Gail Dines in Pornland
Where feminism and religious conservatism collide
Following this week’s publication in Quillette of my article The War on Porn: Cancel Culture on Steroids, I had a discussion on Twitter in which the book Pornland by Gail Dines was cited. I had already read Pornland, and reviewed it within my own book, Porn Panic. Below is the full exerpt, which appears in Chapter 4 of Porn Panic: How Anti-Sex Feminism was Born. You can buy Porn Panic via all good bookstores. Signed copies can be bought by contacting me direct.
Dines’ 2010 book, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality perhaps represents today’s publication of choice for pro-censorship feminism; and there is certainly competition in this field. The porn panic business appears to be a lucrative one.
I have met Dines twice in online debate; having heard so much about her, I was somewhat daunted to meet her, and thus very surprised to discover how little understanding she has of pornography or the porn industry, subjects she claims to have devoted over two decades of her academic life to studying. Similarly, the British feminist porn director Anna Span debated against Dines at the University of Cambridge, and won the vote on a comfortable margin.
Pornland’s overall thesis is that a huge, rich and powerful porn industry is deliberately manipulating and actually altering human sexuality in order to make a profit. This is some claim: re-engineering human sexuality and other aspects of inbuilt human behaviour could solve, or create, many problems for society. However, Dines provides no evidence to show that this has taken place. As an academic researching porn, Dines must be aware of the lack of evidence linking pornography to harm, but in Pornland, she hides this awareness with skill.
In order to demonstrate that the porn industry is immensely powerful (powerful enough to deliberately alter the human psyche, no less), Dines must present some impressive-looking financial figures; and she delivers, stating:
“The size of the porn industry is staggering. Though reliable numbers are hard to find, the global industry has been estimated to be worth around $96 billion in 2006, with the U.S. market worth approximately $13 billion... pornography revenues rival those of all the major Hollywood studios combined.”
These are impressive numbers indeed! And entirely fictional. The ‘porn is bigger than Hollywood’ myth is often quoted, and is a long way from the truth. In 2001, estimates were flying around of an industry worth between $10 to $14 billion, and these were dismissed by Forbes magazine as a huge exaggeration. Forbes pointed out that the only reliable study, carried out in 1998 by Forrester, had estimated the industry size at between $750 million and $1 billion. The industry certainly grew impressively between 1998 and 2006; but a hundredfold? The fact that Dines could happily present such grossly incorrect figures is revealing of her agenda.
What is the quoted source of Dines’ $96 billion number? A website that reviews filtering software for parental control of Internet access. And what is their source?
“*Data based on a 2006 study”
The name of the study is not provided, nor is a link to the study. So the key number underlying an entire anti-porn thesis is lifted from a website promoting porn filters which fails to even provide a source. And this is not just any book: the flagship book from the author who is the best known anti-porn campaigner on the planet. Dines also fails to mention that the industry has been shrinking rapidly since about 2007, due to the rising availability of free pornography online.
The rest of Pornland possesses little more accuracy, but it is entertaining - comedic even. It features plenty of text apparently copied and pasted from adult websites. A sceptical reader could find contradictions and other logic problems on almost any page. The only thing that might prevent the reader from laughing out loud is that this book is being used to justify censorship of the Internet for entire countries, and its author boasts of providing advice to governments on the effects of pornography - a subject she appears not to know a huge amount about.
Other than vastly exaggerating the size and power of the porn industry, another core tenet of Pornland is that pornography is becoming more and more extreme. The only problem for Dines is that the reverse is true. In fact, as the industry has consolidated and come into the mainstream, many of the rough (and interesting) edges have been taken off it, to the detriment of many minority sexual fetishists, who have seen their own tastes attacked as obscene or extreme.
In making her various claims of harm, Dines ends up making contradictory points: on one hand, that content is becoming more extreme to feed a growing demand to see women brutalised; and on the other, that the industry is insidiously penetrating the mainstream by becoming less dirty.
“How did this shift to the mainstream happen? The answer is simple: by design. What we see today is the result of years of careful strategizing by the porn industry by stripping away the “dirt” factor and reconstituting porn as fun, edgy, chic, sexy, and hot. The more sanitized the industry became, the more it seeped into the pop culture and into our collective consciousness.”
So we learn that porn is becoming more abusive and extreme, while simultaneously (and sneakily) selling itself as more fun, sanitised and mainstream. Dines fails to mention recent trends for feminist porn, ethical porn, porn for couples and ‘romance porn’. Nor does she acknowledge that the industry is increasingly dominated by amateurs shooting and uploading their own content, rather than by larger production companies.
Her claim that the growth of the porn business is the result of ‘careful strategizing’ would amuse anyone who has had direct involvement with the industry. Just as in any entertainment industry, what is supplied is led by consumer demand. The industry is packed with producers trying to create new things, and hoping they will sell. Dines’ near-religious view of humanity is that powerful and complex sexualities are not innate to us, but are instead planted in us by pornography (by which she means sexual expression in general). If the porn goes away, she appears to believe, so will our unhealthy, oppressive sexual fantasies and desires.
Despite repeatedly mentioning her two decades of study (“Although I have been studying the porn industry for over two decades… Through my experience lecturing on pornography for over two decades…”), Dines demonstrates some very basic misunderstandings of the industry and its terminology. The entire book is based around what she calls “gonzo porn”, which she writes:
“...depicts hard-core, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased...”
But in fact, this is not what gonzo means at all. It actually refers to an impromptu, unscripted shooting style using hand-held cameras, often held by cast members themselves. The term references gonzo journalism, as practised by the likes of Hunter S Thompson, in which the reporter is a part of the story he tells. This basic mistake in terminology again underlines Dines’ lack of knowledge in her subject area, and even a lack of curiosity about it.
To confuse things even further, Dines makes assertions about ‘gonzo porn’ but then blurs the line between gonzo and all other pornography. To Dines, all pornography is bad, and when I met her in online debate, she stated that she wanted to see the entire porn industry destroyed, not just the parts controlled by big companies, or the parts that make rough porn. All of it.
Having made her claim that imagery is becoming more extreme, and thus more dangerous, she then claims that softer imagery is as dangerous as the more extreme variety:
“[Playboy and Penthouse], with their soft-core, soft-focus pictures of naked women, taught boys and men that women existed to be looked at, objectified, used, and put away till next time.”
Dines frequently reminds the reader that she is a feminist, and that she cares for the performers:
“Some argue that assault is too strong a word, but if we analyze what is actually going on in a gonzo scene in a way that speaks to the experiences of the woman in the movie, then we get some insight into what is happening to her as a human being.”
Yet Gail Dines shows little apparent interest in talking to these supposed victims of assault, or meeting any of the women or men who work in the porn industry, or attending a studio and seeing a shoot for herself. In her refusal to ask about their own, first hand accounts of their experiences, she shows disdain for the women in the industry, while claiming to be their defender.
The closest Dines appears to have to come to the porn industry was to attend an industry convention in Las Vegas in January 2008. Her account of the show comes close to comic self-parody. She is clearly disgusted by everything she sees, and so (she tells us) is a middle-aged, African-American security guard called Patricia, who (we learn) agrees with everything Dines says about the porn industry. It appears not to have occurred to Dines that Patricia’s expertise on pornography is perhaps even less than her own, or that she may have learned more by taking the chance to interview pornstars rather than security guards.
No matter. Patricia, we discover, is suffering a porn-related ailment: a “crick in her neck from trying to avoid looking at the porn that is being projected onto the screens”. Further, we read that “Divorced for many years, Patricia tells me that after doing this job for a few days, she now knows why she ‘can’t find a good man to settle down with’.”
Black female literature and magazines often focus on the alleged shortage of ‘good men’. Now, thanks to Gail Dines (and Patricia), we know the root of the problem: porn has taken them all.
Pornland informs us that Patricia is now planning “her future far away from Las Vegas”. My own black American friends are concerned with many things, including racism, low pay, lack of access to good healthcare, police harassment and the fear that their male relatives will be sent to prison, in common with one in three of all black American men. But (Dines tells us) Patricia, working a minimum-wage job in Las Vegas, is concerned about nothing more than porn, and may actually relocate to avoid it.
Censorship as a Weapon
Like Dworkin and Mackinnon before her, Dines believes in attacking her opponents’ right to free speech. She believes not just in censoring porn, but also in censoring people who oppose her point of view.
Upon discovering that an adult industry conference would be taking place in a London hotel in September 2013, she wrote to the hotel management claiming that their female employees would be put at risk by the very presence of pornographers in their hotel. She then posted the letter - another masterpiece in comic self-parody - to her Facebook campaign page:
“ACTION ALERT LETTER. Here is the letter I am sending. PLEASE re-send to firstname.lastname@example.org saying you are endorsing it.
Dear Radisson Board Members,
As a professor who studies the effects of pornography, and as a founding member of Stop Porn Culture (SPC), an international feminist anti-pornography organisation, I am writing on behalf of over 2,000 members to protest your hotel hosting the XBIZ porn conference in London on 22-25th September. We are outraged that you would provide space to an industry that is based on making a profit from brutalizing women. Moreover, pornography puts all women at risk by teaching men that women only have value as sexual objects, are always available as willing participants, and are thus legitimate targets of sexual harassment, abuse and rape. You are [especially] putting at risk all the female employees who work at your hotel during the XBIZ conference because men who sexually abuse women for profit will be staying at your hotel, eating in your hotel, and will be in close proximity to women employees who work at your hotel so they can feed themselves and their families. Please take this letter as a warning notice regarding these risks. Should a female employee be the victim of sexual harassment or assault, then your knowledge of these risks will increase your negligence and liability. SPC members will be writing to you endorsing this letter, as well as writing about this on vacation and other review websites urging potential customers to stay away from your hotels. Should you ignore this letter, our campaign could cause serious damage to your reputation and revenue. Please consider this before you provide a venue to an industry that does serious damage to the health and wellbeing of women and children.”
Dines thus reveals her contempt for free speech. Not only can she not tolerate the dissemination of pornography, but she cannot even accept that people have the right to meet and talk about pornography. I have attended the London XBIZ conference, and it is a place in which men and women meet to discuss business, as well as politics, law and other industry-related issues. Ironically, the 2013 conference that Dines tried to disrupt was a forum for discussions about censorship, and was well attended by journalists as well as business people, lawyers and government regulators.
In passing, the use of the deeply unfeminist phrase, “women and children” might be noted. The thin feminist veneer has slipped, revealing a deeply moralistic and patriarchal attitude towards ‘the weaker sex’.
Dines, in common with other anti-sex feminists, cannot decide whether pornstars are innocent victims to be saved, or slutty women who are to blame for men committing crimes of sexual and domestic violence. She engages in slut-shaming of which any religious fundamentalist would be proud, and in doing so reveals the conservative agenda which she tries so hard to hide beneath a superficially progressive message. Although she takes great pains in the preface to Pornland to deny that she is anti-sex, her dislike of sexuality clearly goes far further than simply its depiction in pornography.
In a multi-page account of Girls Gone Wild, an adult entertainment label focusing on young, white ‘frat girls’ partying, Dines writes:
‘One of the major problems associated with being on GGW is that the young women’s behaviour is forever frozen in time on tape; they can’t take it back, hide it, or deny that they did it… the average female… gets treated not as a Paris Hilton wannabe but as a “slutty” girl who deserves to be ridiculed and shunned… One woman told me that after she had girl-on-girl sex with her friend, she felt like “a stupid whore and I can’t stop people watching me. All the guys at school watch me and I feel horrible.”’
Perhaps other feminists would be outraged by this sexist slut-shaming by the woman’s college peers, but Dines has nothing to say about it. She does not blame the patriarchal, conservative-religious attitudes that are prevalent in American society. She does not defend the rights of the woman to have sex on camera if she chooses, without being stigmatised and attacked. Instead, she attacks the medium, and implicitly, the women themselves. After all, if they had not chosen to have sex on camera, nobody would now be branding them ‘stupid whores’.
This attitude is repeated elsewhere in the book, and in Dines’ other writings. One of the pieces of evidence she provides to show that porn has “seeped” into the public consciousness is that ex-pornstars have appeared in mainstream media:
“...retired mega-porn star Jenna Jameson has written a best-selling book and appears in numerous popular celebrity magazines, and Sasha Grey, the new, more hard-core Jenna Jameson, is featured in a four-page article in Rolling Stone in May 2009 and appears in a Steven Soderburgh movie… Indiana University invites pornographer Joanna Angel to address a human sexuality class.”
Dines disapproves of all of this: she apparently believes that, because these women have had sex on camera, they should be shunned by the media, universities and other respectable institutions. Once a slut, always a slut: hardly a message that most would recognise as a feminist one.
In 2011, the Slutwalk movement began in Toronto, in response to a police spokesperson who had commented: “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”. Within weeks, the movement had spread globally, and Slutwalk marches were being held in many cities. The message was simple: women have the right to choose to be sluts, without stigma, judgement or attack. If ‘slut’ simply refers to women who enjoy sex, then the word should be reclaimed from those who use it as a slur.
Slutwalk would act as a litmus test for feminists, splitting opinion along anti-sex/sex-positive lines. The marches featured women dressed in revealing, raunchy clothing, as well as their male supporters. Although its message was a feminist one - a woman’s right to present and use her own body as she chooses - it also posed a challenge to anti-sex feminists, who believe that expressions of sexuality are themselves demeaning to women. How would Dines respond?
In a 2011 Guardian article, titled “Slutwalk is not sexual liberation”, Gail Dines and Wendy J Murphy dismissed Slutwalk and its goal of reclaiming ‘sluttishness’ from sexist and patriarchal attitudes. It is a masterpiece of buttoned-up-conservatism-as-feminism.
The piece begins: ‘It wasn't long ago that being called a "slut" meant social death.’, before going on to make clear that it should remain that way:
“The organisers claim that celebrating the word "slut", and promoting sluttishness in general, will help women achieve full autonomy over their sexuality. But the focus on "reclaiming" the word slut fails to address the real issue. The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal "madonna/whore" view of women's sexuality that it is beyond redemption.”
But the pair are not just worried about the word - they make clear that they consider sluttish behaviour itself to be a betrayal:
“The recent TubeCrush phenomenon, where young women take pictures of men they find attractive on the London tube and post them to a website, illustrates how easily women copy dominant societal norms of sexual objectification rather than exploring something new and creativeAnd [sic] it's telling that while these pictures are themselves innocent and largely free of sexual innuendo, one can only imagine the sexually aggressive language that would accompany a site dedicated to secret photos of women.”
In other words, women cannot choose to be sexually liberated: any attempt to become so is merely an imitation of male sexual behaviour, and is thus not liberation. Sexual admiration of women by men is abusive, and women must take care to avoid following this bad example. The article dismisses both ‘slut’ and ‘frigid’ labels of female sexuality. How are women supposed to behave? Which expressions of female sexuality are acceptable? This is left unclear: the unwritten message is that all expression of sexuality is to be shunned, and pride in sluttishness is wrong:
‘Women need to take to the streets – but not for the right to be called "slut".’
Via activists like Gail Dines, the message that sexual expression is harmful to women has taken root, and is undermining support for sexual freedom and free speech on the political left as well as on the right.