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Media reform should include critique of sexual-exploitation media
Tuesday, 16 January 2007 14:23
by Robert Jensen

At a progressive media reform conference dedicated to resisting corporate control of mass media, where many of the participants focus on gender and racial justice, it shouldn’t be difficult to interest people in the feminist critique of mass-marketed pornography.

After all, the pornography industry creates a steady stream of relentlessly sexist and racist films and web sites that undermine attempts to build a healthy sexual culture, while filling the pornographers’ pockets with substantial profits. A general critique of the effects of misogyny, white supremacy, and predatory corporate capitalism on mass media dovetails perfectly with the feminist critique of sexual-exploitation media.

Yet as I circulated at last week’s National Conference on Media Reform and distributed fliers for an upcoming feminist conference on pornography — the responses I got were often skeptical and sometimes hostile. The questions that were commonly asked of me that weekend revealed the need for the left/progressive political community to deepen its understanding of the issue.

The most common of those questions was, “Is your conference an anti-sex project?” reflecting the common distortion that feminist critics of pornography share the right-wing’s obsessions about containing sexuality within traditional “family values.”

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My co-author Gail Dines has developed a clear response to the question, which I borrowed during the weekend in Memphis: When we criticize McDonald’s for its unhealthy food, environmentally destructive business practices, and targeting of children through manipulative advertising, does anyone ask whether we are “anti-food”? Of course not, because no one conflates McDonald’s with food; we recognize that there are many ways to prepare food, and it’s appropriate to critique the more toxic varieties. The same holds for pornography; pursuing a healthy sexuality does not mean we have to support toxic pornography.

Another common response was, “Do you support censorship?” reflecting a distortion of what feminists have proposed as remedies to the problem of pornography. First, the original feminist anti-pornography movement in the 1980s rejected state censorship that works through existing obscenity law and proposed a civil-rights approach that would give people hurt by pornography a chance in court to prove the harm. There are questions to ask about any legal strategy involving expression, and concerns about suppression of free speech are important; there are even disagreements within the feminist anti-pornography movement about this. But that discussion should start from an accurate account of the alternatives.

Second, at this point in the feminist anti-pornography movement the focus is on public education. The goal is to begin an honest conversation about the way in which “mainstream” pornography, the bulk of which is marketed to heterosexual men, is increasingly cruel and degrading to women and more openly racist than ever — at the same time that it is increasingly accepted as mainstream entertainment. It’s ironic to be accused of trying to suppress free speech when trying simply to exercise free speech in critique of profit-driven sexism and racism. There was much insightful criticism at the conference of the subtle sexism and racism that still pervades mainstream corporate-commercial mass media. Although men and white people — including in progressive circles — are sometimes resistant to that analysis, no one argues that it’s an inappropriate topic for discussion. Yet for some reason, many of those same progressives — men and women alike — don’t consider a left/feminist/anti-racist critique of pornography to be part of the media reform/media justice agenda. Why? I think it has to do with fear.

Facing the pornography industry forces us to acknowledge the deep misogyny and white supremacy that still exists in the culture, even with the gains of the feminist and civil-rights movements. Both women and men might understandably be afraid of confronting what pornography tells us about the cruelty of our culture, our own sexual socialization, and the difficult struggles we face to create a world free of sexual violence.

That fear is real, and all the more reason to confront the issue of pornography more openly.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His new book on masculinity and pornography will be published by South End Press in spring 2007. Jensen is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.
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Comments (4)add comment

a guest said:

Thank Goodness Someone Brought This Up!
Thank you, Robert, for writing about this. I have to say, it is one thing that angers and depresses me more than any other in the “so-called” progressive movement. I was at the conference too, and was very thankful for what Geena Davis and Jane Fonda discussed. The proliferation of porno, and increasingly violent and misogynistic porno, is directly linked to the upsurge in violence against women (and sexual violence against children). While they did not mention porno specifically, at least we got some degree of a female perspective (although disappointingly, the website’s blog only lists male speakers).

I really cannot understand how anyone can consider himself or herself a “progressive” and support the pornography industry. There was a reason it was illegal for so long, and a reason since it’s legalization that sexual violence against women and children is now an epidemic. It is inherently wrong, and every man and woman knows this. Trying to discuss this in intellectual terms will never get us anywhere because it is like trying to argue a woman has a right to her own body. It is about manipulation that the oppressors use against the oppressed. And women are a very, very big part of the problem because they are too afraid and too deficient in self-esteem to speak up against the abomination that it is for fear of somehow offending the very sickos that use this to oppress them. There is nothing sexy about domination and degregation of another human being. Interestingly that we don’t see animals acting out this way, and yet we refer to someone who acts in a the most atrocious ways as an “animal”. I would argue animals are much more evolved because they engage in healthy sexuality whereas humans manifest their psychological dysfunction in the sexual arena more than in any other area. We need to start focusing on the abusers and WHY they feel the need to dominate and degrade (what is so weak and helpless in them that they feel a constant need for power over another) and stop focusing on this from the perspective and the voiceless victim and whether she/he IS victim or not. We have to work from absolute truth, we know inherently.
January 16, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

Hypocrisy too
Why was everyone so offended by the photos of Abu Ghraib? Seriously, was it only because the victims were male? Is that the same reason the Catholic Church scandal got so much attention? You didn’t even hear of the girls priests have been raping for centuries. There was nothing depicted in Abu Ghraib that is not seen on a daily basis in mainstream porn that is spammed all over the Internet. Frankly, much worse is seen in porno. I am not saying the torture wasn’t horrible. But much worse torture is happening every day in this country and we have a whole industry around it. Our reaction? We laugh at the litany of jokes Jay Leno makes on his show as if porno was someone the truth and if you are appalled by the horror of the abomination of this perversion of human sexuality, than there is something wrong with YOU and not the oppressor. It reminds me of when I hear people bashing gay men and making “jokes” about “I wonder who is the women” as if the one being penetrated is someone the one being violated, which says something more about the unhealthy views of most people about their own sexuality (penetration and sex equates to violence, and the man is the violator the woman the violated) than it does about anything dealing with homosexuality.
January 16, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

The Censorship Myth
As far as "Censorship", my answer to that is a simple "yes". I believe in it, and so did our founders or there would never have been the "prurient interests" as part of the legal discussion and there would never be any laws about anything, period. We censor behavior and speech all the time…it is about the intended purpose. For example, yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre. It is about the bigger impact on society that is the real issue. Anyone who “says” they do not believe in censorship is lying because you can examine some aspect of their lives and belief systems and you will always find some form of censorship they support…realizing it or not.

The reason the anti-porno movement gets so much resistance is because we have increasingly become a culture that associates sex with violence and dominance. This lack of a healthy perspective on sex makes it incomprehensible to the vast majority of people that anyone would support healthy, fun, intimate and pleasurable sex--which is the complete opposite of pornography, and adamantly oppose pornography which does not depict healthy pleasure but domination and violence. What is the value of pornography to our society? And why is it called “adult” entertainment? What is “adult” about degregation and dominance over another creature? It is completely unevolved and there is nothing adult or mature about it.

Frankly, the 1st Amendment protections of speech were designed for political and religious freedom -- yet as we have increasingly seen those rights stripped away while hearing very little outrage from the American citizens-- the pornography industry and pro-porno activists have used that Amendment to further their oppression. It was never designed for that, and it makes me deeply ashamed and disheartened at what has become of our culture that we put more effort into the rights of those that advocate and promote sexual oppression, violence, and misogyny than we do the rights of a jailed reporter.
January 16, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

Pornography and Pop Culture: Reframing Theory, Re-thinking Activism
I never heard anyone bring this conference up at the Media Reform one, but there was a lot going on and 3500 people.

I would consider going but the website doesn't list anything about housing and host families to cut down on expenses since people from out of state already have the flight, transportation and other costs to deal with. It is was intended to be a national thing rather than a local one, maybe market it that way and have some of those things in place? The website gave me the impression is was more of a local program.
January 16, 2007
Votes: +0

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