UPDATE: See the note at the bottom about porn’s legal status in Australia.
As Violet mentioned in a Nibble earlier this week, anti-porn crusader Gail Dines‘ May 18 piece in the Sydney Morning Herald got negative responses not just from many of our fellow sex-positive writers but from commenters at the Herald itself. From the looks of the comments in the Herald, readers in Australia (where porn is
de facto legally restricted, but easily available*) aren’t having it. Dines’ first misstep may have been in attacking home-grown Australian wonder AbbyWinters.com, which is about as sex-positive and mellow as one can get in the realm of sexually explicit commercial porn. But she made up for that error by grabbing plenty of vague, cherry-picked and invented “facts” from the enormous arsenal up her ass.
For me to disagree with Dines is not news — though Dines’ article does, to me, put the Herald‘s May 6 article on the Feminist Porn Awards in sort of an Orwellian light. Responses from the sex-positive world have been strong, as they are whenever Dines opens her mouth. Never mind that The Sexacademic Jessi Fischer laid the groundwork for exposing Dines as a wingnut, when Fischer ran an awesome piece earlier this month on compulsive porn viewing from a scientific perspective. The Herald published a nice response piece by Joel Tozer, and Ms. Naughty and others point out the brain-bending generalizations required to get stats like the ones Dines trots out (when she can be bothered to trot out stats, rather than just stating the kind of received wisdom “everyone knows”).
For every population except squicked-out anti-porn commandos, Dines has all the credibility of a mad dog at a peace rally. She can’t say the word “porn” without foaming at the mouth. In all her writings, Dines expresses rampant anti-male sexism, and cherry-picks her information when she can’t be bothered to make it up. When she wants to conjure some violin music, she calls up some vague generalization about women she meets at her classes and presentations, and how “they” feel.
But the plural of anecdote is not data; the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, and when Dines can’t even be bothered to relate specific anecdotes, she summarizes them…and guess what? Her summaries of the experiences of the “women” “she” “meets” suspiciously support the “truths” about male-female interaction that Dines has already told you she already decided.
But none of that is news. What troubles me most about Dines in this Herald article is her use of the term “normal,” which is, to my way of thinking about sex education, absolutely the most dangerous term there is. Dines uses it, here, to completely disregard any flavor of female desire that doesn’t exactly match what I presume must be her own.
A professor of sociology and women’s studies, Dines shows a shocking disregard for women’s experience. She infantilizes “sluts” and women who consume porn (about whom I’ve never seen her make more than a passing reference) as women making not their own choices, but choices dictated exclusively by the pressures of men. Meanwhile, men make choices based exclusively on the pressures of porn. Which are driven by the desires of men. It’s a classic circular argument that places the responsibility for men who behave reprehensibly on the shoulders of women who self-identify as sluts, and of men who don’t always feel like making eye contact with their girlfriends during sex.
But Dines is far more dangerous than that, because after decades teaching women’s studies, she doesn’t seem to have learned the explosive danger of the term “normal.”
Her comment about gonzo porn that “The feelings and emotions we normally associate with such an act – connection, empathy, tenderness, caring, affection – are missing, and in their place are those we normally associate with hate: fear, disgust, anger, loathing and contempt…” display a classic technique of manipulatively persuasive speakers trying to hype their audience for a moral panic — from the Crusades on down.
In doing this, Dines turns her journey into one of Tragedy Tourism, in which she assigns the reader, non-consensually, the status of tourist. Her statement is not addressed to those people for whom “such an act” does not “normally” have “connection, empathy, tenderness, caring, affection” associated with it. Any sex that is not built on such emotions, in Dines’ view, is “abnormal.”
And when, in the Sydney Morning Herald article, she enlists the reader in her campaign by asserting that “we” “normally” associate particular “feelings and emotions” with “such an act,” it flies in the face of Dines’ own assertion in another of her recently internet-famous hate-fests, the “Slutwalk” article in the Guardian, in which she said that women should not be fighting for the right to call themselves a slut (or be a slut, whatever that means) without getting raped.
Instead, claimed Dines and Wendy J. Murphy in the Guardian, women should be fighting “for liberation from culturally imposed myths about their sexuality that encourage gendered violence,” which in her view is something different than the right of women to choose what they wear and still be safe from bodily violence.
To Dines, “culturally imposed myths about their sexuality” means specifically the myth that women like sex, or, to meeet Dines and Murphy much more than halfway, the myth that women like the kind of sex specifically portrayed in pornography, since the sum total of Dines’ and Murphy’s “case studies” in the Guardian article are that they hear from women who feel pressured for sex. “They have been told over and over that in order to be valued in such a culture, they must look and act like sluts, while not being labeled slut because the label has dire consequences including being blamed for rape, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and self-mutilation.”
But who’s doing the blaming here? Dines and Murphy are the ones who just blamed sluts for eating disorders and self-mutilation! I’m slut-positive — and, just speaking for myself, I blame eating disorders and self-mutilation on a sick, diseased Patriarchal society, dysfunctional mental health and health insurance systems, rampant soulless Capitalism, sex-phobic family interactions, sex-silencing religious structures, a culture that teaches girls they are less than boys…need I go on?
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to demonize the women Dines enlists, for all I know without their consent, as “straw men” in her assault on porn. Though Dines silences these women by generalizing about them, that’s not their fault. Women who feel pressured to be sluts have my compassion; the media has some fucked-up ideas out there, and pressure to conform can be hugely painful.
In addition, specific women who feel pressured by specific men to have sex also have my compassion — and no, I’m not being sarcastic. Being pressured by anyone for anything is uncomfortable; it’s far more uncomfortable when one is socialized, as a female, to be a people-pleaser, and to define one’s self vis-a-vis the attention of men. It’s still more uncomfortable if, having self-confidence undermined by a society that teaches girls they’re less than boys, and that girls who fuck are even less than that, you’re then told by a boy or a man with ulterior motives that your accession to him performing sex acts on you is something you’re expected to dole out in return for his precious kindness in wasting his time on you, or giving you a ride home, or buying you a drink, or getting you in to this killer party. That kind of brain-teasing mental manipulation sucks, and if anyone out there thinks sexually active women in the U.S. don’t endure a hell of a lot of double messages, they’re not paying attention.
And those men who specifically pressure or manipulate specific women in the interest of “getting” sex from them — those guys are assholes, utter assholes. If you don’t regard women as humans, you shouldn’t be sleeping with them.
But if a specific woman feels pressured to be a slut, in a vague, non-specific, overriding social or cultural way, because sluts get more attention from men? Well, that can hardly be blamed on internet porn. Guys also paid attention to sluts in the seventies, as I recall.
I would assert that one of the most dominant and pervasive myths about female sexuality is the idea that women don’t like sex. Its close corollaries are “good girls don’t like sex” and “normal women don’t like sex,” and “women don’t like abnormal sex.” Whether that is one of the chief myths that creates gendered violence, I don’t know, but it’s certainly true that what follows close on that myth’s heels is the idea that, by liking sex, by liking “abnormal” sex, or by liking “normal” sex but liking it an “abnormal” amount, women abdicate their right to physical sanctity. For a women’s studies professor, Dines sure seems to blame the victim a lot. Is this woman friends with Camile Paglia?
Or, to see it another way, women abdicate their right to physical sanctity for liking sex without it being the kind of sex that “normal” women like. Women place themselves in jeopardy, says Dines, by being “sluts,” which to Dines means that their sex is not about, or not just about, “connection, empathy, tenderness, caring, affection.” That is to say, the crime of sluts is by liking sex without letting Gail Dines decide what kind of sex they have.
In Dines’ view, Women who choose to be “sluts,” especially proud sluts, are partly responsible for rape — not just their own, but all rape.
Because they like sex differently than Dines’ so-called “normal” women, “sluts” undermine their right not only to their own physical sanctity, but the sanctity of all women, in Dines’ view. That sounds like a pretty narrow definition of “normal,” and one that Dines has single-handedly decided on.
But how normal is normal, Gail? In case you haven’t noticed, “normal” sexual relationships are very often royally fucked up! Did Dines burst forth from Zeus’s skull the same year as AOL, or does she honestly not remember that sexual relationships were fucked up before the internet — even, believe it or not, before commercial porn?
In addition to Dines’ claim about what “normal” emotions “we” associate with sex are, there’s her close follow-on claim that in gonzo porn, “The man ‘makes hate’ to the woman, as each sex act is designed to deliver the maximum amount of degradation.” (Get it? “Makes hate,” as opposed to “makes love,” which Dines believes is “normal.”)
In “summarizing” for us the entire genre of gonzo porn, I’m not sure who she’s describing this stuff for — since anyone can hit Google and have all the free gonzo porn they want on their hard drive in about zero minutes flat. Even in porn-hostile Australia — where her attack on gonzo porn seems to be based on the fact that she objects to Abby Winters drawing a crowd at the Adult Entertainment Expo.
But if Abby Winters is about “making hate,” Dines has set herself up not just in opposition to the visceral and (she perceives) overtly misogynistic porn she describes as “gonzo.” She’s opposing the mildest, most “normal” porn there is. Or is her obvious homophobia such that any “girl-girl” sex exists solely for the pleasure of men? What about the ten zillion sex worker women I’ve known over the years who prefer “working” with other women?
Ooops!! Those are just anecdotes, right? Most people out there probably don’t know any porn stars, or at least don’t know as many as I do. But they almost certainly have internet connections, which is all it takes to get a first-hand look at the horrifying realities Dines is talking about. And there, she’s undermined her own argument.
See, when you’re trying to fuel a moral panic about bath salts, that’s one thing; most people who read an article won’t hit the street to score some bath salts at the local Circle-K, then go home and snort a few lines to see if this dangerous drug is really as dangerous as Doctor Oz says.
But in the internet era, when talking about porn, Dines is at a bit of a disadvantage. Anyone who wants to can watch the stuff and make their minds up for themselves. You can type Abby Winters into your browser (try it!). You can also go to YouPorn or wherever, and hit the “gonzo” category, or if you’re really savvy you can type “hardest gonzo porn” into Google and see what really apocalyptic brain-searing weirdness you can dig up.
If they do either or both of those things, people already inclined to hold Dines’s view that “gonzo” porn is about hate will think what they already thought. They’ll either be outraged by it or decide, “Um…yeah, I already knew that.” Or they’ll look at a few Abby Winters videos of perky, makeup-free college-age girls having perky, makeup-free, college-age sex. They’ll scratch their heads and say “I thought this stuff was about “making hate.”
But doesn’t Dines’ claim that “There is no room for porn in a just society” also torpedo her attempt to paint specific porn as objectionable? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Dines has shot herself in the foot by shooting off her mouth. Her arguments tend to be loaded with self-contradictory hand-waving, but when someone like Dines starts throwing around ideas like “a just society,” I can’t help but feel my elf ears perk up.
See, I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about what actually constitutes a “just society.” In fact, these were the last seven truly incredible books I read on different societies. They’re about Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Iran, the cocaine trade in Colombia, the diamond trade in Sierra Leone and the genocide of the Zaghawa people in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Think those regions are unconnected to Gail Dines? Think again. She’s the one who decided she knows what constitutes a “just society.” I, personally, haven’t got the foggiest. But if she wants to talk about what an unjust society looks like…there, I think I’m getting to be an expert.
What my studies this year all have in common are that they’re all of phenomenally “unjust” societies. Saudi Arabia and Iran are both fundamentalist dictatorships created explicitly by the Western thirst for oil resources (albeit, with Iran, indirectly). In both nations, the “just society” Dines seeks has been built — porn is illegal.
There, in Saudi Arabia and Iran and the similarly Sharia-governed Sudan, women’s safety doesn’t hinge on whether they dress like “sluts.” It hinges on whether the religious police decide to go after them, for phenomenally arbitrary and impractical reasons that shift not just with the tides of society, but with the brain farts of the religious police, their male relatives, thugs with powerful connections, and random judges potentially of a different religious sect than the victim.
In their randomness, the excuses used to brutally enforce female subjugation in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, and to punish those women perceived to have transgressed, can be compared to the reasons that “victim-blamers” often ascribe to a woman’s victimization in the United States. In Saudi Arabia, one might hear “She allowed a man not her immediate relative to be given a fully-clothed photograph of her; clearly she deserved to be raped.” In Western culture, you might hear an accusation about short skirts, push-up bras, walking alone after dark, sending too many texts or showing nipples on your Facebook page.
In more acutely-disintegrating countries like Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, the Darfur region specifically and to a lesser extent Colombia in the ’80s, First World “commodity capitalism” has created a realm where developing countries are turned into slaughterhouses because of the First World’s decision to support unstable and dictatorial regimes that give private enterprise more favorable terms, allowing the West to exploit resources (platinum, and soon diamonds in Zimbabwe, diamonds in Sierra Leone, emeralds and cocaine in Colombia) rather than creating genuine democracy.
To their citizens, those three nations are among the most dangerous places on Earth. There, women’s safety doesn’t hinge on whether they dress like “sluts.” It hinges on whether armed thugs with AK-47s show up in their village to rape and murder them. The questionable attitudes that such men display toward women cannot be blamed on internet porn.
Women are suffering and dying worldwide, and women in the U.S. (and everywhere) are subjected to sexual harassment, rape, unwanted pregnancy, lack of healthcare, and gender-based economic disadvantage every fucking day. But Gail Dines has chosen as her target the man who looks at too much internet porn, the woman who wishes to reclaim the word slut. She sees a plague of internet pornography only because she is, from her list of publications, completely blind to the real dangers of being a woman anywhere in the world.
Suggesting that internet porn caused any significant portion of the plague of violence against women — which has been going on since before history started — is ludicrous.
If internet porn is damaging men’s brains? Well…it seems to me that our brains must have been pretty fucking damaged to begin with, Gail.
Empowered by a First World press that has repeatedly and willfully abdicated its responsibilities when it comes to the rights of women in the non-Western world — especially poor women — Gail Dines gets to kick back in the comfort of a tenured position at a university.
Locked in her ivory tower, Dines gets to reduce female personal freedom — and for that matter, for what it’s worth to her (if anything) male personal freedom — to an abstraction.
Using hysteria to promote her book, Dines gets to a build an apocalypse of men who, by her assertion, will display the “sickness” of finding their minds wandering during sex.
Her bourgeois, privileged, simple-minded value system reduces feminism to whether men look their girlfriends in the eye when they fuck them.
And if, as Dines asserts, looking at porn means a man would rather rather look his girlfriend in the tits, or ask politely if he can pull her hair?
That criminal act, to Dines, demands an entire career’s worth of activism. And a world without it is, thus far, Gail Dines’ only stated requirement for a “just society.” After a lifelong career in sociology and women’s studies, that’s the only published recommendation Gail Dines has for a “just society.” No porn.
I can’t help but wonder what other restrictions a Gail Dines Utopia would offer us?
*UPDATE 23 May 2011 Re: porn’s legality in Australia: In the piece above, I originally said that porn was “de facto” illegal in Australia, which I knew at the time was not true. I meant “de jure,” sort of, which is to say “in name.” But even before I wrote that, I knew that porn in fact is not exactly de jure illegal; it’s sort of de facto-de jure illegal, while being de jure-de facto legal. Confused yet? So was I. Two Australian readers helpfully clarify in the comments. First, reader David Jackmanson:
Reader Robbie Swan further clarifies, and adds an interesting context to Dines’ showing up in an Australian paper:
The Australian Law Reform Commission is currently undertaking the first review of Australia’s Classification Act since it was introduced in 1995. The government has been forced to this position because the Classification Act is completely broken and large quantities of adult material is being sold unclassified. The police are not interested in prosecution because many of them like to watch porn and magistrates are over big fines for selling it in the states because many of them watch it as well. We could be about to see an outbreak of common sense and public opinion on censorship for the first time in years. So the fight back is on. Its no coincidence that Dines’ is here at the moment.
Of course, the status of porn in Australia has long been confusing to cavemen. Back in ’08 there was some whacked stuff going on with internet filtering, and Tony Comstock has famously written on several occasions about his experiences with Australian film festival restrictions. As it turns out, the legal status of porn in Australia is, potentially, very much in play.