I Know It When I See It, Journalist-Social Critic Robert Jensen Finds Patriarchy and White Supremacy in Porn
Robert Jensen is one of those writers who challenges preconceived ideas we all have about things we think we already have figured out. Among the many subjects he trains his keen intellect on are race, politics, misogny, and white supremacy and things really get interesting when he analyzes America’s and the world’s penchant for porn through the prism of those constructs. I interviewed him a couple years ago on these matters in advance of a talk he gave in Omaha, and the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the result.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Journalist-political activist-social critic Robert Jensen is the prickly conscience for a narcissistic Addict Nation that lusts after ever more. More resources. More power. More money. More toys. More sex. The tenured University of Texas at Austin associate professor organizes, agitates, reports, gives talks, writes. Oh, does he write.
He’s the prolific author of books-articles challenging the status quo of privileged white males, of which he’s one. He believes white patriarchal systems of power and predatory capitalism do injury to minorities through racist, sexist, often violent attitudes and actions. His critiques point out the injustice of a white male domination matrix that dehumanizes black men and objectifies-subordinates women.
We’re talking serious oppression here.
As an academic trained in critical thinking and radical feminism, his work rings with polemical fervor but refrains from wild rant or didactic manifesto. Agree or not, it’s hard not to admire his precise, well-reasoned arguments that persuasively connect the dots of an elite ruling class and its assumed supremacy.
He’s presenting the keynote address at a Sept. 22 Center for Human Diversity workshop in Omaha. His topic, “The Pornographic Mirror: Facing the Ugly Realities of Patriarchy and White Supremacy,” is one he often takes up in print and at the podium. His analysis, he said, is based on years studying the porn industry, whose misogynistic, racist products express “men’s contempt and hatred of women.”
Porn, he said, routinely depicts such stereotypes as “the hot-blooded Latina, the demure Asian geisha girl, the animalistic black woman and the hypersexualized black male.” Racially-charged code words — ebony, ivory, nubian, booty, jungle, ghetto, mama, chica, spicy, exotic — market these materials.
He said most interracial porn features black men having sex with white women, which he considers odd given that historically the majority culture’s posited black males as threats to the purity of white women. Why then would an “overwhelmingly white” audience want to view these portrayals?
Jensen suggests what’s at work is an “intensification” of “the core dynamic of male domination and female subordination.” Thus, he said, “by ‘forcing’ white women to have sex with black men, the ultimate sort of demonized man in this culture, it’s intensifying the misogyny and racism” behind it all. “That’s why I talk about these two things together, and why pornography is an important cultural phenomenon to study. It tells us something about the world we live in that is very important.”
The mainstreaming of porn as legitimate pop culture is a trend he finds disturbing. The industry, not counting the corollary sex trade, is estimated at $10 billion annually, comparable to other major entertainment industries such as television, film and sports. Jensen said his own students’ acceptance of porn as “just part of the cultural landscape” reflects a generational shift. Porn’s gone from taboo, scandalous, underground to casual lifestyle choice easily accessed via print, video, TV and the Web, where adult fare’s limitless and its content increasingly extreme.
Strip joints, adult book stores, chat lines, hook-up clubs, escort services, porn sites and X-rated channels abound. Sex tourism is a booming business in Third World Nations, where white men exploit women of color. Homemade porn is on the rise. Porn star Jenna Jameson owns cultural capital. Reality TV, cable programs, movies and advertising are, in his estimation, increasingly pornographic. Although careful not to link porn use to behavior, Jensen sees dangers. Sex addiction is a widely recognized disorder whose various forms have porn as a component.
Recreational choice or addictive fix, end point or gateway to overt, criminal acting- out, Jensen makes the case it’s all fodder for an already dysfunctional society.
“This is helping shape a culture which is increasingly cruel and degrading to women, which we should be concerned about,” he said. “If we’re honest with ourselves, even those who want to defend the pornography industry or who use pornography, I think we have to acknowledge the patterns we’re seeing are cause for concern. I can’t imagine how anyone could come to any other conclusion.”
He said it’s an open question how much more pornographers can push the limits before the culture says a collective, “Enough.” Any outcry’s not likely to come as a see-the-light epiphany, he said, but rather in the course of a long-term public education and public policy campaign. Anti-obscenity legal restraints, he said, are difficult now due to vague, weak state and federal laws, The exception is child porn, where strict laws are easily enforced, he said.
He opposes censorship, insisting, “I’m a strong advocate of the First Amendment and Free Speech,” adding current laws could be enforced with sufficient mandate.
“Much of the material were talking about clearly could be prosecuted yet it isn’t,” he said, “which I think reflects that level of cultural acceptance.”
He suggests enough male stakeholders consume, condone or profit from porn/illicit sex that this old boys network gives winking approval behind faux condemnation.
Jensen supports strict local ordinances and aggressive civil actions against adult porn similar to what feminists proposed in the ‘80s. He feels with modifications this approach, which failed legal challenges then, could prove a useful vehicle.
As Jensen notes, concurrent with this-anything-goes era of on-demand porn and sex-for-hire are the repressive strains of Puritanical America that discourage sex ed and open discussion of sex issues. He’d argue that silence on these subjects in a patriarchal, misogynistic society contributes to America’s high incidence of rape, sexual assault, prostitution, STDs, HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy.
Overturning these trends, he said, begins with public critiques and forums. The Center for Diversity workshop at the Omaha Home for Boys is just such a forum. The 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. event features a wide-range of presenters on how to “Stay Alive” under the pervasive assault of sexism, racism, economic destabilization, domestic violence and pornography. The workshop’s recommended for health care professionals, therapists and social workers.
Check out Jensen’s work on the web site http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/-rjensen/index.html.
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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