by Gail Dines
Beacon Press, 2010
Review by Berel Dov Lerner, Ph.D. on Sep 7th 2010
Gail Dines is an academic sociologist and feminist activist who has devoted much of her career to doing battle against pornography. Pornland is the culmination of her life's work to date. The book signals an alarm over the increasing presence and cultural force of pornography in contemporary American society. It is not merely concerned about the unprecedented ease of access to porn offered by the Internet; rather, it deals principally with the way the pornographic imagination (or lack of imagination?) is encroaching on previously unrelated cultural territory, so that, for instance, the line separating porn from mainstream entertainment is quickly fading. Furthermore, it claims that the full-fledged pornographers are involved in a hard-core arms-race, promoting increasingly aggressive and violent sexual images in a struggle to maintain market shares in an audience which quickly grows bored with every new attempt to ratchet-up the level of erotic arousal. According to Dines, the possibilities of excitement and degradation offered by encounters between adult men and women have been nearly exhausted; child-pornography is quickly becoming the new frontier for mainstream pornographers. Having witnessed their fill of sadism, Americans will soon develop a taste for pedophilia.
The book makes an interesting and alarming set of claims regarding the affects of pornography on its users and those around them. Anyone acquainted with the history of attempts to link pornography to rape knows that this is a tricky area of investigation, and even some feminists have argued that porn can be sexually liberating. Dines tries to prove that pornography -- especially in its increasingly extreme and aggressive "gonzo" forms -- does not merely promote violence against women, rather it distorts the attitudes and expectations that people bring to normative erotic relationships. Citing evidence including her discussions with college audiences, Dines tells us that women today are expected to conform to a pornographic ideal of feminine beauty and are pressured to engage in unpleasant and degrading acts popularized by porn. Men are intimidated by the sexual athleticism of male porn stars and they confess that pornographic conditioning has undermined their ability to connect emotionally with their sexual partners. The dress and behavior of children have also been sexualized in conformity with the pornographic trend. Dines's broader treatment of the subject brings in a discussion of the early development of modern pornography as exemplified by the rise of three major magazines (Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler), the role of big business in financing the porn industry, and an attempt to argue that pornography reinforces racial stereotypes.
Anti-porn writing has occasionally suffered from the tendency of some feminists to construct demonic caricatures of the male psyche instead of trying to empathetically understand what is going on in the heads of actual men. While Dines could be more charitable in her analyses of how men relate to pornography, she does escape the feminist echo-chamber by citing statements made by men themselves. The most methodologically interesting strategy used in the book employs comments taken from online forums where fans discuss their favorite porn stars and videos. The use of such material has scientific drawbacks to which Dines admits; there is no way to know who is writing and what sector of the population they represent. Nevertheless, she does make a good case for the claim that at least some consumers of pornography are consciously seeking out depictions of the degradation of women. She quotes one veteran porn actor and producer who puts it plainly, "I'd like to really show what I believe the men want to see: violence against women" (p. xxvi). A damning quotation indeed.
© 2010 Berel Dov Lerner
Dr. Berel Dov Lerner teaches philosophy at the Western Galilee College in Israel. Visit his book-review blog at http://lerner-reviews.blogspot.com/.