Cambridge, MA, South End Press, 2007, 196 pp.
My husband tells me that when heterosexual men talk about women in the locker room, the conversation reeks of sexism. For example, his largely middle-aged comrades reject their intellectual and social equals—they argue that females over 30 are universally unattractive—and instead fixate on hot 20-somethings. When he tells them that he’s happy with me, his partner of 23 years, he claims they visibly bristle.
It’s certainly possible that this group is an aberration. But it may also be a clue to the magnitude of problems besetting male-female relations. University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen has been studying gender for more than 20 years and has been heavily influenced by Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon. Like them, he’s a feminist activist who situates pornography at the center of America’s penchant for violence and domination. While many of his arguments rehash their work, he also seeks to make the men who consume porn aware of the messages they’re absorbing and asks them to assess why they are turned on by what they see.
Great questions. Sadly, Getting Off spends so much time chronicling the plots, sub-plots, and depictions in individual pornographic films— Jensen has apparently seen them all—that issues of gender competition and woman-hating get short shrift. In addition, Jensen’s solutions for curbing our culture’s anti-woman biases range from the nonsensical to the bizarre. First, he wants men to feel guilt—but not shame—about their porn use. “Shame names the feeling that one is bad, while guilt describes the recognition that one has done a bad thing,” he writes. “We need not reject the positive role of guilt by which one comes to see that an action was morally unacceptable.”
Sounding eerily ministerial, Jensen thunders that men need to pursue the sexual pleasure that derives from deep intimacy between partners. Missing is the acknowledgement that not everyone wants a deep commitment, that some of us are perfectly content to love ’em and leave ’em.
What’s more, Jensen’s world view includes the “abolition of masculinity.” At one point he goes so far as to write that he “chooses to renounce being a man.” It’s absurd. Jensen can be conscious of male privilege and can even attempt to forge non-chauvinistic relations with women. At the same time, he’s still male; while there is a huge continuum of behaviors that fall under the arc of masculinity, renunciation seems pointless, if not wholly impossible. In the same way that Caucasians can refuse to benefit from white skin privilege, a quick look in the mirror will reveal that despite their anti-racist politics, they’re still as white as they’ve always been. Likewise, fighting sexism is about ending male supremacy, not forcing men to morph into another species.
Even if you buy Jensen’s argument about the centrality of pornography to women-bashing, the many other arenas in which sexism is expressed—from the sermons of religious leaders to fashion magazines— are left dangling. Yet for all that, Jensen’s reminder—if we somehow forgot—that men bear the brunt of responsibility for perpetuating brutality and inequality against women, is worth repeating.
Still, I can’t help wondering how Jensen’s theories would resonate in the locker room. Might men agree to stay away from porn? Will guilt feelings surface and benefit them and their female companions? More importantly, will this improve conditions for women? Maybe I’m overly cynical, but I doubt it. At the same time, analyzing why most men are threatened by strong, smart women is essential if we’re ever going to have a healthy body politic.
Yes, porn’s depiction of women— in Jensen’s words as “three holes and two hands”—is often heinous. But the underlying issue of why men accept this portrayal as accurate requires a deep understanding of the psychological and political forces that shape identity. Challenging sexism and misogyny requires men to own up to both their power and their desires. It also requires women to be assertive, pushing the status quo toward inclusion and respect. Porn may play a role, but it’s at best just the tip of a large and unwieldy iceberg.
Eleanor J. Bader is the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) and a contributor to In These Times, Library Journal, the NY Law Journal and the Progressive.