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Interview with Porn Scholar on Tiger Woods Sex Scandal

Posted: 04/08/10 06:21 PM ET

The Tiger Woods sex scandal has been a boon to the tabloids, cable TV and radio talk shows, not to mention late night comics, bloggers and untold others in media. Infidelity, sex addiction, compulsive behavior, and the perils of fame have been dissected and discussed, but one sociologically notable aspect of the scandal has largely escaped critical scrutiny: the fact that Woods's sexuality has, apparently, been profoundly influenced by porn culture. The evidence goes beyond his seeming obsession with porn stars. The very language he used in his infamous sex messages - which have been published by mainstream news organizations as well as circulated online across the world - suggests that Woods (mis)learned a lot about sex, and women, from his consumption of pornography.

Due to Tiger Woods's worldwide fame and iconic status, the publication of those messages provides educators, parents, and anti-violence activists with a teachable moment about pornography and its impact on contemporary American masculinity; the difference between a person's public image and their private behavior; the limits of privacy in the digital age; the importance of integrity and leadership both on and off the course/court/field; and the need for men who claim to care about their wives, girlfriends, daughters and mothers to treat them -- and all women -- with respect and dignity.

Since a significant portion of my work is focused on media culture and its role in the production and reproduction of social norms of masculinity, and because there has been so little discussion of the porn angle in the Tiger Woods scandal, I interviewed a leading cultural theorist, author and scholar of pornography, Dr. Gail Dines, to hear her views on this subject. Dines's new book, Pornland: How the Pornography Industry is Hijacking Our Sexuality, is scheduled to be released by Beacon Press in July. (Blogger's note: Gail Dines is a friend and colleague of mine).

My hope is that while this subject is highly sensitive, and can be awkward and potentially controversial for some people, the Tiger Woods debacle can be used as a catalyst to jump-start a long overdue national conversation about pornography and men's sexuality. Surely, at a time when men's sexual abuse and exploitation of women (and men) is in the news on a daily basis, and Tiger Woods is on the sporting world's center stage at the Masters golf tournament, we can all benefit from an honest exploration and debate about some of the cultural forces that contribute to the ongoing crisis of men's violence.

JK: People who are familiar with contemporary porn culture immediately recognized the language Woods was using in his sex messages to one of his "lovers" -- including his reference to "DP" (double penetration) and his allusion to ATM (ass-to-mouth). Yet there has been very little discussion about porn in the explosion of media commentary and analysis of the great golfer's mega-scandal. It's almost as if the influence of porn in Woods's life is hidden in plain sight. Why so little mention and discussion about its role? Do you think people in media are aware of this but choose not to discuss it, for fear of either looking prudish -- or too knowledgeable?

GD: As soon as I read the Tiger Woods texts I knew this was a guy who liked porn. Acts like DP, ATM and choking are now commonplace, while a decade ago they would have been on the fringes of the porn industry. Porn is missing from the discussion for a number of reasons, but I think one of the main ones is that many people, especially women and men over 35 or so, are really unaware of just how violent and brutal porn has become. I am always surprised in my presentations when people have an image of porn that is at least twenty years out-of-date - a naked young woman on a beach smiling coyly at the camera. Today, in place of coy smiles are sex acts that are violent and cruel and that push the woman's body to the limits of human endurance. Called "gonzo" by the industry, this genre makes no attempt at a story line and gets right down to the business of hardcore sex, scene after scene.

When reading Tiger Woods's texts, it is easy to think that Woods is just a sexual outlier, rather than seeing him as typical of someone who has been deeply affected by gonzo porn. To bring porn into the discussion would mean that we have to raise the question of just how these images impact on users, but few people in the media or elsewhere want to go there for fear of being called a prude. What is astonishing today is how successful the porn industry has been in linking porn with sex to such a degree that to criticize porn is to get slapped with the label "anti-sex." But sex in porn is not just sex - it's a particular representation of a type of sex that is debased, dehumanized, formulaic and generic, a sex based not on individual fantasy, play or imagination, but one that is the result of an industrial product created by (mostly) corporations.

To appreciate just how bizarre it is to collapse a critique of pornography into a critique of sex, think for a minute if someone was criticizing McDonald's for its exploitive labor practices, its destruction of the environment, and its impact on our diet and health. Would anyone accuse the critic of being anti-eating or anti-food? I suspect that most people would separate the firm (McDonald's) and the industrial product (hamburgers) from the act of eating and would understand that the critique was focused on the large-scale impact of the fast food industry and not the human need, experience, and joy of eating.

To collapse porn and sex into one is to allow the porn industry to control the discussion on the role of porn in shaping our sexual landscape. We need to develop a critique of porn that sees it as a major form of sex education in a society awash with misogyny and violence against women. Above all, we need to stop letting the pornographers define our sexuality in ways that serve their industry but undermine our human capacity for connection and intimacy.

JK: The sex messages that Tiger Woods sent to one of the women with whom he had an affair, porn star Joslyn James, have been reprinted in countless media outlets over the past couple of weeks. Several of the messages contain openly violent and degrading language: "I want to treat you rough, throw you around, spank and slap you." "You are my #*% whore. I want to hold you down while I choke you." "(I will) slap your face and pull your hair for making noise." It might come as a shock to some people that this sort of language comes straight out of mainstream pornography. When did porn get so brutal and openly misogynist?

GD: There has, of course, always been violent porn, but it wasn't until the mass adoption of the internet that overtly violent acts became increasingly mainstream. As the internet brought porn into the home, more men and boys had access to it in a way never seen before. It is important to be reminded of how porn use has shifted for both men and boys, since this provides a clue into why we now see so much cruelty. Previous generations of boys would most likely find their father's Playboy, or perhaps Penthouse, and use these images as masturbatory tools. As much as these images sexualized and objectified women, they are nothing like those they get introduced to today, now that their first experience is with hardcore porn images that include gagging, DP and very rough anal sex. The more men and boys use porn, the more they become desensitized and bored, and hence the harder the images need to be to keep them interested. The average age of first time viewing is 11, so by the time they enter their early twenties, the guys are going to be pretty jaded. Playboy-like images are simply not going to get much of a response if you have been brought up on gonzo.

Couple this with the intense competition on the internet for consumers and what you have is an industry always on the lookout for some new twist to add that extra sizzle. This is why we are seeing an explosion in niche markets such as teen porn, black porn, gagging porn, and bondage porn. The goal in all of these is to heighten the debasement of the women since the more debased she is, the hotter the porn. When I interview porn producers, even they are surprised at just how hard core porn has become, and they are equally surprised that they continue to get away with producing such images. This speaks volumes as to how little we as a society care about the way women are treated.

The big question for the pornographers is what to do next. They have, after all, done practically everything that can be done to the female short of killing her. As one industry producer told me "this is an industry fast running out of ideas." As he said this, his latest movie was playing in the background, which showed a woman being anally penetrated as she lay in a coffin. As a generation of young users grows into adulthood, they are going to seek out increasingly bizarre and cruel images, and the pornographers are going to have to figure out how to meet their needs, or lose them to a competitor.

JK: You have written about the deep racism of the pornography industry. In fact, many people who defend the industry and its products on free speech grounds, including white progressives and social justice activists, would probably be embarrassed at the open racism in porn videos today. Since any discussion about the cultural impact of Tiger Woods must by definition include race, can you say anything about how race plays out in this scandal?

GD: The Tiger Woods scandal was tailor-made for pornography since it involves a black man and white women. Indeed, the porn industry, never missing a chance to make money, just produced a film called "Tiger's Got Wood," which featured a supposedly look-alike Tiger Woods with a bevy of white women. This interracial porn, as it's called by the industry, is now one of the most popular niche markets, and it trades in the most racist of stereotypes. The focus of these movies is on the black penis -- often referred to as "monstrous," "enormous," "gigantic" -- and the so-called damage it can do to small white women. The black men are cast as sexual predators similar to Gus in the infamous movie Birth of a Nation, and yet there is little outcry.

Take for example the racist comments made by Don Imus when he described the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy headed ho's." Following a concerted campaign by the African-American community, CBS fired him amidst a public outcry and a mass exodus of corporate sponsors from his show. But what barely merited a comment was a press release issued three weeks later from the porn company Kick Ass Pictures, announcing its intention to donate one dollar from every sale of its new movie, titled Nappy Headed Ho's, to the Don Imus retirement fund.

So the obvious question is: why does the porn industry get away with a level of racism that would simply not be tolerated in any other media form? One possible explanation is that porn, by sexualizing racism, renders it invisible. Instead of being seen for the racism it is, it is instead eroticized and classed as "hot sex," made hotter by the presence of a black male body that has historically been coded as deviant, animalistic and predatory. As Cornel West once said, one of the major stereotypes of blacks is that they have "dirty, disgusting, and funky sex." What could be better than that for the pornographers?

Progressives have been amazingly quiet on the issue of racism in porn, and part of the reason, I suspect, is that they don't want to get linked with the right-wing groups that protest porn. But being silent on this issue ignores the fact that these images, like all racist images, impact on the way we construct our notions of reality, and the more white men use the images, the more they cement past racist images in the present. If this was acknowledged, then maybe we would also have to acknowledge that watching a woman being choked as she is called a filthy whore could affect the way we see women in the real world.

NOTE: This interview is Part 1 of a two-part interview. I will post Part 2, which will cover the topic of porn culture more extensively, in July, 2010, when Dr. Dines's book Pornland is released.