“The Beard for the Pornography”: A Chat with Author Gail Dines
Gail Dines is a sociologist and anti-porn feminist. Hew new book, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, describes how the porn industry grew out of control and evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry. Dines examines the effects of porn on our psychology, and argues that for the sake or our sexuality, we should reject inauthentic erotica in favor of the real thing. She'll be speaking about her book at Politics and Prose tomorrow at 6 p.m.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to write this book?
I was working in a rape crisis center and somebody asked me if I wanted to see an anti-porn feminist slide show. I thought "Why not?" so I went. That night, my life changed. I couldn’t believe that men made such stuff and I couldn’t believe that other men found it arousing. At the time, I was doing my doctorate on sociology of education. I changed it to sociology of culture and did my dissertation on pornography.
You discuss how Playboy and Hustler led to the explosion of pornography in our culture and legitimized porn in people’s minds. Can you explain that process?
In post-second World War America, the country needed to jump start the economy and train people to consume. Television and sitcoms taught women to buy, but there was nothing to train men. Then along came Hugh Hefner with a brilliant idea, which was to create a magazine about style for the upwardly mobile, white male and teach him how to buy. At first, the advertisers were scared because it was a pornographic magazine. But when they saw that it was a runaway success, they were clamoring to place ads. Hefner ran the show until Penthouse came along in 1969. Then there was a battle between Playboy and Penthouse to see who could produce the raunchier magazine. That competition opened up the space for Hustler, which was even more hardcore.
Those three laid the groundwork in the '70s. But the industry really didn’t explode until the Internet took off. Porn became more accessible, more affordable, and more anonymous, so more men used it. The more they use it, the more desensitized they become, which means the pornography has to become more hardcore to keep them satisfied. The mainstream pornography today is called Gonzo.
Does Gonzo specifically refer to violent imagery?
Gonzo actually means putting yourself in the picture but now they use it as shorthand to refer to body-punishing, in-your-face pornography.
It was very interesting to read about the different ways that Playboy and Hustler market themselves to the mainstream male.
I mean, what Playboy had to do—it was the 1950s, a conservative decade. They wrapped up the pornography in an upper-middle class lifestyle magazine. It’s kind of the beard for the pornography. Men would say they bought it for the articles. That’s why Hugh Hefner built up the literary side of the magazine. And Hustler was so vile and so gross that you had to tell the customer that this is not for you. It’s for a low-life and you can slum in the world of the lowlife.
Were these magazines being bought by different customers?
Economically, it was almost the same. You know, I would guess that a lot of men would buy both. Publicly they would buy Playboy, then privately they would buy Hustler. That’s what happens today with gonzo pornography. When guys want their girlfriends to look at pornography, they don’t buy gonzo, they buy feature.
With the rise of the Internet and the decentralization of porn distribution, is there still a need to appeal to the reader’s sense of self?
There are many sites that will say things like “Are you strong enough to handle this?” or “This takes a real man.” Now what man who is into pornography is going to say, “No, I’m not man enough to handle that?”
It kind of reminded me of the psychology of slasher films, which appeal to young teens who know they’re not supposed to be watching them.
And slasher movies are powerful because most of the murders take place from the first-person view. So the view you have is only possible if you are the murderer. It forces an identification between the murderer and the young boy who is often the viewer.
Does pornography affect how sex is being represented in pop culture?
Oh yes, no question. Softcore pornography has migrated to pop culture. So what you’re left with in pornography is hardcore.
Do you think that there is a role for graphic sex scenes in television and media?
Do I think that there is a place for it in a capitalist market? Probably not, because you are appealing to a certain mass market and the mass market for that would be men. So if we want erotica that speaks about women’s authentic sexuality, you’re not going to get it through a capitalist market.
What about in an artistic or high culture framework? For instance, HBO shows are often very sexual and they are perceived as being very high-quality.
Yeah, but it’s still part of the market. Human beings hunger for erotica, but I think that it needs to be outside of a corporate setting.
Why do you think we don’t have more organic, home-made erotica?
Because pornography crowds out erotica. People lose an image of what erotica could look like because they’re so steeped in pornography.
You used the analogy of porn being like fast food.
That’s right. Pornography is to sex what McDonalds is to food. A plasticized, generic version of the real thing.
Do you think that porn and the image of generic, meaningless sex is contributing to the proliferation of hook-up culture?
Absolutely. Hook-up sex is porn sex. It’s nonintimate sex with someone you barely know. The more that men see anonymous sex, the more they’re going to want to play that out. And women do not do well from hook up sex. They get more depressed. They have low self-esteem… Women want to go on dates. The thing that’s very interesting about this is that dating is about acquiring the skills that you need to build a relationship. What’s going to happen is you never develop them?
That’s a scary thought. If someone starts engaging in hook up culture at 14, and then wake up at 25 suddenly wanting something serious, will they know how to bring that about?
Those years were skill-acquiring years. How to talk to somebody. How to set borders and boundaries.... So the question is, how do you go from a hook up to a more serious relationship? I don’t know because you haven’t got those skills.
In the past, people were encouraged to wait until marriage and even then, all but the most conventional forms of sex were seen as debased. Is that scenario preferable to what we have today?
Those were not the good old days for women, absolutely not. That was men controlling women’s sexuality. Sexual liberation grew out of the ‘50s, because women were sick of being told that they shouldn’t feel sexual, and that sex should only be in marriage. But now we’re told that we should be sexual all the time. What feminists want is sex on our own terms. Whether our sexuality is defined through marriage or through pornography, we don’t get to define it.
Do you think that today, women are more free to practice their sexuality and figure out what they want from a partner?
Some groups of women are. The students I’ve interviewed are struggling to do that. Especially the 18- to 25-year-olds. They’re struggling to figure out who they are sexually. And they haven’t really got images of what a healthy, equal, respectful sexuality looks like.
Pop culture provides images where women seem to enjoy hook-up culture. Samantha from Sex and the City is the classic example.
Although she’s the one they gave breast cancer to. Which is very interesting. Of all the women to get cancer. It felt a bit like it was a punishment…You see Sex and the City, on TV, you read Cosmopolitan. In Cosmopolitan, women are completely hypersexualized. It’s all about how to make sure that he keeps coming back for more sex. I mean, if you want to build a relationship, don’t turn to Cosmopolitan or you’ll be very disappointed… The subtext is that you’re not going to get a relationship, but maybe if you do a good job, he’ll come back for a second round. There’s an incredible article I mention in my book. This woman writes in and says that she doesn’t know what first time etiquette is for sex. And they say, "Leave after coffee but before breakfast." He’s just had sex with her but he’s not willing to commit to have breakfast with her? I mean, what kind of world is that where she’s disposable to that degree?
If these images of woman are confined to the realm of sex, does that affect how women are seen in other avenues of life?
You can’t have a hypersexual culture that defines women as sex objects and not have that leak into the ways that men think of women. In pornography, sex is the way that you subordinate a woman. This is not a world where women need equal pay or shelter or an after-school program for their children. This is a world where all they need is sex, and that has a profound way of distorting the way men think about women.
And of course the actual women in pornography aren’t treated very well. In your book, you describe what sounds like outright instances of rape on camera. Do you think that there should be any kind of regulatory of legal way of controlling this?
I think that anyone harmed by pornography should be able to sue the producers… The problem is most women working in the industry will not talk about the industry. If you’re working in pornography and you have to get up the next day and perform sex, you can’t admit to yourself what’s going on. It would be psychologically overwhelming. The best thing I ever heard about this topic was a women who ran a group for women who got out of the sex industry. She’d been in the sex industry herself, and she said it takes about five years to be able to talk about what happened to you.
Have you ever spoken to a former porn stars who felt positively about the experience?
No. I mean, I’ve spoken to a few who’ve gotten out with money, which is rare…Most of the women I’ve spoken to have gotten out penniless with STDs and bodily damage. Some of the women who’ve gotten out with money still talk very negatively about the effects the porn had on them.
I’m sure that when you get out, your job prospects are less than stellar.
What are you going to put on your resume? A lot of the women end up in the brothels of Nevada. Others end up on low-wage income.
Do you think that there’s any avenue where people can explore sexuality in a less mechanical way, or reflect on sex and relationships in a deeper way?
Well for that, we need a really robust feminist movement. We need a movement that is going to come in and provide counter ways of thinking.
Have you seen the beginning seeds of anything developing?
Well I founded a group with some other people called Stop Porn Culture. I get emails all the time from people all over the country. Our job is to turn that into a movement…The solution is a massive education campaign. To inform people about the dangers of pornography. The pornographers have basically hijacked our culture, and there’s been barely a murmur. I think the reason for that is that very few people really know what’s going on.