Monday, May 27, 2013

Hegemonic Masculinity and Adult Entertainment: Fighting Reinforcement

Over the course of the past academic year, I’ve had the fortunate experience of engaging in discussions with large groups of men at my institution regarding sexual assault prevention. While traditional prevention programs target women from a safety-based perspective and target men from a “why this is bad” viewpoint, I wanted to take a different tactic. Ultimately, the goal of my discussions with these men was to reduce their likelihood of engaging in potentially sexually-violent behaviors; however, to go there with them, I first needed to get them thinking about their own masculinities and behaviors that may create a foundation for sexually-violent attitudes or behaviors.

In each of these sessions, I first asked the men to consider what it meant to be a man. Responses included being strong, determined, “men of character,” loyal, committed, and respectful. When I asked them to examine how the media helped them understand sexual expectations of men, they discussed generally how men are encouraged to be the initiators sexually and they should practice safe-sex. I pushed them a bit—letting them know that it was okay to talk about pornography, that indeed, I had studied pornography academically (it was originally part of my dissertation research). Most chuckled, informing me that actually one or two of them were earning a minor in “porn studies.” Once this happened, the men opened up, discussing how the pornography they consumed taught them that it was perfectly okay to humiliate a woman, use her for their own pleasure (even if it were to physically hurt the women, e.g. rough anal sex, choking, gagging), dismiss her, that women were easy to please, and that women would pretty much do anything if asked/encouraged/persuaded to. Pornography also taught them that “size matters” and that masculinity was tied to their physical endowment.

The men were then asked to compare the attributes on the two pieces of paper—what was different about the two? The room got eerily quiet as the lesson was absorbed…the two lists were almost diametrically opposed. I asked the men to reflect internally on their sexual practices; which list was more closely aligned with their actual practice? The rest of the discussion focused on consent and respect and why they were vital to healthy, mature sexuality. Men came up to me afterward to thank me; however, I wonder how much this impacted them or even if they knew what to do now.

I am not one to shy away from discussions about intimate topics, especially those related to adult entertainment. As someone who first discovered pornography at the age of eleven, it played a pretty significant role in my life up until the point when I started to figure out that I wasn’t heterosexual and that the reality of a same-sex sexual encounter was going to be different than what I was seeing on the classic 70s and 80s pornography I had pilfered from my father’s closet. Rarely was this pornography anything other than voyeuristic in nature—a peek into the goings-on between two individuals. This was enough to get society revved up! Then, we got plugged-in, and the world was literally at our fingertips. We didn’t have to go into the back of a video store to rent something, buy something from “behind the counter” wrapped in paper so nobody saw, or wait until we were out of town to order a movie in our hotel room. It was a simple click away.

In her 2010 book Pornland: How Porn Hijacked our Sexuality, author Gail Dines examined how the Internet changed pornography, helping to give rise to something she refers to as “gonzo porn.” Gonzo porn is “the genre which is all over the Internet and is today one of the biggest moneymakers for the industry—which depicts hard-core, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased (p. xi).” While in the beginning of the Internet boom, most individuals had to purchase subscriptions to their favorite sites, as we saw with the music industry, pornography became extremely easy to get by free methods. Based in a business model, most of today’s adult entertainment studios had to change their tactics and produce a product that couldn’t be found for free, thus, Dines argues, the rise of gonzo. She further argues that now gonzo is pretty much the norm. I can’t agree more.

She goes on to say that the average age of first pornographic movie viewing is around eleven. From a psychological perspective, as these boys are developing (physically, cognitively, and socially); they are going to turn to their peers and now, more frequently, the Internet for answers about sex. A Google search for “porn” came back with 813 billion websites in one-third of a second. I figured, what the heck, I’ll go through the first site, just as an example: By clicking into, of the six current videos being watched, four of them contain anal sex. Many others on the first page include scenes with multiple partners, gagging, choking, and sex in public places. At 34 years old, I can certainly step back and think about what these videos are showing; however, does a typical 11-15 year old have this cognitive capacity? Probably not. Learning about sex by pairing these highly-stimulating videos with frequent masturbation, only reinforces this learning (think back to B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning model). Are we essentially creating a culture of young men who have difficulty becoming aroused by true intimate behavior between adults that doesn’t involve these sexually-violent norms?

Thus, the conundrum: how do we get boys and men to recognize that today’s pornography, that which we turn to for pleasure (or distraction, intimacy, et cetera) is really warping our views of what is appropriate sexual behavior? How do we go up against a multi-billion dollar industry that is available whenever and wherever we want it from our laptops, tablets, or smartphones, that reinforces the response that we crave, and which participation in and with is supported by many other men? Or do we just give in and give up?

I encourage each of us, in our sphere of influence and to the degree we are comfortable, to discuss these issues with the men in our lives. Talk about how media in general and pornography specifically influences our attitudes. Share that in reality, most of us cannot measure up (that is intended to be figurative and literal) to the word that pornography creates and that it’s time that we stop trying to. Discuss how to focus on becoming an authentic person with the capacity to show true intimacy with our partner. Maybe we can get the men we can reach to unplug for a bit from the Internet and instead plug in to themselves and their partner(s).

Gene Kelly is the Associate Dean of Intercultural Development and Director of Gender and Sexuality Programs at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania where he will also be instructing a seminar course on gender, sexuality, and the media. He is a Lecturer in the psychology and counseling program at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania as well where he is finishing his dissertation research focused on conformity to masculine gender norms and subtle rape myth beliefs. He holds a M.S. in higher education counseling from West Chester University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. in English and psychology from Lebanon Valley College. He can be reached at or at 610-330-5819.

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