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Interview With Porn Scholar, Part 2: Business and Culture

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There has been precious little critical debate or dialogue about pornography in mainstream media, which is quite striking when you consider what a ubiquitous and influential cultural phenomenon it is. Feminist perspectives critical of the pornography industry rarely get any air time in the corporate media, much less a thoughtful hearing. They are often dismissed as the products of anti-sex prudery, on the Orwellian premise that to critique a predatory industry that mass produces sexualized misogyny in the guise of formulaic sex somehow serves to block sexual liberation or, even more laughably, to stifle women's empowerment.

One obvious reason for the corporate censorship of critical dialogue about porn is that it is a hugely profitable industry from which many major media corporations derive great profits. Why give an intellectually serious platform to critiques that would present the industry in a less-than-flattering (to say the least) light?

Into this void steps the sociologist and porn scholar, Gail Dines, whose new book, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, was recently released by Beacon Press. Pornland is sparking a badly needed and long-overdue national and international conversation about pornography that goes beyond the traditional "pro-sex" vs. "anti-sex" superficiality that has long passed for serious debate on this subject.

I interviewed Dines (blogger's note: she is a friend and colleague) about the business of porn, as well as some of its cultural impacts. This is Part 2 of the interview; Part 1 centered around the Tiger Woods sex scandal and the role of porn in male sexual socialization.

JK: Your media scholarship comes out of a cultural studies tradition that examines the role of mass media along the communication "chain" from production to consumption. By any reasonable assessment, pornography is a huge and highly influential area of media. Media studies is a vast and growing field, yet until now, there has been relatively little scholarship on pornography that looks closely at how it is produced, who consumes it, and how it shapes and is shaped by the larger media culture. Why has there been so little in-depth study of pornography, and what do you see as Pornland's most important contribution to media studies?

GD: Pornland represents an attempt to apply the powerful insights of cultural studies to porn. Rather than rehashing the old argument of "does porn cause rape," it delves into the more nuanced and subtle ways the porn industry shapes and limits our sexual imaginations and creativity as both individuals and in the culture as a whole.

There has been a lot of scholarship on porn, but much of it ignores porn as an industry and instead focuses on just the images, as if they are produced within a social and economic vacuum. I think one of the reasons for this is that those working within a cultural studies paradigm have not taken porn seriously as a media form that is a major producer of messages, ideas, and stories about sex.

As someone who studies media, I bring the same lens to porn as I would, say, to advertising. This means that we need to ask questions not only about who owns and controls porn production, but also how the images are understood by consumers. It seems to me that if you don't ask these questions, then you are ignoring the cultural and economic foundations of porn and are instead just seeing it as a collection of images that are disconnected from a wider context. To research porn without exploring its links to capitalism and sexism is like looking at advertising and forgetting to mention consumerism.

JK: Throughout Pornland, you refer to the "porn industry," and you analyze it as such. You pay particular attention to questions about who owns and profits from it, and how decision-making in the industry has nothing to do with advancing sexual freedom or any of the other fanciful notions that some of its naïve defenders advance, but are all about the bottom line. The first chapter of the book is entitled "Porn and the Industrialization of Sex." Can you explain what that means?

GD: When I talk about the industrialization of sex, I am referring to the way the porn companies commodify and corporatize a real human need and desire. What is often ignored in many of the discussions on porn is the way it is a business. Once we examine just how porn functions within the capitalist world, it becomes clear that the pornographers are not out for our sexual liberation and empowerment, but rather to make money. This strips it of its veneer of fun and fantasy and reveals it to be a predatory industry.

This was stated eloquently by Andrew Edmond, President and CEO of Flying Crocodile, a $20 million pornography Internet business, when he told Brandweek that "a lot of people [outside adult entertainment], get distracted from the business model by [the sex]. It is just as sophisticated and multilayered as any other market place. We operate just like any Fortune 500 company."

Indeed they do. Porn engages in the normal business activities that other industries pursue. Porn businesses raise capital, hire managers and accountants, undergo mergers and acquisitions, organize trade shows, and enter into co-marketing arrangements with other companies. While these activities are in themselves unremarkably normal business operations, they signal that porn is becoming a mainstream business -- a legitimate business, being taken more seriously by Wall Street, the media, and the political establishment.

The porn business is embedded in a complex value chain, linking not just film producers and distributors, but also bankers, software producers, internet providers, cable companies and hotel chains. These other businesses become allies and collaborators, with a vested interest in the growth and continued viability of the porn business. This is one reason why you don't see much critique of the porn industry in mainstream media.

JK: Can you give some examples of the economic connections between the porn industry and mainstream media corporations?

GD: Let's take as an example the cable television business. According to an article on XBIZ, a business website for the porn industry, the big distributors of porn are Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Comcast -- the latter being the largest cable TV providers in the US (Comcast also owns E! Entertainment, a cable station that often carries porn-friendly documentaries, including a recent one on Jenna Jameson that glossed over the harms done to women in the porn industry).

Pornography is also distributed via satellite TV, with one of the biggest companies, DirecTV, offering Playboy's Spice Network and LFP Broadcasting's Hustler TV. DirecTV was owned for a time by General Motors, so for a while GM was selling more porn than Larry Flynt.

Between 2003 and 2006, the owner of DirecTV was Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Murdoch owns the Fox Television Network, Twentieth Century Fox, New York Post, the LA Dodgers, and TV Guide, to name just a few. Murdoch at that time also owned the second largest satellite provider, EchoStar Communications Corporation, which, according to the New York Times, made more money selling hardcore pornography films through its satellite subsidiary than all of Playboy's holdings combined .

An example of synergy here is that Murdoch also owns Harper Collins, the company that published Jenna Jameson's best-selling book How To Make Love Like A Porn Star. In 2006, the Liberty Media group took control of DirecTV, and up until February 2010, they also had part ownership in Sirius radio. Sirius carries the Howard Stern Show, which promotes the porn industry by regularly inviting porn stars on the show.

JK: We'd better define some terms, because as the internet chatter about your book confirms, there is often great confusion about what constitutes porn -- even in debates between feminists, as well as among other progressives. In Pornland, you focus on the mainstream and dominant force in the industry, gonzo, which is marketed exclusively to heterosexual men and boys and is incredibly brutal and misogynistic. Can you speak to these definitional confusions, and explain the difference between porn features and gonzo porn?

GD: When I first started researching porn twenty years ago, cruel and violent images were somewhat marginalized as a niche market. Today's mainstream internet porn, called "gonzo," looks nothing like yesterday's porn with its body punishing sex that includes anything from gagging women with a penis to brutal anal sex. While this is not the only porn found on the internet, it is, as Adult Video News, the industry trade paper says, the "overwhelmingly dominant porn genre..." It is marketed almost exclusively to men. Feature porn is that which attempts on some level to mimic Hollywood movies with a story line and more up-market production skills. According to AVN, men use features when they are with women, but when alone go straight to gonzo.

I am often asked about women-produced porn, and while there is indeed a market for this, it is totally overwhelmed by the gonzo market. And before we celebrate women-produced porn we should take notice of a study conducted by Chyng Sun and her colleagues that was published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2008. They looked at 122 scenes from 44 top-renting porn movies in 2005 to see if content of videos directed by women differed from those directed by men. They found that there was almost no difference in the level of verbal or physical aggression and that in both cases, women were the primary targets of aggression.

I think that those who support the porn industry should take a walk through the internet porn landscape and then explain how a woman being choked with a penis as she is being called a dirty whore is going to facilitate a move to a more equal and just society for women.

JK: The business and ethics of pornography became a minor issue in the last presidential cycle, and may surface against next time. Conservative businessman Mitt Romney, one of the frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, has close ties to Marriott Hotels, where he served on the board. Marriott makes enormous profits from pornography. Do you know Romney's position on Marriot's corporate decision to continue profiting from porn?

GD: Mitt Romney had been on the board of Marriott hotels from 1992-2001 and was criticized for not pushing the hotel chain to stop selling porn. Romney tried to distance himself from the Marriott during his bid to become the Republican candidate, but after he lost, he quietly rejoined the Marriott board.

Porn has been a major source of revenue for hotels, with companies such as Holiday Inn, Hilton, Sheraton, Radisson and Hyatt chains, as well as the Marriott. In 2007, an article on XBIZ put the annual revenues from hotel porn to be more that $500 million. Alex Henderson, the article's author points out that hotel porn not only makes money for the hotels, but also for the companies that supply it which include mega giants such as LodgeNet and On-Command.

JK: You have described the porn industry as a classical capitalist enterprise, and you have meticulously detailed the industry's predatory practices. Yet progressive critics of corporate excess have largely been silent about the pornography industry. Even progressives who are concerned about the immense ideological power of corporate media rarely mention or criticize the porn industry. Why the double-standard, where porn is somehow exempt from the critical scrutiny applied to all other corporate media?

GD: Progressives have, for good reason, singled out the importance of mass media as a major form of (mis)education. A few huge multinational corporations dominate the market and use their economic and political power to deliver messages that sell a particular world view that promotes consumerism, inequality, small government and tax cuts for business and the wealthy. But many of these same progressives argue against the view that porn has an effect on men in the real world. Instead, they call anti-porn feminists unsophisticated thinkers who don't appreciate how images can be playful and open to numerous interpretations. We are in a strange place where the same people who understand that mass media has the power to shape, influence, and seduce viewers, simultaneously deny that porn has any impact on its consumers.

Consider how many of us in media studies accept that Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, to name a few, construct a fantasy world totally at odds with reality. We wouldn't dismiss the effects of right-wing media by saying that their fantastical messages won't leak into the real world of local, national, and global politics. We understand that such a relentless barrage of rhetoric and imagery is going to affect society in ways that undermine progressive politics, because these messages mold the attitudes of the audience, albeit in sometimes subtle and complex ways.

Why do many of these same progressives hold pornography to a different standard of proof? They argue that unless we can point to a specific set of images that turned a specific man into a rapist, there is no evidence to assume that porn has any effect. No anti-porn feminist I know has suggested that there is one image, or even a few, that could lead a non-rapist to rape, but rather that taken together, pornographic images create a world that is at best, inhospitable to women, and at worst, dangerous to their physical and emotional well-being. If we replace the "does porn cause rape" question, with more nuanced questions that ask how porn messages shape our reality and our culture, we avoid falling into the images-lead-to-rape discussion.

In the same way, we understand that viewing a few racist images doesn't make people racist, but a culture infused with racist imagery and messages certainly does. This reformulation highlights the ways that the stories in pornography, in their consistency and resonance with broader sexist themes in our culture, create a world view which users absorb into their gender and sexual identities.

JK: Advocates of "free-speech" often repeat the mantra that the best response to bad speech is more and better speech, not the suppression of the bad stuff. Yet critical feminist analysis of pornography is rarely allowed any airtime in mainstream media. As a long-time leading scholar of pornography who has been delivering lectures about porn to standing-room only audiences on college campuses across the country for the past twenty years, can you share some of your experiences appearing on TV or radio?

GD: When we talk about censorship in this country, the focus is usually on government rather than corporations. Now of course state censorship can be a serious issue, but in a capitalist society, it is the media corporations that control speech. This has been well documented by writers such as Robert McChesney, Ben Bagdikian and Noam Chomsky, and yet there seems to be little recognition of this on the part of those who accuse anti-porn feminists of censorship.

If you want to talk censorship, then look at how anti-porn feminists have been either ignored or caricatured in mainstream media. We are regularly ridiculed as anti-sex man haters, and rarely get media time to present our position. Instead, those who oppose us get to speak for us, and our ideas are rendered invisible by the onslaught of pro-porn propaganda.

The most blatant example I can give you of corporate censorship that I experienced is the time I was on the Rita Cosby Show in 2005 (MSNBC). Cosby began the show by saying:
Tonight, we're going to take you into the epicenter of the multibillion-dollar porn industry that is booming in the digital age in ways that you may not even know... We want to emphasize tonight that, like any industry, there are good and bad elements. We're not passing judgment on the merits of porn tonight...

The stage was set for a "non-judgmental" show that, in the end, turned out to be an hour's advertisement for the porn industry. With no attempt to explore the range of genres in porn, Cosby focused only on the feature side, and for the first 50 minutes most of the people she interviewed were connected to Vivid, one of the largest porn feature companies in the world. I appeared in the last 10 minutes, but was quickly silenced when I said that the show presented a distorted image of the porn industry. On this, the porn industry agreed with me, a rare event I might add. Adult Video News wrote the following commentary:

It was called "Rita Cosby: Live & Direct," but on Wednesday evening, the more appropriate title would have been "The Vivid Show." The company was described during the telecast as "the largest adult film company in the world." Until the last 10 minutes, every guest was either a Vivid owner, a Vivid employee or a Vivid contractor, and nearly every location shot was on a Vivid set, or featured a Vivid contract girl doing a Web-cam show. What can we say but, "Kudos to Vivid's publicity department!
Kudos indeed!

JK: You document the increasing cruelty of mainstream porn. People who have not been exposed to porn over the past ten or fifteen years would be shocked by the incredible callousness of men's mistreatment of women in gonzo porn, for example men calling women "filthy cunts" and "cum-guzzling whores" as they penetrate them in every imaginable way with rarely any consideration for the potential damage being done to the woman's body, much less for her pleasure or right to any shred of human dignity. You also document the sexual sadism that has made its way from the margin to the center of porn culture. Can you speak to this?

GD: A central and recurring theme in gonzo porn -- remember, this is the overwhelmingly dominant genre in the industry - is the eroticized degradation of women. That fans like to see the woman degraded is apparent when you look at the porn discussion board, Adult DVD Talk. One of the threads, called Dirty A2M, has posting after posting of fans' favorite scenes that show a woman with fecal matter on her face. One fan describes how "Paris" has fecal matter smeared across her chin and lips, and calls this the "closest thing to a moment of Zen you can ever get in porn... " Another fan tells his virtual buddies about a scene where "Rocco fucks in this scene 8 girls in her ass, so his cock must have a very special smell at the end :-)." He ends by saying "I love dirty anal so much."

The titles of movies and websites say it all: Anally Ripped Whores, Gag Me then Fuck Me, Fuck the Babysitter, Cum Swapping Cheerleader, Gag on My Gag, First Time with Daddy, Brutal Blow Jobs and so on. If you go on Gagfactor.com, you see a 20 second clip of a scene with a young woman they call "Scarlett." To give you a sense of the content of today's porn, I will describe the clip. "Scarlett" is blonde, dressed in Victoria Secret's type underwear and looks resigned to having a vise-like contraption digging into her neck and head. The 20-second clip opens with Scarlett sitting on a toilet having a penis thrust down her throat while the man attached to the penis pulls her head back and forward using the handles on the vise. He drags her off the toilet onto her knees. You watch Scarlett from above begin to gag, eyes bulging, and as she tries to pull away to breathe, the man pulls the vise toward his penis with greater force so she can't move.

On one site advertising the movie Anally Ripped Whores, the text reads:

"We at Pure Filth know exactly what you want and we're giving it to you. Chicks being ass fucked till their sphincters are pink, puffy and totally blown out. Adult diapers just might be in store for these whores when their work is done."

Why do users want to see such images? One of the main reasons is that men are increasingly becoming bored and desensitized and need more degradation and cruelty to stay aroused. Porn director Jules Jordan, who is known for a particularly violent brand of porn, said that even he is "always trying to figure out ways to do something different" since the fans "are becoming a lot more demanding about wanting to see the more extreme stuff." So one of the big questions pornographers have to grapple with today is how to keep increasing their revenues in an already glutted market, where consumers are becoming increasingly desensitized to their products. The answer, of course, is to try and find some new, more bizarre, more painful sex act that pushes women to their physical limits.

JK: Mel Gibson was recently caught on tape in a tirade against his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva. The audiotape has been replayed repeatedly on cable TV, and discussed throughout celebrity media culture. Among other misogynist and racist statements, Gibson angrily told Grigorieva that, because of the way she was dressed, if she is "raped by a pack of n***ers" "it will be (your) fault." Many people are horrified at this new low for the Oscar-winning actor, director and producer. Still, I think some people would be surprised that after decades of anti-racist struggle and civil rights gains, aggressive racist misogyny a la Mel Gibson is alive and well in contemporary porn. In Pornland you offer an explanation of why so many white men enjoy masturbating to caricatured depictions of big, strong African American men verbally abusing and roughly penetrating petite white women.

GD: Mel Gibson was picking up on a long-held stereotype of black men as rapists. This image continues to circulate in mainstream media but over the years, thanks in a large part to the civil rights movement, blatant examples of racism have become less acceptable. This does not mean that racist depictions are a thing of the past, just that the media industry has to operate with some restraint since we have, as a society, made some surface attempt at reigning in the most vulgar and crass demonstrations of racism. Not so for the porn industry, which gets away with a level of racism that is breathtaking in its contempt and loathing for people of color.

Porn movies that pair black men with white women are very popular with consumers, the majority of whom are white. Adult Video News articles suggest that such movies are being produced, marketed, and distributed mainly to a white audience. This seems strange, given that a relatively short time ago the mere suggestion of a black man ogling a white woman was enough to stir white men into a lynch mob frenzy. And now they are buying millions of dollars worth of movies that show, in graphic detail, a black man doing just about everything that can be done to a white woman's body. But in the world of porn, the more a woman -- of any ethnicity -- is debased, the better the porn experience for the user. And what better way to debase a white woman, in the eyes of (some) white men, than to deploy the racist cultural codes of black men as sexually predatory, savage and debauched?

One porn producer in an interview with AVN says that his most popular movies are those where "the purity of the sacred white woman is compromised... even if the white girl is as dirty and diseased-riddled as humanly possible." In a similar fashion, a porn store owner observed that:

"My customers seem to enjoy black men "taking advantage" of white women; seducing their white daughters and wives. The more 'wrong' a title is, the more appealing it is. They want to see massive black dicks, satisfying or defiling pretty white girls."

While this debasing of white women might well intensify the sexual thrill for the white user, it has real world implications for the black community. All forms of oppression, be they gender, race or class-based, require a system of beliefs that legitimize power differentials. This process often takes the form of negative images of the targeted group as less-than-human and therefore especially deserving of exploitation, abuse, and degradation. In porn, all people are seen as less-than-human because everyone is reduced to an orifice, but for whites, this is not presented as a condition of their whiteness; in our society, whiteness is colorless and hence invisible. For people of color, however, it is their very color that constantly makes them visible as a racialized group, with the marker of "difference" etched on their skin.

JK: You coined the term "Stepford Sluts," which through the growth of porn culture has taken the place of "Stepford Wives" as a way to describe women's subservience to men in a male-dominated society. Can you elaborate?

GD: In The Stepford Wives movie released in 1975, the perfect woman was shown on her hands and knees waxing the kitchen floor. The perfect woman today is still on her hands and knees, but rather than waxing the kitchen floor, she is the one waxed, as in Brazilian. And almost everyone from the age of 10 up knows the sexual symbolism of this servile position. Something so profound has shifted over the last few decades that the idealized image of women in today's pornified pop culture is no longer a Stepford wife but rather a plasticized, scripted, hyper-sexualized, surgically enhanced Stepford "slut."

The media world we live in today has replaced the stereotyped wife with the equally limiting and controlling image of a "slut." Just as the perfect housewife was a sexist invention aimed at policing women's behavior, so too is the image of the hypersexualized woman, only now the goal has shifted from training women to be domestic servants to socializing them to become passive objects of sexual desire rather than desiring subjects. This has real effects on women today. My students tell me that far from feeling sexually empowered, they feel pressured to conform to the porn-style expectations of their boyfriends and hook-up partners.

This image didn't appear from nowhere; it's the outcome of living in a society that has become increasingly swamped by pornography. The image of the hypersexualized woman has now seeped into pop culture to such a degree that media representations today look like soft-core porn from 10 years ago. Watch MTV, flick through the pages of popular women's magazines or just glance at the billboards and you will see slight variations on the same theme: a heavily made-up, young, attractive, technologically perfected woman devoid of body hair, cellulite, age lines, physical disabilities, wearing minimal clothes with a seductive look plastered on her face. Whether it's an almost naked Britney Spears writing around on stage or a Victoria Secret's model clad in a plunging bra and thong, women and girls today are bombarded with images of themselves as sex objects whose only worth is their "hotness." In this image-based culture the Stepford slut is everywhere all the time. The sheer ubiquity of this image gives it power, because it crowds out any alternative ways of being female.

JK: As a man reading your book, I appreciated your acknowledgment of how much boys' and men's (hetero)sexuality and ability to create intimate connections with girls and women is harmed by our use of pornography, or our immersion in a media culture awash in porn values. Can you talk about how men have responded over the years to your public talks, and what you hope men get from this book?

GD: Over the last few years I have seen a big change in the way men respond to my lectures. Rather than being angry and defensive, many now express concern and anxiety over the amount of porn they are using. During the Q&A after a lecture I gave recently at a large state university, a female student was voicing her distress about men's use of porn. She said she wanted to know what men get out of it, aside from an orgasm. I suggested that maybe one of the many hundreds of men in the room might want to answer that. There was a hush, and then a lone hand went up. A twenty-something student got up and set the tone for the next ninety minutes: "I am really anxious about speaking but I have to tell you what has happened to me."

What followed was a heartrending story of his compulsive porn use and his own despair over what felt like an inability to stop using. One of his most poignant comments was how much he looked forward to school vacations, because his lack of Internet access at home meant he can get a break from the porn. He sat down, and rather than an embarrassed silence, men started getting up to tell their stories about the negative ways that porn has affected them.

Although not all compulsive users, these men talked about their feelings of inadequacy around sex after using porn. Whether it was their inability to bring their girlfriends to a screaming orgasm, their need to conjure up porn images in order to reach orgasm themselves, their "too small" penis, or their tendency to ejaculate "too quickly," they were using porn sex as their yardstick -- and they all failed to measure up.

What I hear from men is that the more they use porn, the less able they are to develop intimate relationships with women. Many of these men are concerned about the effect their porn use has had on their sexual behavior, and they are especially upset when it infiltrates into a relationship with a woman they care about. These stories are often dismissed as anecdotal evidence, but I'm not the only person to hear about the problems that porn is causing men.

JK: Those stories reflect what I often hear from men as well. As an educator who believes strongly in the value of dialogue and engagement with difficult topics related to sex and gender, I meet a lot of men who struggle with questions about how to be (hetero)sexual without being sexist, or treating women like two-dimensional objects. What do you say to men like that, or those who are unsure of what to do about their own participation in porn culture -- especially when porn has been so normalized in their peer cultures?

GD: I hope more men start sharing their experiences and speaking out about how they are being harmed by porn. The porn industry doesn't just have contempt for women; it also has little respect for men and their desires for non-exploitative sex, intimacy and connection. Not only has porn distorted men's relations with women, but it also has affected their sense of themselves as good people who care about social justice and basic human dignity. Imagine what could happen if a growing number of these men decided to end their silence and started challenging this predatory industry and its arrogant presumption that it's just giving men what they want?