The quest to be human: An interview with “Getting Off” author Robert Jensen

The Portland Alliance, November 2007


Robert Jensen’s latest book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, fuses investigative journalism with compelling personal testimony to make the argument that men should stop consuming pornography. Local radical feminist S.M. Berg recently spoke with writer Robert Jensen about men, pornography, and the quest to be human.

SMB: The title speaks of the end of masculinity. What do you hope men will gain by ending masculinity instead of trying to reform it?

RJ: I think many men recognize that we were raised with a very toxic conception of masculinity that’s not only destructive to women but also self-destructive for men. It limits our ability to feel, to connect, to be full human beings. If we recognize that is our socialization, one can either try to reform masculinity or transcend it, and I think it’s better to try to transcend it. Not to pretend that there are no differences between men and women rooted in our physical differences, we have different bodies and hormones so clearly there are differences. There are patterns of behavior we can observe men and women engaging in but those don’t seem to be connected to anything intrinsic in us, they seem to be connected to distributions of power and socialization.

And if that’s the case, then the quest is not to figure out what is masculinity and what is femininity, but to figure out what it means to be human. That may seem silly in contemporary, industrial society, but that question is not so simple and I think we’re better off trying to understand how to live through that question than through the question of what’s masculinity and femininity.


SMB: In the book you question if men who consider themselves “good guys” can consume pornography without it negatively influencing their beliefs and behaviors with women and offer that while researching pornography you found yourself reflexively judging women by their appearance. Can you talk about some of the effects of pornography consumption?

RJ: Rather than ask the question, “What kind of behaviors does pornography cause?” I think we’re better off asking, “What kind of picture of the world does pornography present to its predominantly male clientele and how does that picture fit with other stories being told and the possible effects on the formation of attitudes and consequently on behavior?” I think it’s not hard to say pornography sexualizes male domination and female subordination, that men watch increasingly large amounts of it in the context of achieving sexual stimulation, and that that message is reinforced in many other places in the culture.

I can look at my own life and see how powerful those images are. I can remember images I saw twenty years ago. As you point out, I can observe my own behavior after I have been studying pornography for a while and I can compare that to my behavior sometime afterwards. I think the conclusion is that there are many, many reasons to be worried that this explosion of misogynistic and racist pornography does in fact shape attitudes and quite likely affect behavior.


SMB: You quote pornographer Bill Marigold, “My whole reason for being in the Industry is to satisfy the desire of the men in the world who basically don’t care much for women and want to see the men in my industry getting even with the women they couldn’t have when they were growing up.” Do you believe he’s right or is he being unfair to male porn consumers?

RJ: I would tend to agree with him. We talk about male domination and female subordination, and at the general level that is the structure of society we live in, but that doesn’t mean individual men always have access to the women they want or power over the women they want in the way they want it. What pornography does is provide a fantasy realm which allows men to believe their power is unchecked. His description of why some men use pornography is consistent with what I’ve heard from men I’ve interviewed in research and informally. As someone who grew up small, skinny, short and in traditional terms not very masculine, I can certainly look at my own life and see that one of the ways I dealt with that was by consuming pornography and feeling a sense of power over the beautiful women on the page or in the film.


SMB: Intellectually, pornography is obviously media, yet pornography seems to get an exception from media critics regarding its racism and sexism. Racist porn titles that would get Don Imus fired for saying them get routinely ignored. Why haven’t anti-racism activists turned their attentions to racist masturbation media?

RJ: There are a couple of reasons. One is the mainstream pornography industry itself has been wildly successful at equating any criticism of it with prudishness, anti-sex ideology, and literally mental illness. If you critique porn, the industry presents you as being crazy. Something as obvious as a critique of racism in porn has to overcome that.


Second, there has developed in the country this odd idea that unlike other media, pornography doesn’t have effects. We worry about racial stereotypes in Hollywood films, but for some reason this genre has been exempt. Many people’s sexuality is tied to pornographic media in a way that’s quite unique. For the most part people don’t masturbate to Hollywood films, but they masturbate in droves to pornography. If your own sexual pleasure has been directly tied to a particular media and how you use it, it can be very threatening to raise any critique of it, whether it’s a critique of its misogyny or racism or the commodification of intimacy. It’s like if you only knew one way to eat and someone said you had to critique that way of eating.


SMB: Technology has ratcheted pornography consumption beyond what I could have imagined and I grew up with computers. Now that every laptop and cell phone can stream porn into public spaces, where do you think pornography can go from here when ‘here’ feels like saturation point?

RJ: The porn industry itself is somewhat perplexed about the content of pornography in the future. One man told me at the porn convention “We’ve shot everything that can be shot,” meaning every possible sexual position and combination that the human mind can imagine has been put on film at this point, so where do you go?

I’ve gotten two answers from the people in the industry. Some say you constantly go for younger, fresher girls to keep the newness, but others have said that the hot young thing gets repetitive no matter how many there are of them. One porn director said to me simply, “I hate to say it but the future of porn is violence.”

We know from history that every communication technology invented in recent years has become a vehicle for pornography: telephone, film, home video recorder, digital media, everything. So when you ask how the porn-saturated culture can get more saturated, the answer is that every new device is going to become a transmission vehicle. As communication technology comes deeper into our lives and fills up more of the space in our lives, that doesn’t bode well.


Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center He is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books). He can be reached at and his articles are online at

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