What’s the Matter with Getting Off?


When I was reading Robert Jensen’s new book "Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity," I found myself being careful to put the book away with the cover face-down. Why? Because the cover looks, well, vaguely pornographic. It features a close-up of a man who looks like he might be jerking off in a public restroom. You can’t see his whole face – just his mouth, which is slightly open, slack-jawed. There’s a stubbly chin, a bit of a nostril. It’s not very attractive. The square white tiles in the background evoke an impersonal environment. The implication is that "getting off" is an ugly, male sort of a thing.

Not wanting to judge a book by its cover, I turned to the first page, which tells the story of Jensen’s presence in a group of men observing two female porn performers at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas in 2005. He is there with a documentary film crew, and the other men are there presumably as consumers of the porn. The performers and the crowd call back and forth to each other; the performers get more and more sexually provocative; the crowd grows more boisterous, "intensifying to the point where the men are moving as a unit – like a mob." Stuck in the middle of this crowd, Jensen notices that the men are aroused, many of them have erections, and Jensen concludes, if it weren’t for the security guards, "these men would likely gang-rape" the performers.

These are strong choices for a cover and first page. They make the powerful, in-your-face claim that male sexuality is vulgar, impersonal, and prone to gang rape. It was hard to want to keep reading for two reasons:

One was what you might call avoidance. As a woman who has read widely about pornography and male violence against women, and who has experienced aspects of it, I really had no desire to immerse myself in the details of the business. I know a lot about it, thanks, and not from watching porn flicks necessarily, but by passing billboards on the street, watching the occasional prime-time TV, and talking with my 11-year old daughter about how to deal with the boy in her class who threatened to get together with another boy and "rape all you chicks."

The second reason it was hard to continue was what you might call shame fatigue. It seemed like shame was going to be a predominant emotion, and I’m tired of its presence in our political movements, our social change literature, and our lives. One example: my daughter comes home from an anti-racism workshop feeling ashamed of herself for being white. But that’s something you have no control over, we remind her. You were born that way. We tell her that rather than feeling ashamed of something she can’t control, she should accept the challenge of taking responsibility for what she can control. There’s a lot of good work that can be done with that as a starting place.

Shame is a negative emotion that we might have to feel every once in a while – who among us has not done things we felt ashamed of? – but wise counsel would guide us away from shame not toward it. Yes, take responsibility for what you did or did not do in situations where you have some control. Look at it carefully, but be compassionate towards yourself and others. Find a way to learn, grow, and embrace a path forward.

As far as porn is concerned, since men are the main consumers of it, and since it is mostly men (not women) who commit acts of rape and sexual abuse, Jensen presumably hopes that men will be the ones to read his critique of pornography. They’re the ones that need to be exposed to the analysis, perspective, and substance that will allow them to reconsider the ways they were trained to degrade and objectify women while simultaneously undermining their own sexuality and identity by accepting their role as the dominant, aggressive player in sex and in other forms of human interaction. Yet, shame is not really a productive way of drawing anyone into the circle of your ideas, and I wish Jensen had found another way to invite people into the discussion because his book includes important information.

Interestingly, at the end of the book (p. 169), Jensen makes this same claim, saying, "Shame is counterproductive." But then he goes on to recommend that "men replace that sense of shame with a sense of guilt." Although Jensen makes the case that shame and guilt are different – the former implies *you* are bad while the latter implies your *action* was bad – it’s not convincing at this point. He has set a shaming, guilt-inducing tone – neither of which is a positive motivator, and both of which are present throughout significant portions of "Getting Off." Even if the careful reader could distinguish between being induced to feel shame and being induced to feel guilt, I would argue that most people have been steeped in guilt and shame from an early age for having any sort of sexual feeling or desire, and that the net effect of such a saturation has not been all that helpful.

Part of the problem is that sex and sexuality have to do with feelings *and* actions, so asking men to feel guilty but not ashamed is making too fine a distinction. If fantasizing about women in a certain way causes a man to get turned on, is that an action on his part – in which case he should feel simply guilty? Or is it something integral to his being, in which case he should feel ashamed? If he refuses to buy pornography in order to withhold his support from a rampantly sexist institution, but then goes home one night and masturbates while remembering the curve of a nameless woman’s breast or the press of an anonymous ass on a crowded subway, has he committed the sin of reducing others to their body parts? Should he feel guilty or ashamed? Is it possible to really know and is it worth trying to figure out? I would say no.

There are millions and millions of men who have looked at porn, and if I were going to write a book directed at them, I would not start out with a cover that makes masturbation look contemptible and an opening story that implies men in crowds viewing sexy performers are on the verge of gang rape.

It’s not that Jensen is wrong to explore the ways pornography might reinforce male violence towards women. Many men do commit unspeakable acts when they mix power and sexuality, and they are supported in this by a culture that promotes the objectification of women in everything from G-rated Disney movies to the X-rated material Jensen immersed himself in to write this book. There is important work to be done around the role of pornography and masculinity, which is why I kept reading despite the two deterrents that I originally felt.

One contribution of the book is Jensen’s reminder of just how objectified women are in pornography. In the course of his qualitative research (during which he watched what store clerks in Boston- and Austin-area stores said were the most popular porn movies [p. 54-55]), Jensen provides evidence to back up his claims that pornography constructs women in the following way: Women constantly want sex from men; they can’t wait to submit to men’s desires and demands; and "any woman who does not at first realize this can be easily turned with a little force" [pp. 56-57]. The quotes and scene descriptions are predictably upsetting. Women beg to be penetrated in every orifice; they are called all manner of degrading names; they have their heads shoved down flushing toilets [126]; six men ejaculate all over one woman’s face [89]; and in one film, a "cheerleader" is penetrated simultaneously in her mouth, her vagina, and her anus. "In the industry," Jensen explains, "this is known as `airtight’ – all the woman’s holes are plugged. During this part of the scene, she also masturbates two other penises. She is three holes and two hands" [p. 71].

If you weren’t sure how blatantly misogynistic our culture is, "Getting Off" will certainly correct that. Jensen even finds a key porn industry player, John "Buttman" Stagliano, to admit in an interview that he is worried about how pornography can reinforce abusive behavior [p. 99]. But you don’t have to reach for the shocking close-ups of double anal penetration to make the case that women are constructed as objects of male fantasies in this culture. Women’s gym shorts feature hand prints on the rear – as if to say, "Grab hold of this." Stiletto heels are known as "fuck-me" pumps. Car, beer, and make-up commercials make women appear to want nothing more than to caress and/or suck on all manner of penis-substitutes, such as stick shifts, long-neck bottles, and lipsticks.

The central themes of pornography as Jensen describes them and as listed above, in other words, exist on a continuum with the rest of mainstream culture. I wish Jensen spent less time on detailed scene descriptions and verbatim transcripts, and more time on what propels the objectification of women and the one-dimensionalization of sexuality. In addition to misogyny, for example, there is the marketplace, which has an interest in reinforcing consumerism and reducing sex, sexuality, and all kinds of intimacy and pleasure to acts or objects that can be bought and sold.

Perhaps Jensen’s most important contribution is his call for honest conversation, and he begins one with his call for "the end of masculinity." Although I agree with the idea that we should break down rigid gender constructs, I have a hard time with Jensen’s style. Addressing a group of men at a conference, he poses a challenge to them: "Can we be more than just johns?" [p. 135] It reminds me of a preacher telling the congregation that they are all sinners or a drill sergeant aiming to break down his recruits with harsh criticism.

Another conversation that Jensen contributes to is one about objectification. When the culture is saturated with images of women’s body parts – apparently existing only for male pleasure and unattached to a real person – men don’t have to see women as human beings. This is truly damaging both to women, who are literally in danger because men see them as disposable tools or objects whose sole purpose is to deliver pleasure, and to men, who miss out on the full dimensions of relating to other human beings. However, does this mean any interlude that falls short of fully and deeply relating to all aspects of your partner’s humanity is wrong? If two consenting adults want to have sex for no other reason than they find each other cute, I’m not convinced there’s a problem. It’s a fairly reductionist view of the other, and one would hope that part of our social change agenda is to construct multiple avenues for inviting connection and understanding between people in non-reductionist ways, but assuming they make their intentions clear and they are in agreement, what is the harm? Maybe afterwards, they feel less fulfilled than if they had fully delved into each other’s souls, but it’s possible to create a net gain in human connection and mutual pleasure, even if they fall short of relating in every possible dimension, even if all they did was "get off."

The problem isn’t with "getting off." The problem is the horrendous working conditions that women suffer in the pornography industry, our misogynistic culture that sees women (whether they are wives or sex-workers) as objects of male pleasure and control, women’s unequal access to power and wealth, and our profit-driven economy that constantly reduces our lives and our daily practices to acts of consumption.

Jensen is on the right track when he says that "The stories that we tell are a powerful force in setting the direction of a society" [p. 184]. Here, at the end of the book, is what seems to me a positive framework for addressing pornography. We need a culture that allows us to tell more stories about how we are sexual. We need more (shame-free) opportunities to be truthful about what it means to be intimate and what it means to "get off," and these opportunities need to be driven – by a desire to express ourselves and understand ourselves collectively and individually.

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