Untangling the Gordian Knot: An Analysis of a Lecture by Robert Jensen

This post originally appeared at www.charlieglickman.com.

I recently attended a lecture by Robert Jensen, noted radical feminist, anti-pornography activist, and one of the producers of The Price of Pleasure, an anti-porn film that I’ve written about here and here. I went because I wanted to see what he was like in person. I’ve read some of his work, and I figured it would be useful to check his talk out.

I have quite a lot to say about his lecture. In fact, there’s so much to untangle that this post is split into multiple pages, which is a first for me. But it isn’t until all of the different threads are teased out that the larger pattern becomes apparent. So stick with me and see how it all fits together.

A Little Background

Jensen’s lecture was hosted by St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA. It’s a Catholic college, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the name of the lecture series was “Defining You”, rather than something that conveys a message of “helping you define yourself.” Not that that has anything to do with Jensen directly, but it does set the stage for his perspective on porn.

There were about 90-100 people present. Almost all of them looked female, most of them appeared White, and there was quite an age range. Several college students came with their mothers, to judge by conversations I overheard.

I decided to record the lecture because I wanted to be able to quote Jensen accurately. Anything that appears in quotes below is what he said verbatim, although I cleaned up any extraneous ums and such. There weren’t many of those, however, since Jensen is an excellent speaker.

Gender Essentialism

Right at the start, Jensen began by thanking St. Mary’s College and the Women’s Resource Center for giving him an excuse to get out of Texas. Apparently, he thinks it’s important to make it clear that although he teaches at the University of Texas, he’s not a Texan. I’m a little curious about that, especially since he reiterated it at the end, as you’ll see later.

Jensen then explained that he wasn’t going to show any images of the porn that he planned to discuss. I think this was great since it’s important to make sure that the audience knows what it’s getting. But he took that as an opportunity to do something interesting. Here’s what he said:

“First is to let you know that I’m not going to be showing any images, no actual pornography. I get different kinds of reactions. Sometimes, the women in the audience breathe a sigh of relief. And sometimes, the men say ‘oh, too bad. No porn. That’s why I came.'”

He then shared a story of one time that he said the same thing and three “big guys” who had sat in the front row looked at each other and left.

I’ll take him at his word that a few men come to his talks with the expectation of watching porn for free. I don’t think it’s all that common, and I’m willing to bet my house that it doesn’t happen nearly as often as the frequency with which women feel anxiety at the prospect of seeing explicit images or relief when they hear that they won’t. Leaving aside the possibility that some men might also feel relief or that some women might enjoy the sorts of porn he talks about, this was a pretty slick thing that Jensen did. He managed to imply that men come to his talks in order to see porn as often as women feel relief about not watching porn.

Of course, he didn’t say that in so many words, but to put those two ideas so closely together with the same qualifier (not, for example, saying that “every now and then, a few men say ‘oh, too bad. No porn. That’s why I came.'”), made it sound like those two things are comparably frequent. It’s like the patter of a three card monte dealer, distracting you so you don’t notice the sleight of hand. Since it made some of the women laugh, it looked to me as if he was creating group cohesion among the women at the expense of the men present. It also made me wonder how many of the women in the room were considering whether my motivation for coming to the lecture was to watch free porn, and what effects that has on Jensen’s audiences.

Attacking Men

After a brief disclaimer about why a man is talking about feminism, explaining that he’s using a feminist critique rather than a religious critique (an especially useful distinction to make at a Catholic university), and situating himself in the lineage of Dworkin and Dines, Jensen further built cohesion among the women at the cost of the men’s safety.

“Now it’s late at night and you’ve all had a busy day, so we’re going to have a little audience participation to make sure we’re all in the game. So the first thing I want to do is sort of chart the landscape of pornography with which we’re familiar, to get some sense of where we’re all sitting in the world. So the first thing I want to do to help us with that, is I want all of the men to line up own here and one by one, I want you to come up to the microphone and describe the pornography that you most recently masturbated to.”

lots of laughs, and nobody comes up

“No volunteers for that one? OK, that was a joke. Here’s the reason I said that, is to recognize that when we talk about a subject like pornography, we’re not talking about some abstract subject out there. We’re talking about our own lives. We know that that is the primary use that men put pornography to. I don’t say that standing above. I have my own experiences with that.”

As an educator, I can see how an exercise like this might be really useful, if enough safety has been built into a class. But this was a lecture, without any groundrules, expectations of confidentiality, or anything else that skilled teachers often do when exploring challenging topics. There also wasn’t any information given to the women about how to respond- were they going to tut tut us? Shame us? Laugh at us?

Telling the men that we’re going to come to the front of the room and make ourselves vulnerable without creating groundrules or group expectations of behavior made the experience even more unsafe. It certainly made the women laugh, which looked to me as if it helped them bond more. Whether that was Jensen’s intention or not, it exacerbated the sense that this was an us versus them experience. Further, creating group cohesion by denigrating or shaming some of the people in the audience is simply not how one creates a space for participants to feel safe enough to explore the edges of their comfort zones.

Some people will point out that men need to learn to lean into their discomfort when talking about sexism and porn, and I would 100% agree with that. But if the goal of an exercise is to show that discussions of porn are about “our own lives,” there are many, many ways to do that and build safety for all participants instead of just most of them. In addition, it’s not clear to me how this joke actually demonstrates the personal nature of porn. I can think of a half-dozen ways to make that point more clearly without demonizing men.

Sweeping Statements

Next, Jensen led a brief exercise during which he asked audience members to finish the sentence “Pornography is…” In order to give people “plausible deniability,” he invited us to respond either with the words that we think of or with words that someone else might use. That would have been fine, except that he specifically said:

“You can complete that sentence in the way that you believe pornography is, or you can complete the sentence as you expect someone you know would. Your brother, your father, your uncle.”

Not your sister, your mother, or your aunt. This creates an expectation of a dichotomy- there’s how you (presumably, a woman) will respond and then there’s how you imagine men will respond. Of course, there are some pretty clear gender-based trends in terms of how folks might answer, but they’re not universal. What message does this send to a young woman who thinks that porn is awesome? And for the men in the audience, why weren’t we invited to complete the sentence as the women in our lives might?

Implicit in these instructions is the clear message that Jensen was addressing the women in the room, rather than including the men. I absolutely understand the value of creating spaces for women to come together to explore these topics, but as far as I saw on the website, the event wasn’t listed as women-only. Further, neither of the two people associated with the university who made announcements (one of whom was a man) nor the person who introduced Jensen said anything about the event being specifically for women. And lastly, Jensen didn’t say anything along those lines, even though he certainly knew that some men were there (he and I chatted briefly about the fact that the time it was supposed to start was listed incorrectly on the website). So there was no reason for me to expect that I was intruding on a women-only space, or that Jensen wasn’t going to be addressing the entire audience.

In that light, the fact that Jensen was talking specifically to the women is especially significant. By doing so, Jensen deepened the split among the audience along gender lines, which exacerbates the sorts of sexism that he’s says he’s fighting. That’s especially ironic, given that he next explained that, in his view, “pornography is what the end of the world looks like” because he thinks that porn shows a world without empathy, without “decent human connection.” It seems to me that doing three activities that widen the chasm between men and women gets in the way of creating empathy and connection. If you want to help people build healthy relationships, shaming and vilifying are not particularly effective. And given that all three exercises were deeply rooted in the notion that men watch porn and women don’t, they reinforced gender essentialism, which I find particularly insulting.

Part of a Larger Pattern

All of this fits into a pattern of behavior that showed up over and over throughout the rest of Jensen’s lecture. It’s unfortunate, because he does have some really valid points to make. By choosing to frame his lecture in ways that reify the idea that “men are like this, and women are like that,” he might as well have done the whole Mars/Venus thing. In my experience as a sex educator, bridges are built when we start seeing the commonalities we share. I’m certainly not suggesting that we’re all the same, but rather, by talking as if the gender split is universal, Jensen did more to hinder the development of the empathy and connection that he says he wants than he did to create it.

A Paradox?

Having made plenty of generalizations and essentialist statements about gender, Jensen got into the heart of his topic. He began by explaining two trends that “everyone would agree” on that he sees as the paradox of porn:

1) Porn is more mainstream and more normalized than ever before. It shifted from being marginalized to being mainstream, and graphic sexually explicit imagery is both more widely available and accepted than ever, though not universally.

2) The content of porn is more overtly cruel and degrading to women and more overtly racist than ever before.

The first thing to ask is whether “everyone” can agree on something if not everyone has seen a representative sample of both older porn and more recent porn. While I do agree with the first, I would reframe the second as “porn that is cruel to women and more overtly racist has become more common”. It’s also not clear to me how much if its being more common is because it’s a larger portion of what’s available, and how much that is due to the greater availability of porn overall. I think that’s a really good question to look into, and I’m not sure if anyone has. In any case, unless his audience members have watched a significant amount of porn, how can he honestly say that these are things that “everyone knows”?

It’s another slick maneuver. By taking one thing that’s pretty clear to anyone who has been paying attention to mass media in the last twenty years, and then linking it to something that not everyone will be aware of from direct experience, Jensen conveyed the impression that the second one is just as true as the first and that “everyone” would agree with it. He did it smoothly enough that he managed to get a lot of heads nodding. Jensen never asked the audience to share their level of porn experience, but that doesn’t matter because “everyone knows,” right? It’s another example of how he used smooth patter to convince you that you know which shell the pea is under.

Leaving aside the logical inconsistency, here’s his paradox of porn:

“In a civilized society, how can you have a media genre that becomes more widely accepted, more mainstream, more normalized at the exact same time that the content of that media is more overtly cruel and degrading to women and more overtly racist? One would think those trends would diverge, not come together.”

Hold onto this, because it comes back later. But before we can get into it, there need to be some disclaimers.

Adding To The Confusion

First, Jensen made it clear that he’s not critiquing art. In his view, art is one of the ways that people deal with the experiences “that are beyond our rational capacity to fully understand,” such as sex and God (his examples), or birth, death, love, and more. Now, I find this a rather compelling definition of art, although Jensen’s notion of what makes things mysterious says more about him than anything else:

“The role sex plays in our lives is quite mysterious. Think of all of the things that we might have done in our lives…All of the things that we’ve done out of sexual desire that, in retrospect don’t seem very smart. Things that I’ve done in my life out of desire that, looking back, I probably should have chosen differently. I don’t know about you, but my list would be really long. Really stupid things I’ve done out of desire.

Why? We don’t really understand what sex is. It’s kind of a mystery. And I think when human beings bump up against mystery, they make art. And that’s why there’s so much art about sex.”

I don’t think that the fact that people make less-than-wise decisions around sex is what makes it mysterious. The fact that people make bad choices is unfortunate, and in my view, is a sign that we need better sexuality and life skills education, and in some cases, therapy. But people make “stupid decisions” (a rather judgmental phrase) about a lot of things, including which clothes to buy, what car to drive, or what food to eat. That doesn’t make clothing, car buying, or eating mysterious. All it means is that people make bad decisions. Or perhaps more accurately, people’s decision-making processes are mysterious.

In my view, sex is mysterious because it’s unpredictable, because we never grasp it fully, because it touches a part of our selves that few other things do, because we don’t always understand many of our motivations until afterward, because it connects to every aspect of our individual and collective lives, because there’s so much variation in how people experience it, and because our relationships to it change over time (from day to day and year to year). But that’s not what Jensen offered as an explanation for the mysterious nature of sex. All he said was that he’d made some poor choices. That seems to sell sex short.

Nevertheless, Jensen argued that one of the functions of art is to help us grapple with the mysterious, and we don’t need to worry about it because porn isn’t art. Not only do “most of us have no trouble understanding it”, the “pornographers know the difference between art and pornography, ” too.

Why Is This A Problem?

The difficulty is that Jensen made it clear that while sexual imagery for the purpose of grappling with the mysterious is acceptable, he didn’t make any room for sexual imagery for the purposes of erotic arousal. Given the long cultural history of labeling anything to do with sexuality, the body, or pleasure as dirty/sinful/shameful/disgusting/dangerous, as well as the notion that intellectual and artistic pursuits are worthwhile or more valid, I think it’s especially important to question whether Jensen’s playing into that.

One of the common claims made against radical feminism is that it’s sex-negative, which seems to confuse a lot of radical feminists I’ve spoken with. But when Jensen or others make statements about the difference between art and porn without explaining why the intention of inspiring or heightening sexual arousal is problematic, in and of itself, it’s easy to interpret that as assuming that he’s saying that arousal is bad. And that is so deeply and inextricably connected to sex-negativity that it’s hard to not jump to the conclusion that a radical feminist critique is sex-negative. (For the record, I don’t think that it has to be.)

I find that unfortunate because, as I describe below, Jensen described porn as rooted in degradation of women. I think it’s entirely possible to create commercially-produced sexual imagery for the purposes of arousal that isn’t based on degradation. While we could debate whether a particular movie or act degrades the participants, I think it’s significant than Jensen didn’t even acknowledge the existence (or, if he thinks there is none, the potential existence) of that kind of media.

Another reason that Jensen’s art/porn distinction is a problem is that it doesn’t create space for art to be arousing. To be fair, when I asked him about that after the lecture, he said that he certainly knows that it exists but that there isn’t time in a 30 minute lecture to get into those nuances. I see that as another example of how he oversimplifies the issue. All it would have taken is a simple statement like “…and of course, some art is intended to also arouse or is perceived as arousing, regardless of the intention of the artist.” Is five seconds too long to take?

This is important because someone could easily come away from his lecture thinking that if it arouses, it isn’t art. Not only has that been a justification to attack and censor artists, it can create an internal confusion if someone sees art and gets turned on. Could they wonder if there’s something wrong with them for getting aroused by art? Or would they have to deny that part of their experience in order to “properly appreciate” it? One of the reasons some folks are uncomfortable with some art is because they find it arousing and confusing. And unfortunately, Jensen’s glossing over the complexities of this reinforces that.

Both the oversimplification of trends in porn and the false binary of art/porn create more confusion, rather than less. The irony is that Jensen’s goal, as I interpret what he said to me after the lecture, was to make things easier to understand. I can certainly attest to the difficulty in capturing the many facets of these issues in easily-understood soundbites. It takes a lot of practice to be able to do it. But he’s been talking and writing on this topic for a long time, so he’s had plenty of opportunities to learn how to do it. Since he hasn’t figured out how, I can only conclude that he doesn’t actually want to include those nuances in the discussion.

Misrepresenting Porn

One of the difficulties in discussions about porn is coming to a common understanding of what the term means. Potter Stewart is famous for having said that’s it’s hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it.”

What makes something porn, according to Jensen? He said that the fundamental insight of the feminist critique is that porn isn’t just sex on film. It’s “sex in the context of domination. The primary dynamic is male domination & female subordination, eroticizing that hierarchy.” So what happens with sexually-explicit media that isn’t based on that dynamic? Jensen acknowledged that gay porn exists but since heterosexual porn is the bulk of the industry’s output, that’s what he focuses on. And he made no mention of any commercially-produced, sexually-explicit media that isn’t based on male domination & female subordination. (At the end of this post, I have lots of links to examples of that, btw.)

To prove it, Jensen described the content in porn (leaving out the mechanisms of production and question of the effects of porn on the viewers, in the interests of time). Out of the 13,000 movies that the industry has been cranking out each year for the last several years, Jensen claimed that there are two main categories: Features and Gonzo. Features include characters and some sort of a plot. Gonzo, on the other hand, gets its name from “gonzo journalism,” with its focus on breaking the conventions. It’s just sex on film with “no illusion of narrative” and tries to push the envelope of acceptability.

As someone who works in the sexuality industry, I can attest that these are two of the main categories of porn. Having said that, I’m curious to know why Jensen left out Wall to Wall (or as we call it at Good Vibrations, All Sex No Plot). There’s a lot of porn out there that isn’t interested in pushing the envelope and isn’t based on plotlines. They may center on a specific sexual act like oral sex or threesomes, they might focus on specific body types such as curvy women or redheads. And the sex that you’ll see in many of them is much like the sex in Features rather than the sex in Gonzo, but without a storyline to give it context. In fact, some Wall to Wall movies are simply compilations of sex scenes from Features. Wall to Wall is a significant portion of the industry, although nobody can give an exact number since it’s not tracked by anyone.

Within the category of Gonzo, Jensen identified five sexual practices that have become more common (and I agree with his assessment): double penetration, double anal, double vaginal, gagging, and ass to mouth. I also agree with Jensen when he said:

“…those five sexual practices are not routine in the intimate lives of most of [the people] in the audience who are sexually active in a heterosexual relationship. I’m not saying those practices never exist outside of pornography but I think that if you were to survey the American public, you would find very low occurrences of that.”

He did clarify that, to date, no survey of sexual experiences has asked about them, but I’m willing to agree that they aren’t the most common. But here’s where we diverge:

“So if these are sexual acts that don’t come out of the real world experiences of people, where do they come from and why are they there? Why did the pornography industry essentially invent these sexual practices? All of these practices at their core are about intensifying that domination and subordination dynamic.”

I know quite a few people who enjoy double penetration (simultaneous vaginal and anal intercourse) without a shred of domination and subordination. And while porn makers might like to take credit for inventing it, double penetration was mentioned in The Romance of Lust, an anonymous book that was published in four parts from 1873-1876. So it can hardly be described as a recent innovation, even if it has been popularized in modern porn.

I agree with Jensen that the way that these acts are often portrayed in porn have tones of dominance, although I’ve also seen movies in which the intention isn’t to show domination as much as “Wow! She’s so turned on, look at what she’ll do!” For many people, the ways in which intense arousal can lead folks to cross taboos is a powerful turn-on. It isn’t clear to me that that equals domination in every situation. After all, lots of people have had intense sexual experiences in which they or a partner did something at the edge of (or even beyond) their comfort zones because of the intensity the moment. And I’ve seen some porn movies where that’s what it looked like to me; there was no language of domination, there was nothing that implied that was there. It’s more of a “we’re so turned on that we’ll do anything” scenario.

For that matter, if someone is having a threesome and they like penetration with larger objects (like this dildo), then what’s the problem with having intercourse with two men at the same time? It can be logistically challenging, but some people simply like having large things in their vaginas or rectums. It may not be the most common sexual practice, but it certainly doesn’t have to be done with any intention of degradation.

The fact that Jensen has difficulty seeing how these sexual acts can have any meaning other than degradation is pretty apparent:

“I can not explain in any other way why an ass to mouth scene would be attractive to male viewers except for the degradation of that act? What else could it be? How else could that act intensify the pleasure of a man in sex, other than the degradation?”

As a sexologist, I suggest that if he can’t explain it in any other way, perhaps he might like to learn about sexuality and ask some people who do it. (I assume that he hasn’t, since he doesn’t mention ever having done so.) Given that his biography doesn’t list any actual training in sexology, human sexuality, or psychology, I wonder how his inability to explain people’s motivations is at all relevant, even though it does illustrate his willingness to make assumptions. This is especially ironic in light of his later suggestion that the way to deal with the issue of porn is to check our assumptions, as I quote below.

We can certainly have a discussion about the health risks of ATM (as it’s abbreviated in the porn world), what the meanings of taboo violations may be, and other related issues. Those are all significant and relevant issues, but in order to have those conversations, we need to be open to the possibility that people’s motivations are rarely so one-dimensional as Jensen would have us believe.

Of course, there are plenty of movies where degradation is the intention and in many of the ones I’ve seen, it looked non-consensual. I deny neither the fact that these movies exist nor the negative impact that they can have. What I take issue with, however, is the attempt to characterize these sex acts as universal in all non-Feature porn movies, and the claim that none of these can be done with any purpose other than to degrade the woman involved. It’s simply not true.

A Problem With Definitions

Making this even more difficult is that a lot of people (and certainly, almost everyone in the porn industry, the sex toy industry, the mainstream media, and legal circles) use the term “porn” to mean any sexually explicit media intended to arouse, especially if it’s sexually explicit. I think that the question of porn that is grounded in degradation or humiliation is important and well worth looking at, from a feminist perspective, from a sex-positive perspective, and from a wider social justice perspective.

But when Jensen took the word that almost everyone uses to talk about all erotic movies and then used it to talk about the subset of the genre that is based on degradation, it sounded as if he’s saying that all sexually explicit media is degrading. It seems to me that this is part of why debates on the topic seem endless. Some people say that “porn is degrading.” Others respond, “not all porn is.” And because each group is using the word differently, the discussion easily spirals out of control. It isn’t clear to me whether Jensen deliberately used the word differently than everyone else in order to confuse the issue, but it had that effect whether he meant it to or not.

Of course, Jensen isn’t the only person trying to talk about that nasty porn over there and the good kinds of sexual imagery, which may be called artistic, erotic, explicit, adult, or sensual. But as Anne Sabo writes, it’s possible to “re-vision” porn:

“Re-visioned porn…shows us sex that is pleasurable, intimate, and caring between women and men [I’d make that “people”] we can relate to. They meet their sexual partners on equal terms, and their sexual encounters\’giving and receiving\’are characterized by warmth and respect, and a mutual sense of adoration and affirmation. In contrast to the depressing porn Paul talks about [in Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families], this kind of porn offers us heartening stories about real people as they enjoy and explore their sexualities; providing us and our partners with helpful ideas and inspiration for our sexual lives.” (notes added)

In my view, the attempt to validate sexual imagery by calling it film, or erotica, or art has more to do with our deeply-rooted desire to validate sexual pleasure, rather than seeing it as a worthwhile goal, for its own sake. That doesn’t imply that all pleasure is good, since the consent and well-being of the participants and those affected by them are equally important. But when we fall into the trap of having to justify pleasure, we reinforce the sex-negativity that so much of our culture revolves around. Not to mention that the distinction is often quite classist. Black and white photos in a $75 book are art, while full-color photos in a $10 magazine are porn.

We need a way to talk about the portion of porn that is based on degradation without losing sight of the fact that that’s not inherent in the entire genre.

Further, given that the term “porn” has had that wider meaning for a lot longer than Jensen’s or Dworkin’s critique, perhaps the radical feminists could come up with a new term that specifies what they’re talking about. Giving a disclaimer at the beginning simply isn’t enough because so many people are used to the more common definition of the word. This attempt to redefine it confused things, especially since he didn’t mention anything about non-degrading porn. Alternatively, if Jensen is claiming all commercially-produced sexual imagery is degrading, then he needs to make that more explicit, rather than focusing on Gonzo and offering that as representative of the entire output of the industry.

A Simplistic Look At Racism In Porn

After talking about Gonzo as if it’s all the porn there is, Jensen turned to the issue of racism in porn. I have to say that I agree with him that porn is “the only genre where the worst stereotypes are still allowed to exist.” You’ll see movies with incredibly racist titles or themes in pretty much every mainstream porn store.

As an aside, I’ve seen a lot of movies that had incredibly offensive titles and yet, the content was unobjectionable. To forestall questions of how I, as a White person, could make that claim, some folks of color with finely honed awareness of the mechanisms of racism and sexism also watched them and decided that the actual movies were fine. It was the titles that were offensive, rather than the content or the dialogue.

From my experience in this industry, I can think of two interrelated reasons why that might be. First, when a customer is browsing at a porn shop and the DVDs are spine out, the makers need to be able to send a clear message about what the movie is about in order to catch peoples’ attention. The same thing happens on websites, where people scan the page quickly and manufacturers compete for clickthroughs. Second, stereotypes make it easy to convey that information in a way that people will get. So if you’re looking for a movie that features Black women, putting the word sistah in the title gets that across. Unfortunately, so does using far more offensive language, or using a font that looks vaguely like Chinese, or such. I don’t excuse it because it reinforces the mechanisms of racism and I want it to stop. I simply mention it because there are elements to this issue that Jensen didn’t address.

Of course, there is also a lot of porn that is blatantly and deliberately racist. It is absolutely true that “you can see every racist stereotype that you can imagine in contemporary pornography,” including the hot blooded Latina, animalistic Black women, Asian women as geisha girls (regardless of their actual ethnicities), and hypersexual & predatory Black men. You also won’t see any Asian men in straight porn since the racist stereotype is that they’re non-sexual.

Here’s where this starts to get interesting. Most “interracial” porn focuses on Black men having sex with White women, sometimes with a White man watching but not participating. Given the long history in the US around violence toward Black men who have sex with White women, Jensen admitted to having been rather at a loss to explain this trend in porn, especially since White men are reportedly the most common purchasers of this genre. Gail Dines explained to him that people who believe the racist stereotype of the hypersexual Black man will think that sex with a Black man is even more degrading to White women:

“Where do you go when you’ve exhausted the physical acts that can degrade women sexually? Well, you go into things like interracial porn, where you increase the degradation by forcing White women to submit to this demonized Black man. And there you see the racism and the sexism of the culture coming together.”

I’m quite sure that this is true much of the time. And I also don’t think it’s nearly as complete an explanation as Jensen claimed. For example, one of the reasons why people fantasize is that it can be a way to gain mastery over an issue that we feel anxiety around. Some men who enjoy cross-dressing do it because it gives them a chance to take a vacation from the rigidity of mainstream masculinity. One reason why some women have fantasies about being raped is because it allows them to imagine being sexual without having to ask for sex, and therefore avoid being sluts. (Bader’s book Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies gives a much more nuanced explanation of this complex phenomenon.) Given how much anxiety resides in US culture around Black men and White women having sex, I’m confident that for some people, their fantasies in this realm are rooted in that rather than a desire to degrade women.

This is especially likely given that some of these movies aren’t about humiliating the woman involved. Instead, they’re about putting down a White male character for not being enough for her. For example, one of the characters might be a White man who’s forced to watch. Or the dialogue might revolve around the White female character talking about how her husband doesn’t satisfy her. While the dynamics of racism are still quite apparent in these scenarios, it’s simply not true that the only foundation of these movies is the desire to degrade White women.

This is exactly the problem that I have with Jensen’s take on porn- he made a sweeping statement about a topic around which people have many different reasons, motivations, and desires. By collapsing them all into the single talking point that supports his model, he rendered that range of experiences invisible. I don’t think that his interpretation is always wrong. I just don’t think it’s always right, and Jensen consistently uses language that implies that it is. He’s trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

We could certainly have conversations about whether a particular fantasy is healthy to indulge because it helps us gain mastery over our anxiety, or whether it reinforces the fear and keeps us stuck. We could explore that on a societal level, as well as an individual level, and I think that would be a really valuable discussion to have. But to do that, we need to start with the understanding that the reasons we have these fantasies are complex. Mapping them all onto the idea that it’s only about degradation of women isn’t going to help us unpack it.

Follow the Money

The final element in Jensen’s “perfect storm of pornography” is capitalism. He and I are in a lot of agreement here:

“The success of any enterprise in capitalism is judged by one thing. And that is the ability to expand market share and increase profit. There are no moral values in capitalism…Individual people in capitalism may have moral values, but the system itself is profoundly amoral.”

In that context, of course some people will exploit racism and sexism to make money. I’m with him on that. But it’s only a perfect storm if you ignore the fact that not all non-Feature porn is Gonzo, that there can be different motivations for sex acts that he views as inherently degrading, that the issue of racism in porn is more complex than he described, and porn might not always be about degradation.

The Ongoing Pattern

I’m guessing that, by now, you’ve seen how Jensen consistently smoothed over the many ways in which his critique of porn doesn’t actually explain things as neatly as he made it sound. I don’t think that’s inherently a problem. In my view, no theory covers everything. Or to put it another way, the map is not the territory. And any honest researcher will make the limits of their model explicit. They’ll acknowledge that, at best, it explains part of the situation and offer suggestions for how to refine or extend it. But Jensen never did that. Instead, he made it seem like anything that doesn’t fit into his model is irrelevant or unimportant, and that did more to weaken his critique than anything else.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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