ESSAYS / ISSUE 6: WINTER 2017

“The Pornography of Trump” by Deborah J. Cohan

The week before the election, I was teaching about domestic violence and sexual assault in my Introduction to Sociology class. I talked about the cultural discourse that circulates around these issues, and to illuminate my points, I brought in cartoons from Hustler Magazine that I projected onto the screen. One cartoon made a mockery of incest; another cartoon made fun of rape. For example, one cartoon featured a young woman performing oral sex on a much older man and the caption reads: “Hell no Cindy Lou. I can’t let you drop out of school and turn pro. What kind of father would that make me?!” And another cartoon featuring a man with his penis out of his pants with ejaculate dripping on him and on women falling into a jury box has a caption that reads, “So, ladies of the jury, would you say my client viciously raped you, or gave you the most magnificent fuck of your life that you’ll cherish till the day you die?”

We discussed in class that the intended audience for Hustler and many other online outlets for pornography is largely white, working class, straight men. Creators of Hustler specifically attempt to appeal to other dimensions of identity often associated with this audience, namely politically conservative, anti-immigration, racist, lacking cultural capital, and very pro-gun; and, these images prey on these men’s perceptions of being disenfranchised, especially when women, people of color and those of immigrant status attain even a modicum of power.

As I stood there teaching about the effects of this pornographic imagination and reality, it came to me that the very same audience to which Hustler is marketed is also the very same audience to which Donald Trump holds the most appeal. I left class stunned by this insight I had been able to forge through teaching, that Trump is pornographic.

And, here’s why:

  • “I’ll know it when I see it.” This comment about pornographic material dates back to the sixties to determine the obscenity standard. In the summer of 2015, the idea of Trump becoming president was dismissed as a joke and almost as a crazy dare, as in “Whatever, I’ll believe it when I see it.” Now that he is president-elect, each day brings with it news that challenges the American public. Resisters are suggesting eerie and painful parallels to the Holocaust while others claim we just have to “get over it,” “wait and see” or remember that “it can’t be that bad, remember, after all, this is America.”
  • Come on; give it a chance. Proponents, buyers, and users of pornography claim that it is not a bad thing, that attempts to resist it mean that people, typically women, need to be less uptight, need to loosen up, and to try something new and kinky to shake things up a bit. Those who want no part of a colonized sexuality like that insist that pornography is the antithesis of creative, sensuous sexuality, and that pornography portrays a version of sex that is fetishized, McDonaldized, cheapened, unhealthy, degrading, and violent. Trump supporters, and even those who did not vote for him and are impatient with the collective grief and outrage that is occurring with hashtags such as #notmypresident or #nevermypresident suggest that people just need to get on with it, get over it, give the guy a chance, pray for him to do well, and respect the presidency. But, what are we upholding? What are we maintaining as sacred?
  • You’re making a big deal of it. It’s not that bad. It doesn’t cause actual harm. Or, how bad does it have to get? Do we want to give porn, and especially hardcore porn, a chance? Hardcore porn relies on the most racist, woman-hating, and violent imagery to market sex. In that configuration, domination and pain are fully eroticized. Women are chained, gagged, dragged, urinated on, defecated on, beaten, hung, and raped. Women featured in pornography are also participating in it less than freely, typically doing it because of a lack of other viable options, economic coercion and prior history of sexual violence. So what does it mean, in a so-called free society, that some people are getting off, some are victimized, some are profiting and some who are promised goods and services are thoroughly deprived?
  • This is not normal. Or, is it, “welcome to the new normal.” Robert Jensen, a longtime researcher, writer, professor and activist, who has published and spoken widely about the effects of pornography, suggests that there are two parallel trends in pornography. One trend is that it is more mainstream and normalized than ever before such that many popular magazines feature advertisements that would have at one time been regarded as pornographic. The other trend is pornography has gotten increasingly misogynist, racist, and violent. The more mainstream it is, the more brutal, degrading and dehumanizing it appears. That surely sounds familiar in this current political climate; the more Trump has mobilized extreme and intense hatred, the more normalized and relentless that hatred has become. He gave more ammunition to people who already were in lock and load mode.
  • We can’t stop it. It’s about free speech. But, whose speech is valued in pornography? Whose right to expression is prioritized? Moreover, whose speech is valued in this post-election moment? Whose expression is prioritized in this post-election moment? We’re reminded of Trump’s attempt to silence the actors in the play Hamilton and how he wanted to force them to apologize for speaking out against hateful oppression. Who is free and who is not in these arrangements? Freedom is linked to power, and speech and rights are also linked to power. When Trump speaks of building walls, constructing registries, grabbing women by their pussies, naming to his cabinet bigots, misogynists and others who want to render invisible the pain of whole groups of people, then historically marginalized groups are further silenced.
  • It’s just fantasy. No one will truly act this out. Experts who study the effects of media images and pornography have long urged us to see that there is correlation, if not causation, between pornography and sexually violent attitudes and behaviors. The images may just seem like fantasy but when people buy and use them to get sexual pleasure, they often take this sense of being transported into a “dreamworld” as media critic Sut Jhally calls it, and expect that when back in the real world, women will behave similarly, always ready, willing and able to have sex at the whim of any man. 
  • Pornography feeds off of the connections between various forms of oppression such as sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc. The sociologist, Patricia Hill Collins, says that pornography featuring black women typically showcases them in racially exaggerated ways, as the exotic primitive, in chains, or amidst some relic of slavery. Furthermore, cartoons in Hustler feature military men talking about getting “Islamic booty” and other cartoons play on and prey on men’s fears of job loss and economic virility and prowess and readily blame this on anyone who is not a white American. For example, one cartoon features a picture of a male executive receiving oral sex from a woman, presumably his secretary, and he says: “This bitch is costing me a damn fortune. I could probably get it done cheaper in China” and then the caption says, “Another good-paying job about to be shipped overseas?” There’s also the cartoon of the woman at the grocery store not having enough money to purchase everything in her cart at the cash register and so she has to stoop down to give the manager oral sex with a caption that reads, “Ask about our tough economy discount.” In pornography, power is constructed as a zero-sum game. If women, people in and from other countries, people of color, etc. have any amount of power, then men creating, buying and using pornography capitalize on their own perception of a loss of power and use sexual conquest and dominion and submission as a way to play that out.
  • Pornography is not an aberration but rather a reflection of the culture. According to Jensen*, “Pornography as a mirror shows us how men see women. Not all men, of course—but the ways in which many men who accept the conventional conception of masculinity see women.” In much the same way, I would argue that Trump, too, is not an aberration but rather a mirror into the culture; his tactics and strategies have revealed what has been simmering below the surface. His fear-mongering has given a permission slip to those who have twisted various forms of systemic oppression, who see themselves as victims in those distorted visions, and who want to viciously express their rage. Trump as a mirror shows us how whites see people of color, how right-wing Christians see Jews, how some of America sees Muslims, and how a culture sees women when they aspire to the highest office in the land. Trump as a mirror shows us that inexperienced, straight, rich, white, Christian men can get jobs over qualified women who have worked in the field for decades. Trump as a mirror also shows us how a media-saturated, reality TV show, degradation-as-entertainment style culture can take hold.
  • Pornography provides short-term pleasure and long-term problems. Men who regularly rely on pornography tend to, over time, have unrealistic views of women and sexuality, often see their partners in more objectifying ways, and have issues with erections, orgasms and intimacy. When men encounter these problems in the real world with real women, they are left with two dominant emotions—to suck it up or to be angry, and then usually that anger is directed at the woman they are with. In the end, I doubt this is the world most men want to live in either.

I will never forget counseling a violent man in a battering intervention program who shared with the group that the only way he could achieve orgasm was to put images from pornography around his partner, on the bed, the walls and floor.  Some years later, I came across an advertisement for BMW featuring a man on top of a woman in bed with a picture of a BMW covering her face that said, “The ultimate attraction.” The ad depicted the woman as faceless, disembodied, emotionless, and silent and suggesting that this is the ultimate attraction. Pornography does the same thing as that ad.

In the middle of the night on November 9th, the Trump victory was like a final wild orgasm for his supporters. He has provided a large number of people some short-term pleasure, giving them a sense of jingoistic victory, providing them a way to actualize their own brazen sense of entitlement.

A few weeks before the election I was at my favorite cafe as they were closing, talking with my friend who is the owner (she is white) and some of her employees. The black men who had been cooking in the kitchen came out and talked about being for Trump. The owner smiled and tried to plead with them, “But, how? You’re black.” I simply said to them, “You may be rooting for Trump, but he’s not rooting for you.” Trump successfully got many people to vote against their own interests, histories, and lives. This is also true of Jews who voted for Trump, some of whom chose to protect financial assets rather than worry about rampant and pernicious anti-Semitism, the sort that likely shaped and destroyed their own family’s lineage.

With Trump, like with pornography, any gains are fleeting and fragile, momentary and minuscule, short-lived and seductive. But, can we sustain the human losses from each? Probably not.  Not by a long shot. Some years ago, I attended a lecture given by Robert Jensen in which he said, “Pornography is what the end of the world looks like.” With each new cabinet pick, with each raging, cruel, infantile tweet, and with the overwhelming violence that has emerged in less than a month by people emboldened by Trump’s message, critics of Trump are rightfully worried about the very same thing.

*Jensen, Robert. 2007. Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.


cohan-lighthouse

Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D. is a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort and widely publishes a variety of creative essays, scholarly articles, and book chapters. She is a regular blogger for Psychology Today. Her story titled “The Gold Pen” was selected by Utne Reader for reprinting in April 2016.


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2 thoughts on ““The Pornography of Trump” by Deborah J. Cohan

  1. Wow Deb being a woman who has suffered through sexual abuse and rape who also dealt with a sex addict in my relationship and how it has effected my self worth and self esteem I agree with and can sympathize with many parts of your article. I feel Trump looks at women in a negative way and is going to negatively impact our country.

  2. Here is another disturbing trend: My son (who is 19), who watches and studies comedians, told me that rape is no longer a taboo subject. Upsetting.

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