A new light on the harms of porn

A few months ago I read a book called Living Dolls by Natasha Walter, who argued that the “new feminism” she thought was emerging in the 1990s had given way to a culture in which girls were being pressurised to be sexualised at younger and younger ages, with anyone resisting being seen as a prude, and that this culture is seen as liberating when it’s actually degrading. A new book is released this month entitled Pornland, by long-standing anti-porn activist Gail Dines, which argues that people’s sexuality is being changed forever by a culture of commercial porn in which acts which are extreme and unusual are promoted as normal, and which ruins intimacy and people’s relationships.

Dines was interviewed in the Guardian by Julie Bindel last Thursday; there is another interview with her here and you can find excerpts from it here.

I’m kind of lucky in that porn has never really interested me. I took one look at the pictures in a top-shelf magazine in the UK when I was a teenager, I think, and I found it so revolting that I just put it back and put it out of my mind. But it seems that what I saw was probably tame by today’s standards, with boys getting access to the stuff younger and younger, and expecting real women to replicate the sexual acts they find in it, and being shocked that they do not want to. The material depicts stuff which is not only degrading but stressful and painful for women’s bodies, and the video (rather than still) stuff often shows the man showering the woman with insults as he carries out his bizarre acts (really, I’m not describing them — you can follow any of the links above if you want to know).

The two biggest problems with it is that it removes elements such as tenderness and intimacy from sexual relationships, and that it forms an addiction that causes men to lie and to neglect their duties to their families so as to pursue their addiction. As with so many chemical addictions, they often find that what they start out on loses its thrill, so they move onto harder stuff, often involving children. Mary Ann Layden of the University of Pennsylvania related, in a speech at Capitol Hill last month, that she had known a man who had worked for years to build a career in a given field, and then secured an interview for a “dream job”, but in the even didn’t attend because he was too busy surfing porn sites on the Internet. Another was a police officer who was jailed for viewing child porn on his work computer; he lost his marriage and could no longer see his children.

A few years ago Muslim Matters had some posts on Muslim men’s addiction to this stuff. Of course, viewing this stuff is completely against Islam, but one supposes that these same men married their wives on the basis that they were chaste and not the sort of women they’d find in these videos. As is so often the case, the brothers expect the women to be utterly pure and devoted while they are anything but. I don’t want to imply that all Muslim women are super-pure and other women are sluts, and most non-Muslim women wouldn’t want to be seen dead in these productions either, but when an ostensibly religious Muslim man, married to a woman of a similar stripe, expects her to perform similarly to the females he sees in porn videos, there is likely to be conflict, to say the least.

Dines herself is not anti-sex or, I suspect, against erotic material being available — Bindel compares her to Andrea Dworkin, commonly accused of being a militant man-hating prude when she was in fact married to a man and, in her writings on porn, distinguished between genuinely erotic and “thanatic”, or destructive, pornography which depicted the degradation of women. After all, porn depicting children is already illegal in most places, and many men have been prosecuted for downloading the material, which is footage of child abuse. The material discussed here depicts adults, but it is often readily available to younger and younger boys, who themselves learn about sex through it and end up thinking what they see there is normal when it isn’t. The things depicted are acted out and the females are being paid, but the acts are meant to look like assaults.

There are a couple of aspects of Dines’s critique of porn culture I don’t agree with. One is her emphasis on hair removal as a product of this culture; she claims that none of the female students she meets keep their pubic hair, as its removal is now the norm, thanks to porn culture. That all of them remove their hair I don’t quite believe anyway, but they were introduced to America through a salon run by several Brazilian sisters and were known of in Brazil before that on account of the skimpy bikinis worn on beaches there. Even so, it’s a fashion and surely not all the women who do it are directly influenced by porn. It was the norm in the Muslim world long before it became popular here. There is quite a generational difference here, with the older generation considering that hair is what distinguishes women from little girls, while a lot of younger women disagree.

A second issue is the use of the term “patriarchy” as a lazy synonym for male domination, as in:

“To think that so many men hate women to the degree that they can get aroused by such vile images is quite profound,” says Dines. “Pornography is the perfect propaganda piece for patriarchy. In nothing else is their hatred of us quite as clear.”

Patriarchy actually connotes a society in which men protect women, not simply allow any Tom, Dick or Harry to exploit them. Most fathers would be outraged, or at least profoundly sad, at the thought of their daughters performing in this way, even if they were getting paid for it and when the family and parental authority in this country was stronger, pornography was less readily available and much less extreme than it is now. A society in which men are free to abuse and exploit women and girls may be many things, but this does not make it patriarchal.

I had heard of the problems with widely-available porn before, but reading these interviews with Dines really shocked me in terms of what these things consisted of and the fact that people who view it come to consider the things depicted as normal. Unfortunately, attempts to curb this material in the USA have been struck down under the First Amendment, and there is only so much we can do when such a big population has decided that it cannot control such material, but we can pass legislation against such material here and should not be afraid to. Of course, education is an important tool here as well — for young people, so that boys know that this is harmful and unreal, and that parents know that they should keep tabs on what their children are seeing online, and know how to. Dines’ is a welcome voice on this issue, calm and measured and less influenced by personal trauma than Dworkin was, and one hopes that her book opens people’s eyes to how damaging this trend is.

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  • This problem is not just one of personal morals or gender justice, IMHO. Humankind doesn’t properly understand its sexuality or how to manage it (individually and collectively).

  • DrM

    Asalamu Aliakum,

    An excellent post, I forwarded it to a non-Muslim friend of mine. Last time we had lunch, the topic of societal norms came up and the role of widespread pornography in it’s degradation. You know it’s bad when even an atheist is beginning to consider spirituality as an antidote to the pro-porn culture.

  • Jameel

    The biggest disease to hit the Muslim world in recent times is pornography, mainly via the internet. The television for years has dangled the carrot of zina in front of Muslim eyes, with the more lewd female pop stars seducing Muslim men through their dance and semi-nakedness.

    You can find readily open internet cafe’s full of men surfing porn without a care in the world, from Syria, Pakistan to Egypt to Morocco. The psyche is changing fast and it is ruining families, relationships and the outlook on women. It is also not a surprise to find Arab/Muslim men drooling over western women (tourists) and flirting with them - with the thinking that all western women are the same as they appear in videos and films (loose).

    On the side note of hair removal, it is gift from the Brazilians to the western world and thank God for that!

    Muslims have been doing this for centuries and they don’t shave, they prefer to wax or use other methods. Not only is it a sunnah, it is also hygenic and perfectly suited to men’s psyche’s.

  • CNCX

    Salam alaikoum as a woman of a certain age, I am inclined to believe the premise that complete hair removal is part of the porn culture. Thé shift from “landscaping” to “full brazilian” parallels the same shift in porn magazines, and there is a body of work on the subject. I reject the idea that full removal is the norm in Islam, a quick tour around the hammam and discussions with sisters (not that I go around looking at people’s awrahs) leads me to believe that “landscaping” is still the norm with sisters Many interpret the sunnah as “trimming” every forty days and not removing completely.Full brazilians are also quite unhealthy as they can lead to higher rates of UTIs both due to the dubious sanitary situations with some waxes and also the fact that hair protects the area from clothing and the like. Sorry for the TMI but after Jameel’s comment I felt it necessary to give a female point of view.

  • africana

    assalamu alaikum cncx,

    i read jameel’s comment before but didn’t feel up to challenging his idea at the time. from what i’ve read the sunnah is to remove the hair from the private area either with scissors or by shaving, not by plucking (which is what waxing is, basically). it is a sunnah to remove the hair fromthe underarm areas by plucking (which would translate as waxing), though.

    and of course having someone do a brazillian wax is totally off limits for muslims, anyway as it would involve exposing the private area which has to be concealed from all but one’s spouse.

  • CNCX

    Salam alaikoum Africana, indeed “trimming” is what I meant by “landscaping”. :)

  • Jameel

    In Islam the removal of hair is recommended and encouraged (regularly), the normative method suggested by the sunnah is plucking (under-arm) or shaving. For example, from a hadith of the Prophet, it is recommended for men to PLUCK their underarms and shave their lower areas.

    It is known that plucking or waxing of sensitive areas can be dangerous (potential of nerve damage or shock) - this has to be taken into account. However it is not haram or disallowed to use different methods, even laser hair removal, as the main purpose of doing so is to remove unwanted hair. Women also have the option of using lime/creams, hair removal creams and epilators.

    Waxing lasts the longest, shaving re-grows hair back. Women in the east preferred waxing or using creams, as that meant the hair would take longer to grow.

    Waxing has been employed in many Muslim countries by women - since it is similar to plucking, but as far as I know it is not disallowed.

    The Sunnah is to remove hair, it is also about total removal of hair not just trimming (although it is accepted by some). In some Muslim countries, they do not fully employ the Sunnah methods and naturally we go by what the texts say and not people do. But hair removal has always been part of Muslim culture, regardless.

    It is not permissible for people to see each others 3awrah, so methods employed that violate this are clearly not allowed.

    You can get further info at SunniPath for example.

  • CNCX

    Salams Jameel, While Africana and I were discussing plucking versus trimming, your comments lead to believe that completely hairless (aka Brazilians) was the sunnah norm, which is what I found issue with, and not the idea that hair removal was part of Muslim culture. While I appreciate your clarification on hair removal methods in the sunnah, like there are differences of opinion on how hair can be removed, that means there would also be differences of opinion on how much hair should stay.  I found your second comment condescending as most women who have the hardware, regardless of having looked on Sunni Path or not, can assure you that depilatory creams and epilator machines are not to be used on labia, so your mention of alternate hair removal methods only works on other parts of the female body. Likewise, due to the nature of the area, the wax is different from that those used on legs and other areas.  The wax and materials used for Brazilians are also subject to specific sanitation rules, which in the private sector involve some sort of esthetician certification.  I have nothing against Brazilians in the sense that it is between the woman and Allah swt if she wants to show her awrah or not, but very few women have the pain threshold and the waxing/sanitation equipment/training necessary to do at home Brazilian waxes. I think that it is intellectually reckless and a poor message to send to sisters that they have to be hairless to be on the haqq and that Brazilians are the sunnah norm (instead of a cultural norm) the best for hygiene and for “men’s psyches.”  This especially given the differences in opinion on hair removal methods and the difficulties in having a sunnah-compliant and hygienic at-home Brazilian.  And of course, I stand corrected if you use hard Brazilian wax on your perineum every forty days.

  • africana

    “sunnah-compliant and hygienic at-home Brazilian”


    i think there’s something in reliance of the traveller (which i refer to from time to time) that says in regarrds to toileting that one should only raise one’s garment for as long as it takes to perform the necessary. with that in mind, i woulld think that the preference would be be for something quick where you’re not focussed on your private parts for an excessive amount of time.

  • Jameel

    Thanks for your input CNCX - we learn something new everyday. At no point did I say that nothing less is accepted, but naturally there are differences of opinion and my point was to say that total removal is not alien to Islam, nor is just trimming.

  • Salams Jameel So in other words, we both were saying that differences of opinion exist. Sorry if I misunderstood! Kind regards.

  • africana

    salaams all,

    what do you think of the suggestion that the pornography epidemic in the arab world might be responsible for the high levels of sexual harrassment on the part of men (who clearly have no connection to islam or any other moral system) in countries like egypt?

    i think thee might be somethig i this theory. i also think that the introduction of porography to a society where the secular culture there like in other parts of the mediterranean has always depicted women as a source of evil and a cuning temptress (unless, of course, she’s your mum!) as an example of the attitudes that prevail (and which run counter to what islam says) i have encountered an algerian person stating that a woman could initiate a sexual encounter through a hole in the wall..

  • africana

    salaams all,

    what do you think of the suggestion that the pornography epidemic in the arab world might be responsible for the high levels of sexual harrassment on the part of men (who clearly have no connection to islam or any other moral system) in countries like egypt?

    i think thee might be somethig i this theory. i also think that the introduction of porography to a society where the secular culture there like in other parts of the mediterranean has always depicted women as a source of evil and a cuning temptress (unless, of course, she’s your mum!) would be a dreadful combination. as an example of the attitudes that prevail (and which run counter to what islam says) i have encountered an algerian person stating that a woman could initiate a sexual encounter through a hole in the wall..

  • Ayah

    @CNCX Salaam, It is indeed possible, with practice, to give oneself a perfectly hygienic Brazilian at home. Not really certain what you mean by giving oneself a “sunnah-compliant” Brazilian, but I assure you, there’s nothing unusual about doing it yourself.

  • cncx

    Ayah, Salams I did not say it was impossible-only that it required a level of skill (and a threshold of pain tolerance/masochism) that was unreasonable to expect of every single woman as a sunnah norm. You said so yourself- “with practice” , thus it is not something everyone is capable of pulling off on the first try. I suprised that you think doing it on your own is “not unusual” given the techniques involved :-p As far as the rest, several of the comments, including my own, mentioned the incompatibility of getting a Brazilian with a third-party in regards to showing awrah. Thus “sunnah-compliant” And me, worrying that my comments were too long and thorough. Best Nicole

  • Ayah

    Salaam again, CNCX, I imagine how common it is is a matter of one’s culture. In mine, nearly all women do so. I’ve noticed Americans tend to make a bigger deal of it than it really is, in terms of exaggerating the pain and difficulty. I suspect this is a matter of aesthetitians who do not wish to lose business promoting the idea that waxing is 1) incredibly painful, and 2) that it’s so complex and fraught with danger that only a professional should do it. Both claims are nonsense, as women throughout the world have waxed themselves for centuries. As for it being haraam to be waxed by someone else; I’m not convinced of that. If removing the hair is sunnah and one cannot do it properly oneself, if assistance is required, why would it be haraam? Is it also haraam to get breast and gynecological exams? It’s been my misfortune to meet some American Muslims who believe so, and have refused care until they were either in labor, or had infections so bad they could no longer refuse treatment. I think some Muslims’ obsession with modesty has really transformed into an unhealthy and pathological prudishness. I mean really, some I’ve heard insist that one must never be fully nude, even in the shower. Islam is not a religion of extremes, so I wish we could break this habit of being terrified of our own bodies because we imagine it’s the sunnah. Allahm3aik, Ayah

  • africana

    assalamu alaikum, medical examinations are entirely different to waxing in that there exists no other way of achieving the aim of a cervical smear, for example whilst in regards to hair removal we are not limited to just one method. here’s a relevant fatwa: (i don’t by the way agree with the use of depiliatories on the private parts, however)

    “It is not permissible for you to ask your friend to shave your pubic hair for you, or to let her do that. If you do that, you will both be committing a major sin, and you will not be excused for that, because it is easy to find other ways of removing this hair, such as using the well known depilatories, if you cannot use a razor.

    This is permissible in cases of necessity when one is unable to move, or if one is sick or insane and other cases where a man or woman is unable to shave the pubic hair.”


  • africana

    outside of my home, today in broad day light, a couple, one of whom is from a muslim family (though he clearly has no fear of God himself)were engaging in a lewd act. i called the police who were rather non plussed.

    i belive there are hadiths that speak of this sort of thing towards the end of time.

  • Teymoor

    Dear Lord

    My flabber is gasted by the above discussion.

  • Null

    I agree with Ayah. There tends to be an exaggeration of just how painful and difficult a self-administed Brazilian wax is. It is time-consuming, definitely, but the trick is to do it in small sections - a couple of cm^squared at a time, with a all natural sugar-wax (you can make at home). Expect pain and blood the first time - second time, not so much, and progressively less pain each time afterward.

    Oh, and the ‘bits’ you might think hurt the most, actually don’t hurt much, and the bits you think won’t hurt, hurt the most (but not unbearable). A couple of seconds of pain, for a month of smooth.

  • cncx

    Salams I have stayed away from this topic for a few days intentionally. Ayah, I understand your point, but I feel like you are trying to paint me into the Hairy Prudish Show Me The Daleel American Convert corner when that isn’t the case. My point of view is that there are differences of opinion on the subject, and that I reject the idea of being totally hairless as a sunnah norm- I see it as a spectrum. SO no, I am not one of those girls who thinks being naked is bad. As I said above repeatedly, I don’t like it when the idea is thrown out there that a full hairless Brazilian is on the haqq, or how “born Muslims” do it (when seeing my inlaws I know that is not the case for 100% of non western Muslims). That is my main issue with Brazilian waxes in itself. And for the record, I have had many Brazilians. I have even given myself a few. Yes, Null, they are painful, they bleed, but you get used to itm I know all this. And for those of you sisters who can handle the pain at home, ma sha Allah and more power to y’all- but again, I go back to my original point. They are painful, there is a technique to it, and Brazilians wax doesn’t use the same wax as bikini wax does (if you use regular wax on your labia that you use on your thighs, again MA SHA ALLAH 10X). Besides the difference of opinion on what is awrah or not (and in my original comment I did not state my preference, I just said there was a difference of opinion) there are a lot of logistics to be taken into account and, again, I think it is intellectually irresponsible to equate Brazilian waxing with a sunnah norm given the materials necessary to make one happen. I’m most definitely not against Brazilians. Just don’t tell me that I don’t know how they do it in Back Homelandia and that it has been done from time immemorial by all muslim cultures across the world because I will have to disagree, like I have above.

    I think it is a shame when an honest discussion turns into Born versus Convert shut down. Some things never change. Ya Latif.

  • Null

    Salaam Cncx

    I didn’t mean my comments in that way sister. I apologize.

    It was simply a bit of info for those who were considering doing it themselves, but apprehensive about what it entails. Of course, I agree there are differences in opinion and a Brazilian is not the only way to satisfy this Sunnah.

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  • Salaam Alaikum,

    “Expect pain and blood”.

    You know when I expected pain and blood? When I was giving birth, but I accepted that, because it’s a pretty important task. Hair removal, not so much.

    Also, considering that we are not even meant to slap our bodies or faces when making wudu, I doubt that inflicting such pain on oneself is so sunnah.

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  • Old Pickler

    The two biggest problems with it is that it removes elements such as tenderness and intimacy from sexual relationships

    So does polygamy, concubinage and lots of Muslim practices.

    As for the hair thing - Islam allows “marriage” of pre-pubescent girls, which co-incides with the paedophile desire of many men for child-like porn models, whippet thin, with stuck on breasts and no pubic hair.

  • africana

    hello old pickler,

    polygamy does howver overcome the problem of some women not experiencing any intimacy at all.in Islam, as in other religions, marriage is the only outlet for sexual activity and so imagine the pain that a woman who has resigned to a life devoid of physical intimacy and male companionship might experience.

    if man does have more than one wife (and let’s be clear in this,n the vast majority of muslim men have but one)this in no way negates his obligation to be tender in their moments of physical intimacy and, as per the hadith, to ensure their satisfaction before seeing to his own. such an attitude is a far cry from the physical and emotional abuse and humiliation that is the mainstay of pornographic films.

    as for your second point,pre-pubescent girls might have been married off in the past but their marriages were, at least in Islam, not consumated until such a time that the girl had both agreed to the marriage (otherwise it was annulled) and was past the age of the onset of puberty so to equate child marriage with men of this age’s alleged preoccupation with models who look pre-pubescent is WAY off the mark.

    incidentally, we have to understood these child marriages in the context in which they occured which was in a society where girls matured much earlier, experienced earlier puberty and took on responsibilities that would be inthinkable in this age.

  • George Carty
    Incidentally, we have to understood these child marriages in the context in which they occured which was in a society where girls matured much earlier, experienced earlier puberty and took on responsibilities that would be inthinkable in this age.

    I’d also suggest that in our modern Western societies, the length of “childhood” is defined as least as much by the length of schooling than by any biological factors.