Pornography and Prostitution: In Conversation with Gail Dines
In spring 2021 Associazione Iroko Onlus organized a series of seminars entitled “Debunking sex work: conversations around prostitution”, bringing together various experts, survivors and activists from around the world. Every week two women explored the phenomenon of prostitution from a different perspective: from the links with trafficking and pornography, to language, current laws, and finally the policies needed to implement the abolitionist model.
The first session was hosted by Esohe Aghatise, who welcomed Gail Dines, professor of sociology and studies on women at Wheelock College in Boston and founder and president of Culture Reframed. For many years, Dines has been carrying out research on pornography and the sex industry and has been called “the world’s leading feminist anti-pornography activist” by The Guardian .
A radical feminist, Dines argues that prostitution, trafficking and pornography are interlinked phenomena, although anti-trafficking systems often fail to grasp the implications of this link. They tend to regard pornography as a phenomenon in its own right, when in reality it too is a cog in the sex industry machine, alongside prostitution and trafficking. Indeed, some anti-rape practitioners and sociologists argue there is a distinction between trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation and prostitution, with one seen as exploitation and the other ‘a job like any other’. They fail to consider three important – in our opinion – things:
the element of exploitation in the sex industry is neglected and pornography, part of this industry, is seen by sex work supporters a “normal business”.
The forms of violence inherent in this industry become part of the routine of ‘work’, even when it comes to prostituted minors. The majority of people in prostitution are women, while the majority of pimps are men, as are the “clients”. 72% of the victims of trafficking globally are women, with sexual exploitation accounting for 59% of trafficking and, of this type of trafficking, women and girls make up 83% of victims.
from a survey carried out by the Directorate General for Statistics of the Ministry of Justice, published in September 2015, traffickers convicted in Italy have an average age of 35, two thirds are men, and they are mostly foreigners (87.4%), of which 45.2% are Romanian, 14.9% Albanian and 10.1% Nigerian. As for sex buyers, there are 2.5 million men who frequent prostituted women. They are men from all social classes, geographical origins and age groups.
There can be no job where the body itself and its intimacy are sold for money. We are therefore witnessing a normalisation of violence.
Pop culture and the glamorisation of prostitution
Dines explains how pop culture legitimizes the violence exercised on prostituted women, by making the phenomenon of prostitution glamorous. An emblematic example is the film “Pretty Woman” (1990), which has yielded well over 460 million dollars and has as its protagonist a young prostitute, Vivian Ward, played by Julia Roberts, who leaves her job to live with Edward – a buyer – as a happy married couple. The film represents what Dines calls “whitewashed glamorization” of prostitution: the prostituted woman is represented by the white woman in search of fortune and wealth. But Gail wonders why Hollywood has never made a sequel to the film, despite its success. Actually, reflects Dines, another film starring Julia Roberts entitled “Sleeping with the enemy” (1991), represents exactly what would have been the real sequel to Pretty Woman: A woman physically and psychologically abused by her husband, what Edward would have been to Vivian in Pretty Woman 2.
The buyer, Internet and porn
We turn to Edward, the buyer. Who is he?
“There are two theories” – says Gail – “that explain what drives men to become Johns: according to the first they are biologically predisposed to be sex buyers, rapists or porn users and it is what we define as “biological determinism”; The second is that men are socialized into being sex buyers and this is a cultural phenomenon. “As a feminist and the mother of a male child, I cannot accept the theory that supports the view of men as biologically predisposed to such violence towards women, girls and boys.”
Gail says that the porn industry is one of the largest forms of male socialization in the world, considering that it is accessible to all in a totally free way, even to the very young.
Pornographers have “cannibalized” the Internet and are the leading experts in technology. Porn has come to occupy a third of the internet between downloads and searches on Google. Porn sites collect more visitors each month than Amazon, Netflix and Twitter put together. “Therefore, this is no small industry, but is a huge multimillion-dollar industry that is not regulated and that interfaces with the capitalist world”.
To understand the porn industry, let’s consider Pornhub, one of the largest online porn sites. It is managed by Mindgeek Holding S.A.R.L., a Luxembourg company active in the field of online pornography and based in Montreal, Canada.
The interesting aspect is the absence of any reference to pornography on their website. In fact, the “Amazon of pornography”, as Dines defines it, presents itself as an expert in technological communication. The contents of porn sites are accessible to any child in the world and it is estimated that the age of children who view them is between eight and ten years. A study by Anna Bridges et al. found that 90% of the content not labeled as hardcore includes scenes of violence committed against women. However, there is no point distinguishing between mainstream and hardcore porn because both represent forms of violence. Most of the scenes, in fact, contain the following violent acts: gagging (choking on male genitalia); strangulation, violent anal sex, which often causes anal prolapses; ejaculation and/or spit in the woman’s face, even causing gonococcal conjunctivitis. Strangulation is particularly dangerous because women risk dying, even in the days following these acts, due to injuries sustained.
Consent, largely taken for granted in pornography, is also a widely used concept with regard prostitution. According to supporters of ‘sex work’, prostituted women freely choose to engage in prostitution. But if that is the case, how can we explain that 72% of the victims of trafficking in the world are women and in most cases for sexual exploitation? “The contract – if you can define it as such – in prostitution cannot be considered consensual because it does not happen between “equal” parties”, the activist argues, “but between a member of a privileged class, namely a man, and another of a class oppressed by sex, a woman. The man exercises his power over the woman by becoming her oppressor”.
These are some of the ads that are on the porn sites, collected by Gail:
“Do you know what we say to things like romance and foreplay? We say fuck off! We take gorgeous young bitches and do what every man would really like to do. We make them gag ‘til their make-up starts running… and then we give them the sticky bath. Now look how clever it is, we do what every man really likes.”
Gail claims that these listings are manipulative, that they talk to the entire male audience assuming that all men want to do this, but they don’t. “A grown man may have some awareness of his sexuality, but a boy of 11 or 12 years, without a minimal idea of their own sexuality, what will he think?” Gail asks. That “this is the rite of passage for masculinity. Do you want to be a real man? This is what you have to do.”
Mainstream porn is therefore representative of what is called rape culture, in which all violence against women is minimized, normalized or even encouraged.
Statistics show that in 2019 Mindgeek’s porn sites had 42 billion hits, up from 33 billion in 2018, with a daily average of 100 million visitors, 962 clicks per second and 1 million hours of new content. The epidemic has aggravated this situation. Pornhub has made the premium section free of charge. “In France, Italy and Spain you should look for the number of men who used Pornhub. In some countries it was 40% and in others 60%. So women and children were living in lockdown with more men than ever looking at more porn than ever before.”
The consequences of porn
Dines reiterates that there have been at least 40 years of research – including studies by Melissa Farley – conducted on the health effects of porn for men, as well as boys. This research has shown us that the more they watch porn, the more they will have a limited ability to express their intimacy, they will be more likely to use coercive tactics such as sexting, sexual harassment, and even rape, they will be more prone to risky sexual behaviors, anxiety, depression, porn addiction and erectile dysfunction. Violence in porn is also filmed. Dines reminds us what this means for the women involved in pornography. “You have to know these images will follow you for the rest of your life, there’s no way to escape the past, you live in fear that your kids, your partners, your family members, your neighbors, could find these images at any time, that these images can be used for so-called ‘sextorsion’.” Gail also adds that “we know that women in prostitution, and I’m assuming pornography as well, have more post-traumatic stress disorder than war veterans.”
The world of pornography is closely linked to the phenomenon of trafficking. Most of the men who grew up with porn are looking for that group of women who are not free to choose, because they are trafficked, they could be beaten or killed by pimps. To confirm the interconnection between the systems of trafficking, porn and prostitution there is also the so-called “suitcase pimp”, ie the boys or husbands of the prostituted woman those filmed in the porn industry, who manage the affairs of their “companions”. They are the ones who prostitute women in the porn industry and Gail reports that she saw it with her own eyes during the largest porn fair in the world, which takes place annually, every January, in Las Vegas. “I’ve seen pimps doing business with pornographers, selling women in the various sectors of the sex industry … it’s a revolving door.” Like the fairs where slave bodies were sold in the 19th century, and even more recently in Libya.
How can we end the porn industry?
To date, the association founded by Dines Culture Reframed has created two programs, one of which is aimed at supporting parents (https://www.culturereframed.org/parents-program-on-porn-hypersexualized-media/) in building a dialogue with young people on pornography. The program contains written conversations put together by a multidisciplinary team of psychologists, pediatricians, sexual education experts and practitioners from organisations that protect children’s rights. In Turkey, together with the Therapeutic Association of Turkey, Culture Reframed has trained 200 therapists who are now, in turn, training civil society and other experts. This program is therefore a training course and as Gail says, it is a resource out there for those who want to combat the violence against women exercised by the pornographic industry.
Gail argues that in order to end the violence of porn, it is necessary to regularise the entire production chain starting from distribution and reiterates that there are three key elements: regularisation, awareness and education about what porn really represents. “Unlike traffickers, [pornographers] aren’t hidden, they are in Montreal. My advice is not to treat them with criminal law because they go to prison and someone else takes their place, but by making them earn less and less money. If we bankrupt them with class action suits, we would take down the infrastructure of the porn industry. Let’s use capitalism in our favour for once, and go after their finances.”
An example of this strategy is the recent Traffickinghub campaign, which accuses Pornhub of profiting by exploiting women and children who are victims of trafficking and violence. In fact, the people behind the Canadian-born campaign have pushed for Visa, Mastercard, Paypal and other financial institutions to take a stand against the well-known porn site. The day after the launch of the petition against Pornhub, the BBC published the terrible story of Rose Kalemba, a 14-year-old girl raped for 12 hours in an apartment. The rapists then uploaded the videos of the torture inflicted on the girl on the Pornhub website. Only after six months of legal battles, started by the victim, were the videos removed.
This article was translated by Ruby Till.
 UNODC, 2018, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons
Unodc, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 2018