Book Review: Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny and Rape

Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny and Rape by Diana E. H. Russell looks at the relationship between pornography and how its growth has fuelled the conditions for misogyny and rape to flourish. The text begins by picking apart the complex nature of defining pornography, and the various ways it manifests harm, using previous case studies, feminist theory and research to do this. Russell then moves on to discuss how pornographic images and how they picture woman hatred and misogyny, as well as other forms of oppression, such as, racist and anti-Semitic pornography. The final analysis she undertakes is linking the causation between pornography and rape, using empirical evidence. 

Russell opens the book by giving an important clarification on the definition of pornography, outlining to the reader how the concept will be referred to throughout the text. She outlines that there are some difficulties in distinguishing between pornography and erotica. Particularly that there is an issue of subjectivity which makes it hard to get a consensus, as both can be sexually stimulating. However, Russell makes some important distinctions between the two. Erotica is defined to be entirely free from sexism, racism and homophobia and portrays all participants respectfully. While on the other hand pornography is: 

Material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behaviour.

Russell, Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny and Rape

Russell also includes a brief but thorough discussion of types of pornography. She mainly outlines this in a categorical sense, for example, by sex (either of the consumer or the actors), sexual orientation (lesbian/gay/bisexual) and age (teen, child, adult). Russell then concludes the opening chapter by reviewing various studies which look at the contents of pornography, providing the reader with a heavy start to the book.

The second chapter discusses the methodology she used and findings that she uncovered. The method implored by Russell for the research in this book, was a content analysis of pornographic images. The content analysis was undertaken on descriptions of pornographic images from a variety of adult publications, including books, magazines and film posters. Titles came from publications such as Penthouse, Playboy, and Hustler. Twenty-three of these were cartoons, the other 100 images were of real women. Under each image she included a comment, where she would address the actions portrayed in the image, how they sexualised the oppression of women, and crucially how it links with rape. 

This was a very extensive section, that included a great breadth of pornography and the underlying meanings. This not only enabled the reader to better understand the extent to which pornography oppresses women, but also the more nuanced factors that create a deeper level of oppression. For example, she unpicks racist porn featuring black women being degraded and even some references to slavery are made within some of the images. Antisemitic pornography is another sub-category, which described images from Nazi publications. This showed some of the incredibly offensive and discriminatory narratives that dominate pornographic ideology, where seemingly nothing is off limits. Russell comments on one particularly graphic anti-Semitic pornographic image:

It is gruesome to think that a pornographer would use a Hitler look-alike in a picture designed to excite men sexually… It is also profoundly disturbing to see sexual violence against women being used to eroticise the Holocaust.

Russell, Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny and Rape

In her definitions chapter, Russell (1998) also identifies there to be racist undertones in the overrepresentation of white, thin, large breasted women, within pornography. Hence, the message inferred is that black women are not attractive enough to feature in mainstream porn, usually only appearing in fetish categories. Thus, this sexualises racism, meaning that the sexual violence that black, Jewish, Latina and Asian women experience as a result of porn is then further degrading and dehumanising, and extends beyond only sexism. 

Following on from this, Russell reviews extensive amounts of literature addressing the links between pornography and rape, in an attempt to establish a causal relationship between the two. This is a very persuasive chapter, in which she begins by reminding the reader, that even if pornography didn’t cause rape, the actual making of pornography often is very gruesome and subjects women to sexual assault and rape. Russell addresses various factors that pornography may have a role in increasing the likelihood for a rape to occur. One example is where she uses social learning theory to explain how pornography may predispose some men to want to rape. She argues that even where some men may not be aroused by pornographic rape, the act of masturbation during or following this, acts as a positive reinforcer. This in turn strengthens the sexual response from rape depictions and overtime could lead to a desire to commit rape. This overall approach explains rape as a result of environmental factors that shape behaviour. 

Throughout the text, Russell takes a vehemently anti-porn stance. Hence, acknowledging this, rather than shielding it, is a benefit to the author’s work. She illustrates this neatly with an anecdote that she refers back to throughout the book, comparing the defences used by pro-pornography voices, to those of tobacco companies. 

because there is some unknown number of men who have consumed pornography but have never raped a woman… is comparable to arguing that because some cigarette smokers don’t die of lung disease, there cannot be a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer.

Russell, Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny and Rape

She uses this line of reasoning to explain that only people who are heavily attached to the tobacco industry, thus greatly biased, would use this perverse reasoning. This gives an effective, yet cynical reflection behind the motivations of ‘pro-porn’ voices.

In conclusion, Russell’s book has been one that has stood the test of time. She produced rigorous findings that were critical of a growing pattern of pornography and its propagation of misogyny. These findings still hold true today, to the issues that we are seeing within a pornography laden world, which is affecting both its viewers and the actors simultaneously. Russell encourages the reader to take a critical perspective of pornography, that puts the experiences of women as victims first. This is commendable and makes the book a great reflection on Russell’s life’s work. 

Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny and Rape by Diana E. H. Russell
(Amazon, £40.46)

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