If Gail Dines Would Stop Shaming People, Maybe Folks Would Listen

Over on the Ms Magazine blog, there’s a post exploring whether porn is racist, which was sparked by some of the things that Gail Dines has said about the industry. And in among the various comments, Dines herself includes a link to the chapter in her book on race and the porn industry. Since I believe in both giving different perspectives a fair shake and not talking about things that I haven’t checked out myself, I read through it. She also has another sample chapter on the topic of growing up female in a culture influenced by porn.

At the risk of saying something that may surprise some folks, I actually agree with quite a bit of what Dines says. I know that there’s racism in the porn industry, both from my own observations and from talking with people of color who work as porn performers. I agree with Dines when she says that the shift towards hypersexualizing young girls (both legal adults and minors) is a serious problem because it skews their perceptions of what sexual choices are available to them, among other things. Like her, I’m really concerned with the way that alcohol and pluralistic ignorance lead to young adults having sex that they don’t necessarily want to because they believe that “everyone else is doing it,” rather than because it is an expression of authentic desire.

So yes, I think that Dines has some really valuable things to say. And I also think that she goes awry in some unfortunate ways.

For example, Dines clearly has a view of sex that leaves little room for sexual diversity.On page 105, during her discussion of Sex and the City and  how it presents  unhealthy views of male sexuality, she writes:

Porn-type sex is a fixture on the show, which regularly features plotlines about men who like to watch porn as they have sex, men who are aroused by female urination, men who want group sex, men who can only get aroused by masturbating to porn, men who are into S&M, men who want anal sex, and men who are only willing to have hookup sex and not a relationship.

Notice how she takes behaviors that would be more likely to have implications for someone’s mental & sexual well-being, such as being unable to get aroused without porn, and lumps them together with behaviors that have never been shown to be inherently symptomatic of any real problem, like anal sex, group sex, or BDSM. These latter activities can be an expression of unhealthy sexuality and they can be done in ways that don’t support the pleasure and well-being of the people involved, but there is nothing about them that is inherently problematic. It’s a question of why and how you do it, not that you’re doing it.

When Dines describes behaviors that have been part of human sexuality for as long as there have been people (that is, before porn became so common), when she denigrates and demonizes sexual activities that plenty of people do in ways that are fun, pleasurable, intimate, and grounded in consent, she’s tapping into and using erotophobia. But then, Dines uses disgust and shame to reinforce her claims and that is a real pity.

It also shows that, in fact, Dines doesn’t know very much about sex. If she wanted to write about how engaging in these sexual practices in healthy ways differs from the ways that they are often presented as porn fantasies, that’d be great. If she wanted to talk about how accurate, non-judgmental sex education would make it so that people weren’t using porn to get sex information, that’d be wonderful. But instead, she attacks sexual practices that many people experience in positive ways and states (both directly and indirectly) that they are dangerous or harmful. This is how sexual shame and sex-negativity are used to control people. Using shame simply isn’t going to move us towards a more healthy sexuality.

In her chapter on race in porn, Dines does some similar things. For example, when she talks about the ways that race is marketed, she writes:

In all-white porn, no one ever refers to the man’s penis as  “a white cock” or the woman’s vagina as “white pussy,” but introduce a person of color, and suddenly, all players have a racialized sexuality, where the race of the performer(s) is described in ways that make women a little “sluttier” and the men more hypermasculinized.

First, I agree- the way that race is often (although not always) marketed in porn follows this trend. But Dines conveniently neglects to include in her analysis the fact that in US culture in general, whiteness is assumed unless we are told otherwise. Many people, and especially white people, use “white” as the default unless they hear otherwise. Similarly, people are often assumed to be male, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied unless a qualifier is used. It’s deeply unfortunate and it reinforces privilege and oppression in big and small ways, every day.

To not include that frame, to ignore the fact that this mechanism is one that existed in the larger culture well before any of these porn performers or producers used it, is to try to make it seem as if porn is the only place that you’ll see it. Yes, it’s racist when porn uses language like ghetto to signify Black people. And it’s the same mechanism when politicians and newspapers use inner city. Dines’ critique of these practices leaves that foundation out, which skews her argument and makes it seem as if porn is doing something that doesn’t happen everywhere. If anything, porn is simply a more accurate reflection of some of the dynamics that most of the “polite” world refuses to acknowledge.

This absolutely does not change the harm that these things do. And it absolutely does not absolve porn producers of their responsibility for contributing to racism and race-based inequities among performers. At the same time, it’s disingenuous to write as if these things exist in a vacuum.

Where does this connect to shame? When Dines criticizes porn for something that exists completely separately from it, she’s using the standard tactic of “blame and shame.” Now, I fully support developing an analysis of porn, of sexual practices, and of culture that takes a good look at the patterns of behavior and points out the places in which we’re doing things that are unhealthy. It’s part of improving things and it’s important. At the same time, we have to do it in ways that reflect and describe things accurately. We need to not make it seem like the problems only exist in this one setting. And we need to do it in ways that don’t increase the amount of sexual shame people experience. Otherwise, our solutions are going to fail.

Of course, some folks might argue that, as a writer, Dines had to choose what information to include in her book and there’s always going to be something left out. However, when her decisions result in her misrepresenting the issues, I can only conclude that she wants to promote a specific agenda rather than offering accurate information and analysis.

Although some people in sex-positive communities might disagree with me, I think that our cultural obsession with sex is a sign of our deeply rooted shame. Just as people with eating disorders obsess over food, while those with more healthy relationships with food don’t (unless they’re really hungry), I think that our tendency to use sex to sell, the performance-based model of sexuality, and our fixation on sex are manifestations of hundreds of years of sex-negativity, erotophobia, and shame. But the solution to shame isn’t to keep shaming people. The answer is to try to help people find a healthy balance. When Dines uses shame to try to promote her agenda, she reinforces the roots of the problem that she says she wants to fix. It’s about as effective as blaming someone who has an eating disorder- all you’re going to do is make it worse.  And I don’t see how that helps.

Although I suppose it means she sells more copies of her book.

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17 Responses so far.

  1. […] of sake yesterday with the husband so I direct you to this really fabulous Charlie Glickman post: If Gail Dines Would Stop Shaming People Maybe Folks Would Listen. He makes some great points about stereotypes in […]

  2. JulieSunday says:

    Thanks, Charlie. This is a really coherent take on Dines and her criticisms of porn, much better than the sputtering “WHAA??T” I’m usually left with after seeing or reading her arguments. I’m sure she would counter sex educators’ defense of bdsm and other non-vanilla behaviors as fine with an argument that people only *do* those behaviors because of the influence of porn. And that’s not a provable statement in either direction. But I have raised this question (“Is this type of sex okay when two people consent to it?”) with Bob Jensen before and he just completely declined to answer. So I don’t think they’re interested in discussing the sex that non-pornstars are having, especially not confronting the inconvenient truth that sometimes it looks a lot like what we might see in porn, and they might like it that way.

  3. Charlie says:

    I think that you’re right- they do tend to imply (or occasionally say outright) that people only do “those things” because of porn. I suspect that porn does increase the numbers of people doing various things, if only because they wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise. By the same token, people who watch the Food Network will get ideas for things to try that they wouldn’t have come up with on their own.

    The problem, IMO, is that Dines et al assume that there’s something wrong with BDSM or other behaviors. They have this idea that some types of sex are inherently unhealthy, dangerous, or harmful even though there is no evidence for it. When it comes down to it, they actually know very little about sex and what they do know is skewed by their biases.

  4. Lib says:

    Charlie, do you know of any authors or works where someone is seriously questioning the why’s behind certain sexual practices, if they are healthy/unhealthy and why, versus simply stating these things without offering theories?

  5. Charlie says:

    In my opinion, anyone who tells you the meaning of someone else’s sexual practice, fantasy or desire is either making it up or projecting their own stuff onto them (if there’s a difference between the two). The only person who can tell you what they mean is the person doing them. As far as healthy/unhealthy, that’s another things that’s easy to project onto someone else. If you know someone well, you can sometimes assess it, but it’s certainly not something you can do accurately without having a really good sense of the person.

  6. Lib says:

    I meant like socio- and psychological works, and/or peer reviewed types of pieces (not that those can’t be mucked up). A lot of the times people get defensive (because often when we talk about sex their is a demonizing element to the dialogue) when they are asked about what turns them on, so the “why’s” (especially of vanilla) are simply written off as naturally liking what one likes. But I am a “why” person, and I think that people should explore these questions to better understand the self (and thus their sexuality). It is as important to know why one likes certain practices as to understand why one is engaging in sex, so that one (and by extension their sex life) is healthy, or at least that is how I feel.

    On another note, I want to clarify when I said “certain” I wasn’t really referring to BDSM or any of the other practices that are considered “taboo”. I meant have you read any articles or works that talk about like how much heterosexuality is socialized, or insert whatever practice.

    I hope this is coherent… I need sleep.

  7. Charlie says:

    The difficulty is that, just as with preferences with food, sexual preferences are the result of both nature and experience in a constantly shifting and recursive process. So while an individual could identify some of the reasons for their particular tastes, it’s hard (if not impossible) to create a definitive theory. There are some folks who have written about it, but they tend to be case studies rather than research. Bader’s book Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies is pretty good, although he makes some sweeping statements that I know aren’t accurate. It’s also worth noting that most of the writing on the topic assumes that vanilla heterosexuality doesn’t need explaining- it’s the kinky, queer stuff that does.

  8. Lib says:

    Thank you for the recommendation. I will see if the work is available at my local library. As for the comment about vanilla, yes I am constantly reminded that we live in a hetero-normative society. I think this can be a rather destructive way of approaching the subject (and many subjects), as it “otherizes” folks and ideologies. Anywho, thanks again.

  9. Charlie says:

    I’m curious to know what you think of it. Drop me a note and let me know!

  10. puka says:

    Wow. You are an idiot. There is nothing wrong with BDSM or group sex. What is wrong is when it is capatilized. That’s her whole point. The humanity is taken out of sex when it is a business. That’s all she is trying to say.

  11. Charlie says:


    First, there’s no room on this blog to call me or anyone else an idiot. Keep it respectful or go away.

    Second, does that mean that the humanity disappears from, say, cooking, teaching, or therapy when it becomes a business? It certainly changes things, but does it remove the humanity in those contexts? If not, then why is it inherently different when it’s sex?

  12. puka,
     OK…so that means that you can freely have BDSM or group sex…but if you make a video of people freely engaging in it and make a profit from people willing to spend money on it, that’s bad??
    Plus, you obviously haven’t read many of Dines’ essays, which explicitly attack BDSM as “torture porn” and slavery, and which reduces group sex to just another means of “gang rape”. Dines’ issue isn’t capitalism..it’s SEX.

  13. Or, at least, the practices of sex that don’t meet her exacting radical feminist standards. Should have added that.

  14. Erin says:

    Yikes! What are these “radical feminist standards”?

  15. Aussie says:

    I really like your criticisms Charlie but like you I agree with some of the points Dines makes about porn- like talking about Gonzo dehumanising women etc.
    I really like her analysis though of the cultural positions made available to women and men. Women occupying spaces as “fuckable’ or invisible, porn painting men as emotionless pleasure seekers- women in Gonzo crying. The cultural role of “slut” and “stud” created in the fantasy world of hypermasculinity and hyperfeminity. I’ve seen people in my life occupy these roles in more subtle ways, the few women I’ve known who are ultra feminine occupy a strange place of attraction in my head. As a masculine woman I feel I’m less visible sexually to men than my feminine friends. Men are framed as less emotional, instigators of sex. 
    I am pro-BDSM (provided its safe, sane and consential), pro-Queer and believe people should be allowed to choose to be sex workers if they want.  
    To me the issue is not porn the issue is how porn constructs cultural expectations of sexuality- perpetuating the idea of a slut being fuckable a type of woman who deserves it- no matter how violent or dehumanising it is. 
    My question is how do we build something better? how do we create new kinds of visibility? new ways of being in a culture of limited roles?  

  16. Rehsab Thgir says:

    If she stopped lying, people might listen to her. But she won’t, so they won’t.

  17. Quin says:

    It’s really interesting to me to read the article and the comments on here. All I see are individuals trying to normalize and rationalize their desires or liking for BDSM or similar sexual activities. No one is thinking critically as to the ‘why’s and ‘how’s as someone mentioned above in regards to BDSM. You all claim that BDSM is not inherently problematic however it is very much so and if you take the tiem to read on the issues and actually listen to the whys and hows of actual ex kinksters and current kinksters as well as feminists and similar, you’ll understand why. We have to look at the underlying behaviours and factors as to why people enjoy such and such and not just say well yeah anyone can like what they want. It’s not about shaming individuals but about calling out and trying to understand critically of such behaviours which I see none of you and the author are doing in regards to BDSM. Dines words are clear and I don’t under stand who some of you who claim to read it don’t get it or left with ‘whhaat?” or whatever else or how you all happen to see ‘shaming’. Plus it’s very hypocritical to say you agree with Dines stance on pornography an dhow problematic it is and then go on to say that it hardly affects the behaviours and attitudes of people who do engage in watching porn. It has a lasting effect and there are studies to prove such. All the comments here are people who are pro choicey choicey and they don’t engage in much critical thought at all and at the end of the day women and men but more women are going to suffer. Dines and other feminits and women alike who actually think and see who inherently problematic both BDSM and porn are will prevail in the end and you all should do some thinking and maybe stop ‘rape’ playing and beating the shit out of your partner in order to get an orgasm. Can’t you see how problematic rape play is. It perpetuates the same thoughts as rape! It’s sexualizing violence no matter how consensual it is and BDSM will never be safe! The majority of subs will tell you they were abused and they feel the need to please. It;s an elaborate form of self harm.

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