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Life Arts

Pornography is a left issue

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Look at the industry 's biggest star, Jenna Jameson, who appears to control her business life. However in her book she reports that she was raped as a teenager and describes the ways in which men in her life pimped her. Her desperation for money also comes through when she tried to get a job as a stripper but looked too young -- she went into a bathroom and pulled off her braces with pliers. She also describes drug abuse and laments the many friends in the industry she lost to drugs. And this is the woman said to have the most power in the pornography industry.

As we understand left analysis, the focus isn 't on individual decisions about how to survive in a system that commodifies everything and takes from us meaningful opportunities to control our lives. It 's about fighting a system.


Racism

As the most blatant and ugly forms of racism have disappeared from mainstream media, leftists have continued to point out that subtler forms of racism endure, and that their constant reproduction through media is a problem. Race matters, and media depictions of race matter.

Pornography is the one media genre in which overt racism is still acceptable. Not subtle, coded racism, but old-fashioned U.S. racism -- stereotypical representations of the black male stud, the animalistic black woman, the hot Latina, the demure Asian geisha. Pornography vendors have a special category, "interracial, " which allows consumers to pursue the various combinations of racialized characters and racist scenarios.

The racism of the industry is so pervasive that it goes largely unnoticed. In an interview with the producer of the DVD "Black Bros and Asian Ho 's, " one of us asked if he ever was criticized for the racism of such films. He said, "No, they are very popular. " We repeated the question: Popular, yes, but do people ever criticize the racism? He looked incredulous; the question apparently had never entered his mind.

Yet take a tour of a pornography shop, and it 's clear that racial justice isn 't central to the industry. Typical is the claim of "Black Attack Gang Bang " films: "My mission is to find the cutest white honeys to get Gang Banged by some hard pipe hitting niggas straight outta compton! " It would be interesting to see a pro-pornography leftist argue to a non-white audience that such films are unrelated to the politics of race and white supremacy.

Up-market producers such as Vivid use mainly white women; the official face of pornography is overwhelmingly white. However, alongside this genre there exists more aggressive material in which women of color appear more frequently. As one black woman in the industry told us, "This is a racist business, " from how she is treated by producers to pay differentials to the day-to-day conversations she overhears on the set.
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Sexism

Contemporary mass-marketed heterosexual pornography -- the bulk of the market for sexually explicit material -- is one site where a particular meaning of sex and gender is created and circulated. Pornography 's central ideological message is not hard to discern: Women exist for the sexual pleasure of men, in whatever form men want that pleasure, no matter what the consequences for women. It 's not just that women exist for sex, but that they exist for the sex that men want.

Despite naïve (or disingenuous) claims about pornography as a vehicle for women 's sexual liberation, the bulk of mass-marketed pornography is incredibly sexist. From the ugly language used to describe women, to the positions of subordination, to the actual sexual practices themselves -- pornography is relentlessly misogynistic. As the industry "matures " the most popular genre of films, called "gonzo, " continues to push the limits of degradation of, and cruelty toward, women. Directors acknowledge they aren 't sure where to take it from the current level.

This misogyny is not an idiosyncratic feature of a few fringe films. Based on three studies of the content of mainstream video/DVD pornography over the past decade, we conclude that woman-hating is central to contemporary pornography. Take away every video in which a woman is called a b*tch, a c-word, a slut, or a prostitute, and the shelves would be nearly bare. Take away every DVD in which a woman becomes the target of a man 's contempt, and there wouldn 't be much left. Mass-marketed pornography doesn 't celebrate women and their sexuality, but instead expresses contempt for women and celebrates the charge of expressing that contempt sexually.

Leftists typically reject crude biological explanations for inequality. But the story of gender in pornography is the story of biological determinism. A major theme in pornography is that women are different from men and enjoy pain, humiliation, degradation; they don 't deserve the same humanity as men because they are a different kind of creature. In pornography, it 's not just that women want to get fucked in degrading fashion, but that they need it. Pornography ultimately tells stories about where women belong -- underneath men.
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Most leftists critique patriarchy and resist the system of male dominance. Gender is one of those arenas of struggle against domination, and hence an arena of ideological struggle. Put an understanding of media together with feminist arguments for sexual equality, and you get the anti-pornography argument.


The need for a consistent analysis of power

Leftists who otherwise pride themselves on analyzing systems and structures of power, can turn into extreme libertarian individualists on the subject of pornography. The sophisticated, critical thinking that underlies the best of left politics can give way to simplistic, politically naïve, and diversionary analysis that leaves far too many leftists playing cheerleader for an exploitive industry. In those analyses, we aren 't supposed to examine the culture 's ideology and how it shapes people 's perceptions of their choices, and we must ignore the conditions under which people live; it 's all about an individual 's choice.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
 

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