Revolution #186, December 20, 2009

Interview with Robert Jensen

Author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity

The following transcript is taken from an interview by Sunsara Taylor that was aired on WBAI Radio’s Equal Time for Freethought, December 6, 2009. The full interview is available at

Sunsara Taylor: This evening we are going to be speaking with Robert Jensen. He is a professor of media law, ethics and politics at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Getting Off, Heart of Whiteness, Citizens of the Empire and Writing Dissent. His newest book is called All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice.1

He’s also someone who has come under fire recently for taking very principled stands against unjust wars, against jingoist repression and against attacks on dissidents, and for real academic freedom. The first book I read of his is called Getting Off and I felt this was a particularly courageous and moving book for its confrontation with male supremacy and pornography, the brutality as well as the degradation that is so pervasive in pornography, but also how this is really a concentration of the society in which we live.

Robert Jensen, welcome to Equal Time for Freethought.

Robert Jensen: Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

Taylor: I’d like to jump right in on this question of pornography. You make the claim in your book, Getting Off, that pornography over the last couple of decades has gotten more brutal and degrading towards women at the same time as it’s gotten more mainstream, and I wonder if you could substantiate that and say why you think that’s important to understand.

Jensen: That’s what I call the paradox of pornography. Over the last 20 years, the period of time I’ve been studying and organizing around pornography, those two things are both true. The fact that it’s become more mainstream I don’t think is controversial, that pornography, while still criticized by some, rejected by some, has moved much more to the center of the mainstream of pop culture and of course pop culture itself has become more pornographic. That’s not hard to justify, that claim. The claim that it’s become more overtly cruel and degrading and also more overtly racist is actually also easy to defend. If you look at the content of pornography—and my own work has studied this trajectory along with the work of others—as pornography has tried to expand market share and profit, it’s had to up the ante, to increase the intensification of the sexual charge, and in a patriarchal society, in a white supremacist society the easiest way to do that is with the degradation of women and overt racism, and so especially in the genre of pornography that’s called gonzo, where the more extreme sexual practices are pushed, you see a clear trend. Now the question, the paradox, is how can, in a civilized society, you have a media genre that moves closer to the mainstream at the same time that it becomes more overtly cruel and degrading to women and more overtly racist; and I think one resolves the paradox, and this is part of the importance of the pornography issue, I think, by asking how civilized are we. In a corporate capitalist culture that consigns a large number of people to poverty, in an imperial state that practices war in the way the United States does, how civilized are we I think is a very important question.

Taylor: One thing that struck me in reading the book is that the increase both in (and I’m glad you brought in the element of racism as well) the cruelty and misogyny towards women but also the racism that’s so much more explicit in pornography now, as well as becoming more mainstream, do you feel this is part of a backlash against the women’s liberation movement? Where do you feel this comes from in terms of, as a societal phenomenon?

Jensen: Well where it comes from of course is the way in which in patriarchy, in a male dominant society, sexuality is one place where men express and practice that dominance. The backlash theory, as you pointed out, that as women made gains through the feminist movements of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s that men sort of pushed back in one of the few places where they could easily push back, which is in the bedroom—in the private sphere, in intimacy. I think there’s a lot to that. I also think we shouldn’t overlook the role of capitalism in all this—as pornography moved out of the back alleys, as it became more mainstream starting in the 1970s, became more of a so-called legitimate business, we also saw the values of capitalism, the sort of amoral exploitation of any part of the human experience for profit. So I think what we see in pornography is what a friend of mine, a really good sociologist named Matt Ezell, calls the “perfect storm of inequality,” you see patriarchy, male dominance, white supremacy, and the predatory core of capitalism coming together to exploit any aspect of the human experience; that’s what pornography and the sexual exploitation industries more generally, not only pornography of course but stripping, prostitution, phone sex, all these things that tell us a lot about white supremacy and patriarchy, but also tell us a lot about the pathological nature of capitalism as well.

1. Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, South End Press, 2007; The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, City Lights Publishers, 2005; Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity, City Lights Publishers, 2004; Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream, Peter Lang Publishers, 2001; All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, Soft Skull Press, 2009. [back]

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