In the more than three decades that I have been advocating a radical feminist critique of pornography, the most common question I have heard from women is: “Why do men like pornography so much?”
Not all men use pornography, of course, and some women do as well. But people in the pornography industry know that the majority of their customers are men. Because of this, most pornography reflects what pornographers believe men will watch—and come back to watch again. This, in turn, influences the contours of contemporary sexual imaginations. Many women find what men watch to be distressing, and they particularly want to know why male partners and male children ignore their distress, find pornography so enticing, and use it so routinely.
The simple answer is: because pornography helps produce orgasms, reliably and efficiently.
“But there’s no intimacy in that kind of sexual experience,” many women point out. “Exactly,” I respond. Pornography offers a man not just sexual pleasure, but also what feels like total control over himself and women. It is a quintessential sexual experience in patriarchy—pleasure without vulnerability.
But that sense of control, over self and others, is both an illusion and a delusion, and men would benefit from understanding this. I certainly have. When I encountered a radical feminist critique of pornography, it struck me as the most compelling analysis of sexually explicit material available—which is just as true today and is more necessary than ever.
Let’s start with a bit of history.
In 1979, during what is generally referred to in the United States as “second-wave feminism,” Andrea Dworkin published Pornography: Men Possessing Women, a landmark book that analyzed the patriarchal underpinnings of the expanding pornography industry. That same year, Women Against Pornography marched on Times Square in New York City to protest the dominant culture’s embrace of pornography and to challenge the so-called ethic of sexual liberation. The emerging radical feminist anti-pornography movement demanded accountability from both the pornographers and the mostly male pornography consumers.
The defense of pornography: sex is a natural part of human life. Pornography is produced for consenting adults who are entitled to free speech. Don’t be a prude.
The movement’s response, articulated so powerfully by Dworkin, was that pornography is not “just sex” but a vehicle for eroticizing the domination/subordination dynamic that is central to institutionalized male dominance. It does not free our sexual imaginations but distorts them, keeping us trapped within the patriarchal project of protecting male power. The pornography industry harms women in multiple ways: those used in making it, those hurt by men who use it, and those living in a society in which subordination became sexual entertainment.
The radical feminist challenge to male dominance was the subject of intense debate in the late 1970s and ‘80s. But the industry and the pro-pornography ideology—espoused not only by men but also by some in the women’s movement—prevailed. As a result, pornography has proliferated.
Take a minute to consider the curious nature of pornography’s “success”: an industry that grows more ruthless in its exploitation of women has become normalized. And at the same time, a critique that offers the most compelling way to understand the industry is marginalized. Why? There is a simple explanation: patriarchal attitudes are woven so deeply into the fabric of our lives that many cannot see their effects, and many others choose to turn away rather than face them.
Today, not only in the United States but anywhere in the world where people are online, pornography is more easily accessible to anyone than ever. It has become more overtly cruel and degrading to women and more overtly racist. Images of men’s sexual exploitation of women are routine, and sexual violence (real or simulated) remain common. Aggressive sex, carried out against a background of misogynist slurs against women, is routine. Scenes of women being aggressively penetrated (orally, vaginally, and anally) by multiple men at one time are routine. Oral sex designed to make women gag is routine. My longtime friend and co-author Gail Dines calls it “body-punishing sex,” and it is a staple of the industry.
Pornographers are adept at skirting what laws remain. Child pornography—sexually explicit material made using minors, what is now increasingly called “child sexual abuse material” to make it clear that it is a record of an assault—is illegal everywhere in the United States. It is risky to produce, and this profitable industry is risk-averse. Instead, they produce what Dines calls “pseudo-child pornography”: young-looking adult women presented in youthful outfits set in storylines like babysitting.
If pornographers have a “creative” problem today, it’s that they have run out of ways to intensify the experience of pornography. One producer told me in the early 2000s that he had no idea what new trends in content might be coming because he couldn’t imagine anything more extreme than what existed. “I’ve filmed everything that I know how to do to a woman’s body,” he said, with a shrug.
One can find pornography with less violent themes, some produced by people who identify as feminist and egalitarian. Some pornography targets female viewers. There is a considerable amount of pornography produced for gay men, and a lesser amount for lesbians. But the bulk of the market focuses on heterosexual sex for predominantly male viewers, much of which sexualizes domination and subordination.
Nearly five decades after radical feminists first highlighted the misogyny and racism in pornography, and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, one might expect some recognition that the feminist anti-pornography movement was right.
But today the radical feminists who first made those arguments—Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Diana Russell, Laura Lederer—are marginalized not only in the dominant culture but also in women’s studies and gender studies departments. Postmodern and liberal approaches that don’t challenge the pornography industry (and sometimes celebrate it) now dominate academic and political feminism in the United States. At the University of Texas at Austin, where I taught for many years, several female students told me that when they offered a radical feminist critique of pornography in their women’s studies classes, other students—and even some faculty members—refused to engage. Some told me they just kept quiet to avoid being shunned by classmates. One told me that classmates laughed without offering a response.
But the radical feminist critique of pornography is not dead.
Radical feminism continues to challenge the patriarchal claim that men have a right to own or control women’s sexuality and reproductive power. Two intellectual and activist feminists who have been important in deepening my understanding are Gail Dines, the founder of the education/advocacy group Culture Reframed and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, and Rebecca Whisnant, a philosophy professor and co-editor of Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. Rejecting pornography is not prudish but progressive, they argue, and resistance to pornography is not an attack on freedom but a call for greater freedom.
What is lost when society continues to turn away from the radical feminist critique, even as that analysis becomes more compelling than ever? Girls and women—along with some boys and vulnerable men—suffer when sexual exploitation is not only tolerated but celebrated. But all men lose, as well, because radical feminism liberates us all and is a gift to us. Radical feminism offers us a way to be fully human rather than claiming the power that patriarchy promises us. I can report that such self-reflection is liberating—but it is also difficult, intensely painful at times, and a lifelong struggle.
Why go through all that? The most obvious answer is that we should be motivated to act on the moral principles we claim to hold, that all people have a right to dignity and equality. But it may not be so obvious why embracing radical feminism, and challenging our own privilege, makes men’s lives better.
I want to return to my initial claim: the sense of control over others and self that pornography promises is both an illusion and a delusion. I use these terms not with clinical precision—I am not a psychologist—but in an everyday sense. By illusion, I mean a misperception of the world. By delusion, I mean a deeper misunderstanding about something that is fundamental to one’s way of being in the world.
The illusion of pornography is that we control the sexual images we consume. We may feel as if we are in control of pornography, yet pornography controls us. What seems like variety is the repetition of a few sexual scripts, mostly about male dominance. We feel as if we are choosing, but pornography constrains choices. Our imaginations narrow rather than expand. And for those men who find themselves falling into patterns of habitual use, control evaporates. We may want to stop masturbating to pornography, but we find ourselves pulled back into it, in ways we cannot control.
The notion that men can flourish without intimacy is also a delusion, a painful one that denies something that is fundamental to being fully human. Intimacy becomes impossible if we cannot make ourselves vulnerable, and pornography is a flight from vulnerability, from being truly open in the presence of another person and even really seeing that person. Using pornography allows men to hide, to escape into a solitary place that provides nothing beyond a quick and efficient path to orgasm.
Many men are trained to fear feminist challenges to male dominance, which can feel like challenges to our identity. I invite men to consider the possibility that those feminist challenges are the key not only to women’s liberation but to our own.
Robert Jensen, an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. He can be reached online at robertwjensen.org.