we are in control of pornography, yet pornography controls us. What seems like unending variety is actually the repetition of a few sexual scripts, and the most common is male dominance. We feel as if we are choosing, but the choices before us are narrow. Our imagination narrows rather than opens up. And for those men who find themselves falling into patterns of habitual use, control over the way we use pornography dissipates quickly. We may want to stop masturbating to pornography, but we find ourselves pulled back into the practice, in ways we cannot control. I remember both of those aspects of my own use of pornography as a boy and young man, before encountering the feminist critique, and that was in the pre-internet world that offered fewer images which took more effort to find.
The notion that men can flourish without intimacy is a delusion, an attempt to deny something that is fundamental to being fully human. Men in patriarchy may be trained to repress the need for deep intimacy, but we are human and that intimacy is part of being human. Intimacy is impossible if we cannot make ourselves vulnerable, and pornography is an attempt to escape from vulnerability, from being truly open to life in the presence of another person. Using pornography allows men to hide, to escape into a solitary place that offers the illusion of control and provides nothing beyond a quick and efficient path to an orgasm.
But wait, pornography’s supporters might say, you are simply imposing your subjective value judgments on others. My response: I am not imposing anything on anyone. I am speaking from my experience, the experience of many others I have talked with, and a large body of research. I am not imposing but inviting others, particularly other men, to challenge themselves and each other.
Many men are trained to fear feminist challenges to male dominance, which can feel like challenges to our identity. I am inviting men to consider the possibility that those feminist challenges are the key not only to women’s liberation but to our own.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or online at robertwjensen.org.