Editor’s note: As an eco-feminist organization, Deep Green Resistance draws links between the exploitation and mistreatment of women, the destruction of compassion and solidarity, and the ongoing ecocide of the natural world.
Rates of sexual abuse today are staggering. On average nearly 500,000 people over 12 years of age — the vast majority of them female — are sexually assaulted each year in the United States. Some 12.5% of children are sexually abused.
While doing research for an article I recently wrote regarding the level of radicalism which can and might exist within mainstream realms such as rape crisis centers, I stumbled across a documentary regarding how sex traffickers now frequent drug rehab facilities for the purpose of recruiting victims. These traffickers lure victims away by proposing that the victims are being transported to another drug rehab facility.
Although I formerly worked for an anti-trafficking facility, this was all new to me. I listened in a state of deep horror as several young women described how traffickers repeatedly “sold them for sex” (paid rape) to various individuals. While everything stated by the brave survivors who were strong enough to tell their stories left a deep imprint on my consciousness, the most disturbing and transformative story was from a young woman who stated that while being trafficked, the trafficker stated “Did you know that four men just ran a train on you for $20? Just $20. That’s it.” Her point was plain. The trafficker was informing her that she was worth little to nothing and that, as a mere object, he maintained the subjectivity necessary to determine what the cost of her objectification would be.
It is well-known that pimps use these types of breaking strategies to convince victims that no one cares about them, and the strategies wouldn’t be repeatedly used if they weren’t effective. Yet the reason that her words were particularly jarring to me at that moment is because I had recently become reirritated by the reality of fake feminists and their inaccurate discourse, nonempirical understanding of gender, and superficial work that they do to uphold male supremacy under the guise of creating a more equitable world when they could actually join the radical feminist family in the unapologetic, unrelenting condemnation of men who subject women to any and all forms of sexual abuse.
I won’t go into deep detail regarding the asinine, ineffective efforts of the liberal feminist community here, but suffice it to state that they make things like the cultivation of good heterosexual marriages, equal pay for equal work, and abortion rights integral to their platform and diminish the role that sexual abuse plays in perpetuating male supremacy due to fear of truly speaking to power and recognizing that the men they serve are the biggest threat to the viability of the planet and half its population
Although the recent overturning of Roe vs. Wade was a substantive blow to women, I agree with the radical feminists who argue that the sustained attention given to the abortion debate is actually a distraction and the diverting of female energy from the most significant source of women’s oppression: any and all forms of sexual abuse. Indeed, I think that radical feminist energy should be continually redirected to the recognition of, rumination regarding, and antagonistic response towards the variegated forms of sexual abuse that transpire in all realms, including the now sexually normative and culturally acceptable spheres of prostitution and pornography.
While other forms of gender-based abuse are problematic, rape and other forms of sexual assault and oppression are the most egregious because they reduce women to objects and revivify a cultural landscape in which individuals are reduced to a state eerily comparable to slavery in which their bodies are no longer their own but rather a resource that is extracted for capital and/or pleasure of nefarious masters (pimps, johns, boyfriends, husbands, and all other men who appropriate female bodies). (Also, if is true that prostitution is the oldest institution in the world, this would mean that it predates all forms of traditional slavery on the planet…and this would be saying a lot regarding which forms of oppression and against which groups are most deeply imbricated into the psyches of the citizens of the planet.)
While I have read much literature regarding rape and other forms of sexual abuse, I was most recently stirred by my rereading of Gloria Steinem’s stunning essay “The Real Linda Lovelace.” This essay recounts the horrific, brutal violence (both sexual and non) suffered by Linda Boreman at the hands of multiple men, including her former husband Chuck Traynor.
Much of Steinem’s retelling of Boreman’s sexual abuse stems from her awareness of the pornographic film Deep Throat. Although individuals immersed in malestream, normative thinking regarding gender and sexuality viewed the film as an intriguing and perhaps grotesquely fascinating representation of “sex,” radical feminists know that the accurate interpretation of this media representation is a replication of the culturally normative practice of treating women as sexual objects and physical receptacles (mouth, anus, and vagina are just “holes” for men to enter) who exist as such for male pleasure. This assessment is grounded in material reality rather than mere abstract philosophical speculation because we know the film involved a man inserting his penis in Linda Boreman’s mouth as well as a hollow glass dildo being stuck in her vagina while men sipped liquid from it.
Radical feminists can learn many lessons from these depictions, one of which is that culturally normative male sexuality is about disregarding the concept of female pleasure in sexuality or inverting it to promote the myth that women receive pleasure from giving men pleasure. These patriarchal myths are perpetuated through Deep Throat, and Steinem makes this reality plain upon noting that the director-writer of the film, Gerry Damiano, “decided to tell the story of a woman whose clitoris was in her throat, and who was constantly eager for oral sex with men” (267).
Here we see the inversion of biological reality, which is that the clitoris is a central and primary source of sexual pleasure for women, such that this component of female anatomy is geographically relocated to the back of a woman’s throat for the purpose of suggesting that having a penis inserted into a female’s mouth is physically stimulating in a manner that results in substantive pleasure. The reality, which Damiano diminished through this inversion of biological materiality, is that this form of oral sex has the primary impact of generating male, not female, pleasure. The pleasure is not mutual or equally distributed between both partners because the clitoris is indeed not located in the back of a woman’s throat.
Damiano’s mythological distortion of female sexuality and the female body reinforces male dominance by perpetuating the core patriarchal idea that women exist to service men. As a cultural artifact, the film reinforces the idea that this ideology can be legitimated through the development of fictional narratives regarding women’s biology.
The use of a hollow glass dildo in Deep Throat also upholds the mythology of male supremacy that is normalized within the pornographic realm. Steinem recounts this scene in context of the horrified response of Nora Ephron, a writer who, upon seeing this in the film, stated “All I could think about was what would happen if the glass broke” (268). I’m fairly confident that I would have responded similarly if I sat through a scene in which a hollow glass dildo was inserted into a woman’s vagina and then filled with Coca-Cola that was subsequently drunk through a surgical straw.
Yet when Ephron shared her concern with some male friends, they told her “that she was “overreacting” and that the Coca-Cola scene was “hilarious”” (268). This response reflects the desensitization that most people, particularly men, experience when confronted with the reality of female objectification coupled with the perpetuation of the idea that women’s bodies exist for the purpose of servicing men. In this case, the servicing grotesquely melded the realms of food and sex such that the source of male satisfaction involved being able to use a component of female anatomy for sexual titillation and the alleviation of thirst. (If the person who drank the Coca-Cola was actually thirsty, because it is quite plausible that he was not and just wanted to demonstrate the extent of his control over a female body by indicating that he could find more than one way to utilize her vagina and, given the opportunity, would do so. I think it’s also important to note that this component of the film reflects the male proclivity to utilize the power of creation and artistry in a perverse manner that involves misusing, obliterating, or disfiguring female bodies such that their process of “creation” is actually more comparable to “destruction,” making their “creative process” a patriarchal reversal (the opposite of what it claims to be). I think it’s also important to note what this specific form of patriarchal reversal might be rooted in, which is plausibly male jealousy over female anatomy and its capacity to give birth and life to a living thing, with the male perverted response being a proclivity for destroying the source of life, female bodies.)
The lies that men tell about female bodies through pornography are not limited to the mythology of a clitoris in the back of the throat or the insertion of a hollow glass dildo into a woman’s vagina. Chuck Traynor, Linda’s long-time abuser/husband, perpetuated myths regarding female psychology and anatomy by having her memorize a set of lies to recite regarding her role in pornographic films when interviewed by the public. This is why, when Nora Ephron interviewed Linda Boreman and asked how she felt about making Deep Throat, Boreman responded “I totally enjoyed myself making the movie” and “I don’t have any inhibitions about sex. I just hope that everybody who goes to see the film…loses some of their inhibitions” (268).
As Steinem notes, “Linda would later list these and other answers among those dictated by Chuck Traynor for just such journalistic occasions” (268). Furthermore, Traynor punished Boreman for showing any type of unacceptable emotion when he sold her for sex (paid rape). For example, Boreman cried after being successively raped by the five men Traynor sold her to. One of the men, apparently disturbed by her emotive response, refused to pay. Upon learning of this, Traynor punished her with physical abuse. In recounting this, Steinem notes that Boreman “had been beaten and raped so severely and regularly that she suffered rectal damage, plus permanent injury to the blood vessels in her legs” (268).
The reality of the physical and sexual abuse that Boreman suffered at the hands of Chuck Traynor as he sold her for paid rape is disturbing for several reasons, including the fact that it constitutes a form of severe dehumanization. This abuse is operative and real male depravity, not simulation or speculation.
Yet while the reality of male depravity is disturbing, the level of ignorance that the masses have regarding its occurrence within the realms of pornography and prostitution is perhaps even more disorienting. Collective resistance plays a key role in defanging male supremacy. Therefore, the reality that most individuals are not fully aware of the profound abuse that transpires within these realms of cultural acceptability means that there will be a lack of attention towards solving the problem because of a lack of awareness that there even is a problem.
Even though Boreman was forced to make the film Deep Throat at gunpoint, this is not what the viewers of the film saw. What they saw was her happy, smiling face in the film, with this depiction being utilized for promoting a multitude of male myths regarding female sexuality, including the fact that women are most sexually satisfied when they are satisfying men (which is one of the reasons that I think fellatio has become normative within heterosexual relationships despite how profoundly one-sided it is). The masses are unaware of the dynamic of violence that went into making this film and thus don’t even understand that Boreman was not a willing participant.
It is also disturbing to note that while many individuals may have been horrified to learn of the abuse behind Deep Throat, they would be unperturbed about watching a modern pornographic film in which a woman “willingly chose” to participate, but did not give consent for various sexual acts that were subsequently forced upon her — under the premise that “she is just acting” and therefore it’s “not real, just a creative depiction of sexuality without the typical inhibitions.” This type of abuse, along with so-called “revenge porn,” voyeur videos, rape fantasies, racist tropes, incest themes, and videos of child and adult sexual abuse, are common on modern porn websites that are accessible free, 24/7.
Thus while many people might be uncomfortable regarding the reality of a lack of female consent, they are unbothered by rape and abuse if it occurs in context of a “fantasy.” (I put the word fantasy in quotation marks here because the creation of pornographic films that involve this system of relationality is not entirely fantastical because the production required real actors and we also now know that many of the female actresses are not actually giving consent to portray themselves as not giving consent. Rather, they are actually being raped. In fact, many porn films are filmed rapes that were uploaded into communities of individuals who consume porn.)
With all of this in mind, there is an important point for radical feminists to consider: lack of female consent and arousal regarding forms of “sex” that take place in its absence appear to be a part of normative collective consciousness, also known as the mainstream. So, the low level of receptivity to banning porn and prostitution should perhaps be unsurprising and respected, meaning that radical feminists should perhaps redirect their energy away from convincing individuals who accept and appreciate the perversity of porn that it is a problem toward the development of alternative communities for those who want it to have neither central nor tangential impact and import in their lives.
As I continue to think critically about the sexual abuse of women, I find that new and old questions and concepts flourish in my psyche. One is an assertion that I have heard many ostensibly empathetic, sensitive individuals make regarding radical feminist discourse on sexual abuse. The assessment is: “Sometimes I think these radical feminists take the most grotesque, egregious cases of sexual abuse and present them to the public for either 1. shock value or 2. To promote the idea that these extreme cases are normative and widespread.”
Sometimes I think the people who make this statement have been trained to recite a line for the purpose of perpetuating fake conversations and false consciousness rather than engaging in a potentially awkward or life-altering discourse, or perhaps they simply don’t want to believe that abuse is as common as it actually is. I haven’t drawn clear conclusions regarding the motivation for the recitation yet. Anyway, there are many problems with these assertions, but I only wish to address one here.
The individuals who assert that extreme sexual abuse (such as that experienced by Linda Boreman) is somehow detached from what transpires in the mainstream heteronormative culture are submitting a misleading supposition. This is the case because even though most men are not traffickers and pimps, and most women are not trafficked or prostituted by these men, the majority of the male populace consumes the sexual objectification and assault of women in the form of pornography, prostitution, and/or attendance in strip clubs (where many young women are seasoned to go from stripping to prostitution).
Additionally, while it is not the fault of women that men engage in these nefarious activities, the majority of the female populace creates the conditions necessary for these depraved behaviors to continue through self-silencing, victim-blaming, and becoming a male apologist (ie, “Oh, he’s really a good guy. What we saw right there is not who he really is, just a mistake he made.” Blah blah blah.)
This is what the people who say that radical feminists are presenting extreme cases that don’t reflect what most men and women think and feel or would consent to need to understand: “Literally millions of women seem to have been taken to Deep Throat by their boyfriends or husbands (not to mention prostitutes who were taken by their pimps) so that each one might learn what a woman could do to please a man if she really wanted to. This instructive value seems to have been a major reason for the movie’s popularity, and its reach beyond the usual universe of male-only viewers” (267).
In reflecting on Steinem’s assertion here, it should be plain that the production and consumption of media depicting the sexual abuse of women and thwarting/inversion of female sexuality is an unequivocally mainstream endeavor. While the abuse that Boreman suffered may be considered extreme and not reflective of what most women experience in heteropatriarchy, most of the American populace is now actively contributing to the sustaining of industries that profit from the violation of her and other women trapped in the realms of prostitution (including pornography) and trafficking.
In summation, male supremacy in context of abortion laws is a significant topic that should continually be addressed. Yet, this newest manifestation of male supremacy should not sideline radical feminist discourse regarding the most egregious form of patriarchy, sexual abuse. As such, let’s keep talking about the sexual abuse of women, please.
Jocelyn Crawley is a radical feminist who resides in Atlanta, Georgia.
Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1983.
Quitting porn is about reclaiming your authentic sexuality, aligning your actions with your values, and decolonizing your mind. For organizers, activists, and revolutionaries, choosing to stop using porn will make you feel better, leave you with more energy and time, and is a stand in solidarity with women and girls—which is also a stand with the living planet.
This article will introduce the harms of pornography, share a radical feminist perspective on porn, a radical indigenous perspective on porn, a short interview with Noam Chomsky, and provide some tools to help you stop using porn.
Sexting and Pornography are eroding whole generations from birth. — Native Youth Movement
Critical Media Analysis of Porn
Critical media analysis tells us how the advertising and mass media industries use psychological tricks to encourage us to buy and spend more time watching screens. It works. The global entertainment and media industry is worth more than $2 trillion.
However, few of us apply the same critical thinking to pornography. Like mass media, porn is big business. The size of the industry was estimated at roughly $15 billion in 2018 in the U.S. alone. That’s more revenue than Hollywood, Netflix, the NBA, Viacom, or the NFL.
Porn influences individuals and our entire society. However, this influence is rarely interrogated. Porn production and use largely happens in the shadows. It’s mostly a private habit that people indulge in darkened bedrooms and offices. And unlike other large industries, it’s usually not discussed. We educate young children about advertising and mass media to encourage caution around images that are, by design, manipulative. But young people are rarely educated about pornography.
Human sexuality is a powerful force, and is something that can be beautiful, enjoyable, and important. Pornography, in contrast, is a “super-normal” stimulus.
Our ancestors did not evolve in a world where the internet provided instant access to explicit images and videos. At a biological level, modern internet porn is completely unlike the authentic human sexuality we evolved with, which involves face-to-face communication, desire, relationships, conversations, sex, and so on.
Porn, in contrast, provides a never-ending stream of digital images that has almost nothing in common with real sexuality. This super-normal stimulus is why many men, and a smaller number of women, are addicted to pornography.
Porn is to sex as heroin is to a runner’s high. Rather than nourishing the self and others, as authentic sexuality can, porn leaves users alienated, shameful, disconnected from partners and others around them, and wasting precious time—the only thing we have in life—looking at an image on a two dimensional screen. And like opiates, compulsive porn use is very common.
Why to Stop Using Porn
There are many reasons to stop using porn.
1. Porn harms women.
There are real women (and men) working in the pornography industry. They tend to have very high rates of drug abuse, STDs, mental health issues, physical and sexual abuse, and premature death. More broadly, porn fuels demand for prostitution and for sex trafficking. Tragically, there are many examples of porn depicting trafficked women who are being raped on-camera. Porn is not a fantasy. It is something happening to real people.
2. Porn harms society.
Critical media analysis tells us the images we are exposed to effect us. This is why advertising works. Porn lives inside the minds of the people who watch it, and then filters out into society. Porn also gravitates towards “shock content” as people become accustomed to hyper-normal stimulus. This is why porn so often contains blatant racism, real and faux underage and “teen” content, acts that are not actually pleasurable, BDSM, incest tropes, and outright violence. One analysis of the most popular porn films found that 88% of scenes contained violence against women. The objectification of women, negative body image, and abusive practices normalized by porn have ramifications throughout society and particularly on women and girls.
3. Porn harms users.
There is nothing categorically wrong with masturbation, but porn is not masturbation. It’s masturbation moderated by a patriarchal, capitalist industry. People who use porn don’t actually get anything out of it. They don’t get good sexual education. They don’t strengthen their relationships by building trust and intimacy. They don’t make money or become more enlightened. They don’t even get real, lasting pleasure (users consistently report feelings of shame, depression, and anxiety regarding their habit/addiction). In this sense, porn is similar to a destructive drug addiction. It harms users, yet they crave it and have trouble stopping.
A Radical Feminist Perspective on Porn
Feminists have been speaking out against pornography and the objectification of women for a long time. The great anti-porn organizer Andrea Dworkin wrote that:
“Pornography incarnates male supremacy. It is the DNA of male dominance. Every rule of sexual abuse, every nuance of sexual sadism, every highway and byway of sexual sadism, is encoded in it. It’s what men want us to be, think we are, make us into; how men use us; not because biologically they are men but because this is how their social power is organized. From the perspective of the political activist, pornography is the blueprint of male supremacy.”
A quick visit to any popular porn site confirms this. Whatever facet of patriarchy you are concerned about (sexual harassment, sexual assault, incest and family violence, rape, workplace abuse, exploitation of young women and girls by older men, forced childbearing, sexualized racism and racialized sexism, revenge porn, upskirting, voyeurism, and every other possible form of non-consent, deception, coercion, etc.) you will find pornography catering to and sexually reinforcing those ideologies.
Radical feminists have long argued that the sadistic brilliance of pornography is that is sexualizes domination, objectification, and violence; that it encodes patriarchy within something that feels pleasurable, and thus makes it often invisible. Andrea Dworkin, once again, wrote that “Pornography is the institution of male dominance that sexualizes hierarchy, objectification, submission, and violence.”
The feminist writer Susan Griffin described both the production and consumption of porn as a ritualistic rite to patriarchy with political ramifications rarely understood by those participating in it:
“For above all, pornography is ritual. It is an enacted drama that is laden with meaning, which imparts a vision of the world. The altar for the ritual is a woman’s body. And the ritual which is carried out on this altar is the desecration of flesh. Here, what is sacred within the body is degraded.”
A Radical Indigenous Perspective on Porn
Griffin’s analysis of pornography as a ritual that is conducted on women and girls and broadcast into the minds of hundreds of millions of people worldwide has some similarities to a radical indigenous perspective on pornography.
From the Native Youth Movement Warrior Society [edited for length]:
When two humans exchange their energy it is a sacred union. In our pre-invasion world sex was seen very different than today, very sacred; the most sacred of our ceremonies, the one that is universal. By exploiting sexuality, we exploit our essence as life forms. By colonizing and changing our sexuality they colonize our first and oldest ceremony, so sacred every man and woman had their own and it was only viewed, attended and participated in by them.
It is now controlled by the perverted minds of the colonizer. If they control what arouses people and when, through imagery, they can make a person think about sex and control the oldest part of us. The hind brain is older and stronger than any other portion of the brain. We share it with all other backboned animals.
When hind brain is in charge, accessing neural networks that are responsible for compassion, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence is harder. The place where our deepest love comes from can be quickly overridden by the hind brain. Today most people in the industrial world function in this continued state of narcissism. In other words, they have sexualized our world as a way to control the oldest thought process of survival.
Sexting and pornography are eroding whole generations from birth. While sex is thought of as a curse word in public and our communities, dysfunctional sexuality is a behind-closed-doors addiction. In 2012, the Internet Watch Foundation found that an “estimated 88% of self-made explicit images are stolen from their original upload location and made available on other websites, in particular porn sites collecting sexual imagery of children and young people.” When the person who originally sexted the photo finds out everyone has access to it they can go into depression and there have been manycases of suicide.
Indigenous views of sexuality must be revived as a Sacred teaching for our young ones. The future of Indigenous people is at stake. Body parts are not objects, just as the humans they are part of are not objects, they are sacred life forms that must be treated good and engaged respectfully. Physical appearance is shallow. A person’s mind must be in good health to be healthy.
Noam Chomsky on Pornography
When asked about his stance on pornography, in response to perceived endorsement of Hustler, who had tricked Chomsky into giving an interview for the magazine, Chomsky responded:
Pornography is humiliation and degradation of women. It’s a disgraceful activity. I don’t want to be associated with it. Just take a look at the pictures. I mean, women are degraded as vulgar sex objects. That’s not what human beings are. I don’t even see anything to discuss.
Interviewer: But didn’t performers choose to do the job and get paid?
The fact that people agree to it and are paid, is about as convincing as the fact that we should be in favor of sweatshops in China, where women are locked into a factory and work fifteen hours a day, and then the factory burns down and they all die. Yeah, they were paid and they consented, but it doesn’t make me in favor of it, so that argument we can’t even talk about.
As for the fact that it’s some people’s erotica, well you know that’s their problem, doesn’t mean I have to contribute to it. If they get enjoyment out of humiliation of women, they have a problem, but it’s nothing I want to contribute to.
Interviewer: How should we improve the production conditions of pornography?
By eliminating degradation of women, that would improve it. Just like child abuse, you don’t want to make it better child abuse, you want to stop child abuse.
Suppose there’s a starving child in the slums, and you say “well, I’ll give you food if you’ll let me abuse you.” Suppose—well, there happen to be laws against child abuse, fortunately—but suppose someone were to give you an argument. Well, you know, after all a child’s starving otherwise, so you’re taking away their chance to get some food if you ban abuse. I mean, is that an argument?
The answer to that is stop the conditions in which the child is starving, and the same is true here. Eliminate the conditions in which women can’t get decent jobs, not permit abusive and destructive behavior.
How to Stop Using Porn
There are many ways to stop using porn, but the difficult part is the psychology of quitting. Unlike a drug like heroin or alcohol, porn is barely addictive at the physical level. People quitting heroin or alcohol often need medical support and gradual weaning. Porn is not like that. The addiction is primarily psychological.
Most compulsive porn users are convinced that they need porn, that they like it, or that they’ll feel miserable without it—even though using porn makes them feel shameful and physically depleted. This is the psychology of addiction.
So how can this be overcome? There are a few common methods used by millions of people around the world to stop using porn. These include EasyPeasy, Fortify, Your Brain on Porn, and others.
1. Stop Using Porn with the Easy Peasy Method
“Easy Peasy” is a method adapted from Allen Carr’s 1985 book The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. The method focuses on first transforming your attitude towards porn by seeing it as a drug that has no benefits and embracing a desire to quit. This method is interesting because it emphasizes happiness and contentment to be free of porn, and discourages people from feeling like they are depriving themselves of something by quitting. It involves reading a short book (also available as an audiobook) and is free.
2. Stop Using Porn with the Fortify App
Fortify is a smartphone and web app that is available for free to help people stop using porn. It was created by the people behind “Fight The New Drug,” an anti-porn organization. The app helps prompt you to take certain actions, get support from others, track your progress, and do mindfulness exercises. A free version is available, as is a paid plan with more tools that costs $10 USD per month.
3. Stop Using Porn with Your Brain on Porn
YBOP doesn’t prescribe a single program for quitting porn. Rather, it has a collection of tips and tricks collected over many years and from many people.
Please note: these methods are not explicitly feminist creations; they are self-help methods that are largely apolitical. Many anti-porn communities and forums still contain misogyny. However, don’t let this discourage you from using the resources that are available.
Editor’s note: Feminism is often seen as a “woman issue” and thus as something secondary or unimportant compared to issues of class or ecology. But in this piece, Robert Jensen reminds us that “White supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism have never existed without patriarchy.” Some historians even see patriarchy as the “original oppression” — the template which has led to the world we now find ourselves in.
From the psychology of domination to overpopulation, patriarchy is a powerful, subtle force in our world. If you are concerned about human rights or ecology, as we are, women’s oppression is essential to understand and undermine. Why are we a radical feminist organization? Because this is essential to justice and sustainability.
In an analysis of pornography and prostitution in a patriarchal society, it’s crucial not to lose sight of basic biology. A coherent feminist analysis of the ideology and practice of patriarchy starts with human bodies.
We are all Homo sapiens. Genus Homo, species sapiens. We are primates. We are mammals. We are part of the animal kingdom.
We are organic entities, carbon-based creatures of flesh and blood. Whatever one thinks about the concepts of soul and mind—and I assume that in any diverse group there will be widely varying ideas—we are animals, which means we are bodies. The kind of animal that we are reproduces sexually, the interaction of bodies that are either male or female (with a very small percentage of people born intersex, who have anomalies that may complicate reproductive status).
Every one of us—and every human who has ever lived—is the product of the union of an egg produced by a female human and a sperm produced by a male human. Although it also can be accomplished with technology, in the vast majority of cases the fertilization of an egg by a sperm happens through the act of sexual intercourse, which in addition to its role in reproduction is potentially pleasurable.
I emphasize these elementary facts not to reduce the rich complexity of human interaction to a story about nothing but bodies, but if we are to understand sex/gender politics, we can’t ignore our bodies. That may seem self-evident, but some postmodern-inflected theories that float through some academic spaces, intellectual salons, and political movements these days seem to have detached from that reality.
If we take evolutionary biology seriously, we should recognize the centrality of reproduction to all living things and the importance of sexuality to a species that reproduces sexually, such as Homo sapiens. Reproduction and sexuality involve our bodies.
Female and male are stable biological categories. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be here. But femininity and masculinity are not stable social categories. Ideas about what male and female mean—what meaning we attach to those differences in our bodies—vary from culture to culture and change over time.
That brings us to patriarchy, radical feminism, a radical feminist critique of the sexual-exploitation industries in patriarchy, and why all of this is important, not only for women but for men. I’m here as a man to make a pitch to men: Radical feminism is especially important for us.
Patriarchy—an idea about sex differences that institutionalizes male dominance throughout a society—has a history. Though many assume that humans have always lived with male dominance, such systems became widespread only a few thousand years ago, coming after the invention of agriculture and a dramatic shift in humans’ relationship with the larger living world. Historian Gerda Lerner argues that patriarchy began when “men discovered how to turn ‘difference’ into dominance” and “laid the ideological foundation for all systems of hierarchy, inequality, and exploitation” (Lerner, 1997, p. 133). Patriarchy takes different forms depending on time and place, but it reserves for men most of the power in the institutions of society and limits women’s access to such power. However, Lerner reminds us, “It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence and resources” (Lerner, 1986, p. 239). The world is complicated, but we identify patterns to help us understand that complexity.
Patriarchy is not the only hierarchical system that enhances the power of some and limits the life chances of others—it exists alongside white supremacy, legally enforced or informal; various unjust and inhumane economic systems, including capitalism; and imperialism and colonialism, including the past 500 years of exploitation primarily by Europe and its offshoots such as the United States.
Because of those systems, all women do not have the same experience in patriarchy, but the pattern of women’s relative disadvantage vis-à-vis men is clear. As historian Judith Bennett writes, “Almost every girl born today will face more constraints and restrictions than will be encountered by a boy who is born today into the same social circumstances as that girl.” (Bennett, 2006, p. 10).
Over thousands of years, patriarchal societies have developed justifications, both theological and secular, to maintain this inequality and make it seem to be common sense, “just the way the world is.” Patriarchy has proved tenacious, at times conceding to challenges but blocking women from reaching full equality to men. Women’s status can change over time, and there are differences in status accorded to women depending on other variables. But Bennett argues that these ups and downs have not transformed women as a group in relationship to men—societies operate within a “patriarchal equilibrium,” in which only privileged men can lay claim to that full humanity, defined as the ability to develop fully their human potential (Bennett, 2009). Men with less privilege must settle for less, and some will even be accorded less status than some women (especially men who lack race and/or class privilege). But in this kind of dynamically stable system of power, women are never safe and can always be made “less than,” especially by men willing to wield threats, coercion, and violence.
Although all the systems based on domination cause immense suffering and are difficult to dislodge, patriarchy has been part of human experience longer and is deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life. We should remember: White supremacy has never existed without patriarchy. Capitalism has never existed without patriarchy. Imperialism has never existed without patriarchy. From patriarchy’s claim that male domination and female subordination are natural and inevitable have emerged other illegitimate hierarchies that also rest on attempts to naturalize, and hence render invisible, other domination/subordination dynamics.
Feminism, at its most basic, challenges patriarchy. However as with any human endeavor, including movements for social justice, there are different intellectual and political strands. What in the United States is typically called “second wave” feminism, that emerged out of the social ferment of the 1960s and ‘70s, produced competing frameworks: radical, Marxist, socialist, liberal, psychoanalytical, existential, postmodern, eco-feminist. When non-white women challenged the white character of early second-wave feminism, movements struggled to correct the distortions; some women of color choose to identify as womanist rather than feminist. Radical lesbian feminists challenged the overwhelmingly heterosexual character of liberal feminism, and different feminisms went in varying directions as other challenges arose concerning every-thing from global politics to disability.
Since my first serious engagement with feminism in the late 1980s, I have found radical feminist analyses to be a source of inspiration. Radical feminism highlights men’s violence and coercion—rape, child sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment—and the routine nature of this abuse for women, children, and vulnerable men in patriarchy. In patriarchal societies, men claim a right to own or control women’s reproductive power and women’s sexuality, with that threat of violence and coercion always in the background. In the harshest forms of patriarchy, men own wives and their children, and men can claim women’s bodies for sex constrained only by agreements with other men. In contemporary liberal societies, men’s dominance takes more subtle forms.
Radical feminism forces us to think about male and female bodies, about how men use, abuse, and exploit women in the realms of reproduction and sexuality. But in the contemporary United States, the radical approach has been eclipsed by the more common liberal (in mainstream politics) and postmodern (in academic and activist circles) strands of feminism. A liberal approach focuses on gaining equality for women within existing political, legal, and economic institutions. While notoriously difficult to define, postmodernism challenges the stability and coherence not only of existing institutions but of the very concepts that we use within them and tends to focus on language and performance as key to identity and experience. Liberalism and postmodernism come out of very different sets of assumptions but are similar in their practical commitment to individualism in politics, tending to evaluate a proposal based on whether it maximizes choices for individual women rather than whether it resists patriarchy’s hierarchy and challenges the power of men as a class. On issues such as pornography and prostitution, both liberal and postmodern feminism avoid or downplay a critique of the patriarchal system and reduce the issue to support for women’s choices, sometimes even claiming that women can be empowered through the sexual-exploitation industries.
Radical feminism’s ultimate goal is the end of patriarchy’s gender system, not merely expanding women’s choices within patriarchy. But radical feminism also recognizes the larger problem of hierarchy and the domination/subordination dynamics in other arenas of human life. While not sufficient by itself, the end of patriarchy is a necessary condition for liberation more generally.
Today there’s a broad consensus that any form of feminism must be “intersectional,” Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1989) term to describe about how black women could be marginalized by movements for both racial and gender justice when their concerns did not conform to either group’s ideology or strategy. While the term is fairly new, the idea goes back further. For example, the statement of the Combahee River Collective, a group of black lesbian feminists in the late 1970s, named not only sexism and racism but also capitalism and imperialism as forces constraining their lives:
[W]e are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives (Combahee River Collective, 2000, p. 264).
Intersectional approaches like these help us better understand the complex results of what radical feminists argue is a central feature of patriarchy: Men’s efforts to control women’s reproductive power and sexuality. As philosopher Marilyn Frye puts it:
For females to be subordinated and subjugated to males on a global scale, and for males to organize themselves and each other as they do, billions of female individuals, virtually all who see life on this planet, must be reduced to a more-or-less willing toleration of subordination and servitude to men. The primary sites of this reduction are the sites of heterosexual relation and encounter—courtship and marriage-arrangement, romance, sexual liaisons, fucking, marriage, prostitution, the normative family, incest and child sexual assault. It is on this terrain of heterosexual connection that girls and women are habituated to abuse, insult, degradation, that girls are reduced to women—to wives, to whores, to mistresses, to sex slaves, to clerical workers and textile workers, to the mothers of men’s children (Frye, 1992, p. 130).
This analysis doesn’t suggest that every man treats every woman as a sex slave, of course. Each individual man in patriarchy is not at every moment actively engaged in the oppression of women, but men routinely act in ways that perpetuate patriarchy and harm women. It’s also true that patriarchy’s obsession with hierarchy, including a harsh system of ranking men, means that most men lose out in the game to acquire significant wealth and power. Complex systems produce complex results, and still there are identifiable patterns. Patriarchy is a system that delivers material benefits to men—unequally depending on men’s other attributes (such as race, class, sexual orientation, nationality, immigration status) and on men’s willingness to embrace, or at least adapt to, patriarchal values. But patriarchy constrains all women. The physical, psychological, and spiritual suffering endured by women varies widely, again depending on other attributes and sometimes just on the luck of the draw, but no woman escapes some level of that suffering. And at the core of that system is men’s assertion of a right to control women’s reproductive power and sexuality.
The Radical Feminist Critique of the Sexual-Exploitation Industries
I use the term “sexual-exploitation industries” to include prostitution, pornography, stripping, massage parlors, escort services—all the ways that men routinely buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure. Boys and vulnerable men are also exploited in these industries, but the majority of these businesses are about men buying women and girls.
Not all feminists or progressive people critique this exploitation, and in some feminist circles—especially those rooted in liberalism or postmodernism—so-called “sex work” is celebrated as empowering for women. Let’s start with simple questions for those who claim to want to end sexism and foster sex/gender justice:
Is it possible to imagine any society achieving a meaningful level of any kind of justice if people from one sex/gender class could be routinely bought and sold for sexual services by people from another sex/gender class?
Is justice possible when the most intimate spaces of the bodies of people in one group can be purchased by people in another group?
If our goal is to maintain stable, decent human societies defined by mutuality rather than dominance, do the sexual-exploitation industries foster or impede our efforts?
If we were creating a just society from the ground up, is it likely that anyone would say, “Let’s make sure that men have ready access to the bodies of women in commercial transactions”?
These questions are both moral and political. Radical feminists reject dominance, and the violence and coercion that comes with a domination/subordination dynamic, out of moral commitments to human dignity, solidarity, and equality. But nothing I’ve said is moralistic, in the sense of imposing a narrow, subjective conception of sexuality on others. Rejecting the sexual-exploitation industries isn’t about constraining people’s sexual expression, but rather is part of the struggle to create the conditions for meaningful sexual freedom.
So why is this radical feminist critique, which has proved so accurate in its assessment of the consequences of mainstreaming the commercial sex industry, so often denounced not only by men who embrace patriarchy but also by liberal and left men, and in recent years even by feminists in the liberal and postmodern camps?
Take the issue I know best, pornography. Starting in the 1970s, women such as Andrea Dworkin (2002) argued that the appeal of pornography was not just explicit sex but sex presented in the context of that domination/subordination dynamic. Since Dworkin’s articulation of that critique (1979), the abuse and exploitation of women in the industry has been more thoroughly documented. The content of pornography has become more overtly cruel and degrading to women and more overtly racist. Pornography’s role in promoting corrosive sexual practices, especially among young people, is more evident. As the power of the radical feminist critique has become clearer, why is the critique more marginalized today than when it was first articulated?
Part of the answer is that the radical feminist critique of pornography goes to the heart of the claim of men in patriarchy to own or control women’s sexuality. Feminism won some gains for women in public, such as more expansive access to education and a place in politics. But like any system of social control, patriarchy does not quietly accept change, pushing back against women’s struggle for sexual autonomy. Sociologist Kathleen Barry describes this process:
[W]hen women achieve the potential for economic independence, men are threatened with loss of control over women as their legal and economic property in marriage. To regain control, patriarchal domination reconfigures around sex by producing a social and public condition of sexual sub-ordination that follows women into the public world (Barry, 1995, p. 53).
Why Should Men Care?
Barry is not suggesting that men got together to plot such a strategy. Rather, it’s in the nature of patriarchy to respond to challenges to male power with new strategies. That’s how systems of illegitimate authority, including white supremacy and capitalism, have always operated.
Men can no longer claim outright ownership of women, as they once did. Men cannot always assert control over women using old tactics. But they can mark women as always available for men’s sexual pleasure. They can reduce women’s sexuality—and therefore can reduce women—to a commodity that can be bought and sold. They can try to regain an experience of power lost in the public realm in a more private arena.
This analysis challenges the liberal/postmodern individualist story that says women’s rights are enhanced when a society allows them to choose sex work. Almost every word in that sentence should be in scare-quotes, to mark the libertarian illusions on which the argument depends. I’m not suggesting that no woman in the sexual-exploitation industries ever makes a real choice but am merely pointing out the complexity of those choices, which typically are made under conditions of considerable constraint and reduced opportunities. And whatever the motivation of any one woman, the validation and normalization of the sexual-exploitation industries continues to reduce women and girls to objectified female bodies available to men for sexual pleasure.
If we men really believe in the values most of us claim to hold—dignity, solidarity, and equality—that is reason enough to embrace radical feminism. That’s the argument from justice. Radical feminists have shown how the sexual-exploitation industries harm women, children, and vulnerable men used in the industry. But if men need additional motivation, do it not only for women and girls. Do it for yourself. Recognize an argument from self-interest.
Radical feminism is essential for any man who wants to move beyond “being a man” in patriarchy and seeks to live the values of dignity, solidarity, and equality as fully as possible (Jensen, 2019). Radical feminism’s critique of masculinity in patriarchy is often assumed to be a challenge to men’s self-esteem but just the opposite is true—it’s essential for men’s self-esteem.
Consider a claim that men sometimes make when asked if they have ever used a woman being prostituted. “I’ve never had to pay for it,” a man will say, implying that he is skilled enough in procuring sex from women that money is unnecessary. In other situations, a man might brag about having sex with a woman being prostituted, especially if that woman is seen as a high-class “call girl” or is somehow “exotic,” or if the exploitation of women takes place in a male-bonding activity such as a bachelor party.
All these responses are patriarchal, and all reveal men’s fear of vulnerability and hence of intimacy. That’s why pornography is so popular. It offers men quick-and-easy sexual pleasure with no risk, no need to be a real person in the presence of another real person who might see through the sad chest-puffing pretense of masculinity in patriarchy.
One of the most common questions I get after public presentations from women is “why do men like pornography?” We can put aside the inane explanations designed to avoid the feminist challenge, such as “Men are just more sexual than women” or “Men are more stimulated visually than women.” I think the real answer is more disturbing: In patriarchy, men are often so intensely socialized to run from the vulnerability that comes with intimacy that they find comfort in the illusory control over women that pornography offers. Pornography may give men a sense of power over women temporarily, but it does not provide what men—what all people—need, which is human connection. The pornographers play on men’s fears—not a fear of women so much as a fear of facing the fragility of our lives in patriarchy.
When we assert masculinity in patriarchy—when we desperately try to “be a man”—we are valuing dominance over mutuality, choosing empty pleasure over intimacy, seeking control to avoid vulnerability. When we assert masculinity in patriarchy, we make the world more dangerous for women and children, and in the process deny ourselves the chance to be fully human.
Jensen is the co-author, with Wes Jackson, of An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, which will be published in September 2022 by the University of Notre Dame Press. He is also the host of “Podcast from the Prairie” with Jackson.
Jensen is the author of The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas, 2021); The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (2017); Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (2015); Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (2001).
This article draws on The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (Jensen, 2017). Special thanks to Renate Klein and Susan Hawthorne of Spinifex Press. An edited version of this article was recorded for presentation at the online Canadian Sexual Exploitation Summit hosted by Defend Dignity, May 6-7, 2021. Dignity thanks the following people for their time and expertise to review this article: Lisa Thompson, Vice President of Research and Education, National Center on Sexual Exploitation, USA; and Andrea Heinz, exited woman and activist, Canada.
Jensen, Robert. (2021). Getting radical: Feminism, patriarchy, and the sexual-exploitation industries. Dignity: A Journal of Sexual Exploitation and Violence. Vol. 6, Issue 2, Article 6. https://doi.org/10.23860/dignity.2021.06.02.06
Available at http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dignity/vol6/iss2/6
Barry, Kathleen. (1995). The prostitution of sexuality. New York University Press.
Bennett, Judith M. (2009, March 29). “History matters: The grand finale.” The Adventures of Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar. http://girlscholar.blogspot.com/2009/03/history-matters-grand-finale-guest-post.html
Bennett, Judith M. (2006). History matters: Patriarchy and the challenge of feminism. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Combahee River Collective. (2000). The Combahee River Collective statement. In Barbara Smith (Ed.), Home girls: A black feminist anthology (pp. 264-274). Rutgers University Press.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. (1989). “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1, 139-167.
Dworkin, Andrea. (2002). Heartbreak: The political memoir of a feminist militant. Basic Books.
Dworkin, Andrea. (1979). Pornography: Men possessing women. Perigee.
Robert Jensen is a rare and important example of a man embracing radical feministm. As radical feminist organisation, DGR encourages men to step up against patriarchy (and this neither means to be a man-hater nor a sexual prude). As Robert Jensen states below, “Our goal is the end of patriarchy by challenging the patriarchal practices that do so much damage to so many of us.”
This certainly includes pornography.
Let’s start with the world according to pornographers:
Sex is natural. Pornography is just sex on film. Therefore, pornography is natural.
If you do not accept the obvious “logic” of that argument, you are a prude who is sex-negative.
But what about the intense misogyny in pornography?
You’re a prude.
But what about the explicit racism in pornography?
What about the physical and psychological injuries routinely suffered by women used in pornography?
You’re prudishly sex-negative.
What about the consequences of conditioning so many men’s arousal and experience of sexual pleasure to these sexist and racist images?
You’re sex-negatively prudish.
If your concerns about pornography flow from spirituality, you must be a religious nut.
If your concerns about pornography are based in feminism, you must be a man-hater.
Sadly, this is often how attempts to discuss the social problems flowing from the production and consumption of contemporary sexually explicit media play out—especially in conversations with liberal, progressive, and leftist men, and with some feminists who describe themselves as pro-porn or “sex positive.”
My goal is to mark those responses as diversions; focus on the content of pornography and its underlying ideology; examine why such material is so prevalent; and discuss why this matters for our attempts to create a truly sex-positive society that fosters meaningful autonomy for girls and women.
So, “pornographic distortions,” refers both to the ways in which pornography distorts human sexuality, and the way in which pornography’s defenders distort the views of critics. Let’s start with the latter.
For the record, I am not a religious nut nor a man-hater.
I am a secular progressive Christian. By that, I mean that I was raised in a predominantly Christian culture, and the narratives and ethics of Christianity remain relevant in my life, even though I don’t accept all Christian doctrines and I long ago rejected the supernatural claims associated with a conventional interpretation of the faith tradition (i.e., a virgin birth and resurrection as historical facts, the possibility of miracles, the existence of a divine entity). But those stories and moral frameworks have influenced how I see the world, in conversation with many other philosophical and political traditions that I find helpful. I see no reason to ignore this aspect of my life.
I work from a radical feminist analysis of patriarchy. By that, I mean that I recognize institutionalized male dominance as morally unjust and not only an impediment to women’s freedom but to social justice more generally (that’s feminism), and central to patriarchy are men’s attempts to own or control women’s reproductive power and sexuality (that’s radical feminism). I see no reason to be afraid of that analysis.
In more than three decades of work in the feminist anti-pornography movement and the larger struggle against men’s violence and exploitation of women, I have worked with a wide range of people motivated by religion and/or feminism. I have met many lovely people, from a variety of backgrounds and with a wide range of experiences, who reject the pornography industry’s cynical approach to human sexuality and are committed to challenging the routine abuse of women in the sexual-exploitation industries. I have yet to meet someone who is a prude or sex-negative. Such people exist, of course, but they aren’t a part of the movement I am part of. Most of us in the anti-pornography movement struggle to understand the complexity of sexuality, which is true of most people I meet. Some of us in the movement have sexual histories marked by trauma, which also makes us pretty “normal,” given how routine sexual violence is in patriarchal cultures. Our goal is the end of patriarchy by challenging the patriarchal practices that do so much damage to so many of us. We struggle to make a truly sex-positive culture possible.
That’s as much time as I am willing to spend trying to persuade people that I’m not crazy or hateful. Let’s move on to the more important task of understanding how and why the pornography industry offers such a destructive picture of human sexuality.
The pornography industry
Let’s start with terminology. I used the term “sexual-exploitation industries” to include prostitution, strip clubs, massage parlors, and escort services, along with pornography and other mediated forms of commercial sex. Applying a feminist analysis, all of these enterprises are ways that men buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure. Boys and vulnerable men are also exploited in these industries, but the majority of these businesses offer men the opportunity to buy women and girls.
Pornography is also a form of mass media. Applying a media analysis, we examine the production process, the stories being told, and audience reception. How is pornography made and who profits? What are the patterns and themes in pornographic images and stories? How do the consumers of pornography use the material in their lives and with what effects?
I’ll focus here on the content of pornography, but first let’s recognize the importance of understanding production and reception.
How is pornography made? Andrea Dworkin, the writer/activist so central to the feminist critique, always emphasized that what you see in pornography is not simulated sex. The sex acts being performed on a woman that appear to be uncomfortable or painful were done to a real woman. Did that woman choose that? In some sense yes, but under what conditions and with what other choices available? What constraints did she face in her life and what opportunities did she have? And whatever level of choice she made doesn’t change the nature of the injuries that women sustain. Before we even ask about women’s choices, we should focus on men: Why do men choose to use pornography that exploits women?
There are many different genres in pornography, but the bulk of the market is heterosexual sex marketed to heterosexual men, who use it as a masturbation facilitator. There is a long debate about the relationship of pornography use and sexual violence, a question with no simple answer. But, as advertisers have long observed, exposure to media messages can affect attitudes and attitudes shape behavior. We know that people, especially young people, are prone to imitating behaviors they see in mass media that are presented as fashionable or exciting. Consider the advice a university sex researcher offers to male students: “If you’re with somebody for the first time, don’t choke them, don’t ejaculate on their face, don’t try to have anal sex with them. These are all things that are just unlikely to go over well.” Why would such advice be necessary? Those acts are routine in pornography, and pornography is the de facto sex education for many boys and young men.
My focus here is on pornographic images, specifically those produced by the heterosexual pornography industry. We’ll use a simple definition for pornography: Graphic sexually explicit material that is designed to produce sexual arousal, with a focus on material produced for men, who are the majority of the consumers. While women’s use of pornography has increased in recent years, the industry still produces material that reflects the male sexual imagination in patriarchy.
A bit of history is useful in understanding these images. The pornography industry operated largely underground until the 1960s and ‘70s, when it began being more accepted in mainstream society. That led to a sharp increase in the amount of pornography produced, a trend that expanded dramatically with new media technologies, such as VCRs, DVDs, and the internet.
The industry’s desire to increase profits drove the development of new products, in this case a wider variety of sexual acts in pornographic films. The standard sexual script in pornography — little or no foreplay, oral sex (primarily performed by women on men), vaginal intercourse, and occasionally anal intercourse — expanded to keep viewers from becoming satiated and drifting away. In capitalism, competition for market share produces “innovation,” though more often than not innovation means a slightly different version of products we didn’t need in the first place. In that sense, pornography is a quintessentially capitalist business.
The first of those changes was the more routine presentation of men penetrating women anally, in increasingly rough fashion. Why anal? One longtime pornography producer whom I interviewed at an industry trade show explained it to me in explicit language, which I’ll paraphrase. Men know that most women don’t want anal sex, he said. So, when men get angry at their wives and girlfriends, they think to themselves, “I’d like to fuck her in the ass.” Because they can’t necessarily do that in real life, he said, they love it in pornography.
That man didn’t realize he was articulating, in his own crude fashion, a radical feminist critique: pornography is not just sex on film but rather sex in the context of male domination and female subordination, the central dynamic of patriarchy. The sexual experience in pornography is made more intense with sex acts that men find pleasurable but women may not want.
Where did the industry go from there? As pornographers sought to expand market share and profit, they continued to innovate. Here are several pornographic sex practices — acts that are typically not part of most people’s real-world sex lives but are common in pornography — that followed the normalizing of anal sex:
double penetration (two men penetrating a woman vaginally and anally at the same time);
double vag (two men penetrating a woman vaginally at the same time);
double anal (two men penetrating a woman anally at the same time);
gagging (oral penetration of a woman so aggressive that it makes her gag);
choking (men forcefully grasping a woman’s throat during intercourse, sometimes choking the woman); and
ATM (industry slang for ass-to-mouth, when a man removes his penis from the anus of a woman and, without visible cleaning, inserts his penis into her mouth or the mouth of another woman).
Other routine acts in pornography include slapping and spitting on women, pulling women’s hair, and ejaculating on women’s bodies (long called “the money shot”), especially on their faces (what has come to be called a “facial”).
Even pornographers acknowledge that they can’t imagine what comes after all this. One industry veteran told me that everything that could be done to a woman’s body had been filmed. “After all, how many dicks can you stick in a girl at one time?” he said. A director I interviewed echoed that, wondering “Where can it go besides [multiple penetrations]? Every hole is filled.” Another director worried that pornography was going too far and that porn sex increasingly resembled “circus acts.” “The thing about it is,” he told me, “there’s only but so many holes, only but so many different types of penetration that can be executed upon a woman.”
One pornographic genre that explores other forms of degradation is called “interracial,” which has expanded in the past two decades. Films in this category can feature any combination of racial groups, but virtually all employ racist stereotypes (the hot-blooded Latina, sexually animalistic black women, demure Asian “geishas” who live to serve white men, immigrant women who are easily exploited) and racist language (I’ll spare you examples of that). One of the most common interracial scenes is a white woman being penetrated by one or more black men, who are presented as being rougher and more aggressive, drawing on the racist stereotype of black men as a threat to the purity of white women, while at the same time revealing the white woman to be nothing but a slut who seeks such defilement. This racism would be denounced in any other mass media form but continues in pornography with little or no objection from most progressives.
Finally, in recent years there has been an increase in what my friend Gail Dines calls “pseudo-child pornography.” Sexually explicit material using minors is illegal and is vigorously prosecuted, and so mainstream pornography stays away from actual child pornography. But the industry uses young-looking adult women in childlike settings (the classic image is a petite woman, almost always white, in a girls’ school uniform) to create the impression that an adult man can have the high school cheerleader of his fantasy. Another popular version features stepfathers having sex with a teenage stepdaughters. This material is not marketed specifically to pedophiles but is part of the mainstream pornography market for “ordinary” guys.
Dines’ summary of contemporary pornography captures these trends: “Today’s mainstream Internet porn is brutal and cruel, with body-punishing sex acts that debase and dehumanize women.”
Radical feminist critique
For those familiar with the radical feminist critique of pornography, these trends are not surprising. If the pornography is not just the presentation of explicit sex but rather sex in the patriarchal domination/subordination dynamic, then pornographers will find it profitable to sexualize any and all forms of inequality.
This analysis, developed within the larger feminist project of challenging men’s violence against women, was first articulated clearly by Andrea Dworkin, who identified what we can call the elements of the pornographic:
Objectification: when “a human being, through social means, is made less than human, turned into a thing or commodity, bought and sold.”
Hierarchy: “a group on top (men) and a group on the bottom (women).”
Submission: when acts of obedience and compliance become necessary for survival, members of oppressed groups learn to anticipate the orders and desires of those who have power over them, and their compliance is then used by the dominant group to justify its dominance.
Violence: “systematic, endemic enough to be unremarkable and normative, usually taken as an implicit right of the one committing the violence.”
Although there is variation in the thousands of commercial pornographic films produced over the years, the main themes have remained consistent: (1) All women always want sex from men; (2) women like all the sexual acts that men perform or demand, and; (3) any woman who resists can be aroused by force, which is rarely necessary because most of the women in pornography are the “nymphomaniacs” of men’s fantasies. While both men and women are portrayed as hypersexual, men typically are the sexual subjects, who control the action and dictate the terms of the sex. Women are the sexual objects fulfilling male desire.
The radical feminist critique demonstrates not only that almost all sexually explicit material is pornographic, in the sense of reflecting and reinforcing patriarchy’s domination/subordination dynamic, but that pop culture is increasingly pornified. Pornography is a specific genre, but those elements of the pornographic also are present in other media, including Hollywood movies, television shows, video games, and advertising.
Let’s ask a simple question the pornographers would prefer we ignore: What kind of intimacy is possible in a pornographic world? I don’t mean just in pornography, but in a world in which this kind of pornography is widely used and widely accepted. Let’s go back to the connection between media use and behavior, which is complex. Does repeated exposure to advertising lead us to buy products we would not otherwise buy? Do violent scenes in movies or video games lead to increased rates of violence in people with a predisposition for violence? Definitive judgments are difficult, but we know that stories have the power to shape attitudes and attitudes effect behavior. We know that orgasm is a powerful reinforcer. We have plenty of reasons to be concerned about how the sexist and racist messages in pornography might influence the attitudes and behavior of pornography consumers. And we have plenty of reasons to be concerned about how the normalizing of pornographic images throughout the culture might shape how we all relate to our own bodies and understand sexuality in ways we aren’t aware of.
That all seems obvious, but industry defenders continue to assert that pornography is just fantasy and we shouldn’t police people’s fantasies. They want us to believe that in this one realm of human life — the use of sexually explicit media as a masturbation facilitator, primarily for men — people are unaffected by the power of stories and images. Even if that implausible claim were true, we still should ask, why are these particular fantasies so popular? When pornographers entered the mainstream and faced fewer restrictions, why did they create so many fantasies around male domination and female subordination? Why did they sexualize racist fantasies? Why did they encourage adult men to fantasize about having sex with teenagers? Why are pornography’s fantasies so routinely cruel and degrading to women?
There isn’t a neat and clean separation of our imaginations and our actions, between what goes on in our heads and what we do in the world. Even if we don’t know exactly how mass-mediated stories and images — what the pornographers and their supporters want to label as “just fantasy” — affect attitudes and behavior, we have reasons to be concerned about contemporary pornography.
And following Andrea Dworkin, let’s also not forget the women used in pornography. For men to masturbate to a double-anal scene, a woman must be penetrated anally by two men at the same time. Do we care about that woman? Do we care about what ideas those men carry around in their head? Think back to the advice the sex educator gives to young men, counseling them to stop behaving the way that pornography taught them to behave. Do we care about the female partners of those men?
These are not problems of a few individuals. I’ve talked to many young women who have told me that when they were in middle school and high school, they conformed to boys’ pornographic notions of sex without realizing what was happening to them. Some of those same women have told me that they would prefer to date men who don’t use pornography but they’ve given up because such men are so hard to find. I’ve talked to many adult women who don’t want to ask their boyfriends or husbands whether they use pornography, or inquire about what kind of pornography they might use, because they are afraid of the answer. I’ve talked to gay men who say that some of the same problems exist in their community.
I’ve talked to a lot of men who defend their pornography use and are unwilling to stop. But in recent years I’ve talked with more men who realize the negative effects of using this pornography but find it hard to stop. They report compulsive, addictive-like use of pornography, sometimes to the point of being unable to function sexually with a partner. These men feel profoundly alienated from themselves, from their own bodies.
Heat and light
The radical feminist critique of the misogyny and racism in pornography isn’t about denying humans’ sexual nature. It is not about imposing a single set of sexual norms on everyone. It’s not about hatred of men. The critique of the domination/subordination dynamic in pornography is about the struggle to transcend the patriarchal sexuality of contemporary culture in search of a sexuality that connects people rather than alienates us from each other and from our own bodies.
I have no simple prescriptions for how to move forward, though I see no way forward without a radical feminist critique. We struggle for intimacy, for connection, for something that feels more authentic than the pornographic script. We can start by recognizing how we have all been socialized, whether through traditional religion or secular society or both, into patriarchal values. That’s bound to be painful — for men when we realize we’ve been trained to dominate sexually, and for women when they realize they have been trained to accept sexual subordination.
I will end with an idea I first articulated 25 years ago and continue to ponder. A common way people talk about sex in the dominant culture is in terms of heat: She’s hot, he’s a hottie, we had hot sex. In a world obsessed with hotness, we focus on appearances and technique — whether someone looks the way we are socialized to believe attractive people should look, and the mechanics of sex acts. We hope that the right look and the right moves will produce heat. Sex is all bump-and-grind — the friction produces the heat, and the heat makes the sex good.
But we should remember a phrase commonly used to describe an argument that is intense but which doesn’t really advance our understanding—we say that such an argument “produced more heat than light.”
Heat is part of life, but what if in our sexual activity, our search for intimacy and connection, we obsessed less about heat and thought more about light? What if instead of desperately seeking hot sex, we searched for a way to produce light when we touch? What if that touch could be about finding a way to generate light between people so that we could see ourselves and each other better?
If the goal is knowing ourselves and each other like that, then what we need is not really heat but light to illuminate the path. How do we touch and talk to each other to shine that light? I am hesitant to suggest strategies; there isn’t a recipe book for that, no list of sexual positions to work through so that we may reach sexual bliss. There is only the ongoing quest to touch and be touched, to be truly alive. James Baldwin, as he so often did, got to the heart of this in a comment that is often quoted and a good place to conclude:
“I think the inability to love is the central problem, because the inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And, if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And, if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive.”
Robert Jensen is Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He collaborates with the Ecosphere Studies program at The Land Institute in Salina, KS. Jensen is the author of The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability; The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men; Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully; Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue; All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice; Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity; The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege; Citizens of the Empire:The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity; and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.
Jensen is host of “Podcast from the Prairie” with Wes Jackson and associate producer of the forthcoming documentary film Prairie Prophecy: The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson.
In response to the murder of Sarah Everard, here in the UK, women and men have risen up and protested in support of women’s right to be safe. The peaceful public protests have instigated further violence against women under the guise of pandemic restrictions.
This is one DGR member’s response to the discussions about the level of violence against women and girls and the root causes. We need more men to speak out against patriarchy.
“Your silence will not protect you” Audre Lorde
Most of the women I know, intelligent woman all, are not as afraid as they should be. You can see how high the wall of patriarchy is as you look up at it. I can see from my perch up here also how thick the wall is and how many men are behind it, holding it up.
Men like me, every man, is dripping in entitlement. If you do not learn it in the family, they teach it at school. If school does not programme a boy then our culture will drown them in it. We are all swimming, all the time, in patriarchy. It is everywhere.
It works like a steroid for men and a poison for women. Sure, not all men react violently when on steroids but everything I do is based on my privileged position. My privilege is entirely normalized within society and entirely rationalized within me. Every man in Western culture is privileged and entitled due to patriarchy.
Can we dismantle patriarchy?
I am familiar with the argument that societies contain just the odd bad man; I disagree with this over simplified assertion. My view is that patriarchy is an offshoot of the ability to accumulate wealth and thus create perpetuating systems of oppression. The first systemic accumulation of wealth was the seizing and guarding of food grown in agriculture. Agriculture further has the effect of forcing us to learn to objectify living things (soil,nature, women) to keep our self-belief, our ‘right’ to take. Agriculture had the direct effect of causing violence in the pursuit of resources.
Of relevance, to this argument is the ‘abduction of a Sabine Woman’. Women were needed, viewed as a resource, and taken by those blue printers of modern society, the Romans. Forget that liberal Harari and his “I don’t know why women are oppressed”. Women have a value to conquering armies, not as fellow humans but as bounty of the conquerors. The rest follows a direct causal path. So, it is possible that patriarchy is not going anywhere whilst capitalism is here and objectification is the norm.
Can men do something, anything to improve the current situation?
Yes, of course. For all the reasons women state, for all the reasons women are protesting for. The law is on the side of men and we know that law shapes power. If it was a crime, with a significant consequence, for men to harass women in the street, if it was an aggravated offence after 8pm, then violence against women and girls would reduce. If the porn industry was recognised as harmful and measures put in place to curtail it then male entitlement might lessen women and girls may not be groomed, exploited, or damaged as much. If it was a serious crime for men to purchase women’s bodies then men would do it less and the support systems such as trafficking would be less profitable and therefore smaller.
I apologise for the terrible metaphor, but you must score when you are in the opponent’s penalty box. When was the last time that this issue was so central in the mainstream media? When will it be again? In the UK we could get something into law on this wave of interest. There will be a backlash. Men are lying low at the moment, but they will be back with a vengeance. I can imagine a male plain-clothed policeman patrolling a nightclub being interviewed for the Daily Mail and explaining how all the women dressed and danced in a provocative manner – the implication being … well you, women already know. You have been here before, fought before, hard won rights.
Do we have someone to rally behind?
Those in power throughout the ages, religion, political parties, the media, woke campaign groups have done a remarkable job of dividing women, turning them onto themselves on a personal level and fuelling horizontal violence at a structural level. The ruling classes are effective when oppressing dissenting voices.
The male driven denial of women’s rights, enforced at every turn by violence, is causal and symptomatic of an overwhelming amount of personal suffering and the unrelenting cycle of biome degradation.
This was written by a man, father and guardian in DGR.
Featured image: Abduction of a Sabine Woman (or Rape of the Sabine Women), a large and complex marble statue by the Flemish sculptor and architect Giambologna. Photograph by Mary Harrsch, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Editor’s note: That this incident from Roman mythology, in which the men of Rome committed a mass abduction and rape of young women from the other cities in the region has been a frequent subject of artists and sculptors, shows clearly how obsessed this patriarchal culture is with rape and violence against women.
In Part Two of a two part article Jocelyn Crawley offers the reader a history and systemic analysis of the harms towards women. Part one has been published the day before.
One might hope that the patriarchal process of calling women who resist the sexual abuse and all other ideological inclinations of men would be a historical reality that lost traction and prevalence through time. However, this phallic phenomenon is an integral aspect of contemporary, mainstream (malestream) culture. In the chilling report “Booted: Lack of Recourse for Wrongfully Discharged US Military Rape Survivors,” readers learn that Juliet Simmons was drugged and raped in August 2007. The assault took place in her US Air Force barracks and she reported the abuse. However, her first sergeant made it plain that he did not believe her. Despite the fact that she continued completing her job-related responsibilities and received exceptional performance evaluations, she was discharged for having a “Personality Disorder not specified” after being sent to an appointment with an Air Force mental health provider.
As the report goes on to indicate, classifying women who resist sexual advances as mentally unstable is not an anomalous element of the military. In fact, the report documents the experiences of several other women who experienced similar modes of silencing and dismissal via the patriarchal mantra-modality “woman you are insane.” Like Simmons, Quinn was subjected to this patriarchal reversal in which the insanity of men is made to appear sane so that the perpetrator of a sex crime is recognized as innocent and rational while the victim is irrevocably depraved and maniacal. After joining the Navy in 2002, Quinn thrived and received awards but found that her vocational vitality was threatened after she rejected her master chief’s advances. Once this happened, she was informed that the master chief was waiting for her to commit a “mistake” so that he would be able to have her removed from “his” Navy.
Following these events, Quinn was raped by a Navy technician and did not report the abuse due to concerns regarding the fact that she had already been classified as a troublemaker. After suffering more abuse from shipmates who set her body on fire with a lighter, she was moved to another unit. While there, a first class petty officer groped her breast and verbally harassed her. Her transfer request was refused and she was then forced to complete a night shift with him. She refused to do so and was ordered to spend six to eight hours daily standing at attention. Shortly thereafter, she was discharged from the unit on grounds of her having a “Personality Disorder.” In addition to reflecting patriarchal society’s proclivity to dismiss and disempower women who resist sexual violence by asserting that they are mentally unstable, these real-life occurrences reveal the role that this phallic practice plays in destabilizing a woman’s job security (which in turn could increase her economic reliance on a man.)
I construe this reality as a patriarchal reversal.
In her own work, Mary Daly talks about patriarchal reversals as men reconstructing reality in a manner which privileges them as innately valuable and superior to women. Within the realm of patriarchal reversals, male actions and attitudes are unquestionably right and any thought or behavioral pattern of women is immediately and incontrovertibly dubious. One of the most prevalent patriarchal reversals is that Eve came out of Adam’s rib, with this myth being utilized to promote the ideas that 1. men are the origin of life and creation and 2. “God,” like the male Adam, is male. In context of patriarchal reversals pertaining to mental health, the notion that women are less mentally stable than men works to perpetuate the myth that they are somehow more competent, logical, and therefore the ideal sex to “rule the planet.”
In her important article “Women Aren’t Crazy,” Jennifer Wright explains the role that portraying women as crazy plays in privileging men and creating environments through which members of the male sex can subordinate women. In her text, Wright notes that
“The notion that women who are not compliant are insane is one that’s been used to silence women for generations. One of the most remarkable things about the Harvey Weinstein scandal is realizing how many women would have been so easy to dismiss as crazy if they’d ever come forward before now.”
Wright goes on to elucidate this principle by articulating how absurd victims such as Rose McGowan would have sounded to most individuals upon stating that Weinstein had hired former Mossad agents to extract information from her and stifle forthcoming data regarding his behavior. Yet evidence exists that this is the course of action that Weinstein took for the purpose of suppressing information regarding his sexual depravity and abuse of women.
As made glaringly evident by the role that accusing women who challenge the patriarchal praxis of sexual abuse as being insane plays in structuring historical and contemporary society, this androcentric practice is designed to discredit members of the female sex who are not willing to passively accept malignant male activity. In discussing this in his piece “Women and Madness in Tudor and Stuart England,” MacDonald writes that
“The authorities define insanity so that it invalidates the protests of its victims and use mental institutions as repositories for malcontents and rebels. The feminist model is essentially a variant of the neo-Marxist one: instead of paupers, the casualties of bourgeois capitalism, the victims of psychiatry are women, the targets of repressive patriarchy” (261).
MacDonald’s assessments are accurate and they reveal the role that accusing women of being insane plays in perpetuating the patriarchy. If dissidents (here defined as any individual who adamantly and unequivocally rejects and challenges patriarchal praxes such as sexual violence) run the risk of losing social power and cultural capital because they are characterized as insane for speaking to power, they are much less likely to express dissent and create the palpable dissonance necessary to inform the general public that something is disturbingly and dehumanizingly wrong.
When a woman’s voice is invalidated due to gaslighting and cultural consensus that her accusations amount to insanity, the male perpetrator of the crime is empowered to continue victimizing other members of the female sex who may also feel intimidated into silence on grounds that they will not be believed. As usual, the patriarchy-not women-is the problem.
The solution is to listen to women and review the empirical data that painstakingly elucidates the pernicious, patriarchal processes that men utilize to perpetuate the oppression of members of the female sex.
Jocelyn Crawley is a radical feminist who resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Her intense antagonism towards all forms of social injustice-including white supremacy-grows with each passing day. Her primary goal for 2020 is to connect with other radicals for the purpose of building community and organizing against oppression.
Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Pantheon, 1985). quoted in Macdonald, Michael. “Women and Madness in Tudor and Stuart England.” Social Research, vol. 53, no. 2, 1986, pp. 261–281. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40970416. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.