Writer’s Wednesday: Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity by Robert Jensen
I’ve read Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity by Robert Jensen over the past couple of weeks. The book isn’t long (just under 200 pages), but it isn’t easy reading and I couldn’t really stomach reading more than 15-25 pages at a time.
*Trigger Warning* This post will discuss issues of pornography and violence, questions that are important, but might be difficult to handle.
From the back cover:
“Pornography is a big business, a multi-billion dollar industry. It also makes for complicated politics. Anti-pornography arguments are frequently dismissed as patiently “anti-sex” – and ultimately “anti-feminist” – silencing at the gate a critical discussion of pornography’s relationship to violence against women and even what it means to be a “real man.”
In his most personal and difficult book to date, Robert Jensen launches a powerful critique of mainstream pornography that promises to reignite one of the fiercest debates in contemporary feminism. At once alarming and thought-provoking, Getting Off asks tough but crucial questions about pornography, manhood, and paths toward genuine social justice.”
My Thoughts on Pornography and Prostitution
I’ve always found the issue of pornography and, taking things a step further, prostitution very difficult. I grew up in a very religious (Christian) setting, and as a child and teenager I was against both, purely based on religious grounds. As I began questioning religion, I also began questioning the ethics, values and belief that I had previously accepted without consideration.
As many other feminists and liberals I have had a long period of thinking and believing, that whatever you do, as long as it doesn’t hurt or harm someone else, that is your own business. Consequently, if someone made the choice to participate in pornography or engage in prostitution, I didn’t feel I had the right to judge that choice or tell other people how to live their lives.
However, over the past couple of years I’ve come to realize that it isn’t that simple (nothing ever is). No choice is ever made in a vacuum. There’s a vast difference between the choice made by a middle class, educated woman to become an escort, and a lower-class, single-mum to become a prostitute. More often than not, the women who talk about their right to choose to do sex work belong to the first category, with a natural interest in justifying their choice.
But of course pornography isn’t the same as prostitution, but the two definitely intersect and that is where Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity by Robert Jensen comes in. I don’t agree with everything in this book, but it definitely raises some very powerful questions that deserve consideration.
Masculinity and Pornography
The main focus of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity is the intersection between our culture’s understanding of masculinity and pornography.
Jensen sees masculinity as highly problematic and toxic:
Be a man, then, typically translates as: Surrender your humanity.
To be a man, then, is a bad trade. When we become men – when we accept the idea that there is something called masculinity to which we should conform – we exchange those aspects of ourselves that make life worth living for an endless struggle for power that, in the end, is illusory and destructive not only to others but to ourselves.
One response to this toxic masculinity has been to attempt to redefine what it means to be a man, to craft a kinder-and-gentler masculinity that might pose less of a threat to women and children and be more livable for men. But such a step is inadequate; our goal should not be to reshape masculinity but to eliminate it. The goal is liberation from the masculinity trap.
Why do men often get incredibly hostile when people question the concept of masculinity?
The first step is simply to ask why men feel such a deep investment in the notion of masculinity, no matter how the term is defined. What are we afraid of losing? I think the answer is simple enough. Masculinity – any notion of masculinity – provides men with a way to be assured that they are not, and never will be, a woman. Masculinity guarantees a man that no matter what happens to him in the world, he is not-woman. In any culture that hates women, such a guarantee is bound to feel good, even for pro-feminist men who wouldn’t ever dare say such a thing out loud. That guarantee is also bound to keep us from fully confronting that woman-hating and experiencing our full humanity.
Some men speak in defence of masculinity and patriarchy, saying women and children need to be protected by men:
All this talk is a cover for a simple, ugly fact: Women and children don’t need to be protected by men – they need to be protected from men. This talk of protection should be seen for what it is: A protection racket. One man or group of men promises to protect women and children from other men. And to do that, these good men must have the power to protect, which means the power to control.
Being a man, and as such, being a part of the oppressing group, doesn’t mean that the system is always to the advantage of every single man, but that doesn’t change the nature of patriarchy.
Pornography and Objectification
Furthermore he questions the way pornography reduces women to objects, and in a very real sense dehumanizes them:
It hurts to know that no matter who you are as a woman, you can be reduced to a thing to be penetrated, and that men will buy movies about that, and that in many of those movies your humiliation will be the central theme. It hurts to know that so much of the pornography that men are buying fuses sexual desire with cruelty.
It hurts women, and men like it, and it hurts just to know that.
People routinely assume that pornography is such a difficult and divisive issue because it’s about sex. In fact, this culture struggles unsuccessfully with pornography because it is about men’s cruelty to women, and the pleasure men sometimes take in that cruelty. And that is much more difficult for people – men and women – to face.
Jensen brings up the fact that many of the liberal defenders of pornography, often defend indie erotica instead of looking at the mainstream pornography that make up the vast majority of what men watch.
There are obvious differences in the type of sexual activity and the level of overt denigration of women, but in both features and gonzo the same three rules apply: All women always want sex from all men, and the sexual acts they want are the ones that men demand, and any woman who doesn’t immediately recognize her true sexual nature will understand as soon as sex is forced on her. At the most basic level, contemporary mass-marketed heterosexual pornography – feature or gonzo – is the presentation of the objectified female body for the sexual satisfaction of men.
The book also points out how porn has become increasingly crude, denigrating and violent – they have to keep pushing boundaries in order to keep the porn “exciting” and “stimulating”. In the words of John “Buttman” Stagliano, aka the “father of gonzo”:
The psychology is that some people like to abuse other people, in real life, in real situations. And I worry that we’re creating art that feeds on that, that kind of reinforces that and says it’s a good thing, and makes people a little more comfortable with certain psychological things that I think they should be uncomfortable with because they’re bad.
In the words of one pornography industry executive, as to why anal sex is appealing:
Essentially, it comes from every man who’s unhappily married, and he looks at his wife who just nagged at him about this or that or whatnot, and he says, “I’d like to fuck you in the ass.” He’s angry at her, right? And he can’t, so he would rather watch some girl taking it up the ass and fantasize at that point he’s doing whatever girl happened to be mean to him that particular day, and that is the attraction, because when people watch anal, nobody wants to watch a girl enjoying anal.
To a certain degree, some pornography use pain and denigration as a way to sexually excite men:
Part of the sexual charge of some pornography is that the women are being denigrated and the men watching know that the women don’t like it. Part of the appeal of images of women being hurt in a sexual context is that the men watching know it really does hurt the women. But at the same time, the ideology of pornography is that women actually like things that may appear to be denigrating or hurtful, again because it is their nature. So men’s enjoyment of pornography is sometimes based in knowing the woman is in pain, but at the same time being told that it’s not really pain because this is how women find their true sexual selves.
Defenders of pornography often maintain that the performers have made a free choice to participate, but is that true?
A meaningful discussion of choice can’t be restricted to the single moment when a woman decides to perform in a specific pornographic film but must include all the existing background conditions that affect not only the objective choices she faces but her subjective assessment of those choices. There is not much systematic research specifically on the women who perform in pornography. But from the research and the testimony of women who have been prostituted – some of whom also are used in pornography – we know that childhood sexual assault (which often leads victims to see their value in the world primarily as the ability to provide sexual pleasure for men) and economic hardship (a lack of meaningful employment choices at a livable wage) are key factors in many women’s decisions to enter the sex industry. We know how women in the sex industry – not all, but many – routinely dissociate to cope with what they do; in one study of 130 street prostitutes, 68 percent met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. We also know that pimps often use coercion and violence to keep women working as prostitutes. In the words of one team that reviewed research from nine countries, prostitution is “multitraumatic.”
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that a specific woman in the sex industry has made a completely free and meaningful choice to participate, with absolutely no constraints or limitations on her, as woman in the industry often assert. That could be the case, but it does not change the patterns described above, and the unavoidable conclusion that some number of women in the industry – likely a majority, and quite possibly a significant majority – choose under conditions that make choice complicated. And in most cases, the consumer has no reliable way to judge which women are participating in the industry as a result of a meaningfully free choice. When a consumer plays a DVD at home, he has no information that could help him make such a judgment. Therefore, he most likely is using a woman whose choice to perform was not meaningfully free.
So what about the women who maintain that this is their own, free choice?
While we should listen to and respect those voices, we also know from the testimony of women who leave the sex industry that often they are desperate and unhappy in prostitution and pornography but feel the need to validate it as their choice to avoid thinking of themselves as victims. In a survey of 130 people working as prostitutes, 68 percent were identified as meeting the psychological criteria for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, and 88 percent stated that they wanted to leave prostitution and described what they needed in order to escape. As I argued already, the question of choices, and the measure of freedom women have in their choices, is complicated. Respecting the decisions women make does not mean we should ignore the pattern of women speaking quite differently about those decisions later. In a complex world, the way we make sense of our lives is, not surprisingly, full of paradoxes and contradictions.
Overstepping Women’s Boundaries
Another scary consequence of pornography is the way it teaches men to continuously push and overstep the boundaries of women, to a degree where the boundaries of consent becomes muddled:
Rape is defined legally as penetration without consent. In reading the section on rape in the Texas Penal Code, I am reasonably sure I have never violated that law. But I also realize that much of my sexual training as a man was about gaining women’s consent to sex in whatever way one could. It’s illegal to compel a woman “to submit or participate by the use of physical force or violence” to sex, but as a young man I was taught that sometimes you have to push a little harder when she at first says no, because she really wants it. It’s illegal to impair a woman’s judgment “by administering any substance without the other person’s knowledge,” but as a young man I was taught that sometimes you have to spike a woman’s drink with extra liquor or encourage her to drink one more beer, just to get her in the mood. Like many young men, I was taught that a woman’s “no” to sex could mean “no,” or it could mean “maybe,” or it could mean “yes, but you have to come get me.” The only way to know if “no means no” was to push. Men push, and women either push back or give in. Even if I never played it particularly well, that’s the game I was taught to play.
Pornography’s Affect on Relationships
According to Psychologist Ana Bridges, who specializes in the impact of pornography on romantic relationships:
Studies on compulsive pornography use suggest that viewers habituate (become used to) certain images and sex acts, and thus require more and more deviant materials to achieve sexual arousal. My own research suggests that the harm created in relationships when one person uses pornography while the other does not can be substantial and devastating. … Still others were disturbed that their partners were asking them to participate in sexual acts seen in explicit videos, without regard to whether or not she would find these acts unpleasant or degrading. On the whole, these women reported a strong decline in intimacy and connection with their partners, leaving many to consider breaking off the relationship altogether.
I am against pornography in part because I believe that the rewards of domination, which are seductive, are in the end illusory. I believe that love (based on a commitment to equality articulated in our core philosophies and theologies), compassion (based on our common humanity), and solidarity (based on our need to survive together) can anchor our lives at every level, from the intimate to the global. I believe those things in part because of my necessary faith in “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln put it, but also because of my experience. In my life, weighed down as it is sometimes in struggle and failure, I have experienced that intimacy. Once experienced, it’s difficult to return to the illusory.
Pornography claims to take us on a path to a door that will open into more creative erotic space, into imagination, into a garden of sexual delight. Just open this door, pornography tells us, and you will step into a more expansive world. But it turns out that going through the pornographic door typically leads into a prison cell, with four thick walls and no window. It is a dead end. It doesn’t give a way to expand our imaginations but a way to constrain them, handing us a sexual script that keeps us locked up and locked down. The pornographers walk away with the money; and we are left with the illusion of pleasure that comes at the expense of joy.
What Can Men Do?
Robert Jensen has 6 things that every man can do:
- Most obviously, we must never use or threaten to use violence against a partner or child. Beyond that, we must examine our behavior for more subtle attempts at controlling the behavior for more subtle attempts at controlling the behavior of a partner, such as insulting a partner in a way designed to undermine self-esteem, withholding affection to gain a desired result, or demanding sexual activity in the face of resistance.
- We must stop supporting men who batter, rape, and abuse. Often men talk fairly openly about their abusive behavior. When that happens, we must make it clear that the friendship or work relationship will not be business as usual until the abuse ends and steps are taken to prevent it in the future.
- If we ever have reason to suspect someone is being abused, we must offer support and assistance in whatever way the person can accept.
- We must stop telling or laughing at misogynistic jokes.
- We must stop using pornography, patronizing strip clubs, or using prostituted women.
- We must remove ourselves from relationships of domination that institutionalize the subordination of women. When men in our lives talk of such activity, we must challenge them to think and act differently
I’m still not entirely certain how I feel about these things, but I think Jensen raises a lot of very important points, topics that are being ignored instead of discussed.
What do you think? How do you view pornography? Prostitution? Society’s view on masculinity?