Dr. Gail Dines is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, an internationally acclaimed speaker and author, and a feminist activist. I invited her to guest blog here as I await the arrival of her new book, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality. Her work fits right into many of the concerns I have about how women and girls are portrayed in the media. That said, these are her words and I welcome all constructive critiques as well as high praise. ~veronica
Watch MTV, flip through the pages of popular women’s magazines, or just glance at billboards, and you’ll see slight variations on a theme: a heavily made-up, young, attractive, technologically perfected woman devoid of body hair, cellulite, age lines, or physical disabilities. She’s minimally clothed, with a seductive look plastered on her face. Whether it be an almost- naked Britney Spears writhing around on stage or a Victoria’s Secret model clad in a plunging bra and thong, women and girls today are bombarded with images of themselves as sex objects whose worth is measured only by their “hotness.”
This image didn’t appear from nowhere—it’s a logical outcome of living in a society that has become increasingly swamped by pornography. The prototype of the objectified, dehumanized, hypersexed female that is central to porn has now seeped into pop culture to such a degree that media representations today look like soft-core porn from ten years ago. It has so crowded out competing images that girls and young women see few alternative ways of being female. A quick look at pop culture will show you that I’m not exaggerating.
These images have a profound impact on how girls and women view themselves as sexual beings. As cultural beings, moreover, we are affected by the messages that the culture sends us, and there is no escaping the power of these relentless images.
In this hypersexualized culture, we are sexualizing our girls at an earlier age than ever. The person who best explained this to me was not an expert in women’s studies, but an incarcerated child rapist whom I shall call “John.” During an interview in a Connecticut prison, John told me how he had methodically and strategically groomed his ten-year-old stepdaughter into “consenting” to have sex with him, and then casually mentioned that his job was made easy because the “the culture did a lot of the grooming for me.”
As John has been through many years of therapy in prison, he had the lingo down pat, and in his eagerness to show off his knowledge to me, he used the word “groom” many times. This is a term psychologists use to describe the way predators socialize, seduce, and manipulate their victims into accepting—and often “agreeing”—to sexual abuse. John explained how, in his “conscious desire to desensitize her,” he used the questions she would ask (What is a blow job? What does a penis taste like?) as an entrée to introducing her first to adult porn and then child porn. John was very clear that the sexualized pop culture images his stepdaughter had been exposed to from an early age, as well as the sexualized conversations that such images generated in her peer group, developed a precocious sexual curiosity that “made grooming her easy.”
While this is one extreme example of the effects of a hypersexualized culture, an American Psychological Association study on the sexualization of girls found that our culture is affecting girls’ development. According to the researchers, there was ample evidence to conclude that sexualizing girls “has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.” Some of these effects include risky sexual behavior; higher rates of eating disorders, depression, and low self- esteem; and reduced academic performance.
As feminists we need to be critical of the increasing pornification of the culture and not confuse it with sexual empowerment. The pornographers are not out to sexually liberate us but rather to make money, and their plasticized, generic, formulaic images of women are stultifying and repressive. Feminism fought for women to be liberated from these images, not to capitulate to them, so for the sexual and psychological health of our girls we need to build a movement that resists them.
Gail Dines is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College. Her new book is Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality.