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gender & sexuality | media criticism

An interview with Getting Off author Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen's newest book, "Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity" fuses investigative journalism with compelling personal testimony to make the argument for why men should stop consuming pornography. Local radical feminist S.M. Berg recently spoke with Robert Jensen about men, pornography, and the quest to be human.
SMB: The title speaks of the end of masculinity. What do you hope men will gain by ending masculinity instead of trying to reform it?

RJ: I think many men recognize that we were raised with a very toxic conception of masculinity, that is, a very destructive idea about what it means to be a man. That it's not only destructive to women but also self-destructive for men. It limits our ability to feel, to connect, to be full human beings. If we recognize that is our socialization, one can either try to reform masculinity or transcend it, and I think it's better to try to transcend it.

Not to pretend that there are no differences between men and women rooted in our physical differences, we have different bodies and hormones so clearly there are differences. The fundamental question is what difference do those differences make. In a culture obsessed with gender, more accurately a patriarchal culture obsessed with gender and power, it's highly likely there's a tendency to overemphasize those differences and in fact what men and women have in common is far greater than what is different. So I'd start with that then ask the question, "What can you know about someone based on knowing whether they're a man or women that can lead you to predict anything about them psychologically, socially, morally?" Well, there isn't much actually that seems to be intrinsic to being male or female. There are patterns of behavior that we can observe men and women engaging in, but those don't seem to be connected to anything intrinsic in us, they seem to be connected to distributions of power and socialization.

And if that's the case, then the quest is not to figure out what is masculinity and what is femininity, but to figure out what it means to be human. That may seem silly or trivial but in contemporary, modern complex industrial society, that question about what it means to be human is not so simple and I think we're better off trying to understand how to live through that question than through the questions of what's masculinity and what's femininity.

SMB: In the book you question if men who consider themselves "good guys" can consume pornography without it negatively influencing their beliefs and behaviors with the women around them. You offer that even in the course of studying pornography as feminist research you found yourself reflexively judging women by their appearance. Can you talk about some of the effects regular pornography consumption has been shown to have on users?

RJ: This is a complex question because on the one hand we tend to think about sex in very direct ways, and the way mass media operates, in fact the way stories more generally operate, is it's very hard to measure direct effects. If we expose our children to massive amounts of violent television programming, which we do, does that make children more violent? Well, it's very hard to study that question and come up with a definitive answer. We can see that it's a very violent culture which produces these images, we can see that violence is supported in other realms of life, we can observe gender differences there and see that men are socialized to be more violent than women in many ways. We can say all sorts of things that might lead us to be very concerned about the prevalence of violence in children's television but we may not be able to say yes, violent television programming causes violent behavior in some direct, simplistic, causal way and that same logic applies to pornography.

We can look at a prevalence of sexually explicit images that are presented in the context of male dominance, that act out male dominance, and are fundamentally rooted in a hypercruelty towards and degradation of towards women. Now does that lead to any particular behaviors? Well it's hard to say in certain ways. We can know something simple which is our attitudes, how we come to understand and feel about the world, are shaped in part by stories and those stories come from all sorts of directions, they come from peers, parents, schools, churches and in this culture they also come overwhelmingly from mass media. So rather than ask the question, "What kind of behaviors does pornography cause?" I think we're better off asking the question "What kind of picture of the world does pornography present to its predominantly male clients and how does that picture fit in with other stories being told and what are the possible effects of that on formation of attitudes, and from there what effect do those attitudes have on behavior? I think it's not hard to say pornography sexualizes male domination and female subordination, that men watch increasingly large amounts of it in the context of achieving sexual stimulation, and that that message is reinforced in many other places in the culture.

Now should that lead us to worry about the explosion of misogynistic and racist pornography, I would say yes. I can look at my own life and see how powerful those images are, I can remember images I saw 20 years ago. They have an incredible power. I can, as you point out, I can observe my own behavior after I have been involved in studying pornography for a while and I can compare that to my behavior sometime afterwards. I can talk to other men, and from all of these sources, the direct testimony from men and women, the little hints of knowledge that we get from psychology and experimental psychology, that I think the conclusion is that there are many, many reason to be worried that this explosion of misogynistic and racist pornography does in fact shape attitudes and quite likely affect behavior.

SMB: Pornographer Bill Marigold is quoted as saying, "My whole reason for being in the Industry is to satisfy the desire of the men in the world who basically don't care much for women and want to see the men in my industry getting even with the women they couldn't have when they were growing up." Do you believe he's right or that he might be being unfair to male consumers of porn?

RJ: I would tend to agree with him. We talk about male domination and female subordination, and at the general level that is the structure of society we live in, but that doesn't mean individual men always have access to the women they want or power over the women they want in the way they want it, and what pornography does do is provide a fantasy realm which allows men to believe their power is unchecked. So I think his description of why some men use pornography is consistent with what I've heard from men whom I've interviewed in research studies and informal settings.

As someone who grew up small and skinny and short, in traditional terms not very masculine or attractive, I can certainly look at my own life and see that one of the ways I dealt with that was by consuming pornography and feeling a sense of power over these beautiful women on the page or in the film. I think it's complex psychologically but I think the core intent is valid.

SMB: Intellectually, pornography is obviously a form of media, yet pornography seems to get an exception from the usual media criticism treatment regarding racism and sexism. Racist porn titles that would get Don Imus fired for saying them on air get ignored by people normally more on the ball. Do our brains turn off as our genitals turn on or is there some other explanation for why anti-racism activists have not turned their attentions to racist masturbation media mostly used by white men?

RJ: The kind of scrutiny the mainstream media would give on the question of racism doesn't seem to apply to pornography. There are a couple of things going on. One is the mainstream pornography industry itself has been wildly successful at equating any criticism of it with prudishness, anti-sex ideology, and literally almost mental illness. If you critique porn, the industry presents you as being crazy. Something as obvious as a critique of racism in porn has to overcome that. Second, there has developed in the country this odd idea that unlike other media, pornography doesn't have effects. So we worry very much about the effects of mass mediated advertising on children, we worry about violence in media, we worry about racial stereotypes in Hollywood films, but for some reason this genre has been exempt.

Why? Well for many people sexuality is tied to that media in a way that's quite unique. For the most part people don't masturbate to Hollywood films, but they masturbate in droves to pornography. So if your own sexual pleasure has been so directly tied to a particular media and how you use it, it can be very threatening to raise any critique of it, whether it's a critique of its misogyny or racism or commodification of intimacy. We are sexual beings, and the way we learn to be sexual and acquire pleasure becomes a very powerful reinforcer for that behavior, so if someone comes in and says. "Listen you have to critique the very practice you've learned to effectively use to achieve sexual satisfaction." In a way it's not surprising people resist that.

It's like if you only knew one way to eat and someone said you had to critique this way of eating. People may say, "Well I have to eat to live and it's what I do." Any time we challenge people's core practices like that I think we run into resistance.

SMB: You write, "The most important thing to understand about the pornography industry is that it is an industry." Much media attention is given to so-called amateur pornography, but how much of the pornography actually bought and used is controlled by corporations?

RJ: The pornography industry is becoming more and more corporate. It has moved from its early days when it was largely underground and largely financed by organized crime to a much more routinized, corporatized industry. Now that said, the pornography isn't like Hollywood, there are still lots of fly-by-night operators. But it is becoming increasingly corporatized both in the way that pornography firms are organized and also in the way in which other media and non-media corporations such as hotels becomes vehicles for the distribution of pornography.

We've got pornography producers themselves becoming more and more like regular business, organized as corporations with bottom line profits dictating everything. We have media corporations that become distributors through satellite, for instance for a while Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp owned one of the major satellite distribution networks for porn for a while. And then we have other corporations, most notably the major hotel chains, who have a large stake in the porn industry through in-room pay-per-view television. At all levels the corporate influence is clear, and of course at all levels there is one and only one evaluation of the business practice and that is whether or not it generates a profit. That's the essence of corporations; it's the core value in capitalism. So we see that all up and down the chain not surprisingly those corporations both reflect the misogyny and racism of the culture and intensify them.

SMB: Pornography advertising, as anyone who gets email spam can attest, contains as much hatred for other living beings as can be crammed into a handful of words. The common refrain is that women in pornography are sexually liberated when being called obviously misogynist names while engaging in paid sex on camera, but the detailed examples you give of women in the porn industry tell another story. What do you say to people who insist it's "a woman's right" to be called dehumanizing names while undergoing what passes for sex in pornographic media?

RJ: In some ways it is a woman's right and we have to acknowledge that, but then we have to ask other questions. Is it my right to engage in behavior that others might think is counterproductive to my wellbeing? Yes, it's right to do in certain contexts, but what about my responsibilities? What about the way we collectively construct a culture? What about the direct effect of the choices I make? To some degree I think it's fine to say that individuals have a right to choose what kind of work they do, but we should always look at the conditions under which people choose and ask serious questions about how free those choices are.

We do this routinely. For instance, does anyone look at 16-year-old girls who work as virtual slaves chained to sewing machines in sweatshops and say those women made a free and meaningful choice? No, we understand that they are choosing under conditions of extreme economic deprivation often with limited power to control their own lives, so we don't make facile observations about choice in sweatshops. We have the capacity to evaluate the complexity of people's choices. People have the right o choose, but that's not where the conversation ends. We not only have rights we have responsibilities, we're citizens, we're members of a human community and what we do individually affects other people.

Obviously if I choose to blare rock music at four in the morning and wake you up we understand there's a direct effect of my choice on you and you have the right to intervene in that. It's a trivial example, but what about when the effects are less directly about the ways we construct a culture? Do we have responsibilities there? I think we do, but we live in such a hyper-individualized culture, which is a product both of a particular politics and a particular economics, that we lose sight of our responsibilities. It doesn't mean the collective should always impose on people, it means we have to have a serious discussion about these kinds of issues.

SMB: You have been writing about human rights issues in liberal media for many years now, and also writing anti-pornography articles for about 20 years. As pornography has become more overtly hateful towards women at the same time it has become aggressively mainstreamed into the fabric of everyday culture, how has the media responded to the dramatic shift in content and quantity of pornography available now?

RJ: The mainstream media is largely celebratory. We can see the high profile pornography performers, the paradigm case of Jenna Jameson. We can see how the mainstream media loves Jenna Jameson. The mainstreaming of pornography has been not only to accept it but also to participate in it and to push forward that mainstream.

Is that surprising? Not really because mainstream media are almost all for-profit corporations with a history of being more than willing to draw on the sexism and racism of the culture to sell products. In some sense there's no surprise here. When the culture pushes forward the mainstream media is not likely to be a check on it because the same values that are pushing forward pornography are the same values that animate mainstream media.

SMB: You mention feminist writer Andrea Dworkin as a mentor and reference her work several times. Can you share some foundational lesson you learned from Andrea Dworkin that heavily influenced the anti-pornography position that you take today?

RJ: Rarely can we say that someone's writing changes our lives and in this case this is one of the people who did. The first thing I learned from Andrea Dworkin is that contrary to all of the propaganda about her, she had a deep and abiding affection for men. From that I came to understand very, very deeply that feminism wasn't a threat to men, it was a gift to men. Feminists were not just looking to advance the cause of women, they were looking to radically reshape society, which benefits everyone. So the first and most important lesson I took away from Andrea's work was that feminism was for me as much as it was for women if I as a man had the courage to understand that.

The second thing I learned from Andrea, and from feminism more generally, was to analyze power. Every time we look at questions involving human interaction, whether that's in the political realm, the economic realm, the social realm, the cultural realm, all of those investigations have to go forward with a foregrounding of questions of power. Now, feminism is not the only school of thought that helps us do that, critical race theory, anti-capitalist theory, and anti-imperialist writing all helps us do that. But for me feminism happened to be the first place where I really learned the lesson that we live in a culture structured on domination and subordination, on hierarchy, and if we're going to make sense of that world we have to constantly look at the nature of hierarchy. Andrea was brilliant at exploring that primarily in the context of gender but always aware of the other systems at work.

Then of course, Andrea revolutionized the way we think of sexually explicit media, about pornography, the distinctive contribution she to the last half of the 20th centuries ability to understand the world.

This question got me very emotional because when I read Andrea, here was this woman that everybody was saying was crazy and she spoke to something in me that was profoundly human. I think a lot of us who have been moved and touched by Andrea's work, not just learned from it but really been moved by it, what we share is that recognition that Andrea went deep, and very few writers, thinkers and artists get to that level and when one of us does there's no mistaking it. All I can say is that Andrea helped me understand myself in a profoundly different way and helped me understand the world I lived in a profoundly different way and she was one of maybe a half a dozen people I have either met in my life or read in my life who had that profound impact on me.

SMB: Something that stood out to me as I read the book was how intensely personal it is. Do you feel more exposed by this book than the others you've written and what has the feedback been from revealing such intimate details about your history of pornography use and sexual experience?

RJ: Well I've been writing like that for some time now, early versions of stuff in the book was published ten years ago so this isn't the first time that stuff has been put out there. For whatever reason, I find it relatively easy to intersperse personal self-reflection with analysis and more political writing and I think part of it I don't think I have an explanation for it's just my particular psychological makeup. I know people that are intensely private and could not imagine writing the way that I write but that's just not me and I'm probably the last person to ask why.

The important thing, and I've talked about this with lots of others, is that it's much easier for a man to do that than a women. I always recognize that my ability to be critically self reflective in public about my own experience is partly made possible by the fact that as a man I'm insulated from some of the attacks. I mean, I get attacked and people make fun of me, especially because I've written about my own bisexual history and so men love to, "Of course the guy doesn't like porn, he's a fag," and that kind of stuff. It rolls off my back and doesn't affect me very much, but it's quite clear that the way women get attacked is much more vicious and has a character of violence to it. Women get attacked when they step out in public like this in a way men don't.

I'm not sure why I find it easy to do but I do find it at this point in my life easy to do. Part of that clearly has to do with being a man, and I'm sure part of it is I'm a tenured professor and have job security and an office with a door I can lock in case people come after me.

SMB: What spurred this thought in my mind is the stickier follow-up question, "How necessary it is for potential new critics of pornography to discuss their own history publicly?" Where should we draw the line?

RJ: Number one, women do and should be much more careful for the obvious reasons that there's a heightened vulnerability, not just to the psychological assaults but physical assaults as well. It's not a trivial matter. I have no expectation that any woman talk about her own personal experience, and I think that's an outrageous expectation. Nor do I think it should be expected of all men because even though we are in a position of privilege and power we come to this with our own history and often that involves scars emotional and physical. Men are victims of all sorts of abuse and sexual violence themselves, not at the rates of women but it does happen so I wouldn't be glib about men having to be self critical in public.

That said, when men feel they have the strength to do it it's incredibly important to do it. When I pontificate like an academic I don't reach people as easily as when I talk honestly about myself and then add the theoretical, the empirical, the political. I've always found I can make much more meaningful connections with people when I'm more honest about myself. We trust people when we see some indication that they're willing to be vulnerable themselves, so if you want people to step out into a space that's difficult, such as the space talking about their own sexuality, there's got to some understanding that you're not casting them out into that space alone.

SMB: Because I grew up in an age of Internet porn, I was surprised at how similar some of your experiences with buying and using pornography were to mine. But already in my young lifetime technology has ratcheted pornography consumption beyond what I ever could have imagined now that every laptop and cell phone can stream porn into public spaces. Where do you think it can go from here when 'here' already feels like saturation point?

RJ: That's the question the industry's asking. There are two questions about the future, one of transmission distribution and one of content.

The porn industry itself is somewhat perplexed about the content of pornography in the future because as one man told me at the porn convention "We've shot everything that can be shot," meaning every possible sexual position and combination that the human mind can imagine has been put on film at this point. So where do you go?

I've gotten two answers from the people in the industry. One is you constantly go for younger, fresher girls to keep the newness to pornography so long as there are new faces. Others have said that even the hot young thing gets old and repetitive no matter how many there are of them. One porn director said to me simply "I hate to say anything but the future of porn is violence" that is depicting explicit sexuality in a more overtly violent context. Now, we all know there is violent porn that exists today but it is kind of at the margins and he was suggesting the mainstream of porn will become increasingly more violent.

What about the distribution? We know from the history of communication technology that every communication technology invented in recent years has become a vehicle for pornography, the telephone, the printing press, film, home video recorder, digital media, everything. We can only assume that that will continue unless there is intervention, and at the moment there doesn't seem to be the will on the part of culture to intervene. So when you say, "How can the porn-saturated culture get more porn saturated?" the answer is that every new device is going to become a transmission vehicle. As the communication technology comes deeper into our lives and fills up more of the space in our lives, that doesn't bode well. As you point out, more and more of the landscape in which we live becomes pornographic.

SMB: For something so obtrusively in people's faces, there is little organized criticism of and resistance to the infiltration of corporate pornography in our lives. What would you say to people unsettled by pornography's takeover of culture but who don't believe anything can realistically be done to stop the porn machine that wouldn't be censorship, an unacceptable solution?

RJ: Any realistic assessment of this has to be informed by an understanding of history. No social movement that tried to bring progressive social change to this country or any other country happened overnight, so when people say nothing can be done that's to misunderstand the nature of history. I always use the example of civil rights. You could have said the same thing at the early 20th century in the United States, "nothing can be done" about legal segregation, lynching, violence, and disenfranchisement of black people. Of course, something could be done but it was a long struggle and we need to set this in that context.

What are the vehicles of that struggle? One is clearly public education. There has to be a counter message to the pornographic story. You're doing that, mostly through the web these days but that's important work. When people say to me "We have to stop talking and do things," I want to say, "Talking is doing something. Writing is doing something. Constructing space online for people to communicate is doing something." That's a necessary step towards affecting public policy, which is the second vehicle.

There are ways to affect public policy beyond censorship, beyond the government claiming the right to control what is or isn't produced. We have the experience of the civil rights antipornography ordinance, which was not censorship. Now, I think that if the ordinance were to come back into play as a viable political strategy that it needs to be rewritten. There are aspects I disagree with and would argue we should change, most notably the trafficking clause which I think is too broad, but that solution is well within the conventions of US law. It's tort law, identifying an injury and allowing people into court to prove the injury and to seek damages. There's nothing radical about that and it's not censorship, it's tort law, the law of allowing people to redress injuries.

Are there other policy solutions we haven't come up with yet? Probably. One of the ways we find them is by engaging and discussing. Solutions emerge from a collective discussion like that, so when people say nothing can be done it's to misread history and it's to sell ourselves short.

Not only do I think there are things that can be done, I think there are things that will be done because I think pornography is pushing so far past the boundary that most people accept, and I don't mean in moral terms, I mean accept in social terms. It's too much of a threat to too many things we care about. It's a threat to our children, it's a threat to the intimacy in our own lives as adults, it's a threat to the safety of women on the street. At some point people are going to recognize that.

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