Founded in 1974, the Women’s Center was established to:
Dismantle, from a feminist perspective, all forms of oppression, including but not limited to those based on ability, age, class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Advocate for an equitable environment free from violence and harassment based on gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Create an anti-racist, non-sexist, queer-affirmative space where all people can feel valued and safe.
Facilitate and strengthen connections among people across lines of difference through programming and educational campaigns.
Integrate an appreciation of Women's Gender and Multicultural Studies across the disciplines.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Shades of Grey

I agree with Gail Dines on quite a few levels. The way in which women and men are currently depicted in the media is often terrible. Women's bodies and sexuality are often used to sell products, to the point where female sexuality is turned into a commodity by the mainstream media. I don't have to get into this - Dines does a good job of introducing the topic in the talk posted on this blog [Additionally, if you'd like more overview, Jean Kilbourne has a fabulous speech about the media's portrayal of women called Killing Us Softly. Check out the trailer!]

Instead of going through the ways in which I agree with Dines, I want to talk about the places where I disagree in order to give voice to an opinion that has not gotten airtime yet on this blog. My disagreement comes when we start to talk about where these negative portrayals come from, and what needs to be done about them. In my opinion, at least, this isn't the problem of a porn-infused society so much as the problem of a society that has co-opted female sexuality as a means of selling things to people, thus turning women (and their sexuality) into objects. Its the problem of a society that has deep roots in racism (that much of Dines' speech I agree with) that we are not willing to examine, which leads to us sexualizing women of color in even more dehumanizing ways than we do white women. This isn't the problem of porn, though. The horribly racist, misogynistic, violent, scary porn that is out there... that's just a symptom of a larger cultural issue; just as the racist/misogynistic/generally awful non-pornographic movies and books and television shows are symptoms. Basically: the medium is not the issue, the message is. I believe that if women and people of color were treated as equals in our society and our media then the representations of these groups would be better across the board - in magazines, television, movies, and yes, even porn.

I am aware of the fact that violent porn exists, I am aware that people who perform in these movies are sometimes treated poorly... but I am also aware that we live in a world full of shades of gray. At the same time as there is misogynistic, terrible porn out there, there is also awesome, inclusive, feminist porn.

I know this because I have been in the same room with people who are involved with producing and performing in this form of media. Last weekend I attended the 2011 Momentum Conference where I met (among others) Susie Bright and Tristan Taormino.The people at this conference spoke with passion and excitement about the projects that they worked on - from the video that Taormino made to teach the audience about anal sex while also turning them on, to On Our Backs, the (first) women-run lesbian erotica magazine, that Bright helped to launch - it was evident through their presentations that these people were not out to exploit women. Instead, they truly care about exciting AND educating people about sex in an ethical way.

When Gail Dines came to speak here, a few weeks before I went to this conference, I actually asked her about her feelings on feminists porn. She told me, more or less, that she didn't have any because no one had ever been able to show her evidence of feminist porn. She has made statements on the record that support this sentiment as well. For instance,

Women who work in the sex industry and promote this in the name of feminism are the scabs of the feminist movement. I think you are an apologist, and selling women out. [Source]

If I were to have taken Dines' presentation as fact, without taking the time to do research and attend conferences for myself, I would not believe that these people I met, the people who make feminist erotica and porn, existed... and yet, they do.

This realization made me want to examine the claims made in Dines' speech further. I tried to look up one of the websites that she claims is "typical porn" (the kind that 11 or 12 year old boys are searching up) on Google, to see how likely it was to come up for different keywords. I choose do do this test on, since she mentions it a few times in her presentation at Ramapo.  Although I went back five pages after searching "porn", "pornography", "blowjob", "naked women", and "porn videos" I could not find this website listed at all... let alone in the fifteen to twenty seconds Dines says it took her to find it. This makes me wonder what search terms she typed into her computer when looking for these examples, a distinction I think is important since I'm fairly sure the average adolescent in search of porn is going to be typing something like "porn" or "naked women" and not "gag me and fuck me" or "gagging bitches" or whatever phrase actually would bring this site up in a few seconds.

I'm not the only one questioning her claims about "mainstream" porn. According to Lynn Comella, a professor of Women's Studies at UNLV (and speaker at Momentum 2011):
Dines takes a slice—the world of hard-core “gonzo” porn, which, according to her, is porn that “depicts hard-core, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased”—and presents it as emblematic of an entire industry. This is akin to talking about Hollywood while only referencing spaghetti Westerns; or making sweeping glosses about the music industry when what you are really talking about is hair metal. It’s an approach that makes for neither a sound argument nor good sociology. [Source]
According to Dines young men are inundated with this violent porn constantly, while young women are given the "choice" to be fuckable or invisible... a choice that isn't a choice at all. (The virgin/whore complex, basically.) I do acknowledge that this assessment applies to many young women, but at the same time I think we're again running up against a common theme in this critique: its not that black and white. My personal experience of growing up in this culture was not quite so painful. I grew up with family and friends that discouraged me from being sexual, if anything, and so I was decidedly not sexual/sexy/fuckable/whatever growing up. I did not feel invisible for it. I had plenty of friends (and my fair share of dates) despite the fact that I was a bit awkward and more than a bit afraid of even the idea of sex. Moreover, I had some great role models in the TV shows and movies I took in (like Rory Gilmore) who validated my choices.

I was neither fucakble or invisible I was just... Jill. In fact, the biggest problem I ran into in terms of sexuality was the total lack of information I had available to me when I started to consider sex as a potential option for me. Ironically enough, it was a website made by a feminist who sometimes creates erotic material (Scarleteeen, created by Heather Corinna) that was there to provide me with medically accurate, judgment-free information during those confusing times.

By representing pornography like this, and ONLY focusing on the bad parts of the industry, Dines is missing out on the chance to work with women and men who also would like to see more positive and well-rounded representations of gender, sexuality, ability, race, and so on in the media. Women like Heather Corinna, who work tirelessly to ensure that teenagers have somewhere to turn to with their questions about sex. Women and men who, like me, would probably agree with MOST of what Dines is saying... until she starts to blame the porn industry almost wholesale for the problems in our media today.

I just want to be clear that this is not intended to be an anti-Dines screed. My goal here was to take a moment to investigate the claims that she makes about the porn industry (as any critical thinker would do) and form my own opinions. After doing research and meeting awesome people & activists who work within the porn and sex work fields I can't help but feel as if the issue is much, much less black and white than Dines makes it out to be.


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful post. I would like to share my thoughts...

    I don't think Dines is saying porn is the root cause of the problems she's addressing. Pornography is an outcome of the patriarchal culture. But, pornography is one of the clearest places we can see the misogyny.

    I don't think Dines or any radical feminist ant-porn activist would have a problem with pictures of the female body like you refer to as your personal sex education. I am not familiar with the material you're referencing, so I'm not sure if it's simple sex ed or if it's actually pornographic. But, radical feminists do want sexual liberation and freedom to explore and express sexuality. Pornography limits that freedom by promoting degradation of women and narrow gender roles.

    You say that by focusing on the bad parts of the pornography industry, we neglect potential areas for improvement in the media. I think you must differentiate between media in general and the pornography industry. I agree that we need positive images of women and men in the media. But, working with pornographers to create it is working in an industry that is founded on misogyny. Trying to work with a genre founded on domination and hatred of women is not likely to be fruitful. Pornography was created by men for men within patriarchy. If it were about simple arousal, it wouldn't include such negative messaging alongside the sex. I don't think there are missed opportunities by not working with pornographers.

    You said that you've met 'awesome people and activists' in the pornography and 'sex work' industry. The feminist anti-pornography movement is not meant to demonize the people who work in it. I'm sure there are many great people in it who have simply overlooked the violence they're perpetuating. Many of them have bought into the idea that their work is progressive and helps dissolve narrowly defined gender roles. In reality, it does the opposite. And, there are likely many others who work in the industry who would like to get out of it, but have few other options. The problem is the messages the industry conveys and how it perpetuates violence and hatred of women.

  2. Can you show an example of awesome, inclusive, feminist porn, and estimate their number compared to the misogynistic, terrible porn?