The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go from Here

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The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go from Here takes us on a dark journey through the intriguing history of pornography in the United States. Chronologically, the text details the birth of pornography beginning with the good ole “innocent” days of the 1950s to the current state of what is termed “violent porn”.

Looking back at soldiers returning home after World War II, Sarracino and Scott explain the era’s mantra of purity as being anything but. A culture saturated in post-war patriotism and the strongly divided gender roles of heroic men and June Cleaver women, paints a stereotypical backdrop of how most people picture this era. Though many of these stereotypes prove to be overwhelmingly true, this book debunks every myth of this time period as being just good old fashioned innocence.

Starting with the explosive trend of comic books amongst all ages and groups of people, their pictures and stories transition from super hero themed to young blonde women bound to a stake with breasts large and protruding, being saved from torturous Nazi villains (to reinforce patriotism and emphasize who were our enemies at the time) sets the stage for the desensitization of violence toward more (again at that time) scantily-clad women. Comic books paved the way for the mass production of MAMs (Mens Adventure Magazines) which included far more graphic and violent themes of torture. They also were a portal of sorts for the advertisement of sex manuals, lingerie, and hardcore porn.

MAMs can be thanked for their ability to enter the homes of Americans and begin raising what Sarracino and Scott call the “shock bar” by creating each issue more and more extreme. This extremeness is what the authors consider to be more closely related to porn in the present, rather than such tame porn (by comparison) as Playboy and pinup girl photos like those of Betty Page.

The importance of examining the history of pornography might help answer the big question the book asks: when did our society begin to accept violent porn, entailing largely violence toward women, and all of its many haunting facets (which are generously spared in this review, however not in the book itself)? While many clues lie in the history of pornography, pinpointing when we accepted pornography is far less chilling than pondering whether or not we will stop accepting it.

The authors do an amazing job of analyzing violence and sexualizing ingrained in our culture through media. Hot and current Internet sites such as MySpace and Facebook may well contribute to part of our desensitization and underline the peculiarity of how we view people and ourselves. In vain and comodifying ways, we have become addicted to looking at other people on the Internet. We are, in fact, obsessed with looking at screens that display other peoples’ lives, or updates of our own. In the same manner, many Americans are addicted to viewing pornography for its quickly paced “outdoing” of itself – in other words, raising the shock bar.

Sarracino and Scott, grippingly explain this obsession of seeing other people as being obsessed with taking pleasure in other peoples’ misfortunes. The text references Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears. We sexualize these two women whether they want to be or not, because of their identity as women. We extract any humanness from them and view them only for their sex. We take this further and we ridicule them for their body size, delight in their breakdowns, and get off on their mistakes. Though this is a mainstream example, it precisely parallels the flavor of pornography.

While the text intertwines stories, commercials, and highlights the lives of very influential people such as Madonna and Snoop Dogg, the authors also include astonishing statistics of how this process of sexualization influences young girls and women and the horrific ramifications of growing up in a “porned” culture will have on them for the rest of their lives. While the book argues that women will mainly suffer from these ramifications, it also emphasizes how other groups of people are affected. Devoting a large portion of the book to the Abu Grahib prisoner torture, the authors conclude that many of the acts and torture methods implemented were extracted directly from violent pornography.

The treatment of women and other people, for example Abu Grahib prisoners, mainstreams what porn has been doing all along. The beginning of the book discusses the notion of not noticing something when it becomes part of our everyday lives. This disturbing revelation is what is argued needs to be eradicated completely before it is embedded so far in us, that we do not even see it anymore.

A criticism one could make of the book is that when Sarracino and Scott discuss the mildness of amateur porn and porn made for women, they term this as being more erotica than actual porn. While this may be the case, the notion that people demonstrating sexual acts on camera or in photos still sexualizes them. And while the storyline of this form of erotica may be more enticing with emphasis placed on the realness of the partners (i.e. natural body shape, couples that are actually in a relationship with each other in real life), the fact remains true: these people are sexualized and are only viewed for their sexuality, no other reason. However, in looking at the broad scope of pornography, this small discrepancy is in fact not a target to attack. The authors themselves emphasize to the readers the gargantuan realm of pornography and make clear what we should prioritize for the removal of in our society: violent porn.

Carmine Sarracino and Kevin M. Scott, The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go from Here, (Beacon Press, 2008).

Review: The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality and Relationships

The Price of Pleasure–a new documentary airing this week at the Wealthy Theatre–offers an important look at the pornography industry and the impact it has on people’s lives.

The Price of Pleasure - Pornography, Sexuality, and Relationships

Pornography is one of those issues that either becomes framed as a matter of free speech or morality. Those who oppose it often are labeled as anti-sex feminists. However, there are new voices and new perspectives that are trying to draw attention to the violence in both the production and consumption of pornography.

In a new documentary The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality and Relationships, the directors provide a fresh look at an industry that now has an estimated 420 million websites, produces 13,000 new DVDs every year, and is completely intertwined with mainstream media. The Price of Pleasure does not necessarily draw strong conclusions, but it does raise important questions about the pornography industry and what impact it is having in the US.

The documentary begins with a look at how pornography went from being a marginal business that tended to be viewed with scorn to a multi-billion dollar industry that boasts its own lobby. The porn lobby, known as the Free Speech Coalition, challenged legal rulings and some significant cases in the 1990s, particularly cases that paved the way for the power that the Internet would provide the industry as a mechanism for distribution. Now pornography is part of the capitalist landscape with media companies like Time Warner and NewsCorp profiting off partnerships with the porn industry.

Other issues raised in the documentary are how pornography makes commodities out of women & men, the racist elements of pornography, and new trends in pornography, such as “Dorm porn.” Dorm porn is a growing phenomenon where college students are making porn as a way of paying for tuition.

One of the most revealing aspects of the documentary was a study done by students and faculty of the New School, where they looked at the most popular porn videos to make some determinations about the content. Pornography defenders have long argued that anti-porn activists always use the “worst” porn examples and make it look like this is all porn. However, as Robert Jensen and Gail Dines have shown in their research, the bulk of porn produced now is what might have been called “extreme” years ago. This is exactly what the researchers from the New School discovered, that the most popular porn videos that were being rented in the US had extreme content. The researchers found that in 89% of the videos they viewed, verbal and physical violence was central to the production.

The documentary includes voices from those in the porn industry, former porn industry workers, researchers, and activists. It is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to understand what the industry is and what impact it can have on our lives.

You can view the trailer online and come to a public screening this Wednesday, January 7 at the Micro-Cinema in the Wealthy Theatre at 7pm.

Pornography: Driving the Demand in International Sex Trafficking

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Captive Daughters is the first anti-trafficking group established in California. Captive Daughters provides information via their website, participates in national and international forums and media outreach, promotes collaboration with sister organizations and encourages art, film and publishing communities to focus on sex-trafficking in their work. The International Human Rights Law Institute is dedicated to developing international human rights law and criminal justice through field work, research and documentation, publications, advocacy and legal assistance to governments and non-governmental organizations.

An estimated 2 million women and children are held in sexual servitude throughout the world, and between 800,000 and 900,000 are trafficked across international borders for the purpose of sexual exploitation each year. These women and children make up the “supply” side of sex trafficking. This supply has been created to meet a demand. Without this demand, there would be no need for trafficked women and children. The demand side of the trafficking equation includes those (mostly men) who buy sexual services and/or consumer goods (videos, Internet pornography, etc.) created from the sexual exploitation of trafficked persons. Little attention has been given to the demand created by those people and organizations that benefit from the commercial sexual enslavement of women and children. To combat sex trafficking, much more information is needed to understand the root causes and conditions that create a need for a supply of trafficked women and children. Without this information, those who are motivated to exploit and use trafficked victims will continue to remain a mystery. By understanding the dynamics of demand, we can develop the legal and political policies necessary to control and end this horrific practice. Excerpt from

Pornography: Driving the Demand in International Sex Trafficking consists of a collection of 20 academic essays written by prominent researchers and educators who are leaders in the field of violence against women prevention. The book is cutting edge in its scope because it examines how factors like pornography, prostitution, industry, economics, and cultural trends fuel the demand for a continuous supply of women and children to abuse. The connections illuminated between sexual trafficking, sexual slavery, prostitution, and pornography are chilling. If any person out there still holds fast to fallacies like prostitution is a victimless crime and that the bodies used to make pornography are always consenting and in no way harmed this book should be required reading. In its full circle exploration of violence against women, Pornography: Driving the Demand in International Sex Trafficking goes well beyond the obvious harm to the “supply” side of this equation (the women and children being consumed) and exposes harm to those on the “demand” side (the mostly male consumers). Analyses of how pornography and prostitution harms the mostly male consumers is a critical component of this issue that needs to be brought out more and could help to bring more male allies to the violence against women prevention movement.

Consider how consumption of Internet pornography can cultivate in males a desire for increasingly younger women and girls fueling the demand for the production of child pornography. The lucrative demand for child pornography fuels the demand for trafficking of children for sexual slavery. Now consider the U. S. cultural trends that are sexualizing ever younger females. Consider the profits being made by corporate media on this trend of sexualizing young girls and women. This book exposes the big business of pornography. In Chapter 5, Gail Dines, Professor at Wheelock College in Boston details how pornography is no longer a marginalized business and in fact makes up a good percentage of profits for well known corporations like inDemand, HBO, DirecTV and Comcast. These companies have a vested interest in legitimizing and mainstreaming pornography. She makes a very convincing case for Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News Corp. being the “supreme pimp of the world”. Pornography: Driving the Demand in International Sex Trafficking draws it all together exposing the connections, the profiteers, and turns on a bright light that its business as usual for patriarchy worldwide.

Pornography: Driving the Demand in International Sex Trafficking, ( International Human Rights Law Institute DePaul University College of Law and Captive Daughters Media, 2007).

Interview with Robert Jensen

This interview with Robert Jensen is based upon his new book Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Media Mouse asks Professor Jensen a wide range of questions dealing with the impact that pornography has on men, how to analyze pornography through a media literacy lens, and what is the relationship between the anti-pornography movement and other social justice movements.

Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity

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Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity by Robert Jensen is one of those books that are difficult to describe, you simply have to read it. But since that would be much too easy as a review comment, I will attempt to articulate how I understand the book’s message.

As a White, heterosexual man living in the US I could relate to much of what Jensen had to say, both about his own personal struggles with pornography and the fact that pornography as an industry has moved from the margins of society and become quite mainstream. Another aspect of Jensen’s book that is very important is his insistence on not just critiquing pornography, but male consumption of pornography and how that influences men and our ability, or inability, to have healthy relationships with women.

The author begins the book by discussing how he understands both masculinity and a working definition of pornography. With masculinity Jensen tries to look at how men are socialized to embrace behaviors and attitudes of domination and control. Men are taught from and very early age that to be masculine means to be in control and always assume that what we do is more important than what women do. This notion of superiority is not only taught, it is nurtured and rewarded by other men, social institutions, and in cultural entities like entertainment media.

Jensen then tried to present a much more comprehensive explanation of what pornography is. Many people in debating pornography want to discuss it as a free speech issue or as just another form of eroticism. Jensen looks at pornography through a feminist lens and presents it as a form of men’s cruelty towards women and how men often derive pleasure from this cruelty. To support this argument Jensen critiques the current and most popular videos and websites that men consume. His critique of these videos and websites has three areas of research: textual analysis – what is the ideology conveyed by the product; the political economy – the production, financing and profiting of pornography: and reception studies – how do people use the product and what effect does it have on their lives?

At some level Jensen should be saluted for engaging in the difficult task of having to look at all this pornography and provide some analysis, so that the rest of us don’t have to do it. One important aspect of what the author points out is that the evolution of pornography and how it is produced and consumed will ultimately lead to more violent and degrading forms. This is one of the consequences of living in the digital age. With the Internet, both images and streamed video provide the pornography industry the capacity to provide consumers of pornography and endless stream of images of women being degraded by men. Media researchers have argued for years that the constant exposure to images and messages of violence has serious consequences, such as the normalizing of violence, which means that seeing people murdered, brutalized, even decapitated is no big deal. This normalizing of increasingly graphic violence has meant that consumers of media violence are willing to look at even more graphic depictions of murder and rape. The evolution of pornography is doing the same thing according to Jensen, with more stark representation of sexualized violence. This is an important aspect of the research that Jensen conducted because he did not select “movies from the sadomasochism or bondage categories, or from fringe sub-genres such as urination or defecation movies.” He chose material that is seen as “mainstream” in the pornography world.

In addition to the author’s critique of the most popular, mainstream pornography, he cites firsthand sources, both producers and those who “perform” in the films. He quotes porn director Jules Jordan as saying:

“One of the things about today’s porn and the extreme market, so many fans want to see so much more extreme stuff that I’m always trying to figure out ways to do something differently. But it seems everybody wants to see a girl doing double penetration now or a gang-bang. For certain girls, that’s great, and I like to see that for certain people, but a lot of fans are becoming a lot more demanding about wanting to see the more extreme stuff. It’s definitely brought porn somewhere, but I don’t know where it’s headed from there.”

Even those in the industry acknowledge the extreme nature of the production and reflect some sense of confusion about where it all leads.

There are plenty of examples from the pornography Jensen looked at in his study that he references in the book, but his emphasis is primarily on trying to understand the men who consume pornography. The author argues that since men who consume pornography have no frame of reference, no contextual understanding of the production of pornography, they assume that what is happening to women in pornography is what they want. Consumers of pornography are likely to believe that women want violent sex, want multiple partners at the same time, and want to be dominated and degraded. This unfortunately is how more and more men view “sex” and the role of women in their lives. When women challenge or won’t conform to the role that pornography presents them, they are seen as cold or as “bitches.”

So how do men overcome these dynamics and how do we all come to terms with the power of pornography in our lives. Jensen says that some people, particularly those who take a moralist approach to pornography advocate that it is not “manly to consume pornography.” We see this notion coming from the Christian community and groups like the Promise Keepers. What Jensen argues is significantly different. Jensen believes that the task of men is to try to be more human. “Our goal should not be to redefine masculinity, but to abolish it. Attempts to identify and valorize alternative masculine traits add to, rather than detract from, men’s capacity to move away from a position of domination.” This is a similar position taken by John Stoltenberg in his book Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice. While some men may not agree with Jensen’s conclusion about masculinity, they will have a difficult time defending the production and consumption of pornography if they dare to pick this book up and read it.

Robert Jensen, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, (South End Press, 2007).

Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire

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In Grand Rapids, there has been considerable debate over the prospect of banning nude dancing and regulating what is popularly called “adult entertainment” over the past year, in a debate brought on by the construction of an “all-nude” strip club in the downtown district. This debate has incorporated many opposing viewpoints including those (primarily male individuals) that frequent strip clubs, religious groups, progressive groups, and even those who believe that strip clubs and the larger sex industry may offer some means through which women can increase their power in the patriarchal system. Unfortunately, Liepe-Levinson’s book offers limited insight into the debate surrounding the question of whether or not strip clubs exploit women and reinforce patriarchy. Liepe-Levinson seems to have wholeheartedly adopted the role of the “disinterested” academic anthropologist/sociologist who only wishes to report on and “understand” the particular community that she is researching—in this case strip club employees and their clientele—and as such, she makes few judgments and conclusions about the question of exploitation in strip clubs. While Liepe-Levinson’s book is helpful in explaining exactly what goes on in strip clubs as far as the particulars of dancing are concerned, these practical aspects of stripping could easily be discovered elsewhere. The book fails to subsequently address what should be the key question in any book on this topic—whether or not these clubs reinforce patriarchy. Instead, Liepe-Levison gives the readers quotes like:

Like society at large, some aspects of female and male strip shows remain sexist, heterosexist, and classist. Nevertheless, the fundamental arrangements and dynamics of these events still offer patrons an opportunity for sex role experimentation that interrogates the very basis of such prejudices.

Such juxtapositions are a staple of Liepe-Levinson’s book wherein she frequently discusses the oppressive aspects of strip clubs only to follow them up with poorly supported “counter-arguments.”

Nevertheless, the early portion of her book does explore some of the more basic ways in which strip shows function in sexually exploitative ways and reinforce patriarchy including how female dancers play a desired sex object role, how male spectators dominate women through the act of “gazing,” and how the sex industry reinforces privilege because it is primarily white males that can pay for it. She also discusses how the “baby doll” and “nursing helpmate” characters are among the most popular in strip clubs and how these characters reinforce traditional gendered expectations of appropriate female behavior. Women are also pressured to alter their bodies in order to conform to a male defined standard of beauty via surgery, hair removal, cosmetics, and tanning. Men also pay to “control” women through the act of “tipping” whereby women engage in different behaviors based on the amount of money given to them. These arguments about the exploitative nature of strip clubs are taken further by Rebecca Schneider (cited in the book) who argues that the buying and selling of women’s bodies whether through images or strip shows helps to fuel capitalism and gives women the position of private property in society.

Granted, the book is well researched with field work spanning 8 cities and more than 70 different clubs and Liepe-Levinson seems familiar with the various feminist arguments against both strip clubs and pornography, but the author’s counter-arguments frequently fall short. While she is correct in identifying the fact that focusing only on sexism and the exploitative aspects of strip shows denies sexual agency and individual will, her arguments that such shows do not reinforce patriarchy are underdeveloped. As an example, Liepe-Levison spends a considerable amount of time describing the exteriors of strip clubs and surveying them for insights into the way in which they operate in terms of crafting gender roles. She focuses on a club in Montreal where photos of nude women looking down from a second-story window are described by her not as a means to objectify women, but rather as indicative of the “power” of an overly sexual woman dominatrix and “the transgressive male desire to be sexually overwhelmed or enslaved by a woman.” Similarly, she argues that pornography can give women power, because men then feel like they need to “prove” their manliness, or in the case of pornography in Hustler type magazines, men see the women as beautiful and thus “high class” giving women a position above that of men. Of course, Liepe-Levison’s point that there are gradations and ambiguities in the sex industry’s exploitation is well taken, and indeed acknowledged by many opponents of the industry, Liepe-Levison’s arguments are based more on hypothesis than they are objective data—a technique that she decries when discussing the “secondary effects” argument early in the book. The author argues that most proponents of the harmful secondary effects argument do not have specific data about whether or not legal sex trade businesses move into areas already in decline, whether they furthered the problem, or whether the demise was caused by other factors. She also describes how their have been no studies looking at how other types of establishments disrupt neighborhoods and that the zoning of sex industry businesses is really a “class issue” based on the idea of rejecting the “low” and “vulgar.” The concept of class and the sex industry is indeed important and has long been a critical part of the discussion, and while Liepe-Levison describes how none of the dancers she talked to got involved in the industry through economic coercion, this has happened with other dancers and her arguments that pornography can give women a form of class power or that women dressing up in formal attire in their strip shows gives them class privilege over males seems almost laughable.

Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire will offer little to those look for ways to combat strip clubs as a means through which patriarchy is reinforced in society. Instead, many activist readers will be frustrated by the book’s almost irresponsible dismissal of many of the exploitative aspects of the sex industry. So while Liepe-Levison touts the fact that “baby doll virginal” acts in strip shows offer “opportunities for experimentation and transgression” and that they have no connection to “pedophilia,” many readers familiar with the fact that the such acts increase the demand for younger models will likely become agitated. Overall, this book contributes little to the debate and is generally not worth reading.

Katherine Liepe-Levinson, Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire, (Routledge, 2002).