Humanity Through the Lens of Pornography

BWPorn Rack- Ed KohlerIn 1963, Gloria Steinem shocked America with her undercover exposé of the denigration women experienced working in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club. Almost half a century later, Hefner parades his “bunnies” around on their own reality show while young girls across the country slap bunny stickers on the bumpers of their first cars. In fall 2011, NBC advertised its new serial drama, The Playboy Club, as a glamorous recreation of the club’s early days: “It’s the early 1960s, and at the center of Chicago lies the legendary and seductive Playboy Club, a living, breathing fantasy world filled with $1.50 cocktails, music, glitter, and of course, beautiful Bunnies.” Pornography has become a staple of the mainstream and, as a result, has affected how two generations understand sex, violence, and human worth.


Over a decade ago, Cornell University professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg had a revelation in her classroom. During a talk on Victorian culture’s dictates about women’s bodies, her students began to open up about the pressures they face in modern society. The professor says, “These young women were bright enough to gain admission to an Ivy League university, and they enjoyed educational opportunities unknown to earlier generations. But they also felt a need to strictly police their bodies… Today, unlike in the Victorian era, commercial interests play directly into the body angst of young girls… Although elevated body angst is a great boost to corporate profits, it saps the creativity of girls and threatens their mental and physical health.”1


These conversations sparked Brumberg’s book, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, in which she examines the historical shift in young women’s attitudes about their bodies. She writes, “At the close of the twentieth century, the female body poses an enormous problem for American girls, and it does so because of the culture in which we live… [T]he current body problem is not just an external issue resulting from a lack of societal vigilance or adult support; it has also become an internal, psychological problem: Girls today make the body into an all-consuming project in ways young women of the past did not.”2


Brumberg identifies a serious problem for young women that feminists have been studying and discussing for decades. The increasing commercialization of beauty, sex, and — at its core — the female body are ever-present challenges for feminists. Naomi Wolf calls the marketing and glamorization of supposedly “flawless” standards of beauty in the media, etc., “beauty pornography.” In her book, The Beauty Myth, she writes, “If women feel ugly, it is our fault, and we have no inalienable right to feel sexually beautiful. A woman must not admit it if she objects to beauty pornography because it strikes to the root of her sexuality by making her feel sexually unlovely. Male or female, we all need to feel beautiful… in the sense of welcome, desired, and treasured. Deprived of that, one objectifies oneself or the other for self-protection.”3


Young women affected by these expectations realize something is wrong but are often unable to articulate it. Talking to students, Wolf found that the concept of “beauty pornography” remained elusive to young women being influenced by it. After explaining the politics, symbolism, and cultural exclusion of the problem to a group of students, one woman told her, “I’ll support you, though I have no idea what you’re talking about. All I know is [these images] make me feel incredibly bad about myself.”4 Wolf and Joan Jacobs Brumberg are not alone in their experiences working with young women who feel pressured by cultural norms of beauty and sexuality. Other feminists point out the connections between the commercialization of women for selling products (what Wolf calls “soft-core beauty pornography”) and the commercialization of women for selling sexual experiences (what is widely recognized as “pornography”). Because these norms are so widely accepted, many women — including those who consider themselves feminists — are reluctant to confront the pervasive influence of porn culture. Today, not only are women expected to maintain trim, shapely physiques, they are sold the opportunity to do so through pole-dancing aerobics classes and Carmen Electra’s “Fit to Strip” DVD.


British columnist Natasha Walter received a tremendous response to an article she wrote about pornographic magazines. One young woman who wrote to her prompted Walter to explore the subject further in her book, Living Dolls. The 17-year-old wrote that she was “starting to think it was time to give up and sit in silence while my friends put on a porno… What you said gave me back the will not to give in… It’s nice to see someone else saying it, makes me feel like less of a prude-type oddball.”5


Journalist Kira Cochrane writes of Living Dolls, “Walter takes on the notion that, for example, stripping and pole-dancing are empowering, liberating choices; instead she suggests, it has become increasingly difficult for young women to opt out of this culture.” Walter says about the research she conducted for her book, “I was surprised by the attitudes of the girls I interviewed who seemed to feel that they would be mocked if they protested within their peer groups. You know, when I was at university [in the ’80s], it was OK to be annoyed about sexism… [Y]ou could still say, ‘I really don’t want Page 3 in the common room,’ or, ‘I really hate the idea of porn.’”6


Anti-pornography activist and Wheelock College professor Gail Dines says, “A key sign that pornography is now deeply embedded in our culture is the way it has become synonymous with sex to such a point that to criticize pornography is to get slapped with the label ‘anti-sex’… Porn sex is a sex that is debased, dehumanized, formulaic, and generic, a sex based not on individual fantasy, play or intimacy, but one that is the result of an industrial product created by men who get excited not by bodily contact but by profits.”7 In her book, Pornified, Pamela Paul writes, “Habitual male consumers of mainstream pornography — that is, nonviolent but nonetheless objectifying images — appear to be at greater risk of becoming sexually callous toward female sexuality and concerns.”8


An early tenet of the feminist movement was an opposition to the objectification of women in the media in general and in pornography in particular. Pro-life feminists continue that legacy today, emphasizing the connections between violence against women and pornography. Some pro-choice feminists share that conviction, even while others in their movement embrace porn culture as an opportunity for women to explore their own sexuality. This division within the feminist movement became heated in the late 1970s during the “pornography wars,” in which “two distinct and oppositional factions developed. On the one hand, there were the anti-porn feminists and on the other, there were the women who felt that if feminism was about freedom, then women should be free to look at or appear in pornography.”9


Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture and writer for The New Yorker magazine, adds that the pro-choice feminist movement made an early uneasy alliance with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner: “Roe and the legalization of the birth control pill — both of which were crucial to feminists — were both helped by funding from Hefner…. But a shared distaste for conventional family arrangements and repressive laws was the extent of Hefner’s ideological compatibility with the women’s liberation movement.”10 Levy says of the mismatch, “[Hefner’s statements about his bunnies] made feminists want to throw up. They were specifically fighting to be seen as real people, not sudsy bunnies. They wanted to show the world that women were ‘difficult’ and ‘sophisticated,’ not to mention formidable.”11


In her essay “Pornography and the Sexual Revolution,” FFL activist Judy Shea writes, “It is no accident that the greatest apologist for pornography in our culture, Hugh Hefner, is also enthusiastic about abortion on demand…. The reality of the possibility of pregnancy and childbirth interferes with the Hefner dream of multiple partners and everlasting orgies. The Hefner playboy is incapable of relating to a mature woman who ovulates, menstruates, conceives, and lactates. In fact, he’s quite puritanical about the messy, dirty processes of human reproduction. He likes his bunnies ‘clean’ and sterile.”12


Unapologetic anti-porn feminists pulled away from the mainstream and formed a prominent “splinter group of activists, including [Susan] Brownmiller, Gloria Steinem, Shere Hite, Robin Morgan, the poet Adrienne Rich, and the writers Grace Paley and Audre Lorde.”13 Brownmiller and others founded the New York chapter of Women Against Pornography and began tackling the problem right outside their office on 42nd Street.


Levy writes, “The area was a swamp of peep shows, porn shops, and prostitution — ground zero for the objectification of women — and the feminists set up camp right in the middle of it…. Women Against Pornography’s trademark was offering guided tours of the neighborhood intended to elucidate the degradation of sex workers. They would bring visiting Benedictine nuns to a strip club to observe the patrons and dancers, or they’d take a curious band of housewives inside a porn shop so they could investigate what it was their husbands were looking at in the garage.”


Feminists like these working against pornography in the late ’70s and early ’80s sought to address the degradation and objectification of women at every level of society. They also saw their foe for what it was: an industry made wealthy by the consistent and pervasive dehumanization of women.


According to feminist activist, professor, and author Robert Jensen, pornography is a booming industry: “The fact that more than ten billion dollars a year is spent on pornography makes it very clear that pornography does not express a deviant sexuality. It, in fact, expresses a very conventional sexuality, and that means the road takes us not just to the valley in California where this material is produced. It takes us into our own lives and into our own bedroom.”14 A recent Newsweek study led by Melissa Farley, the director of Prostitution Research and Education, looked at the growing demand for prostitution. The team of researchers found that “buying sex is so pervasive that Farley’s team had a shockingly difficult time locating men who really don’t do it. The use of pornography, phone sex, lap dances, and other services has become so widespread that the researchers were forced to loosen their definition in order to assemble a 100-person control group.”15


Farley said, “We had big, big trouble finding nonusers. We finally had to settle on a definition of non-sex-buyers as men who have not been to a strip club more than two times in the past year, have not purchased a lap dance, have not used pornography more than one time in the last month, and have not purchased phone sex or the services of a sex worker, escort, erotic masseuse, or prostitute.” Buying porn and patronizing businesses that profit from the sexual exploitation of women has become culturally expected of men. Robert Jensen frankly confronts men about the objectification of women in pornography in his essay, “A Cruel Edge: The Painful Truth About Today’s Pornography — and What Men Can Do About It.” He writes, “Men spend $10 billion on pornography a year. 11,000 new pornographic films are made every year. And in those films, women are not people. In pornography, women are three holes and two hands.”16


Jensen adds, “All of these acts are, at their base, about male domination and female submission. Men’s ability to do whatever they want to do to women and women accepting it, and even further in pornography, not only women accepting it, but women seeing it as part of their nature.”17 It is this dehumanization and emphasis on male power that makes pornography dangerous. One of the most pressing concerns for feminists today is the ever-increasing levels of violence in popular pornography. In the documentary The Price of Pleasure, Dr. Ana Bridges, psychology professor at the University of Arkansas says, “Defenders of pornography often state that critics hold up the worst-case examples, most degrading, most violent pornography and talk about why this is harmful. But in fact, pornography is very diverse.” In a study on violence and aggression in pornography, Dr. Bridges and her research team examined 304 scenes from the most popular porn videos released in 2005. The team found that 89.8 percent of the scenes contained verbal or physical aggression. Ninety-four percent of the aggressive acts in those scenes were targeted at women.18


Anti-porn activist Robin Morgan once said, “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.”19 Neil Malamuth, a psychologist well-known for his studies of the aftereffects of pornography, concluded in a literature review, “Experimental research shows that exposure to nonviolent or violent pornography results in increases in both attitudes supporting sexual aggression and in actual aggression.” He adds from his own study, “When we considered men who were previously determined to be at high risk for sexual aggression…. we found that those who are additionally very frequent users of pornography were much more likely to have engaged in sexual aggression than their counterparts who consume pornography less frequently.”20 Naomi Wolf argues that pornography not only desensitizes men and women to violence, it normalizes violence: “Cultural representation of glamorized degradation has created a situation among the young in which boys rape and girls get raped as a normal course of events.”21


Besides pornography’s profitable homage to violence against women, the industry itself thrives upon the victimization of women. Porn buyers are led to believe that the women they see in the magazines want to be there. Buyers are conditioned to think that the transaction is consensual and the materials they are viewing are harmless. Yet this “legitimacy” of pornography often provides a legal front for trafficking operations. Linda Smith, founder and president of Shared Hope International and former member of Congress, says that traffickers use “spotters” to lure young women into the commercial sex industry and from there into prostitution.22 Shared Hope International, working with the American Center for Law and Justice, has released a model legislative framework for targeting pornographers as facilitators and perpetrators of sex trafficking.


Porn’s first big “star,” Linda Lovelace, wrote in her book Ordeal about her start in porn, orchestrated by an abusive and controlling husband who acted as manager and manipulator.23 Other women report having been coerced, abused, and manipulated into performing in pornographic films.24 According to Laura Lederer, former Senior Advisor on Human Trafficking at the U.S. State Department, porn also increases the demand for sex trafficking because it sends the messages that it’s “normal” for men to exploit women and girls for their own pleasure, and it’s “glamorous” for women to be used and abused in this way. Lederer says, “Pornography is a brilliant social marketing campaign for sexual exploitation.”25


Because pornography has been normalized in American culture — even celebrated as a liberating force by both women and men — combating it is a tremendous challenge for pro-life feminists and pro-choice anti-porn feminists. For many years, feminist groups have worked independently to put pressure on the porn industry, approaching the problem both as academics and activists. But these isolated efforts could be strengthened. Laura Lederer responds, “If our challenge at the end of the 20th century was to recognize that sexual exploitation is a growing phenomenon… our challenge in the 21st century is to link up all of our various efforts. We must do it. We have to make the connections between the various forms of sexual exploitation, sex trafficking and sex slavery.” Pro-life feminists make those connections and, in doing so, become the voice of those threatened and exploited by pornography.


1. Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. Random House: New York. 1997. xxii-xxiii.


2. Ibid. xvii.


3. Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. William Morrow & Co.: New York. 1991. 148.


4. Ibid. 148.


5. Cochrane, Kira. “Natasha Walter: ‘I believed sexism in our culture would wither away. I was entirely wrong.’” The Guardian. 25 January 2010.


6. Ibid.


7. Dines, Gail. Congressional Briefing on the Harms of Pornography. 15 June 2010. Accessed on the web


8. Paul, Pamela. Pornified: How Pornography is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 2005. 152.


9. Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Free Press: NY. 2005. 62-63.


10. Ibid. 55, 57.


11. Ibid. 58.


12. Shea, Judy. Pro-Life Feminism: Different Voices. Life Cycle Books: Toronto. 1985. 158.


13. Levy. 60-61.


14. Jensen, Robert. The Price of Pleasure: Pornography,\ Sexuality and Relationships. Media Education Foundation. Transcript, 17. Accessed 11 July 2011 at


15. Bennetts, Leslie. “The John Next Door.” Newsweek. 18 July 2011.


16. Jensen, Robert. Accessed 11 July 2011 at


17. Jensen, Robert. The Price of Pleasure. Media Education Foundation. Transcript. 16. 2008.


18. Bridges, Ana. 15.


19. Levy. 61.


20. Dines, Gail. Congressional Hearing.


21. Wolf. 167.


22. Smith, Linda. Protected Innocence Legislative Framework Briefing. Shared Hope International. 16 June 2011.


23. Shea. 159.


24. Worswick, Dawn. “Porn Stars Are Abused and are Human Trafficking Victims.” San Jose. 19 April 2011.


25. Lederer, Laura. Convergence Summit. April 2011. .