Just A John? Pornography And Men’s Choices – Part One

[Talk delivered to the Second Annual Conference on the College Male, Saint John's University, Collegeville, MN, February 26, 2005. This version reflects changes based on comments of conference participants.] There has been much talk at this conference about the need for men to love each other and be willing to speak openly about that love. That is important; we need to be able to get beyond the all-too-common male tendency to mute or deform our emotions, a tendency that is destructive not only to ourselves but to those around us. Many this weekend have spoken about our need to nurture each other, and that’s important, too. But it’s also crucial to remember that loving one another means challenging ourselves as well. That’s what I would like to do today, to challenge us — in harsh language — on men’s use of pornography. In an unjust world, those of us with privilege must be harsh on ourselves, out of love. This challenge is: Can we be more than just johns? Let me start with a story that a female student at the University of Texas told me. She was riding from Austin to Dallas for a football game on a bus chartered by a fraternity, on which many of the passengers were women. During the trip, someone put into the bus’ VCR a sexually explicit video. Uncomfortable with those hardcore sexual images of women being used by men, the female student began a discussion with the people around her about it, and one of the men on the bus agreed that it was inappropriate. He stood up and said to the other men, “You all know me and know I like porno as much as the next guy, but it’s not right for us to play this tape when there are women on the bus.” No doubt it took some courage for that young man to confront his fraternity brothers on the issue, and we should honor that. But we should recognize that his statement also communicated to his fraternity brothers that he was one of them – “one of the guys” – who, being guys, naturally like pornography. His objection was not to pornography and men’s routine purchase and use of women’s bodies for sexual pleasure but to the viewing of it with women present. He was making it clear that his ultimate loyalty was to men and their right to use women sexually, though that use should conform to some type of code of chivalry about being polite about it in mixed company. In doing that, he was announcing his own position in regard to sex. He was saying: I’m just a john. Pimps and Johns A john is a man who buys another human being for sex. Typically that other human being is sold through an intermediary known as a pimp. Pimps sell the bodies of other people (most typically, a male pimp selling a woman) to a third person (who is almost always a man). Men sell women to other men for sex: Pimps and johns. There is much that could be said about the current cultural practice of using the term “pimp” in a wide variety of other contexts – for example, the MTV show “Pimp My Ride.” We live in a world in which men who sell women are glorified. It also is a world in which the dominant white culture implicitly defines a pimp as black and then alternately celebrates and denigrates them. The confluence of racism and sexism in these cultural trends deserves discussion. But today I want to concentrate not on the pimps but on the johns, on the men who buy women for sex. I assume that lots of the men in this room use, or have used, pornography. I assume that lots of the men in this room masturbate, or have masturbated, to pornography. So, I assume there are lots of johns and former johns in this room. I don’t mean that most of us have necessarily bought a woman from a pimp in prostitution, though no doubt some in the audience have. I’m talking about the far more common experience of masturbating to pornography. In my childhood and young adulthood, I was sometimes a john. Virtually every man I know has been a john. Some number of you in this room no doubt still are johns. In pornography, the pimp is called a publisher or a video producer, and the john is called a fan or a pornography consumer. But that doesn’t change the nature of the relationships: One person (usually a man) selling another person (a woman) to a third person (usually a man). So, pornography is pimps and johns, mass-mediated. When you masturbate to pornography, you are buying sexual pleasure. You are buying a woman. The fact that there are technologies of film or video between you and the pimp doesn’t change the equation. Legally, it’s not prostitution, but you’re a john. Legally, you’re not in trouble, but you’re still just a john. The pornography that johns like At this point, let me define a few terms. In this discussion, I’m using the term pornography to describe the graphic sexually explicit material that one finds in a pornographic video store that depicts primarily heterosexual sex and is consumed primarily, though not exclusively, by heterosexual men. Such material is also widely available on the Internet. There are, of course, other genres of pornography (such as gay or lesbian). But I’m speaking today of the material that I would suspect most of the men in the room have used most routinely — those DVDs and videos that are the bulk of the commercial pornography market. There are three consistent themes in that pornography:

–All women want sex from all men at all times.

–Women naturally desire the kind of sex that men want, including sex that many women find degrading.

–Any woman who does not at first realize this can be turned with a little force (though force is rarely needed because most women in pornography instinctively understand their “true” sexual nature). The pornography industry produces two major types of films, features and gonzo. Features mimic, however badly, the conventions of a Hollywood movie. There is some minimal plot, character development, and dialogue, all in the service of presenting the sex. Gonzo films have no such pretensions; they are simply recorded sex, often in a private home or on some minimal set. These films often start with an interview with the woman or women about their sexual desires before the man or men enter the scene. All these films have a standard series of sex acts, including oral, vaginal, and anal penetration, often performed while the men call the women “bitch,” “cunt,” “whore,” and similar names. As they are penetrated, the women are expected to say over and over how much they like the sex. As pornography like this has become increasingly normalized and mainstream — readily available throughout the country by increasingly sophisticated technology — pornographers have pushed the limits of what is acceptable in the mainstream. One of the increasingly common types of sex in gonzo, and less common in features, is the double penetration — a scene in which a woman is penetrated anally and vaginally by two men at the same time. Another type of sex scene in gonzo is a “blow bang” — a scene in which a woman performs oral sex on a group of men, with each man in turn ejaculating onto the woman’s face or into her mouth in standard pornographic fashion. Some gonzo tapes advertise “ATM,” or “ass-to-mouth,” in which a man removes his penis from the woman’s anus and she puts it directly into her mouth. As one pornographic film director put it: “People want more. They want to know how many dicks you can shove up an ass. …Make it more hard, make it more nasty, make it more relentless.” How many dicks can you shove up an ass? It’s rare, but there are films with double anals: Two men penetrating a woman anally at the same time. In recent years, the pornography industry has produced about 11,000 new hardcore, graphic sexually explicit films a year. Estimates of the annual revenues of the pornography industry in the United States start at $10 billion. For comparison, the Hollywood box office — the amount Americans spend to go to the movies — was $9.5 billion in 2003. That’s a lot of johns and a lot of profit for the pimps.

Part Two to follow…

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