[A version of this essay was presented to the UK Engage Conference: Masculinity, Patriarchy, Feminism on November 19, 2021.]
Before talking about pornography and men, I should say a few words about pornography and me.
I have spent my adult life working as a journalist or a professor, acquiring information that has helped me understand pornography and the other sexual-exploitation industries, including prostitution and stripping. This presentation is rooted in more than three decades of this research and writing.
But I am not a detached observer. Like virtually all men of the post-Playboy generation (the first issue came out in 1953, and I was born in 1958), I used pornography as a child and young man. I have a hazy memory of a soft-core motorcycle magazine with pictures of topless women, which a grade-school friend had found and hid in his backyard. By the time I was in junior high, I had discovered where my father hid his pornographic magazines, in the second dresser drawer underneath his t-shirts. In junior high school, I had a friend who had figured out how to sneak into the local pornographic movie theater. In my 20s, I used pornography sporadically, and like many men I felt drawn to the intensity of the experience but conflicted about using it.
I begin autobiographically not because my early life is so intriguing but precisely because it’s not. These experiences were pretty normal for men my age. The experiences of boys and younger men who grew up with the internet are similar in some ways but more troubling because of the intensification of the images and the delivery system.
I started questioning the dominant culture’s version of normal at the age of 30 when I went to grad school and read about the radical feminist critique of pornography and the sexual exploitation of women. Today I want to make the case for radical feminism to men who want to escape the culture’s pathological normality, who no longer want to try to be a “real man.” As I have said many times, we are trained to fear feminists, but radical feminism is not a threat but a gift to men.
I’ll describe the content of contemporary pornography and what that says about men. That part of the presentation is pretty straightforward, though painful to confront. Then I will discuss what I’ve heard men say about pornography over those three decades. That’s more complex and offers some hope.
I will focus on the graphic sexually explicit material that depicts primarily heterosexual activity that is produced for heterosexual men, who are the majority of the consumers. While women’s use of pornography has increased in recent years, the industry still produces material that reflects the male sexual imagination in patriarchy. That’s also true of gay male pornography. More on that later.
What this material says about men is simple: In contemporary patriarchy, men are socialized to find control of women arousing. Pornography eroticizes domination and subordination, with the core power dynamic of male over female.
Let’s start with a bit of history. The pornography industry operated largely underground in the United States until the 1960s and ‘70s, when it became more accepted in mainstream society. That led to an increase in the amount of pornography produced, which expanded dramatically with new media technologies, such as VCRs, DVDs, and the internet.
The industry’s desire to increase profits drove the development of new products, in this case a wider variety of sexual acts in pornographic films. The standard sexual script in pornography—little or no foreplay, oral sex (primarily performed by women on men), vaginal intercourse, and occasionally anal intercourse—expanded to keep viewers from becoming satiated and drifting away.
The first of those changes was the more routine presentation of men penetrating women anally, in increasingly rough fashion. Why anal? One longtime pornography producer whom I interviewed at an industry trade show explained it to me in explicit language, which I’ll paraphrase. Men know that most women don’t want anal sex, he said. So, when men get angry at their wives and girlfriends, they think to themselves, “I’d like to fuck her in the ass.” Because they can’t do that in real life, he said, they love it in pornography.
That producer didn’t realize he was articulating a radical feminist critique: Pornography is not just sex on film but rather sex in the context of male domination and female subordination, the central dynamic of patriarchy. The sexual experience in pornography is made more intense through sex acts that men find pleasurable but women may not want.
Where did the industry go from there? As pornographers sought to expand market share and profit, they continued to “innovate.” Routine acts in pornography now include slapping and spitting on women, pulling women’s hair, and ejaculating not just on women’s bodies (the longstanding “money shot”) but especially on their faces (a “facial”). A number of specifically pornographic sex practices—acts that are typically not part of most people’s real-world sex lives but are common in pornography—followed the normalizing of anal sex, including:
- double penetration (two men penetrating a woman vaginally and anally at the same time);
- double vag (two men penetrating a woman vaginally at the same time);
- double anal (two men penetrating a woman anally at the same time);
- gagging (oral penetration of a woman so aggressive that it makes her gag);
- choking (men forcefully grasping a woman’s throat during intercourse, sometimes choking the woman); and
- ATM (industry slang for ass-to-mouth, when a man removes his penis from the anus of a woman and, without visible cleaning, inserts his penis into her mouth or the mouth of another woman).
Even pornographers acknowledge that they can’t imagine what comes after all this. One industry veteran told me that everything that could be done to a woman’s body had been filmed. “After all, how many dicks can you stick in a girl at one time?” he said. A director I interviewed echoed that, wondering “Where can it go besides [multiple penetrations]? Every hole is filled.” Another director worried that pornography was going too far and that porn sex increasingly resembled “circus acts.” “The thing about it is,” he told me, “there’s only but so many holes, only but so many different types of penetration that can be executed upon a woman.”
One pornographic genre that explores other forms of degradation is called “interracial,” which has expanded in the past two decades. Films in this category can feature any combination of racial groups, but virtually all employ racist stereotypes (the hot-blooded Latina, sexually animalistic black women, demure Asian “geishas” who live to serve white men, immigrant women who are easily exploited) and racist language (I’ll spare you examples of that). One of the most common interracial scenes is a white woman being penetrated by one or more black men, who are presented as being rougher and more aggressive, drawing on the racist stereotype of black men as a threat to the purity of white women, while at the same time revealing the white woman to be nothing but a slut who seeks such defilement. This racism would be denounced in any other mass media form but continues in pornography with little or no objection from most progressives.
Finally, in recent years there has been an increase in what my friend Gail Dines calls “pseudo-child pornography.” Sexually explicit material using minors is illegal, and so mainstream pornography stays away from actual child sexual abuse material. But the industry uses young-looking adult women in childlike settings (the classic image is a petite woman in a girls’ school uniform) to create the impression that an adult man can have the high school cheerleader of his fantasy. Another popular version features stepfathers having sex with teenage stepdaughters. This material is not marketed to pedophiles but is part of the mainstream pornography market for “ordinary” guys.
Dines’ description of contemporary pornography captures these trends: “Today’s mainstream Internet porn is brutal and cruel, with body-punishing sex acts that debase and dehumanize women.”
A brief word about pornography marketed to gay men: The same analysis is useful. Gay pornography features sex between men, and so obviously the male domination/female subordination dynamic is not present. But top/bottom and other inequality dynamics replicate the eroticizing of power, including racist themes.
These patterns don’t mean that every man will be aroused by such material, or that all men use such material, or that men are drawn to this material because of some immutable biological drive. Pornography does not tell us about the essence of men. Pornography reflects the construction of male sexuality in patriarchy, a social system that is only several thousand years old. Our species has been around for several hundred thousand years. Patriarchy is not the norm in human history but rather a recent deviation from the social organization of more than 95% of human history. We aren’t talking about men-for-all-time but men-in-patriarchy.
Pornography tells us that men in patriarchy are socialized to seek control over women, even to use coercion and violence to obtain sexual pleasure when deemed necessary. Pornography tells us something disturbing about how we are socialized in patriarchy.
I would like to shift from an analytical account of the content of this material to stories from my public presentations about pornography, starting in the early 1990s. The misogyny and racism in pornography have intensified over time, an unambiguously destructive trend. Men’s reactions are more complex, though I believe there is an underlying theme: fear.
Here are a few of those stories about what men say about pornography.
Staying in Control
The first time I spoke in public about pornography was during my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, when I was an occasional co-presenter of an anti-pornography slide show created by the feminist public-education group Organizing Against Pornography. When the program started, I noticed a college-age couple in the front row, leaning into each other in a fashion that suggested they were in a committed relationship. Both of them looked animated, eager to hear the presentation. After the slide show, which most people found disturbing, the man put his arm around her shoulder. As the conversation intensified and women started expressing their anger, the man placed his hand on the back of the woman’s neck, where it stayed for the duration of the meeting.
The man seemed unaware of that shift, and I suspect it was unconscious. I can’t know what he was thinking, of course, but it was hard not to notice that as more women in the room challenged not only men’s pornography use but men’s behavior more generally, the more uneasy he seemed. His response was to exert physical control over his girlfriend. Perhaps the feminist critique hit too close to home.
He didn’t speak during the discussion period, nor did his girlfriend. But other men in the audience that day defended men’s use of pornography and argued that the feminist critique was prudish. Those men refused to take a critique of the sexual norms in patriarchy seriously, and I quickly got used to such angry responses from men in public.
From Anger to Dismissal
That program in the early 1990s came at about the time that lively debate about the feminist critique ended. Throughout the 1980s, feminists who called themselves anti-censorship expressed concerns about any intervention against pornography, including the feminist proposal for a civil-rights approach to replace the failed criminal laws. But within a few years, the debate between the anti-pornography and anti-censorship feminists was eclipsed by an explicitly pro-pornography feminism, which gave more cover to men. Rather than self-reflect about their use of pornography, now men could simply say they were supporting feminists who embraced sexual freedom and sexual expression without limits.
I ran into this approach most often when I was speaking at elite universities, where this pro-pornography feminism was strongest. During one presentation at Stanford in the early 2000s, I described the common sexual acts depicted in pornography that I summarized a few minutes ago. During the discussion, one young man with a particularly smug look on his face raised his hand and pointed out what he thought was a fatal flaw in my argument.
“You’re assuming that double anal is painful,” he said. “What if some women like it?”
I suppressed several unkind potential responses, including the suggestion that he seek out a double anal and report back to us. Instead I said that I was indeed assuming that a double anal is painful for most women, though people can train their bodies to endure a lot of pain. In the many public presentations I had made, I said that I had yet to hear a woman in the audience respond with enthusiasm to the description of multiple-penetration scenes.
Then I pointed out that even if every woman who was used in a double anal scene enjoyed it, most of the men watching that scene assume she’s in pain. While most of the female performers act as if those multiple penetrations are pleasurable, watch closely and whatever the vocalizations of pleasure, it often seems they are just trying to endure the experience. Men aren’t stupid. They know that in everyday life there are very few women seeking double-anal penetration. The sexual charge for male viewers comes from watching a sex act that they know that women in their lives do not seek out and that virtually all women would find painful.
Remember the radical feminist analysis: Pornography is not just sex on film but sex in the context of domination and subordination. Some men like to watch women engaging in sex acts that hurt. Pro-pornography feminism made it easier for men to avoid self-reflecting about that.
Boys Will Be Boys
By the 2010s, the use of increasingly cruel and degrading online pornography had become routine. After presentations, I heard many younger women say that they would prefer to date men who didn’t use pornography but that they didn’t know any. As pornography became normalized, men were increasingly open about using the material. One high school student told me that when he told friends that he didn’t use pornography, no one believed him. “You don’t have to be afraid to admit it,” they said. “We all do it.”
A dramatic example of this came during an evening when I screened the 2008 documentary “The Price of Pleasure” at Texas State University. I expected a small group but arrived to find an auditorium packed with several hundred students, not because I was popular but because several professors required attendance. While introducing the film, I was nervous because the audience was so jocular, which continued during the screening. During one of the most intense scenes featuring the sexual degradation of women, some of the men started giggling, then laughing. After a minute of this, I asked my hosts to stop the film, and I went back to the microphone.
I told the students that one way to deal with sexual material that brought up uncomfortable questions about our own lives was to laugh it away. But I asked them to remember that sitting all around them in the auditorium were women who had been sexually assaulted and harassed. I didn’t know which women had experienced sexual violence and coercion, I said, but in a group of this size you can be sure there are many. Before you laugh at depictions of sexual cruelty, remember that the woman next to you may be one of those victims. How do you think she might feel about your laughter? How might any woman, no matter what her experience, feel?
The room fell quiet, we went back to the film, and the discussion that followed was sober and serious. Several women spoke about their fear and anger, and eventually a few men talked hesitantly about their misgivings about using pornography. But the students who stayed to talk informally after the program ended were mostly women. Most of the men got out as quickly as they could.
In the 2010s, it became more common for men to talk openly about how pornography affects them. For most, the self-awareness was not rooted in the feminist critique but rather their emotional distress about how pornography use was distorting their sexual imaginations and interfering in their sex lives.
I remember the first time a young man talked about this with me. After my lecture, I chatted informally with people who had more questions or comments. As the crowd thinned out, I saw this student at the back of the room, apparently waiting for everyone to leave before he approached me. I don’t remember the university where I was speaking, but I remember this student clearly.
He told me that the feminist critique was new to him and he had a lot to think about, and then got to what was making him nervous. He used pornography regularly since he was in middle school, he said, and it was increasingly hard for him to function sexually with his girlfriend. During sex, it always felt like there was a porn loop in his head that he couldn’t get rid of. More recently, he could no longer get an erection without thinking of pornography scenes. He said he loved his girlfriend and wanted to stop using pornography but hadn’t been able to quit. He seemed relieved one he had said it out loud.
I told him I wasn’t a trained therapist and couldn’t offer counseling, but I said he wasn’t the only man struggling with these reactions. I repeated the only advice I had: If you try to deal with this by yourself, you will fail. Like any problematic behavior, the route to health is in breaking out of your isolation, understanding that others also struggle, and finding support to change. Therapy can be effective, but just as important is finding a community of like-minded men.
Since that conversation, men have created online networks to share those struggles and help each other, including NoFap and Reboot Nation. Many of these men came together after reading the website Your Brain on Porn, founded by the late Gary Wilson. Other men have confronted their pornography use in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. While psychologists debate whether pornography can be addictive, men are dealing with how to break cycles of use that they experience as an addiction.
I’m glad men are facing how their pornography use has affected them, but that is just a first step. Placing our own self-defeating and dysfunctional behavior in the context of a feminist critique of patriarchy not only opens up possibilities to help women and girls but also deepens our own capacity for critical self-reflection. And it helps deal with our fear.
Whether men celebrate pornography or worry about its effects on them, whether men are angry or anxious, fear is a common denominator. Some men are afraid someone will take away the material they think they need to experience sexual pleasure. Other men are afraid of what that vehicle to sexual pleasure does to their ability to function sexually outside of the pornographic world. And men are afraid of losing control, whether over “their” women or over themselves.
Men’s fears bolster patriarchy. Institutionalized male dominance creates in women and girls a legitimate fear of, among other things, men’s violence and sexual exploitation. But men in patriarchy also live with fear that keeps them trapped.
To be clear: Compared with the injuries visited upon women and girls, men’s struggles in patriarchy are far less threatening. Women and girls experience discrimination and an ever-present threat of sexual violence in patriarchy that men will never know. But patriarchy does diminish men’s capacity to be fully human, to experience the full range of human emotions.
Men’s fears are rooted in the endless competition that is at the core of patriarchy, which leads to the pathological need for control in pursuit of the conquest we are trained to desire. Men are socialized to seek control, of our own emotions and the behavior of others. That control is aimed at taking what we come to believe is rightfully ours, including sexual gratification from women.
I’ve described patriarchy as a lifelong contest of King of the Hill, the childhood game in which everyone tries to pull down the boy at the top of a hill. Patriarchy not only creates a domination/subordination dynamic between men and women, but also creates a corrosive competition between men. After conversations with many men, I have come to believe that virtually all men at some point in their lives are afraid that they aren’t man enough, that they can’t live up to what they’ve been taught is the dominating essence of a real man.
But wait, some men say, “That’s not how I was raised” or “That’s not how I am.”
It’s possible that there are men who were never affected by this cultural training in the dominant masculinity. Boys who were never affected by other boys and adult men warning them not to throw like a girl or cry like a girl. Boys who were never affected by a steady stream of movies and television shows depicting tough guys who triumph by using violence. Boys who were never affected by seeing male power all around them or being told that the ultimate power to be worshiped was He.
And it’s possible that there are men who have never leveraged being male for personal advancement. Men who have never failed to stand up against sexism in their workplace to ensure that women were treated fairly. Men who have never used women or other men in pornography or the other sexual-exploitation industries. Men who have never told a sexist joke.
It’s possible there are such men, though I have never met one. And I have never met a man who at some point in his life had not been afraid that he was not man enough.
As with any system of unearned privilege and power, it can be difficult for those of us on top to see how such systems shape us. Our best hope of seeing that is feminism, especially the radical feminism that I first encountered in the anti-pornography movement. That’s why I keep saying that radical feminism is not a threat but a gift to men, because it helps us to see the world more clearly, to see ourselves more honestly.
A feminist analysis, combined with critical self-reflection individually and collectively, offers us a way out of the traps that patriarchal constructions of masculinity set for us. If we can overcome our fear, we can be part of a movement that can limit—and someday eliminate—the damage we do to women and girls. It’s a movement that also gives us the chance to become fully human.