In my Grade 11 and 12 English class for adult learners, I always try to do at least a week on media literacy. We talk about bias and stereotypes, particularly as they relate to race, gender, and disability. One of my favourite activities regarding gender stereotypes involves examining ads and asking students to identify stereotypes present in those ads. It always provokes enlightening and interesting conversations from them. The hypersexualization of women as sex objects, and the positioning of men as sex subjects, is indisputable no matter where you turn. So I was definitely interested in reading The Pornification of America: How Raunch Culture Is Ruining Our Society (what a clickbait title) and appreciate the review copy from NetGalley/New York University Press.
I did go into this book with some reservations. The last time I read about raunch culture, I didn’t much enjoy the way the subject was evaluated and the conclusions drawn. Indeed, this book is in some ways a spiritual successor to that book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, by Ariel Levy—Barton mentions the book a couple of times in the introduction. Whereas that book was a journalist’s dive into raunch culture as a phenomenon, Barton’s focus as a gender studies professor is more sociological and attempts to bring more data to the party. In that sense, I like this book much better. Levy’s approach to the topic felt heavy-handed, whereas Barton approaches the topic with much more nuance. And of course, this book is as up to date as it can be, including some of the emboldening effects that the Trump presidency has had on raunch culture.
So I started to feel more comfortable and optimistic with this book’s approach to the subject. Let me be clear: raunch culture is absolutely a problem. I just find some analyses of the issue to be far too fraught with generalizations. For example, a lot of blame for raunch culture is (rightly) laid at the feet of porn (hence the title of this book). And I always get nervous when feminists start discussing porn in an entirely negative light, because then we’re veering into anti–sex work territory in general. So to my relief, Barton’s analysis is far more nuanced. She establishes herself as sex-positive out of the gate (and offers a great explanation for how raunch culture has co-opted the language of sex positivity without actually being sex positive, particularly for women). Her condemnation of the negative consequences of easier access to increasingly violent, absurd Internet porn is balanced with the acknowledgment that porn is not going way, and that some people use porn in healthy ways as part of their sex life. Barton says, “What we need in place of internet pornography, or at least alongside it, are more conversations about women’s sexual pleasure.” Yes, so much this!! Blanket condemnation and calls to ban porn disguise the issue. Unlike Levy, Barton acknowledges that “feminist porn” exists, but she makes the excellent point that you will never see it unless you seek it out—it is the structure of the porn industry, and the discoverability of it online, that is the problem. If porn were more centred on women’s pleasure, and if it weren’t relied upon for sex education because schools are too moralistic to talk about that stuff, then it would not be as large a contributing factor to raunch culture.
In a similar vein, Barton approaches numerous topics with sensitivity and an eye for teasing out the actual relationship between the topic and raunch culture. She does this through quoting from numerous interviews, citing studies, and supplying personal anecdotes from her teaching experience. As a result, the book builds up this overall picture of the ubiquity of raunch culture within American society. This isn’t just a porn problem or an advertising problem or a political problem: it’s everywhere.
In the final chapter, Barton tries to offer, if not solutions, than a framework that could help us dismantle raunch culture. I appreciate that she admits to the limitations of her work here. Confronting raunch culture is a difficult task and one that must be furiously intersectional and anti-capitalist to succeed (earlier in the book, Barton observes that raunch culture is closely tied to white people in particular, and it is likely an outgrowth of white supremacy’s hegemonic role in our society). This book is quite depressing at times with the picture Barton offers us, but it is also forthright and honest.
A couple of critiques before I go!
First, a correction: Barton says that Twitter employees created Tay, an AI bot released on Twitter that was supposed to learn from its interactions with Twitter users. In fact, Microsoft created (and subsequently … decommissioned) this ill-fated experiment. This error has no substantive impact on Barton’s analysis.
Second, Barton’s cozying up to radical feminism made me uncomfortable at points. It was one thing to say, “You know, the anti-pornography feminists had a point,” earlier on in the book—I understand and can appreciate that perspective. Much later, though, Barton proudly recounts a time she challenged a friend for using the term TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) because she views it as besmirching radical feminism. Which … yeah. I get it, and I admit the term TERF isn’t great—not because it reflects poorly on radical feminism, but rather because if your feminism is trans-exclusionary, it ain’t feminism. This just seemed like a very unnecessary digression that caused me, as a trans person, to bridle. I am going to continue to “trash TERFs” all I like, thank you very much, because they literally do not want me to exist.
On a similar note, this book is quite cisnormative. Barton does interview a non-binary person. However, acknowledgment of how raunch culture affects trans people as a category is absent from this book. We are mentioned only a small handful of times, and usually in passing, such as this sentence from the conclusion: “Despite a loud and at times violent backlash, trans and non-binary people are changing the culture….” From this I can conclude, thankfully, that Barton is not herself a TERF and is quite supportive of trans people and willing to include us in this discussion. Rather, this feels more like an oversight—either unintentionally as a result of cis privilege, or intentionally out of the idea that, as a cis person herself, she shouldn’t be the one to speak on these issues. If it’s the latter (and I want to assume the best intentions), I wish at least some kind of disclaimer had been made to this effect—but more importantly, cis people need to stop “it’s not my place” as an excuse to erase and ignore us. Yes, it is true that cis researchers should not make trans issues their primary area of focus. But Barton could easily have interviewed more trans people, just to help round out her sample, for instance. Raunch culture affects me so much as a trans woman, because of its relationship to ideals of femininity and sexual expression, but my experiences are nowhere to be found here.
Anyway, I needed to bring that up, but I also don’t want you to think this is a deal-breaker for me. On the whole, The Pornification of America turned out better than I expected. I appreciate that there is a more academic look at raunch culture, updated for this decade, that we can refer to as we unpack and attempt to dismantle this aspect of our patriarchal, white supremacist society. Barton does good work here, even if I have some critiques of it. In particular, I recommend anyone who hasn’t read a lot about this issue, but wants to learn more, to dive into this. Its overview is thorough, thoughtful, and comprehensive.