Book review: Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masulinity

Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masulinity
By Robert Jensen
Published by South End Press
ISDN-10: 089608-776-x
ISDN-13: 978-0-89608-776-7

Review by Chad Denton

It is difficult being a person with strong political and social convictions and reviewing a book like this, which an impassioned treatise that isn’t so much directed toward one topic but exists as an open letter pleading every case they ever cared about. Either you agree and your critique is blinded by the joy of finding a fellow traveler, or you disagree and the author slowly turns into the Worst Most Ignorant Person Ever. Of course, even when you firmly disagree, the least one can do is appreciate the passion the activist author has stirred into the prose. And Robert Jensen has indeed spent a great deal of time thinking and arguing about pornography and its possible connections to the mistreatment of women in modern society, which I must respect. In fact, Jensen and I probably, if someone reduced our positions to pie charts, agree more than we disagree, especially when it comes to traditional gender roles (who needs ’em?) and misogyny (it’s very bad).

Unfortunately, when it comes to pornography, Jensen, who admits that much of his interpretation of feminist thought springs from his association with renowned anti-pornography crusader Andrea Dworkin, and I are very much at odds. For Jensen pornography represents the worst excesses of a modern, patriarchal, capitalist society, fostering misogyny and female sexual passivity among its viewers. It may even encourage violence against women in everyday life (Jensen is coy about flat-out making this particular claim, although given how he constructs his argument around this point it is difficult to see how he cannot believe that hardcore pornography is at least a major factor). Jensen never defines pornography in a way that distinguishes it from or connects it to explicit erotica, “freelance” enactment of sex acts by individuals on the Internet, and so on, but it does become clear through the book that the “pornography” Jensen discusses is mass-marketed, visual, and hardcore pornography. When Jensen does claim to offer a definition for the sake of discussion, it is ideologically charged – “a specific kind of sexual material that helps maintain the sexual subordination of women” (53)—rather than neutral and academic.

Indeed, “ideologically charged” would serve as the shortest and still the most accurate critique of the entire book. It shouldn’t be criticized because Robert Jensen is an ideologue—obviously just about anyone inspired enough to write a 184-page book on any socio-cultural issues can rightfully have that label slapped on them—but because he goes to such short lengths to hide his ideology. Prophesying my own interest in any definition or definitions he provides on pornography, Jensen blasts anyone who has the audacity to insist on such a little thing as really deploying a “definitional dodge” (51), surely an excuse for intellectual laziness plenty of post-doctoral students would love to copy for their term papers, or using a “strategy to bury the feminist anti-pornography critique” (82). “Pro-pornography” arguments only arouse the wagging of Jensen’s finger and his accusations that the people on the other side of the porn aisle are using tactics to avoid “anti-pornography” points or close off discussion. In other words, Jensen wants to leave the reader with the impression that he and his allies are so obviously right that those who disagree can only run off and claim a victory like a bunch of Falstaffs. Unfortunately, he only really succeeds in drawing attention to his own skittish and unflattering refusal to tackle any objections to his assertions in a substantive or convincing way.

More effective, and far closer to the sort of careful study one would hope for in a book like this, are the chapters when Jensen is able to discuss his first-hand research of the porn-industry. Jensen’s quotations of interviews and directors’ commentaries and descriptions of sex scenes do indeed convey the sense of an entire industry where the woman becomes an object programmed only for the most primal male gratification, a disturbing thread in the book that reaches its crescendo in its portrayal of “Ariana Jollee”, a porn actress who had sex with sixty-five men in succession for the camera. Admittedly it is difficult for even Jensen’s most determined critic not to flinch at similar details. If nothing else Jensen does manage to illustrate the very, very serious flaws inside the mainstream pornography industry (although at one point he comes very close to undermining his own argument by pointing out that there are films graphic and misogynistic enough that pornography producers and directors distance themselves from them (72) ).

Still, Jensen’s overall perspective is rather limited. It is never clear whether or not Jensen views mainstream pornography as inherently misogynistic or if the problems lie within the industry’s hierarchy; when Jensen does discuss modern mainstream pornography in the context of the history of erotic images in the West, it is annoyingly brief and only brought up at all to casually dismiss a supposedly common “pro-pornography” comment on the universality of pornography. Also Jensen does not consider in any depth bondage, gay, or any type of “specialized” pornography, which may be understandable given his thesis and focus on the significance of masculinity for heterosexuals, but it still feels like an oversight, especially once Jensen’s observations on objectification and power inside pornography come to the fore.

To put it bluntly, Jensen also at times comes across as a bit of a Martian, perplexed by the sex customs of the human race. He criticizes pornography for having women that want sex from all times from men (“It’s almost as if the whole point of pornography is to portray sex acts!” (not an actual quote) ), without considering that the same could be said of the principals in gay pornography or, really, the men in heterosexual pornography. Throughout his analysis of pornography, Jensen finds it very significant that the actresses sometimes display expressions of pain, something I found unconvincing as a gay man who tends to prefer the passive role. Speaking of which, I don’t believe Jensen intended for me to find the following worth laughing aloud over: “Anal sex can be pleasurable for the person being penetrated. Certainly the frequency of the practice among gay men suggests that is the case…” (58) I don’t wish to accuse Jensen of being a prude—certainly that’s an overused allegation used against feminists who object to pornography and prostitution—but it is hard not to wonder if his views are formed by a fundamental hostility to sex when, for instance, he simply finds the presence of dildos and sex toys at a porn industry expo shocking.

Unsurprisingly Jensen is at his most convincing when he allows his research to speak for itself and much less so when he gives vent to his ideology. There are points where he raises interesting philosophical and social questions, such as: “In intimate moments with a partner during sex, are we engaged in a way that treats our partner like a human being, someone with hopes and dreams and desires of her own? Or are we engaged in a way that treats her like an object…?” (109-110) However, this too is undercut by his tendency to idealize female sexuality as something free of the horrors of objectification or, ironically given the gist of his objections to the treatment of porn actresses, portray women as perpetual victims of society’s sexual norms. How are we to explain heterosexual women who loudly and proudly boil the Christian Bales and Brad Pitts of the world down to their component parts, their abs and their arms and their cocks? Or homosexual women who, like heterosexual men, develop fetishistic affinities for breasts or legs? And how do we explain such lyrics sung by female singers as can be found in Luscious Jackson’s “Sexy Hypnotist” (”Cause abs and buns are so much fun”) or the Lords of Acid’s “Young Boys” (“Yummy and innocent / I’m gonna have some fun!”)?

Of course, it may be unfair of me to expect Jensen to make a total defense of his corner of the feminist movement, although such a book as this provokes such questions. Unfortunately, Jensen is merely preaching to the choir and does not even want to disguise the fact. That, not our foundational difference in opinion, is what made this book a dreary if occasionally interesting exercise in ideological indulgence.