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The anti-feminist politics behind the pornography that “empowers” women
Friday, 25 January 2008 02:34
by Gail Dines and Robert Jensen

Pornography’s supporters often claim that critics don’t pay enough attention to the wide range of sexually explicit images available today, especially the material that is said to be empowering for women.

But after a few minutes on the floor of the sex-saturated Adult Entertainment Expo, the pornographers’ annual trade show in Las Vegas, such pro-pornography claims start to seem pretty silly.

The 2008 AEE drove home the reality that while there are indeed differences in the level of overt woman-hating in the pornography for sale in the United States, that industry is at its core about (1) the control of women (2) to facilitate the presentation of women (3) for male consumption (4) in the pursuit of profit. Our interaction with the makers of the latest popular example of “female-centered” pornography provided a first-hand reminder that the industry’s hallowed commitment to free speech and feminist empowerment is more public-relations posturing than principled positions.

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The company making one of the biggest splashes on the convention floor this year was Abbywinters.com, an Australian website that bills itself as offering “real, passionate, unscripted” sexual activity by “happy, healthy, regular girls in their normal environments.” The company markets its female masturbation and girl/girl videos as “an endless bounty of gasping sex, stunning beauty and friendly faces” featuring women with “no makeup, no fake boobs, no airbrushing.”

Call it the down-under girl-next-door market niche.

Of course not all pornography consumers are interested in the softer-edged material that Abbywinters.com sells, but it’s popular enough that the company signed a distribution deal with Wicked Pictures, one of the top production companies in the United States, according to an industry insider working for Abbywinters.com. And based on the size of the crowds that the Abbywinters.com booth was drawing, this market niche appears to be holding its own.

At the booth, Abbywinters.com “girls” (in porno-speak, there are no women; females of any age are called girls) were chatting amiably with the fans (even playing chess with some of them, to show that the girls are smart as well as sexy) and being openly affectionate with each other. Instead of the caricatured porn star look (impossibly high heels, over-the-top makeup, and surgically enhanced bodies), these women really did look like ordinary people.

In interviews with several of them, a familiar story of empowerment emerged — we are comfortable with our bodies, confident in our sexuality, proud to be taking control of how we are represented, etc. We responded with questions that reflected our feminist critique of pornography, which sparked interesting responses regarding their feelings about their work and our assessment of the industry. We asked the women to explain how the interests of women (or men, for that matter) were advanced by selling images mostly used by men as a masturbation facilitator. How did that improve the lot of women in the world? Each of the conversations ended with an agree-to-disagree parting, and we went off to other parts of the convention.

The next day, when Jensen was back on the convention floor and had just interviewed another female performer at the Abbywinters.com booth, he was taken aside by the website’s photographer (who wouldn’t give her name) and told that because the conversations of the previous day had upset the women by bringing up a feminist critique, they preferred that we stop talking to the women. “These are smart women who’ve made a decision to perform, and we’d like you to respect that,” she said. Jensen responded that it was precisely because we respected these women and viewed them as intelligent adults capable of making choices that we had engaged them in a serious, respectful way during our interviews. What could be wrong with that?

The photographer responded that it was just this kind of “intellectual sparring” that they wanted to avoid. Why are questions that reflect a critical viewpoint a threat, Jensen asked? Was it because this convention was about making money, not talking about bigger issues about power, especially with a feminist analysis behind the questions? The photographer did not argue, acknowledging that the main market for the website and films was men who used the images for “wanking.” But she was firm in her position, and we agreed to not approach any of the Abbywinters.com women/girls for additional interviews.

Free speech, it appears, is all well and good when it protects the profits of pornographers, but not when it includes a challenge to the claims pornographers make.

Of course on private property, such as the convention center, legal guarantees of free speech don’t apply; we understood that we had to follow the rules of the people running the show. But the rules those people imposed reveals much about the real agenda, as did the behavior of the men watching. And, in the end, it is really about what the men watching want.

A few hours after we were banned from interviewing the girls it was show time at the Abbywinters.com booth, with four female couples kissing and caressing for the overwhelmingly male audience. In that moment the connection between these Australian women and the rest of the AEE convention was clear. Just as at the other companies on the floor, men with all varieties of cameras and cell phones ringed the booth, vying for the best angles to record images of women being sexual. The Abbywinters.com women looked different from the porn-star caricature, but their girl/girl action (the industry’s term for lesbian sex presented for a male audience) didn’t look much different from the industry norm, and the men who were watching behaved the same as other fans on the convention floor.

That moment provides an important reminder: Pornography, at its core, is a market transaction in which women’s bodies and sexuality are offered to male consumers in the interests of maximizing profit. Market niches vary, but the bottom line does not. In the end, it’s about attracting the most “wankers” possible. Some of those men who wank to these images like porn-star caricatures. Some like the girl next door.

A man watching the Abbywinters.com sex display said that he loved the site for a simple reason: “No fake tits and more pubic hair.” A man who had just gotten a signed photo from a performer at the Hustler booth said he loved porn women for a simple reason: “They are like a fucking sculpture.” The slightly different preferences were trivial; more important was the fact that both men had bags full of pictures and DVDs that would mostly likely be wanking material that evening.

The Abbywinters.com booth, with its more female-friendly sexual activity, existed alongside the booths of other pornographers selling an overtly woman-hating sex, and it’s easy to tell the difference. Films that present ordinary women kissing are different from films that offer exaggerated porn stars being penetrated by three men at once. Films of women holding each other gently after sex are different from films of men ejaculating on a woman’s face. We have no doubt that the women performing for Abbywinters.com videos work under better conditions than much of the rest of the industry. But in the end, pornography is in the business of presenting women’s bodies to men for masturbation.

The many different women who engage in sex in front of a camera make that choice to be used in pornography under a wide range of psychological, social and economic conditions. The choices women make to reduce themselves to sexual objects for men’s masturbation are complex, and we should be cautious about generalizations and judgments.

The men who make up the vast majority of the industry’s customers also make choices, about which kind of objectified women are most sexually stimulating to them. Such choices that men make are considerably simpler, and generalizations are easier to make. Political judgments also are not only possible but necessary — if we are to resist male supremacy, reject the subordination of women in all its forms, and replace that corrosive conception of gender and sex with a vision of human integrity and community that can be the basis for a just and sustainable society.

Gail Dines, a sociology professor at Wheelock College in Boston, is co-editor of Gender, Race and Class in Media. Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Dines and Jensen, with Rebecca Whisnant, have produced a PowerPoint slide show on pornography that is available by writing stoppornculture@gmail.com. For more information about Dines go here. For more information about Jensen go here.
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Comments (8)add comment

Megiddo Tell said:

Let me get this right. This Jenson person shows up at a porn convention, singles out some young ladies who are unaware that he has already pre judged them, and then undoubtedly begins to badger these women until he gets the answers he wants. He then whines about being banned?

The question begs to be asked. How much money is Jenson making off the porn industry with his books, lectures, etc.?
February 10, 2008
Votes: +4

Iamcuriousblue said:

How about if the roles were reversed?
"Gail Dines, a sociology professor at Wheelock College in Boston,...Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin...."

OK, let's try out this scenario for size. How about we have a well-known sex-positive/pro-porn/sex-worker-rights activist show up one day in the classroom of Gail Dines or Robert Jensen (ie, one of *their* workplaces) and start giving them the third-degree about the rather unsavory political connections (with the religious and cultural right) of the feminist anti-porn and prostitution abolitionist movement. I bet neither of them would dig that very much and would be pretty quick to call security.
February 12, 2008
Votes: +4

Pro-Porn Feminist in LV said:

Ms. Dines sees ejaculation on
a woman's face as a male expression of hatred and degradation, but I experience ejaculation on my face as a raw expression of two beautiful things together: My face, and the result of my partner's passion. I guess it all depends on one's relationship with sex, eh?

After having the sexuality shamed, persecuted, stoned, and arrested out of us, is it any wonder that men are the majority consumers of porn? Men get no redirection for their natural sexual urges, while women are constantly reprimanded for their choices to be sexual. It is a beautiful miracle that there is a revolution of women now demanding the right to not only access and consume sexuality in venues such as pornography, escorts, and strip clubs, but to be unapologetically sexual themselves.

This is my favorite part:
"At the booth, Abbywinters.com “girls”... were chatting amiably with the fans (even playing chess with some of them, to show that the girls are smart as well as sexy)[.]"

The statement is dripping with derision, and her disdain for the actresses is so blatant it hurts. Fine irony, wouldn't you say?

Excellent point you make, Iamcuriousblue. The answer to that is that those who would question their rhetoric and discourse are not welcome at their events. Remember the anti-porn event at Wheelock.
February 16, 2008
Votes: +1

TR said:

It's not the sex, it's the gender dynamic.
I disagree with Pro-Porn Feminist's conclusions, but at least s/he engaged the central point of the article:

"...Pornography, at its core, is a market transaction in which women’s bodies and sexuality are offered to male consumers in the interests of maximizing profit..."

It's not the sex that's the problem, it's that even the more "holistic" sites like abbywinters.com capitalize on the objectification of women for the sexual purposes of men - which in turn contribute to the really fucked-up way in which gender and power interact in the world. It's a problem that I believe is also bad for men, in that it screws up their perceptions of gender and enables their continued oppression of women generally. While it's great and essential that more women are becoming sex-positive, I don't agree that the way to do it is for women to embrace present-day porn, with its present state of fucked-up gender dynamics. I would argue that porn that truly reflects sex-positive and gender-equal dynamics is certainly available - but in no way makes an impact on the direction of the market at large. Instead, the predominant impact of the greater porno market, as Jensen and Dines argue, has negative social consequences.
February 26, 2008
Votes: +2

Sheldon said:

Jensen/Dines hypocrisy
So why aren't Jensen and Dines sigling out for praise porn that has a better gender dynamic? After all, Jensen has praised the Hollywood film "Syriana" as progressive even though a film like that is not typical of Hollywood.

Jensen and Dines are strict followers of Andrea Dworkin. As such, they believe that any sexually explicit depiction of humans is inherently pro-patriarchal.
February 26, 2008
Votes: -1

TR said:

Look, the presence of sex-positive porn doesn't negate the fact that the vast majority of the industry is based on the commodification of women for the sexual gratification of men - which only contributes to the culture of misogyny in the nation and throughout the world. This is a problem that needs to be addressed. As feminists, we should consider these implications, not deny there's a problem just because we might personally enjoy porn.

I actually agree that gender-positive porn helps to undermine misogynistic porn, but to blissfully ignore all the problems associated with the latter just to lift up our gender-positive porn seems naive and rather like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.
February 28, 2008
Votes: +1

vv said:

Invite Abby Winters to the University
Why not invite the Abby Winters group to participate on a panel at either Wheelock College or UT Austin? (Pay the Abby Winters group the standard visiting artist lecture fee, along with a nice place to stay and a decent per diem... and how could they refuse?)

A trade show is for trade. Trade = commerce and commerce= money, which means not a whole lot of time for feminist discourse. It's very expensive to transport a large group of people from Australia and put them up at the Venetian Hotel. The Abby Winters booth was much better than most of the booths at that show: A breath of fresh air actually.

I'm sure the Abby Winters group could behave themselves at the university. If all else fails, the women could at least play chess in the campus coffee shop with the students. (fully clothed of course....)

March 07, 2008
Votes: +1

Steve Silver said:

Misrepresentation of Dworkin
Sheldon states: "Jensen and Dines are strict followers of Andrea Dworkin. As such, they believe that any sexually explicit depiction of humans is inherently pro-patriarchal."

This is a complete misrepresentation of Dworkin as well as Jensen and Dines. I challenge Sheldon to find me one quote from any of their work that says anything of the sort.

June 17, 2008
Votes: +0

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