Over on the Ms Magazine blog, there’s a post exploring whether porn is racist, which was sparked by some of the things that Gail Dines has said about the industry. And in among the various comments, Dines herself includes a link to the chapter in her book on race and the porn industry. Since I believe in both giving different perspectives a fair shake and not talking about things that I haven’t checked out myself, I read through it. She also has another sample chapter on the topic of growing up female in a culture influenced by porn.
At the risk of saying something that may surprise some folks, I actually agree with quite a bit of what Dines says. I know that there’s racism in the porn industry, both from my own observations and from talking with people of color who work as porn performers. I agree with Dines when she says that the shift towards hypersexualizing young girls (both legal adults and minors) is a serious problem because it skews their perceptions of what sexual choices are available to them, among other things. Like her, I’m really concerned with the way that alcohol and pluralistic ignorance lead to young adults having sex that they don’t necessarily want to because they believe that “everyone else is doing it,” rather than because it is an expression of authentic desire.
So yes, I think that Dines has some really valuable things to say. And I also think that she goes awry in some unfortunate ways.
For example, Dines clearly has a view of sex that leaves little room for sexual diversity.On page 105, during her discussion of Sex and the City and how it presents unhealthy views of male sexuality, she writes:
Porn-type sex is a fixture on the show, which regularly features plotlines about men who like to watch porn as they have sex, men who are aroused by female urination, men who want group sex, men who can only get aroused by masturbating to porn, men who are into S&M, men who want anal sex, and men who are only willing to have hookup sex and not a relationship.
Notice how she takes behaviors that would be more likely to have implications for someone’s mental & sexual well-being, such as being unable to get aroused without porn, and lumps them together with behaviors that have never been shown to be inherently symptomatic of any real problem, like anal sex, group sex, or BDSM. These latter activities can be an expression of unhealthy sexuality and they can be done in ways that don’t support the pleasure and well-being of the people involved, but there is nothing about them that is inherently problematic. It’s a question of why and how you do it, not that you’re doing it.
When Dines describes behaviors that have been part of human sexuality for as long as there have been people (that is, before porn became so common), when she denigrates and demonizes sexual activities that plenty of people do in ways that are fun, pleasurable, intimate, and grounded in consent, she’s tapping into and using erotophobia. But then, Dines uses disgust and shame to reinforce her claims and that is a real pity.
It also shows that, in fact, Dines doesn’t know very much about sex. If she wanted to write about how engaging in these sexual practices in healthy ways differs from the ways that they are often presented as porn fantasies, that’d be great. If she wanted to talk about how accurate, non-judgmental sex education would make it so that people weren’t using porn to get sex information, that’d be wonderful. But instead, she attacks sexual practices that many people experience in positive ways and states (both directly and indirectly) that they are dangerous or harmful. This is how sexual shame and sex-negativity are used to control people. Using shame simply isn’t going to move us towards a more healthy sexuality.
In her chapter on race in porn, Dines does some similar things. For example, when she talks about the ways that race is marketed, she writes:
In all-white porn, no one ever refers to the man’s penis as “a white cock” or the woman’s vagina as “white pussy,” but introduce a person of color, and suddenly, all players have a racialized sexuality, where the race of the performer(s) is described in ways that make women a little “sluttier” and the men more hypermasculinized.
First, I agree- the way that race is often (although not always) marketed in porn follows this trend. But Dines conveniently neglects to include in her analysis the fact that in US culture in general, whiteness is assumed unless we are told otherwise. Many people, and especially white people, use “white” as the default unless they hear otherwise. Similarly, people are often assumed to be male, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied unless a qualifier is used. It’s deeply unfortunate and it reinforces privilege and oppression in big and small ways, every day.
To not include that frame, to ignore the fact that this mechanism is one that existed in the larger culture well before any of these porn performers or producers used it, is to try to make it seem as if porn is the only place that you’ll see it. Yes, it’s racist when porn uses language like ghetto to signify Black people. And it’s the same mechanism when politicians and newspapers use inner city. Dines’ critique of these practices leaves that foundation out, which skews her argument and makes it seem as if porn is doing something that doesn’t happen everywhere. If anything, porn is simply a more accurate reflection of some of the dynamics that most of the “polite” world refuses to acknowledge.
This absolutely does not change the harm that these things do. And it absolutely does not absolve porn producers of their responsibility for contributing to racism and race-based inequities among performers. At the same time, it’s disingenuous to write as if these things exist in a vacuum.
Where does this connect to shame? When Dines criticizes porn for something that exists completely separately from it, she’s using the standard tactic of “blame and shame.” Now, I fully support developing an analysis of porn, of sexual practices, and of culture that takes a good look at the patterns of behavior and points out the places in which we’re doing things that are unhealthy. It’s part of improving things and it’s important. At the same time, we have to do it in ways that reflect and describe things accurately. We need to not make it seem like the problems only exist in this one setting. And we need to do it in ways that don’t increase the amount of sexual shame people experience. Otherwise, our solutions are going to fail.
Of course, some folks might argue that, as a writer, Dines had to choose what information to include in her book and there’s always going to be something left out. However, when her decisions result in her misrepresenting the issues, I can only conclude that she wants to promote a specific agenda rather than offering accurate information and analysis.
Although some people in sex-positive communities might disagree with me, I think that our cultural obsession with sex is a sign of our deeply rooted shame. Just as people with eating disorders obsess over food, while those with more healthy relationships with food don’t (unless they’re really hungry), I think that our tendency to use sex to sell, the performance-based model of sexuality, and our fixation on sex are manifestations of hundreds of years of sex-negativity, erotophobia, and shame. But the solution to shame isn’t to keep shaming people. The answer is to try to help people find a healthy balance. When Dines uses shame to try to promote her agenda, she reinforces the roots of the problem that she says she wants to fix. It’s about as effective as blaming someone who has an eating disorder- all you’re going to do is make it worse. And I don’t see how that helps.
Although I suppose it means she sells more copies of her book.