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Feminists Gone Wild! A response to porn critic Gail Dines

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at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo at the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas Friday, January 7, 2011.
Photo: Leila Navidi
Lynn Comella

Sociologist Gail Dines, the author of Pornland: How Porn Hijacked Our Sexuality, thinks the porn industry has a lot to answer for. By her account, it’s a world filled with repulsive acts, extreme imagery and degrading depictions of women. It glorifies misogyny, sells sexism for profit and thumbs its nose at feminism. Its cumulative effects are harmful, and the toll it takes on human sexual intimacy is detrimental.

Pornland: How Porn Hijacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines

I’m not sure what kind of porn Dines watches, but it is clearly very different from the porn I watch, and the porn that many women and men I know choose to watch.

Dines recently penned an anti-pornography screed for the British newspaper The Guardian that appeared just days before the start of the 2011 Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. In it, she catalogs a long list of grievances against the porn industry. She takes to task—in her typically caustic, take-no-prisoners manner—the “predatory capitalists” who fill the “airless, poorly lit conference rooms” at the Sands Expo and Convention Center to discuss niche markets, web traffic and how to grow their customer bases. “What excites these guys (and it was overwhelmingly guys),” she writes, recalling her visit to the Expo in 2008, “is not sex, but money.”

It was classic Gail Dines—a rhetorically embellished regurgitation of the same boilerplate arguments about the evils of pornography that I have been reading by anti-pornography feminists for years. Her final paragraph, however, made me bristle:

The In the Company of Women seminar at AEE 2011.

One of the seminars at this year’s expo is called In the Company of Women. Here academics will mix with pornographers to share ideas on how to develop niche products targeted to women. I’m sure there will be lots of talk about how women can be empowered by watching porn, because the pornographers, being the savvy businessmen they are, like nothing more than telling women that porn is actually good for them. This is their “trick,” and one we must resist if we want to replace the plasticised, formulaic and generic images of the pornographers with an authentic sexuality based on our own experiences, longings and desires.

There are numerous mischaracterizations that run throughout Dines’ commentary, but none is more personally offensive than her blatant misrepresentation of this seminar. Her description is an utter fabrication designed to conjure up a bogeyman where none exists. And frankly, she should know better.

Unlike Dines, I attended this year’s Expo (and the last three Expos, as well). But more to the point, I moderated and helped organize the women’s seminar for the second year in a row. Even a cursory glance at the Expo program—which was available online, and which I assume Dines looked at because she referenced the seminar by name—would have revealed that joining me on stage were two feminist sex toy retailers, a feminist sexologist and author, a female porn producer and a male sex toy designer—the first man ever invited to be part of the women’s seminar. It was hardly the cesspool of women-hating “tricksters” that Dines had cooked up for readers.

But here’s the thing: Dines’ overarching argument about the devastating effects of pornography, both in her book and her writing in the popular press, relies on presenting the porn industry as a one-trick pony, a monolithic entity devoid of diverse market niches, ethical business practices, likable men, women with autonomy and anything resembling feminism.

Dines takes a slice—the world of hard-core “gonzo” porn, which, according to her, is porn that “depicts hard-core, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased”—and presents it as emblematic of an entire industry. This is akin to talking about Hollywood while only referencing spaghetti Westerns; or making sweeping glosses about the music industry when what you are really talking about is hair metal. It’s an approach that makes for neither a sound argument nor good sociology.

As scholar Shira Tarrant notes in a recent review of Pornland, Dines fails to address counterevidence that might complicate her story of porn. According to Tarrant, “Dines is silent about feminist porn. She presumes that women who watch are coerced by the men in their lives or duped by a culture that rewards women for exploiting themselves.” Dines omits any discussion of queer and gay porn, and makes broad claims about porn’s hold on men’s psyches that are difficult, if not impossible, to prove.

Had Dines actually been in Vegas and attended the women’s seminar this year, she might have learned a thing or two about the women’s market for sex toys and pornography, including the fact that female entrepreneurs have helped bring a concern with quality products, sex education, ethical porn production and alternative sexual imagery to the adult industry. Overlooking these things or, worse, pretending they don’t exist is like narrating a history of college athletics without any mention of Title IX.

More than just a niche, the women’s market has been at the forefront of adult industry trends for the past decade. Feminist porn producer Tristan Taormino, who directs her own line of films for Vivid Entertainment, the biggest porn company in the world, is a case in point. Taormino is a multiple AVN Award winner. She prioritizes safe, respectful and positive work environments, which includes collaborating with performers about whom they want to work with and what their scenes will consist of. Her films feature hot and sweaty sex, female orgasms and, yes, genuine intimacy.

There are dangers in trading in gross generalizations about any social phenomena. There are also dangers when academic researchers are blinded by foregone conclusions—e.g., porn is bad—to the extent that competing evidence is ignored, events are misrepresented and claims that cannot be readily substantiated are trotted out as fact.

Parachute journalism such as Dines’ Guardian piece is a dubious practice at best; but when it is combined with a predatory brand of anti-pornography feminism and flimsy research, its effects can be downright toxic.

Lynn Comella is a Women’s Studies professor at UNLV.
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