A Brief History of Porn’s War Against Women

Let’s be clear right from the start: the argument that porn is somehow pro or empowering to women because it bestows some sort of farcical sexual liberation on them is at best, laughable, and at worst, completely and thoroughly damaging to generations of people.  Female sexual liberation has nothing to do with having sex on camera for someone else’s gratification (often at the expense of their own), and it certainly has nothing to do with the physical, mental, and emotional aggression that is so often thematic in pornography.  The truth is that modern pornography has its very roots in anti-woman propaganda.

In the 1950s in America, family was king.  If you did not fit into the familial societal role, then you were, in some way, deficient.  In this environment, where men married women, went to work, made babies, and provided for the family, anti-woman sentiments arose.  Women weren’t partners, they were leeches. They were the source of stress for their husbands, who went to work to make the money their wives then spent.  The entirety of their unhappiness could be blamed on their wives, who, rather than just being a source of constant sexual gratification, worked them to death in order to have a leisurely life for themselves.  It was into this hotbed of conflict, where men resented women as beings who seemed to always need something from them, but continued to follow societal norms and marry them, that Playboy, arguably the foundation of modern porn, was born.  With articles denigrating females and bemoaning their negative effects on men juxtaposed with nude images of women forced into the role of either ideal characters, hungry for sex with males, or characters that legitimized and fueled the anti-women position of the day, such as ‘gold diggers’, Playboy thrived.  From this came the man who rejected marriage in an aggressively heterosexual way.[1] To this day, this rampant, oversexed male who seeks trophies in their conquests is referred to as a ‘Playboy’, particularly by older generations. While the compound words may evoke an innocent sort of characterization, the groundwork porn laid in the 1950s for anti-women sentiments would only get worse over time.

By the 1970s, we had moved from a culture of dirty magazines and were smack dab in the middle of the so-called ‘Golden Age of Porn’, which heavily featured pornographic movies that one could take and view in the privacy of their own home.  One video from the 70s was so prolific, so utterly successful and loved by fans that it still tops lists denoting the “best classic porns of all time”. It seemed to all the world a glamorous, lucrative, fun-loving time, but Deep Throat’s star, Linda Lovelace, has since told a very different story. While pornography works hard to paint the picture of people simply delighting in hedonism, she was one of the first stars to tell it like it is: just videos of women being raped over and over.

In the 1990s, pornography changed once again as the Internet made its way into homes. In the early ’90s, Usenet groups allowed distribution and file sharing of pornographic images and eventually, small video clips. Pornography enjoyed an upgrade to its glamorous portrayal, and popular porn stars such as Jenna Jameson became common adornments on teenage boys’ walls. Jenna Jameson half-naked, of course, because as a woman, she is only good for her outward appearance. At least, that is what this massive adoration and objectification of the ‘perfect female figure’ was (and continues to this day) saying to all the little girls and young teenagers coming to age during this time. Conflicting this message were events such as the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape leak, which started in 1995. After two years of trying to stop the leak of a tape that wasn’t even meant to be publicly viewed, or, if you ask them, pornography, Pam and Tommy finally struck a deal with the porn site Club Love, who had already committed to showing the tape online on their site in 1997. Legally, they couldn’t block the showing (even though the tape was stolen from them and distributed without their consent, but that’s a whole other story), so they consented to let it be shown if it wasn’t sold, reproduced, etc (another thing that had already happened and continued to happen). The tape ended up making over 70 million dollars, and Pamela Anderson, who has since come out against pornography, proving its negative effects on her life, was never viewed the same. Growing up during this time, I heard constantly about how trashy she was for this sex tape (even though, again, she had nothing to do with it), and yet Tommy Lee was the man. So, not only should girls strive to be as sexy and appealing as Jenna Jameson and Pamela Anderson, but they should also just be OK with it when reaching that plateau ends in them merely being treated like an object.

Unfortunately, since the rampant objectification of the 1990s, things have only continued to decline. All of this dehumanization of porn stars and misplaced feelings of ownership the viewers place on them has had deep cultural impact. In the 2010s, we’ve seen an entire movement of so-called Involuntary Celibates rise up and demand sex with women, often resorting to violence and homicide, even when they get what they want. We live in a world where men don’t just want women, they want to possess them, and it all arguably stems from the twisted roots of anger and objectification that took hold and flowered through pornography.  It’s not so easy to brush off these days, as porn star after porn star are dying at alarming rates undeniably connected to their occupation.  On top of that, regular women, just trying to live their lives, are becoming victims of some man’s distorted expectations of them, courtesy of things they’ve seen in porn.  

Some people think that if we kill Internet pornography, the world will right itself. We will stop seeing the deaths, the fear, violence. I think that the problem stems much deeper than that: from the very beginning of modern porn, it hasn’t just been about sexual gratification: it’s been about the objectification, ownership of, and rightful place of women. Pornography started the war on women with images meant to humiliate and pigeonhole women while restoring men to a place above them, where they were meant to be. It has escalated alarmingly, with the fantasies of pornography bleeding out into the real world, and it’s affecting us all. Men are better than that. Women are better than that. Image or video, it’s all the same destructive abuse of peoples’ lives, and it needs to stop.    

[1] Gail Dines. Pornland How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, (Beacon Press, Boston, 2010). 2-5.

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