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Porn Vigilante

The remasculinization of Israeli men, “sex work,” porn’s Big Boys, Palestinian domestic violence, and other matters not for shrinking violets.

I understand you became a feminist over a cup of tea.
I did. I was in a seedy café in London and I read Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful. Being 18 and ripe for rebellion, I was seduced on the spot. The mission of women’s empowerment still rocks my world.

How did your feminism square with your British mishpacha?
My family, in Manchester, belonged to an Orthodox shul. I instantly severed my ties to that kind of Judaism.

But then you made aliyah.
When I was 21. Before that, I was very active in the British leftist student movement of the ‘70s. The movement, though, agreed with the U.N. that Zionism was racism, and Jewish groups — as racists — were kicked off of campuses. Most of my peers had never met a Jew, but suddenly Jews were such a problem. That was another awakening.

How did you fare as a feminist in Israel?
The feminist movement in Israel was robust. It was also different. It was based on improving the lives of children, and it was rooted in activism — not theory. The first incest survivors’ group was set up, and I, along with others, founded Isha L’Isha, an organization dedicated to the liberation of all women. Feminists were working in the Occupied Territories alongside Palestinian women to stop male violence; unthinkable 25 years ago.
But I also felt Israel’s huge, post-Holocaust agenda around re-masculinizing men, building a “fuck you” to Hitler. When my son was born, the nurse beamed and said, “Od chayal!” — another soldier. The male rabbinate controls religion and family law, and the military, then under Sharon, celebrated raw masculinity run amok.

You homed in on pornography.
Yes, I began researching violence against women for my doctorate. My dissertation was a Marxist cultural analysis of pornography. At the same time, I’m tooling around Israel with my husband, aghast at the hypersexualized ads.

Hypersexualized ads?
There was this ad for soda on all the buses, for example. A very sexualized little girl — maybe 7 or 8 — saying, “I’ll play Mommy and Daddy with you — maybe….” There were underwear ads where women were running alongside cattle cars away from gas ovens, and ads that featured women with black eyes, bruised all over, beaten up… sex equated with violence.

The final straw was an encounter I had with the owner of a newspaper kiosk. The cover of a porn magazine was flapping in the wind, showing a naked girl on her hands and knees, a penis shoved in her mouth. I said to the owner, “I’m going to report you to the police for publicly displaying that.”

Is it illegal to display porn in Israel?
I didn’t know, actually. I only knew I was enraged. The kiosk-owner — no teeth, and I surmised from our conversation that he was illiterate — looked at me and said, “That’s you up there.” He laughed. “You hate this picture because that’s you.”

And I thought, “He’s read Andrea Dworkin! He understands that pornography debases all women.”

Isn’t there porn that isn’t debasing?
One has to ask a lot of questions. Who made it? Who are the women in it? Did they have other work options? Could they withdraw their consent, during and after? Who’s making the money? Is it violent, degrading? How are consumers making sense of what they see?

I find the first 10 seconds of most porn arousing, though I wish the production values were better, that there was a plot, and that they gave a damn about women’s orgasms.
Don’t take your arousal at face value. I get a lot of calls from distraught people. So many women working in the porn industry have untreated gonorrhea and chlamydia, shredded anuses.

I got off track.
That happens a lot.

So you emigrate to the U.S.
Two days after arriving, in 1986, I go to a “Women Against Pornography” meeting in Cambridge. Three weeks later, I’m doing a radio show. It blew my mind that almost every feminist I met was Jewish. In England, I’d never met anyone like me — feminist, left-wing, very Jewishly-identified. I thought, Wow, America’s my Promised Land, I can bridge my worlds. Phyllis Chesler, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin — all Jewish women.

Did this surprise you?
Jewish feminists are chutzpah at its best.

I’ve heard you say that the porn industry is monopolized by Jewish men.
They are wildly over-represented. Steven Hirsch, the co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment; Steve Orenstein, founder of Wicked Pictures; Seymore Butts, a.k.a. Adam Glasser; Paul Fishbein, Irv Slifkin, Barry Rosenblatt — they founded Adult Video News, the largest porn industry trade paper; Michael Lucas, born Andrei Lvovich Treivas, founder and CEO of New York’s largest gay adult-film company — he’s an American Russian Israeli.
Ron Jeremy, of course, who has appeared in hundreds of porn films and is a media spokesman for the industry…. These are just some of the big boys. There are tons of small players.

Why do you think the industry is so Jewish?
I’d like to say something fascinating here, but, honestly, I think these guys are just very astute businessmen. They understood the potential for a multi-billion dollar industry. The Internet is a gold mine.

You’ve had forceful disagreements with younger feminists who call prostitution and acting in porn movies “sex work.”
These are privileged, middle-class, progressive women who don’t get what it’s really like for these women who take it up the ass on camera, or who hit the streets to earn their living and the pimp beats the shit out of you, the johns beat you, they make you perform humiliating sexual acts.

It’s not as though I do “brain work” and they do equally ennobling “sex work.” These women are not empowered. Prostitution is sexual slavery. To call it “sex work” is to render invisible the violence done to prostitutes; it dignifies johns, turning them into businessmen.
Go hit the streets for one week to earn your living and then tell me it’s a form of work.

On another matter, the “trafficking” of girls and women…you have something to say about this term, too.
Right. I was on a panel organized by Yale Law School, and the female academics up there with me refused to use the word “trafficking.” They called it “voluntary female labor migration patterns.” What are some post-modern feminists thinking?

Gail Dines is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies and Chair of American Studies at Wheelock College, and author, most recently, of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality [2010]. She is also a founding member of Stop Porn Culture.