Hugo Schwyzer Reviews “Getting Off” by Robert Jensen

Hugo Schwyzer has kindly given us permission to reprint Part One of his three-part review of Getting Off by Robert Jensen. You may read Part Two here and Part Three here.

Part one of a series on “Getting Off”: masculinity, pornography, and the truth of what we don’t want to face

…I started reading Robert Jensen’s Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity over the Thanksgiving holiday, and finished the relatively short book earlier this week. As I said in my post immediately below this one, it has had a deep and profound impact upon me.

In this first post, I’ll look at the case Jensen makes against porn, particularly the arguments he marshalls against the idea that porn isn’t a “big deal” and that “normal people” can use it without negative consequences for themselves, their relationships, and society as a whole. In the second post, I’ll respond to the charge against Jensen — reiterated by Courtney Martin – that his prose “reeks of self-hate.” Self-loathing is a common slur tossed at pro-feminist men, and deserves a response all of its own. In the third post, I’ll look at Jensen’s proposals about masculinity and sexuality, particularly his remarkable suggestion that we ground our sexual ethics not merely in pleasure, but in joy and in light.

Robert Jensen is one of a small group (others include Jackson Katz, Michael Flood, and Michael Kimmel) who are the dedicated public faces of the pro-feminist men’s movement. Jensen, a professor of journalism at Texas, wrote the marvelous Heart of Whiteness, about which I also ought to blog someday. Getting Off sees Jensen take an enormously brave step. Balancing thoughtful analysis with deep candor, he makes the most powerful case against pornography that I’ve read since the late Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women, a book now more than 25 years old. And yes, Getting Off is dedicated to (among others) Dworkin herself.

Jensen starts by reminding us of what we already know: we live in a porn-saturated culture. Technological innovation has made the furtive peeps at father’s Playboy an unknown experience for most young people today. Jensen, born in 1958, describes his own adolescent fascination with pornographic magazines and the lengths to which he and his buddies would go to acquire porn. My own experience with porn was similar; I “discovered” it in 1979, when I was twelve. The porn that so indelibly marked (and marred) my nascent sexuality came in print with magazines like “Club International” and “Penthouse.” What’s available today online –even for free — is infinitely more vivid, infinitely more hardcore, and infinitely more interactive than it was in my youth or in Jensen’s.

We know all this of course. What we don’t know — or, as Jensen points out, what we don’t want to know — is how truly ugly pornography is. For a host of reasons ranging from denial to civil libertarianism to sheer horny curiosity, a great many voices across the spectrum are unwilling to name porn as one of the most corrosive influences on our culture and on our humanity. Jensen:

People routinely assume that pornography is such a difficult and divisive issue because it’s about sex. In fact, this culture struggles unsuccessfully with pornography because it is about men’s cruelty to women, and the pleasure men sometimes take in that cruelty. And that is much more difficult for people — men and women — to face.

Pornography as a mirror shows us how men see women. Not all men, of course — but the ways in which many men who accept the conventional conception of masculinity see women. It is unsettling to look into that mirror.

Jensen makes us look into that mirror. Though there are no images within Getting Off, his descriptions of the content of various porn movies and websites is vivid, graphic, and compelling. (For those who might find all of this “triggering”, please do read the book with caution.) While the plural of anecdote is not data, Jensen does more than just offer us scenes from “what’s out there.” He conducted an exceptional number of interviews with folks in the “adult industry”, participated in industry conventions, and collaborated with other social scientists in putting together this remarkable text. The sense I had after reading some of his accounts is “I’m glad Robert went there so I don’t have to.”

Jensen anticipates the liberal critique of his position. (This critique shows up quite a bit in the Feministing thread below Courtney Martin’s post on the book.) Jensen:

Feminist critics of pornography are often accused of selecting the most violent and degrading movies to analyze and then pretending such movies are representative of the industry. I wanted to make sure such a criticism could not be made of this work.. (the) study randomly selected 50 movies from a list of the top 250 rented VHS and DVD pornographic movies from December 2004 to June 2005. I did not select movies from the sadomasochism or bondage categories or from fringe sub-genres such as urination or defecation movies.

The fact that some pornography is produced by and for women, the fact that some explicit material features sexual activity that is truly mutual, doesn’t mitigate the harm done by the industry as a whole. Many defenders of porn cry “But not all porn is like that”, and they point to obscure websites or specialty magazines that occupy a small niche within a much larger, thoroughly misogynistic industry. But it makes no sense — and does women no service — to deny the deleterious impact of mainstream porn on our collective humanity merely because a few tiny sectors of the “adult entertainment industry” produce material that is genuinely egalitarian and redemptive.

Jensen is relentless, and devastatingly effective, in breaking down our defense that “porn isn’t a big deal.” In many ways, he’s writing less for folks like me (who have, like Jensen, struggled with porn use and worked hard to overcome it) and more for people like Courtney Martin, who wrote this week:

…generally I’ve steered clear of porn or, even, truth be told, erotica. (Somehow I even missed studying pornography in college or grad school.)

I never made a conscious decision; it was just one of those subconscious, self-protective moves. I think I sensed that there was a “point of no return” quality to being aware of what was really out there and I was scared to go down that road just as I was developing my sexual identity and getting involved in relationship…

Bold emphasis mine. Jensen knows why people like Courtney (and a great many others) don’t want to “go down that road”:

Men have a stake in believing that we are not really like that. Women have a stake in believing men really don’t see them that way. For each party, facing the truth often feels as if it is too much to bear. So we turn away and pretend.

And that’s why this culture is so afraid of pornography. The woman-hating is right there, on the surface, fixed forever onto the printed page, the film stock, the video-tape, the DVD the computer chip. Pornography is a mirror of the way this culture hates women and children, which is why it is important that we look at it, honestly.

Bold emphasis mine.

I can’t go through this rich, marvelous, essential text line by line. Other reviewers and readers will be struck by different parts of Jensen’s case against porn. What I found particularly compelling, however, was his very compelling argument that porn use does indeed impact how men view the real women in
their lives. Jensen has heard the old “just because I like porn doesn’t mean I would ever rape someone” argument even more often than I have. (I wrote a post about the myth of compartmentalization here.) Jensen:

When people ask me what kind of men enjoy — which means, of course, enjoy masturbating to — pornography that is so clearly rooted in woman-hating, my answer is simple: Men like me. Men like all of us. Not all men, but men like all of us. Men who can’t get a date as well as men who have all the dates they could want. Men who live alone and men who are married. Men who grew up in liberal homes where pornography was never a big deal and men who grew up in strict religious homes in which no talk of sex was allowed. Black and white and brown and any-other-color-you-can-imagine men. Rich men and poor men. For men, there can be no retreat to the category of “one of the good guys.”

Jensen is clear — and he cites others, like Ana Bridges, who has published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy on the impact of men’s porn use on their relationships with wives and girlfriends — that ordinary, everyday guys who would “never actually rape anyone” do indeed have their entire sexuality shaped and distorted through pornography. Jensen asks:

Does habitual use of pornography, especially those movies that feature extreme sex acts, ever give a “good guy” ideas about, and desires for, specific sex acts that are denigrating to women that he otherwise might not have considered?

In a great many cases, the answer is “yes.” To use one example: In my adolescence, I never saw porn (and I saw a lot of porn) in which men ejaculated on women’s faces. But the “facial” is now ubiquitous in porn, having appeared as a mainstream behavior perhaps a decade or so ago. I’ve heard from high school girls in my church youth group, and from students in my women’s studies classes at the college, that they’ve been asked (”begged” or “nagged” might be better verbs) by boyfriends to let them “come” on their faces. In my youth group a few years ago, I got an anonymous note from one of our kids, asking if it was true that “everyone” was doing facials, and whether or not she was “weird” for not wanting her boyfriend to “give” one to her.

A great many men look at porn and don’t rape women. But “not-raping” is hardly proof that porn is harmless. There are many ways in which pornography can damage our sexuality short of turning men into rapists. The discomfort and bewilderment of the girl who sent me that note, wondering why her boyfriend (who, in her own words, was otherwise a “good guy”) would even want to come on her face, makes this case with heartbreaking and stomach-churning effectiveness. The answer to the “why” is that he’s seen facials in porn. He might accept “no” for an answer, or he might just keep nagging until she gives in and lets him ejaculate on her face. She won’t be raped in the legal sense, of course, but she’ll be learning a bitter lesson about male sexuality and her own value that she didn’t have to learn.

Some of Jensen’s finest writing comes when he describes porn’s impact on men’s ability to empathize and connect with other human beings:

In my experience, which is also the experience of many men I’ve talked to over the years, we feel ourselves go emotionally numb when viewing pornography and masturbating, what in common parlance might be called “checked out” emotionally. To enter into the pornographic world and experience that intense sexual rush, many of us have to turn off some of the emotional reactions that typically are connected to sexual experience with a real person — a sense of the other’s humanity, an awareness of being present with another person, the recognition of something outside our own bodies. For me, watching pornography produces a kind of emotional numbness, a part of which is a process of objectifiyng myself.

Bold emphasis mine.

Leaving aside — for a moment — the question of whether or not the women who perform in porn are exploited or not, there seems little doubt that the male user of porn, the fellow whose masturbatory reveries are conditioned by images of women being gang-banged or facialized or sodomized, is participating in his own exploitation. His own sense of what he really wants is shaped, distorted, and ultimately replaced by what pornography tells him he ought to want. And he grows a little more numb, a little less human, a little less kind. And as high a price as that is to pay, the price that the women in his life pay is higher still.

See also:

Shame and self-hatred, guilt and self-esteem: part two of the series on Robert Jensen, porn, and masculinity
…Far from hating himself, or men, Jensen is calling men to love themselves, their fellow men, and women enough to transform

Borrowing from John Bradshaw, Jensen reminds us that shame is a sense that one is a bad person; guilt is the sense that one has done (or is doing) a bad thing. He writes:

In this sense, shame is destructive because it can so easily lead to a self-loathing that hinders a person’s emotional development. If one believes oneself to be bad in some intrinsic sense — as if it is a part of one’s self — then it becomes difficult to imagine modifying the bad behavior, since it arises from an intrinsic failing.

But guilt is more complex. It’s a positive aspect of human psychology to be able to recognize when one has engaged in an act that is contrary to one’s own moral and/or political principles, especially when that act injures another. Without the capacity to recognize the gap between who we say we are are and how we behave, it’s difficult to imagine individuals or societies making moral and political progress toward a more just world. In that sense, guilt is a necessary part of the process of acknowledging our mistakes, being accountable for them, and moving forward.

Bold emphasis mine…

Beyond heat and pleasure to joy and light: the third post on Robert Jensen, porn, and sexual ethics
…I take such a strong stand against pornography for many reasons. I think the conditions under which a great deal of pornography (not all) is produced are exploitative to the performers involved. I think there is credible evidence that long-term pornography consumption leads to a decreased ability to empathize with others, and in particular, a decreased ability to connect intimately and openly with real-life sexual partners. I’ve made that case before in many posts, just as Jensen makes it so cogently in this marvelous new book of his. But the central reason why I find pornography so troubling is that it deceives us into surrendering the chance for genuine joy.

I am not a naive virginal adolescent writing rapturously about what he or she imagines sex to be. I am not a shame-ridden middle-aged convert, either. (Okay, I’m on the cusp of genuine middle-age, but that’s as far as I go.) I think sex is pretty darned dandy, and I think pleasure is a fine thing. I like an orgasm as much as the next person, frankly. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that pleasure that comes at the expense of another living creature or of our own humanity can never lead to joy. The deepest joy comes from pleasure + connectedness, from revealing light as well as creating s
atisfying heat. And as strong as my libido is, my longing for joy is stronger still. And that’s why I hate pornography.

AlterNet Reviews Robert Jensen’s Pornography and the End of Masculinity
I have always been part of the collective liberal progressive libertarian value system that accepts pornography as a legitimate expression of the First Amendment. Part of that thinking is that women participate in porn films of their own free will and that porn often represents fantasies — though sometimes quasiviolent or degrading — that people actually have. So as long as people are merely acting in porn films and there is no coercion, or law-breaking, it is acceptable.

But I’ve changed my mind. No, I’m not a prude, or anti-sex. Nor do I think there should be a national campaign to snuff out all porn. In fact, I sometimes watch certain kinds of porn. But what has become clear to me is that, under the guise of the First Amendment, a huge and powerful porn industrial complex has grown out of control. And a big part of its growth is fueled, not just by the internet, but by continually upping the ante, increasing the extremes of degradation for the women in tens of thousands of films made every year…

The debate must be pushed, and the consciousness raised. Many will say, don’t mess with the issue because it’s a slippery slope and could lead to the repression of other freedoms. I’ve concluded we need to take that chance. Male attitudes are potentially being shaped by ugly and sometimes disgusting abuse toward women. And tens of thousands of young women are being seduced and intimidated into lives of extreme public humiliation on-screen. The impact on their lives over the long run could be devastating…

[Jensen’s book] is filled with facts, data, intelligent observation and analysis, as well as examples of the raw product of an industry gone gonzo. I know this may sound like a cliche, but I guarantee that after reading this book, almost no one will think about pornography in the same way again.

What Porn Is: Selections from Mainstream Porn (explicit language)
[Robert Jensen:] …Given the ease with which video can be edited, why did the producers not edit out those expressions [pain, shame, despair]? There are two possible answers. One, they may view these kinds of expressions of pain by the women as of no consequence to the viewers’ interest, and hence of no consequence to the goal of maximizing sales; women’s pain is neutral. The second possibility is that the producers have reason to believe that viewers like the expressions of pain; women’s pain helps sales…

…from my research, both through these content analysis projects and my reading of material from the industry, it seems clear that mainstream heterosexual pornography is getting more, not less, cruel…

Robert Jensen: Listen to the Stories of the Victims (explicit language)
It is important to remember that the feminist anti-pornography critique grew out of these stories. The harms…women coerced into making pornography, forced to view pornography, sexually assaulted in ways connected to pornography, defamed by pornography, and trafficked in pornography–were identified not be experimental research but by taking seriously the lives of women…

Robert Jensen: Liberate Sex from Porn (explicit language)
The minute one begins to make such a critique, one can expect this response: Feminists who critique pornography are really just prudes at heart. Pornography’s opponents, we are told, are afraid of sex.

In one sense, that’s true. I am afraid of sex, of a certain kind. I’m afraid of much of the sex commonly presented in contemporary mass-marketed pornography. I am afraid of sex that is structured on a dynamic of domination and subordination. I am afraid of the sex in pornography that has become so routinely harsh that men typically cannot see the brutality of it thorough their erections and orgasms…

Robert Jensen: Influence of Pornography on Sex Offenders (explicit language)
For these men, pornography was in important factor in shaping a male-dominant view of sexuality, and in several cases the material contributed to the men’s difficulty in separating fantasy and reality. Pornography also was used by at least one of the men to initiate a victim and break down a young girl’s resistance to sexual activity. For several others it was used as a training manual for abuse, as sexual acts and ideas from pornography were incorporated into their sex lives.