Pornography: A Mirror of American Culture?

While statistics vary, watchdog organizations estimate the pornography industry generates between $10 and $15 billion a year in the United States. By comparison, the Hollywood box office generates about $10 billion a year.

For several years, Associate Professor of Journalism Robert Jensen researched the pornography industry by interviewing producers, analyzing the films they make, following the trade press and speaking with pornography consumers via formal and informal interviews. The result is “Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity” (South End Press, 2007).

In an interview with ShelfLife, Jensen discusses why the pornography industry presents a disturbing mirror of American culture, and answers crucial questions about gender, race and economics.

Q: What motivated you, a journalism professor, to write “Getting Off”?

A: My initial work on the subject 20 years ago was sparked by my interest in law and freedom of speech, but I quickly realized that pornography was a place to ask crucial questions about gender and race, about economics and culture. In the past four decades, changes in the law, technology and social norms have produced a pornography-saturated culture for which there is no historical precedent.

Q: What does pornography reveal about American culture?
A: The popularity of pornography is a reminder that, for all the progress of contemporary social movements, we still live in a world structured by patriarchy, white supremacy and a corporate capitalism that is predatory by nature. Pornography is consistently cruel and degrading to women, overtly racist and fueled by the ideology that money matters more than people.

Q: Parts of your book are quite graphic. How did you cope with immersing yourself in such a difficult subject?
A: The short answer: Not very well. It is extremely difficult and draining work, which is why I conducted analyses of films no more than once every three or four years. When watching as consumers, men focus on the sexual pleasure. When watching as a researcher, one sees clearly the cruelty and degradation, and after a while it gets overwhelming psychologically. I coped with those feelings by talking with friends and political allies in the movement who also have had to deal with that, as have researchers and activists who have confronted other issues that illustrate the human capacity to dehumanize others. But there is something particularly difficult, I think, about seeing inhumanity turned into sexual pleasure.

Q: You’ve called yourself a feminist; how did you become a feminist?
A: By reading feminist writers and getting to know feminist activists, I came to realize that feminism is not a threat to men but a gift to us. Feminism is a way of understanding how hierarchy works, which gives men a coherent way to struggle to be more fully human in a male-supremacist system that provides us with unearned privilege. Working in movements for justice for women has given me a way to combat the dominant culture’s toxic conception of masculinity, which is not only dangerous to women but also unfulfilling for most men.

Q: Do you think pornography is the most pressing issue facing feminism?

A: I don’t think there is any single issue that is most pressing. In the contemporary world we face multiple crises on all fronts—economic and ecological, political and social. We are an empire in decline and a culture in collapse. The most pressing issue for feminism, and all other social movements, is to recognize that and start to plan for the dramatic, and no doubt painful, changes ahead in the coming decades.

Q: How would you respond to a woman who says she feels empowered by her work in the porn or sex industry?
A: I don’t tell women how to think or what to do, but it’s clear that talk of empowerment in any realm has to first ask, “What kind of power?” Can working in the sexual-exploitation industries of pornography, stripping and prostitution offer real power to women—the kind of power that will help create a more just and sustainable world? We all live within systems that are structured on a domination/subordination dynamic. We try to cope the best we can with these hierarchies. There’s no one answer to the question of how best to do that, but we have to at least be honest about the nature of the systems.

Q: How has writing this book informed your opinion on the state of masculinity?
A: In the dominant culture, masculinity is marked by control, conquest and domination. I used to think we needed to find a more humane concept of masculinity, but after this research I’ve concluded that we need to eliminate the idea altogether. By that, I mean we need to reject the belief that, beyond basic biological differences, there are clear sex-specific traits in regard to our intellectual, psychological or moral development. The basic physical differences between female and male humans may well give rise to some other inherent differences between men and women, but in obsessing over those differences we usually miss the ways in which we are similar. I don’t want to reform masculinity but rather abolish it. Instead of searching for masculine and feminine norms, I think we should focus on human norms.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
A: Paradoxical as it may seem, I want people to face the depth of the inhumanity of this culture and, at the same time, renew their commitment to political activism and struggle. Pornography is a reflection of the culture, and we can learn from it. What we learn is not pretty but is necessary to confront. From there, we can imagine the kind of radical political activity that is necessary and start to rebuild movements of all kinds—around issues of gender and racial justice, economic and international cooperation, and ecological sustainability.

Jensen teaches courses in media law, ethics and politics. His research draws upon a variety of critical approaches to media and power. His other books include “The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege,” “Citizens of Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity” and “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.”