As a professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies and Chair of American Studies at Wheelock College in Massachusetts, Gail Dines studies what some people watch for pleasure and others can’t stand to see: pornography. In her new book “Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality,” she explores the trend of brutal “gonzo” porn and how it is seeping into every facet of pop culture.
» EXPRESS: What initially drew you to this field of study?
» DINES: Actually, it was by accident. I was working in a rape crisis center and someone gave a slideshow about looking at pornography in the home. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The images just changed my life. I’d never seen such level of cruelty and violence, and I had no idea that men made this kind of stuff or that other men found it arousing. Being a feminist and being in the anti-violence movement, I felt propelled to do something about pornography.
» EXPRESS: How has pornography changed in the 20 years you’ve been studying it?
» DINES: I really didn’t think that pornography would ever become this cruel or this brutal so quickly. What’s happened over the last few years — and what has shocked many of us who do this work — is just how mainstream the brutal and cruel pornography has become. Thanks to the Internet, it’s accessible 24-7. The more accessible porno is and the more anonymous it is, the more likely men are going to use it. Because of this, we’ve now found that younger and younger boys are using it, and they’re using it more often. This is not their father’s Playboy. They’re being introduced to hardcore sex.
» EXPRESS: In the book, you’re very careful to state your own position. Are there a lot of misperceptions about your field?
» DINES: Absolutely. People assume that if you’re anti-pornography, you’re anti-sex. That’s the misperception — that this is about sex. Pornography is not sex, but the industrialization and commodification of sex. That’s very different. If this was a book about the fast-food industry, no one would accuse me of being anti-eating.
» EXPRESS: You write very poignantly about your lectures and interactions with college students. What does that experience contribute to your work?
» DINES: The most important thing is talking to men who use pornography. That’s where the insights come. It’s one thing to look at it, but you can’t really tell how it affects people. It’s only from interviewing men, and lately what I’ve seen is that more and more men are coming to tell their story to me. They’re coming to tell me how much they’ve been affected by pornography. Very few are argumentative or difficult or defensive, and I think it’s because pornography has become so hardcore. It’s very hard to deny that this is brutal and cruel, because the images are up there. The images speak for themselves in pornography. Men need to look at pornography without being aroused by it. Once they’re aroused by it, they can’t really look at it critically, and I think that’s what happens in my lectures. And some of them get very upset when they realize that what they’ve been enjoying is actually brutality against a female body.
» EXPRESS: It must be emotionally and mentally exhausting for you to research this subject.
» DINES: It’s always difficult. It feels like you’re looking at sexual abuse. When you’re looking at the woman and you’re looking at her grimace in pain, it’s very hard not to have a really empathic feeling toward her. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the images. I have to take many breaks to get away from them. I think it’s easier because I’m a woman and pornography is not geared toward women’s sexuality. After doing this for so long, I have become desensitized to a point. I couldn’t do this if I had the same response I had 20 years ago. But there are some images that I come across when all my desensitization just falls away.
» EXPRESS: Can you tell me about the audience for this book?
» DINES: I cast a very wide net with this book, because this is a major public-health issue of our time and I think everybody should be made aware of it. Young people should understand that they have never been bombarded with images like these before, so I specifically wanted to let them know how they’re being exploited and manipulated by the pornographers. I also have parents in mind, because parents have to deal with their sons’ use of pornography or with their daughters dating men who use pornography. Parents in the audience get very upset because how can they protect their kids from this? It’s like asking them to protect their kids from polluted air. The culture is now toxic and it seeps into everybody’s lives.
» EXPRESS: How does being a parent yourself inform your work?
» DINES: Having a boy was very profound actually. It made me realize that the pornographers have a very specific image of men as sexual predators, and I absolutely refuse to accept that my son and all his friends are sexual predators. Pornography tells lies about men. As the mother of a boy, I feel outraged at the way pornographers talk about men, because it’s not accurate. I don’t want my son and all of his friends to build their sexual identity on these images. One’s sexuality should belong to that person. It shouldn’t be something that’s played with to maximize profit.
» EXPRESS: Are you optimistic about this field, or do you think it will only get worse?
» DINES: Anyone who’s an activist like I am has to be optimistic. Otherwise, you wouldn’t do this. And you have to believe that people want to do the right thing and want to live in a society with respect and dignity and not in the kind of world that the pornographers want us to live in. Because that’s not going to be pleasant for anybody. If they continue to hijack the culture, then it’s going to make everyone’s life increasingly difficult. It’s going to make relationships very difficult. It’s going to make bringing up children very difficult. I get very positive feedback wherever I go for my lectures. And that’s really encouraging.
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Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photo by Mark Karlsberg/Studio Eleven