Reprinted with permission from Feminist Current
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been interviewed by male journalists who have been clearly antagonistic to my feminist, anti-porn position. I can usually tell within the first five minutes of the interview that these guys are very upset by my argument that porn shapes male sexuality in ways that normalize sexual violence. They often become hostile and insulting, and end up accusing me of being an anti-sex prude who hates men.
Because I’ve been on the receiving end of so much hostility from male interviewers, I remember well those who were particularly sympathetic to the feminist view. One who stands out in my mind as a thoughtful interviewer is Jian Ghomeshi, former host of the popular CBC radio show, Q. Ghomeshi had not only given my book Pornland a close reading, but also expressed empathy for the women in porn whose bodies are sexually used and abused for male entertainment.
So imagine my shock when news started to leak out that women were coming forward accusing Ghomeshi of sexually assaulting them in ways that mimic the violence in porn. From choking his victims to verbally abusing them during the assault, Ghomeshi’s behavior fits perfectly with the standard porn scenes that can be accessed within 15 seconds of typing “porn” into Google.
The second time I was a guest on Q, Ghomeshi facilitated a debate between me and John Stagliano, a well-know pornographer who is credited with popularizing violent anal sex against women. Stagliano, a.k.a Buttman, runs the site Evil Angel, which touts itself as a leader in “hardcore anal sex videos.” Stagliano explained recently in an interview for an Australian documentary, Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography, that anal sex appeals to him because, unlike with vaginal sex, “you can’t fake pushing her limits sexually.”
Knowing the misogyny of Stagliano, I was prepared to do battle, but the debate was actually made a lot easier because of the way Ghomeshi took the side of feminists. During the discussion, Stagliano kept interrupting me, and Ghomeshi stepped in a few times to tell him to be quiet and let me speak. On a number of occasions Ghomeshi actually challenged Stagliano for producing porn that could lead to real-world violence against women.
During one exchange in which Stagliano argued that porn was becoming more violent because the women themselves came to the set asking for more extreme sex, Ghomeshi asked Stagliano if he really expected anyone to believe that. Throughout the show, Ghomeshi’s hostility toward Stagliano increased, and I remember the show as one of those rare occasions where the host did some of my work for me.
So how can we reconcile the Ghomeshi on Q with the real Ghomeshi, who acted like a typical male porn performer by using women as disposable sex objects? I don’t know Ghomeshi personally, so I can’t offer any psychological analysis of what drove him to allegedly assault women. What is evident is that he had a brand to protect—a thoughtful, reflective journalist who had a reputation for being a sensitive, woman-friendly host. Siding with a pornographer who is renowned for his misogyny wouldn’t have done much for his reputation.
But when the stories started to appear in the Canadian press, Ghomeshi ended up sounding a lot like Stagliano by claiming that the women had wanted it. He wrote on his Facebook page on Oct. 26, “I have always been interested in a variety of activities in the bedroom but I only participated in sexual practices that are mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners.”
The “partners” tell a very different story. According to an article in Slate, three women interviewed by the Toronto Star “allege that Ghomeshi physically attacked them on dates without their consent. They allege that he struck them with a closed fist or open hand; bit them; choked them until they almost passed out; covered their noses and mouths so that they had difficulty breathing; and that they were verbally abused during and after sex.”
I wish I could say that these types of assaults are news to me, but I have seen thousands of porn scenes that map out exactly the acts these women describe, and have interviewed hundreds of women who recount the same type of violence. Of course porn isn’t the only reason men assault women, but when you hear the same stories over and over again, from being choked till they almost pass out (and many of the women I interviewed have indeed passed out) to being verbally assaulted during the attack, then, as a sociologist, I have to ask: What “playbook” are these guys following?
As porn becomes the main form of sex ed in the western world, we are going to see more and more men internalize the values, norms, stories and narratives of porn. And the violence in porn, by virtue of its consistency and repetition, will be played out on an increasing number of women and girls. To suggest otherwise would be to argue that the multi-billion advertising industry has got it wrong, and that images have no impact on behavior. If this is true, then we have to believe that men are just violent by nature. But all the feminists I know refuse to accept that men are natural-born predators. Even Ghomeshi.