Recently, SPC founder Gail Dines gave her take on the allegations against CBC radio star Jian Ghomeshi in an editorial published on Meghan Murphy’s Feminist Current (reprinted a few days later by Ms. Magazine). A quote from the final paragraph in particular resonated with me:
As porn becomes the main form of sex ed in the western world, we are going to see more and more men internalize the values, norms, stories and narratives of porn. And the violence in porn, by virtue of its consistency and repetition, will be played out on an increasing number of women and girls.
The sex industry’s influence on popular culture is growing every day, and it’s about time that men who are concerned about sexual abuse recognize pornography for the hate speech against women that it is. Yet the larger pro-feminist movement is reluctant to even acknowledge that the production and consumption of violent, impersonal sex films may play a role in our socialization into misogyny. In fact, the two sentences quoted above are likely to send a lot of “male allies” running for fear of losing their pornography!
This conflict between a man’s interest in pro-feminism and his desire for pornography is common – and if he wants to continue using porn while still claiming solidarity with women, many of the most obviously chauvinistic excuses are out of reach. Instead, he has to rely on reasoning that is slightly more sophisticated but, in the end, no less misogynistic: The age-old cry of Hey, it’s just a fantasy!
Andrea Dworkin, of course, already demolished this argument years ago. As she says in the BBC documentary Against Pornography: The Feminism of Andrea Dworkin:
It is part of the pornographer’s effort to hide what they really do in real life, to encourage the use of the word fantasy in place of actual behaviors that really happen in the real world…Once you have somebody acting out whatever that scenario might be in your head, it is an act in the world. It is real. It is real behavior with real consequences to real people.
It’s just the most extraordinary insult to the human conscience to continue to characterize these real acts to real people as if they only exist in the head of the male consumer – and what that means is that his head, his psychology, is more important than her life. (for the full documentary, please click here)
The “Just a Fantasy” Defense
The “just a fantasy” defense is a weak attempt to save pro-porn men from critical examination – and for good reason too, considering how fast that examination would reveal their fantasies to be indistinguishable from the cruel reality faced by so many women today. But the feeble justification fails even if we grant its flawed premise. We can ignore all the obvious reasons why pornography is not just a fantasy – we can pretend it’s all just in our heads – and that still doesn’t let pro-porn men off the hook.
Movies, television shows, books, video games, and plays all fall into the realm of “fantasy” – and yet we critique and criticize them all the time. It’s just a fantasy! is no excuse for why so few films have fleshed out female leads, and it’s never stopped us from complaining about rampant misogyny in popular music. And yet the moment a film is stamped with the label “Porn”, we as pro-feminist men immediately forfeit our critical thinking skills. Why do we pride ourselves on calling out television shows and top 40 songs, and yet ignore an industry making billions off titles like Black Teen Punishment or Cum Splattered Brats?
The moment we say that media is exempt from critical examination because its depictions of sex are “just a fantasy”, we lose our ability to meaningfully analyze anything our culture produces – including media that provides a home to the worst kinds of misogyny. If asked, I imagine most men would not say that they value their pornography more than they value the right of the marginalized to name and confront the prejudices that oppress them. But in practice, that’s exactly the choice many of us have made by shutting down the feminist critique of the sex industry.
Fantasies aren’t off-limits just because they’re fantasies. Far from it: The imaginary worlds we choose to spend our time in offer valuable insight into what we value both individually and as a culture. From the benign to the reprehensible, what we find ourselves fantasizing about is as much a statement about the world we live in as it is about us. Every one of us is in a constant process of interaction with our culture, influencing the world around us while we are in turn influenced.
As uncomfortable as it can sometimes be, we must admit that our fantasies are not off-limits in this exchange. The most basic essence of sexual desire may be biological, but the way we conceive of and express that sexuality is firmly rooted in the world around us. After all, quite a few folks find rubber arousing, but no reasonable person would believe that such a fetish predates their encounters with the material in the real world. So why do we insist that there must be some primal male eroticism based in power and violence that predates the culture we find ourselves in, especially when that power and violence is broadcast to most of us since childhood through pornography?
In response, pro-porn men claim that their fantasies have no influence on their behavior in the real world. This is almost certainly untrue. The link between fantasy and action is well-established; think through your own life and I’m sure you can give a dozen examples of times where your imagination led you to act out in the real world, often with serious results. Any man who claims to be immune to the effects of pornography is either lying or gravely mistaken. After all, I’ve met vegetarians who gave up decades of dedication to meat-free living after fantasizing about bacon sizzling on the stove, but I’m supposed to believe that thousands of hours of violent sex being broadcast to us in HD is no threat to our pro-feminist solidarity?
Those who say that they can watch pornography without it altering their view of women are wrong, but they’re also missing the point. As I said at the start of this article, let’s assume that pornography really is just a fantasy. There’s still a much more fundamental, and much more uncomfortable question we need to ask: What is it about a fantasy of women as perpetually available, personality-free fuck objects that appeals to so many supposedly pro-feminist men?
At least one pro-porn editorial has the courage to admit the obvious:
[Pornography is] a world in which, for a few moments, the man, through identifying with the actors, can be utterly selfish, aggressive, and uncaring and not have to worry about the woman’s happiness.
Liberation Is Not a Part-Time Project
But don’t we aspire to be pro-feminist precisely because we see that the actual world is a world in which selfishness, aggression, and a disregard for women’s happiness is the norm for male behavior? And isn’t our pro-feminism based around abolishing this pattern of callous masculinity, not embracing it for a thrill? Men have been reveling in callous misogyny for the last ten thousand years. Do we really need “a few moments” more?
I struggle to imagine a man who is truly dedicated to ending our domination of women while still engaging with an industry that celebrates it. Liberation is not a part-time project we can vacation from in fantasies of subjugation – especially not when those “fantasies” take place in a culture where we as men really are allowed to dominate and abuse women. Can we not see the problem with eroticizing the power we claim to despise? The pro-feminist, pro-porn man’s rallying cry: “Our power over women is a great and tragic injustice! Now, if you’ll excuse me, Teen Ass Party is done downloading.”
So sure, throw up the line about how it’s just a fantasy. But if your imagination is really so good, let’s see if you can conjure this one up: A world where rape has been abolished, where women are respected as equal human beings in every sphere from the political and economic to the spiritual and sexual…and where millions of men continue to derive satisfaction from videos of women being bound and ejaculated on.
Can you do it? I can’t. So let’s drop the excuses and confront the truth: There’s a multi-billion dollar industry out there dedicated to selling us a front-row seat to everything we claim to hate, and we’re lying to ourselves and to women as long as we refuse to confront it. Pornography is real – but a man who is both pro-porn and pro-feminist? Now that’s a fantasy.
Jonah Mix is an activist focused on developing effective male solidarity movements to combat pornography, prostitution, and other forms of sexual violence. He is a writer for SPC’s Men’s Section and the feministcurrent.com among other publications. He tweets @JonahPMix.