The Playboy bunny is the symbol, par excellence, of how the porn industry has co-opted mainstream culture. I will always remember the day I jumped into my friend’s car, only to realise that I was about to sit on a seat plastered with that insidious little rabbit. After a mild interrogation, my friend revealed that it was not the only piece of playboy apparel she owned; a pencil case, t-shirt, and earrings were among her prized Playboy possessions. Without much thought, she had supported the porn industry via her purchasing power and by the fact that she was willing to be a walking advertisement for the porn world’s top brand. With countless naïve consumers doing the same thing as my friend, Hugh Hefner is laughing all the way to his Playboy mansion.

It is hard to believe that a mere fifty years ago Hefner had to fight for this sort of publicity. Nowadays, most of the soft-porn used by Playboy magazine in its embryonic years, can be easily accessed with a mere flick of the television remote; no longer is it considered risqué to plaster half naked women on billboards, in magazines, or on prime time television. Understandably, the porn industry has had to adapt also – porn, as a “genre”, is now characterised by sadism and outright abuse of women. Hard-core pornography is what keeps producers’ bank balances booming and their patrons engaged.

In Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, Gale Dines disputes the widely held assumption that the mass distribution and use of pornography is a morally neutral cultural phenomenon. She is open about the fact that we do not know for sure the consequences of saturating our culture with porn. Yet her well-evidenced critique of the industry and porn consumption are a testament to the overabundance of negative effects on women’s and men’s sexuality, relationships and culture. It is her attempt to bring to public consciousness a problem that she argues is nothing less than a public health issue.

And Dines’ argument has not gone without criticism. She notes that when giving public lectures on the effects of porn, she is faced every kind of insult: “they range from uptight, prude to uncool, old-time, man-hating sex policing feminist – the type of feminist who supposedly screams rape every time a woman and man have sex, the kind of feminist who has been derisively labelled ‘victim feminist’ because she supposedly sees all women as sexual victims”. Yet Dines is very clear: there is nothing at all liberating about pornography. Not for women or men.

The engineers of this social experiment are not the porn stars and neither is it women’s rights advocates (although some may have been duped into believing it is a part of the feminist agenda); rather, it is the pornographers. They do not care at all about liberation — far from it; what they are into is maximising profits, creating markets and products that sell. And some of the figures are startling. For instance, the global porn industry was said to be worth around 96 billion dollars in 2006, releasing approximately 13,000 films each year. Despite modest budgets, pornography revenues rival those of major Hollywood studios. There are 420 million porn websites fielding an estimated 68 million search engine requests for porn daily.

How did porn production and consumption become such a booming business, you might ask. Dines provides a fascinating historical account of pornography’s rise to fame. Pornographers, she argues, actively sought to exploit post-World War II messages about the family and relationships. While Hugh Hefner may be represented by the media as a frivolous old playboy who has managed to make a living by lounging around in his pyjamas surrounded by pubescent women, he is, in fact, a savvy businessman who had a real knack for exploiting cultural themes of post-war America. Hefner, she contends, worked hard to erode the cultural, economic, and legal barriers to the mass production and distribution of porn.

Historically speaking, the 1950s are typically associated with the rise of suburbia and infamous for Leave It To Beaver style pro-family media representations. Yet Hefner drew on a counter-cultural trend that encouraged men to resist marriage and embrace the bachelor lifestyle. The conformist male, so the argument went, was being robbed of his masculinity, freedom and sense of individuality, and women were singled out as the culprits. Described as greedy, manipulative, and lazy, America women were accused of emasculating men by dominating their husbands. Philip Wylie, in his book A Generation of Vipers wrote a scathing account of the American housewife: “It is her man that worries about where to acquire the money while she worries about how to spend it, so he has ulcers and she has the guts of a bear.”

Hefner exploited such messages relentlessly in Playboy, affirming that marriage and single women were the enemy of available men. A 1953 issue of Playboy warned men to beware of the month of June as “women become more heated, more desperate and more dangerous”. He worked hard to make it seem that the magazine was a respectable men’s lifestyle magazine which celebrated upper-class bachelordom.

Hefner’s competitors, however, were not interested in maintaining an air of respectability and pushed the boundaries of porn, intentionally starting a competition war. Larry Flint, the founder of Hustler, made it clear that he was not interested in capturing the hearts of mainstream advertisers, as Playboy had done. The fact that most of Hustler’s advertisers were from the sex industry placed the magazine at a clear advantage; they could push content boundaries, including hard-core pornographic material, while Playboy had to maintain certain standards in order to hang onto advertisers who did not want to be associated with hard-core pornography. Bob Guccione’s Penthouse fell halfway between the two in terms of explicit content. Dines argues that competition between the three magazines paved the way for more sadistic types of pornography, which would flood into workplaces, homes and the private lives of men and women with the advent of the internet.

Its advocates spout the argument that porn is mere fantasy that has no bearing on real life. Dines protests that it is “a parallel universe where the complexity of humans, the multiple pleasures in life, and the deep connections that nourish and sustain us vanish. Enriching human experiences are substituted with human bodies to be used for gratification”, both on the set of porn films as well as off. Love and intimacy is replaced by violence and incessant abuse of women. One of the few studies on the subject found that in the majority of scenes from 50 top rented pornographic movies contained physical and verbal abuse. In fact, 90 per cent of scenes contained at least one aggressive act. From her research Dines discovers that, after prolonged porn viewing, men cultivate a taste for harder pornography as they become desensitised and bored.

Media images are not harmless. They help construct our mental map of the world, and they way we make sense of our place in it. Dines has found that men who view porn begin to ask the women in their lives to replicate degrading acts that amount to abuse; they encourage them to dress, look and act like porn stars. Men who use porn become less interested in real human beings and more interested in the porn women they conjure up in their imagination; the women they date inevitably become objects that can be used and disposed of.

In her treatment of men, Dines is a voice in the feminist wilderness. What is different about this book is that one doesn’t find a scathing attack on the unrestrained appetites of men. Certainly, she is in fine form when it comes to describing how porn has turned women into objects used for the self-gratification of the unrestrained desires of porn watchers, yet she is willing to acknowledge that men too might be suffering the consequences of porn usage. She even goes as far as to argue that pornography, as it becomes the main form of sexual education for boys, is a form of violence towards them, denying them the opportunity to develop an authentic understanding of intimacy and developmentally appropriate growth. Finally we have a feminist who has widened her methodological lens, acknowledging that “repressive patriarchy” might not be able to explain the entirety of the human experience.

As you may have guessed, Pornland is not an easy read due to its subject matter. In fact, many of the examples I skipped over entirely because of the repulsive nature of the content. I did not need to trawl through one example after another to get the point. That said, it is understandable that Dines has been so rigorous in her vivid and plentiful descriptions of porn. As a culture we have become desensitised to its degrading images, while remaining ignorant of the insidious logic of the industry and its effects of the human person. We may just need to be shocked into action.

Pauline Cooper-Ioelu is a graduate of the University of Auckland with an interest in radical histories and works in the field of tertiary education. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.