Beth Brigham was Professor Gail Dines understudy at Wheelock College from 2004 to 2006. Dines is best known for her anti-porn lectures and books–most recently Pornland (in which Brigham is credited under her birth name), as well her contribution to Porn Harms; an organization that lobbies to affect legislation against porn production.
Beth Brigham has a number of items available on the internet speaking about her time with Dines. Most notably her website On the Blank, which features a three-part write-up entitled on the ex-mentor, Gail Dines 1 [2 & 3], regarding Dines’ beliefs, practices and hypocrisies.
The following is a graphic, candid conversation with Beth about her time with Dines; her personal thoughts and feelings under the mentorship of one of the most passionate and controversial anti-porn representatives in American history.
Lydia Lee: Tell me a bit about your background and what led you to join Gail Dines’ class Women, Culture and Society at Wheelock College in Boston?
Beth Brigham: I matriculated to Simmons College after graduating high school, thinking I’d open a restaurant one day. After getting to the Business major’s statistics, I decided to switch over to communications, focusing in either journalism or public relations & marketing – Communications majors. I first saw Dines in a documentary I saw in one of the foundational communications classes, Media, Messages, and Society, [Mickey Mouse Monopoly]. It featured her discussing a study done with Beauty and the Beast and young girls, which found a trend amongst the young female viewers believing that loving a man could change them, that domestic violence was acceptable, and more. I was incredibly intrigued. This was followed by seeing her speak at a memorial for Andrea Dworkin. I didn’t know who Dworkin was at that point, but I was thrilled for the opportunity to see this academic ‘movie star’ of sorts, and the memorial was conveniently held on my campus, since Wheelock is so small they share some of Simmons’ spaces. When I met her I felt like I was meeting a celebrity (I was as sheltered as I was ‘seasoned,’ somehow) and Dines’ warmth and immediate interest in me made me feel super special and important, which I always sought to feel. After, I cross registered in Dines’ Women, Culture, and Society (now taught by Dana Bialer). I immediately fell in love with the coursework, which included consumption of pop media, journaling, and other less tedious academic activities, and also because she was so, so charismatic and far more entertaining than anyone at my own school, so I continued to petition to substitute as many courses as possible within the prerequisites for the major of Women’s Studies at Simmons with Dines coursework at Wheelock College.
Once I realized the intersectionality of gender studies and communications, I became fascinated by advertisements’ and tv programs’ subliminal messaging and how these subtle messages were impacting youth and adolescent development. I was particularly interested in working with Anne E. Becker, who did an incredible research project on eating disorders after the introduction of television to the island population of Fiji – and she was actually willing to meet me and talk to me. So was the author of Can’t Buy My Love, Jean Kilbourne, who I also read at Simmons and very much admired! However, I was under Dines’ spell so fast, I never cared to spend time outside the classroom with anyone besides her, and I squandered my opportunities to potentially learn from or even work with these other incredible academics.
I’d never considered studying porn before. I did not know her specialty was in porn when I saw this video. It had never occurred to me there was anything really wrong with my porn consumption or sexuality, which I thought was a blast as an 18-19 year old. But she demonstrated porn as a supposedly likely causation for the worst crimes against women – domestic and/or sexual violence. The first time I heard that argument was in her classroom, after I’d cross registered with her. And that concern – to combat the greatest threat to women’s safety – enveloped me quicker than my convoluted young mind could process, analyze or challenge.
LL: At what point did you start reviewing porn for her, and what kind of effect did it have on you?
BB: During my junior year, after about a year of taking classes with her and being a straight-A student and also spending a lot of time together talking outside the classroom about all the issues.
It was really fucking confusing. I got off so much during my “research” and became even more seeped in self-hatred than I already was when I got to her… I was mortified going into the sex shop to buy my first vibrator, thinking how she’d kill me if she saw me giving my money to one of these pervert shops. It was most difficult because a lot of the acts she claimed no women could ever enjoy were what turned me on the most. But I found a gay friend from a different school who was familiar with the sex shops already and had him bring me in, because I had to go in and buy an animal-patterned vibrator if I was going to keep doing this work.
How did I deal with this? After coming out as a lesbian at my itty-bitty-judgmental college (another reason I loved Wheelock’s peaceful energy – nobody knew me there, whereas I was known on my own high-school-sized campus), I certainly couldn’t admit the fantasies that were taking up more and more of my headspace… they were [male/female] scenarios! And even “worse,” they were BDSM-related. Max Hardcore was a favorite. Dines introduced me to him and I was hooked by the time I got back to my bedroom. Hooking up with anyone that knew anyone that I knew was basically out of the question if I wanted to get my fetish on. So, I turned to craigslist, where I posted and responded to the ads of random sexual deviants like myself, and on a regular basis, I met up with strangers to indulge. By day, I crusaded against sexual perversion for a paycheck and my pride… By night I got off on what I supposedly abhorred and began questioning my value on absolutely every level. I was a backstabber. I was promoting violence against women. I was siding with the patriarch. I was promoting rape culture. And I was getting the fuck off, like damn! I had some really great times but definitely could have gotten myself into a bad situation if I were any less street-savvy than I am, able to screen the good from the bad apparently before I ever stepped into the sex industry. But this was where I got my first idea to enter the xxx industry. I thought about how many of the men who were speechless when they opened their door to my 20 year old ass had told me that I could be getting paid for this. And that was when I didn’t look half as hot as I do now, considering how many ways I had ‘let myself go,’ for lack of a better phrase, in supposed honor of feminism. Hindsight is a bitch! I could have been making big money in those days!!
Anyway it turned me into a conflicted person. I believed in what I was doing yet I couldn’t resist my desires and so I felt like a sinner before God. Having already had issues with shame from my trauma history, it was exactly what I needed to become a total basket-case, and I did – when it came time to discuss BDSM specifically with a BDSM-safety and awareness group on campus at Worcester Polytechnic. I’ll never forget her saying “You’re not acting like yourself. Are you on drugs?” Meanwhile inside I was being torn apart by the fantasies in my head and the essays burned in alongside them, chastising me for having the fantasies at all. It was pretty much within the same year that I spiraled out of control, eventually to the point where she stopped speaking to me after I protested, apparently too outrageously, against Ron Jeremy coming to our school. Only one other Simmons student stood with me. That Simmons student was hired shortly after, and I was fired… both stopped speaking to me immediately after. She is credited in Pornland, but luckily for her it looks like she escaped the grasp of Dines because I can’t find further connection between them.
I didn’t become comfortable with my sexuality until I started subscribing to $pread about a year after college was over. That’s when I started doing [sex work]. However, I did dabble in trading sex during my senior year, and I did do it largely as a rebellion, the way you mentioned in your recent [Inside Deep Throat] review. But, I was trading sex for drugs from older men that came into a bar where I worked, and mostly doing it for the “fuck you,” sometimes using up all my coke before even leaving. It was all about the revolt by that time. The big fuck-you, Gail – look what I’m doing NOW. Surprisingly it actually led to me finding myself.
LL: You mention asking questions of a BDSM-safety and awareness group on campus at Worcester Polytechnic. In light of Dines’ recent rant about James Franco’s documentary Kink, what would you say are the greatest misconceptions about BDSM?
BB: I don’t know enough about BDSM, the community, and the crap they receive from ignorant outsiders to answer that question in general, but, what are DINES’ greatest misconceptions about BDSM? First and foremost that powerplay is misogynistic. Maybe you don’t know until you work the black market but I just want to look her in the eye and be like, “Bitch, I got $350hr max to have sex with men. My girlfriends pounding men in the ass and shitting in their mouths were making closer to $500hr.” Further, it really IS about *play.* They’ve said men are drawn to pegging, CBT and other submissive BDSM activities because they are powerful during most of the time in their daily lives and they need an escape from that. Nothing rings truer for me. With the potholes I’ve hit in the road, I have to be pretty hard. And after the latest tragedy, I’ve found myself having more power than I ever expected to or was prepared for, and my need for the dominance went way up, especially while I was still learning to cope with that influx of power (and with it, responsibility). Same for during my time with Dines – I had to be so hard-headed to cope with my spewing off someone else’s propaganda and being challenged c/overtly, that my desire for sex eventually got to the point where I was hitting craigslist so my judgmental classmates and extremist professor wouldn’t find me out to be a wishy-washy bisexual [insert sarcastic tone]. I can’t speak for everyone but I identify with needing it as a release from the pressures of the real world. From where I stand, I can’t grasp how she herself doesn’t feel the same needs, considering her power-addiction. But I guess it’s different when the power is desired, perhaps? Or – dare I say it – could people just be different? Oh, fuck.
Next, I’d say… consentuality (if she can make up words I can too)! Something isn’t torture nor is it violence of any kind if both parties go into it willingly, and as I go into over at [On the Blank], yes she ‘problematicizes’ consent but what she doesn’t seem to grasp is that consent can actually be consent. We all condemn sex or any other form of slavery – and you aren’t an innocent girl new to the industry just wandering into kink.com and winding up on a hogtied set. It’s funny, kink.com is the only mainstream porn site I ever applied to!! Otherwise, I was modeling for “private collectors” with no immediate plans to profit from the material financially… Where I had full control and last say at all times. When it came to porn and my desire to be sexy in front of the camera, I consider BDSM to be a lot safer than mainstream sex (especially since the destruction of AIM) because there is so much that is erotic, stimulating, fetish-y, and orgasm-inducing that doesn’t have *anything* to do with swapping fluids. Plus with kink.com, you get to detail every single kink that you do and do not feel down with, so that they know exactly what not to do – and the pay obviously goes accordingly. Dines makes no recognition of Kink.com’s explicit commitment to ethical and authentic BDSM. That means that anything that left a model with a bad taste in her mouth would be BAD for kink.com too. She’s equating it with her arch rival Max Hardcore when it couldn’t be more separate. I mean, NOWHERE is there a more comprehensive application than what I have seen here http://www.kink.com/k/model_call.jsp and here http://www.kink.com/k/model_app.jsp - and the application itself is a turn-on for someone so into BDSM like me. IN fact, now that I’ve had plastic surgery and am more fit, I might just reapply. For someone like me, kink.com is the BEST site to work on – far from the picture she paints. I can specify interest in exactly what sets I’m interested in -the low $4-700 range where the focus is on pussy play, not sex – with a focus on fun things like dildos and fingers. There’s so many scenes on so many different websites that could be worked out and still have me never even necessarily need to swap spit with another person – kink is so much more than just sex. I once shot a few scenes for an amateur pornographer who had a clips4sale account. His top seller? Fingernails tapping!! Plus kink.com asks you to identify what actions you enjoy and what sites you’re interested in, so that they can create authentic scenarios that fit the models comforts. It is a horrible insult to actual victims of torture when she equates sexual pleasures indulged in between consenting adults and for pay no less, with true abuse and violation of victims physically and emotionally. It’s insane! Torture victims don’t get to pick ‘oh yes please, I’d like to be beaten this way sir.’
*I must note here that our conversation was already complete when news broke of kink.com’s Peter Acworth being arrested for cocaine possession, though police arrived at the Kink.com facility to investigate gun use over a video. Article about the arrest here.
LL: Some media outlets are jumping to post about Peter Acworth’s arrest for cocaine possession, and certainly some anti-pornogrpahers will try to read ‘feeding drugs to performers’ into it. In light of Acworth’s arrest, you would still work for kink.com?
BB: No, but my reason is NOT the cocaine!
His attorney states that “This charge amounts to $60 dollars worth.” That means he had a damn small amount of coke on him, and usually when you have a very small amount of a drug on you, it’s your personal stash. Forcing models to take drugs is tabloid-level outrageous for a number of reasons. It’s an expensive drug in a bad economy, especially for the porn industry right now. If he was forcing models to do coke, he’d also need to be selling it to offset the cost of supply to all these new addicts he is creating (most kink.com models appear multiple times after all, so he can’t just get them hooked and let them loose). The CEO of a porn company dealing coke, that would be pretty hard to keep on the [down low], no? Not to mention, cocaine is a horrendous choice if you want to manipulate anyone into anything… feeling hyper, invincible, egotistical, impatient and somehow, physically stronger? If anything, that’s the recipe for a LESS obedient/maleable model – it’s basically just going to make her or him want to move around nonstop and talk superfast and do more coke. and, i never did professional sets and was usually one or two on one when I worked, if not completely alone producing content or performing, but i get the impression that there are generally crew present on professional sets and eventually someone would witness such a crime as forcing a person to consume an illegal substance. You can’t get THAT many performers and crew members to all conspire together – and not have *one* with loose lips who spreads the word like wildfire? Not to mention a lot of models working for kink.com would probably go straight to the cops if they were put in such a situation. The reality of the cocaine that was found? People in all walks of life have addiction problems. It’s that simple. It doesn’t invalidate a person to have a disease like addiction.
My issue is with how his attorney highlights that no weapons charges were filed. Why would Acworth, a CEO who holds a business’ reputation in his actions, interfere with police responding to shots fired and get himself arrested if he wasn’t trying to avoid charges more serious? Evidence of shots fired but not enough to file weapons charges? What other reason could there be for him to interfere with police investigation? If there were no guns to hide, then what was it? His noncompliance implies that he has something to hide.
That no longer feels like an environment that cares about my safety. I don’t know WTF is going on there. It feels especially unsafe though since there’s so much evidence of guns having been there at some point and probably that night but his stalling was successful… That not only disrespects a precious right we have that is constantly under fire (hah), but that kind of horseplay with guns in improperly zoned areas where people think they’re totally safe to shoot is how people accidentally end up dead. Damned if i’m going to die working!
LL: You have mentioned in other places that you felt Gail was inappropriately close in ways regarding your teacher/student roles. Can you give an example and tell me what you think about the motivation behind it?
BB: Buying me jewelry, taking me out to fancy places to eat all the time, bringing me to her Temple and her home to be a part of her family and to meet everyone close to her, to rave about me in front of me to other people, that’s all really wrong for a professor to do who doesn’t actually care about the student. It was all about just having someone to carry her torch for her. She should have kept things professional and distinctly non-social to make it clear that we hadn’t actually made a lasting bond. I was astonished that Dines could just be rid of me. I’d hope a teacher who genuinely cared about a student as much as she pretended to care about me would never stop having concern for that student, regardless of that student’s changes in goals or opinions! Plus I’ll never forget how creeped out I was when she exclaimed “My God you’re getting hips,” as we walked up the stairs with her behind me – I’m a curvy girl, but I was very unhappy with my body being the largest I ever have been in my life at the time - almost 10# larger than now – and it was like, mind you’re own business! I didn’t appreciate that. I don’t need my teacher encouraging me to look any certain way. (Of course she DID have tons of instructions on what were and were not acceptable accessories/dress/mods). Her sole motivation I believe was just to get me to carry on her torch and to make sure the movement lived on. That’s why as soon as it was clear that I wasn’t going to do it, she could just act like I never existed.
LL: What advice would you give a young person taking Dines’ courses?
BB: My advice would be: read post-modern philosophy outside of what she assigns. She purposely assigns the most tedious and multisyllabic worded postmodern papers to argue that postmodernism is nothing but a bunch of bullshit made up by new wave feminists who work for the patriarch. That is NOT all there is to postmodernism. But more importantly, read $pread or find other sex worker’s rights organizations’ publications online – familiarize yourself with sex workers before you draw any conclusions on sex work!! If you’re on this site, you’re on the right track. Don’t forget to hear from the source; something Dines would never do. And, Dines’ argument completely leaves out economics, for example. Don’t forget that class exists. Same goes for race. It’s easy to think you’re being class- and race-conscious in Dines’ classes, since she talks so much about it and makes you feel like you’re being aware. If your primary focus is on gender bias… and particularly a topic like pornography, you’re not. If she takes an interest in you, milk it, but don’t get attached. Don’t fall for it when she gushes about your intelligence or otherwise compliments you because she’ll say whatever she needs to get what she wants in all circumstances. Also: do not major in American Studies without another major. It should tell you a lot that the Chair of the department would prefer to be called by titles that do not even exist at her school rather than by her actual title [Professor of Sociology & Women’s Studies vs. Professor of American Studies]. If you LOVE American studies, transfer to a school with a sociology program! You NEED to think about your career after college. If you’re majoring in Dines’ American Studies, you better have a second major prepared to keep you employed and help you manage those student loans, because for most of her students, when Dines’ classes are over, you’re over to her. And you still need to find a job.
And to ALL students: ANY professors that tell you there is an ONLY WAY to do something, particularly in the arts (sciences do in fact have some ONLY WAYS to do certain things right, after all) then fucking RUN. There is never an ‘only way’ to achieve your dreams.
LL: Finally, what would you say are the simplest learning lessons you’ve taken from your time with Gail?
BB: That academics are businesspeople and that even there it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know.
I also learned all about the existence of fetish sex, which I may not have discovered until who knows how old I was if it hadn’t been for her.
She taught me never to trust anyone fully, and to always assume the person is actually out to get you. It’s actually served me well but it’s not what teachers are supposed to leave students with the impression of.
The Penn & Teller episode you referenced [Bullshit!, Season 6; Episode 1: War on Porn--here], that’s something she showed us, too, in class. That’s an example I can think of where she taught us how to know better and be able to tell when someone is really just out to get you, claiming everything was taken out of context and a bunch of crap I can’t remember anymore. But also, just in the way she acted so calculated and the ways she’d tend to predict the future in conversation taught me to do the same – predict the worst, and plan a response in advance. I think that approach contributes to a know-it-all attitude, but if you keep your mouth shut about it, it can also protect you.
About assuming people are out to get you, a couple things I remember: when we were dining out and she ordered puttanesca, and the waiter asked if she knew the derivation of the dish and proceeded to tell her it was a dish typically made by peasant prostitutes in Italy who had only the most basic ingredients… we were out to dinner with ‘comrades’ perse and she leaned in like ‘Does he know who i am?! Did someone put him up to that?!’ I had no idea how much was joking and how much was true concern. But having been self-conscious to begin with, even before Dines’ betrayal I learned to just always assume everyone was my adversary & potentially challenging me. This has served me well; people’s attempts to outsmart me into saying something incriminating have backfired and incriminated them, people trying to hurt me have failed. But it has a negative side too – I avoid people, and I am overly-defensive and oft told I am too intimidating when I legit am not trying to be… apparently because of the way I carry myself.
But even more so about trust, in the end, I specifically lost trust in academics and in women. I decided academics are the most shady because they cloak themselves in self-righteousness and this type of ‘holiness’ when really they are just businesspeople trying to stay employed by keeping published. I realized that academia was an elitist circle-jerk that did nothing for the world outside of it. I couldn’t get away from it fast enough, joining grassroots social organizing groups outside of college affiliations.
But Dines also had a profound impact on my attitude towards women, with obvious exceptions my dear, I don’t trust women the way I do men. I’d had plenty of terrible experiences by the time I met Gail, but by far the worst I would say were experiences where it was specifically a female or group of females tormenting me. I was really interested in her radical feminism’s offering of “sisterhood” – a type of bond I always wanted to feel but doubted I ever would. Since I had a terrible relationship with my own Jewish mother, she became the Jewish mother that I never had and she knew that was exactly how I felt about her. There was a time when I felt like I was a part of the family. She bought me a necklace with a Chai [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chai_(symbol)] for my birthday. I had Sedar with the family. She welcomed my best friend into her classes and into her life as well. I began to actually feel truly bonded to other women. And then the focus of my research switched over for the summer from porn to women’s magazines, and I just lost my fire. In a fashion similar to how she knew I’d been treated by my first mother figure, she began to use things we bonded over my sharing against me, like my pot habit (suddenly it was a problem when it had been nothing but a chuckle for her to recollect her young and wild days before) and not long after she was gone from my life did the girl who had become the sister I never had throughout college suddenly disappear on me as well. I’ll never know what happened to her and she never even thanked me for the introduction that lead to her being credited in Dines’ book, which I think I found on her online resume once. It just proved to me that women were calculating, backstabbing, dramatic, dishonest, multi-faced stereotypes after all, who didn’t keep their word or say what they mean. This AND the danger of trusting academics have both been proved time-over for me since, and a recent tag I saw in LA that said “trust no one” pretty much sums up my attitude towards life today. This can be useful when it’s balanced, but I definitely have a trust imbalance and it weighs heavily against women… I prefer male practitioners, male friends, male partners – while I once dated almost exclusively females, I now almost exclusively only want to look at them in strip clubs, where I don’t have to take them home and listen to them. If anything, Dines turned me into a “Female Chauvinist Pig” to use Ariel Levy’s term (Dines loved assigning that book). However, I happen to disagree with that philosophy.
One thing she taught me that I love – she loved to talk about how women would do porn and then one day 20 years down the road it comes back to haunt them… so I knew that I had to be prepared to stand behind all of my actions and to deal with a potential interrogation about my past before I ever took a naked picture – and I took many prior to the sex industry, for my craigslist evening endeavors of course. So I guess she got me into making porn for the fun of it too! That stands out to me particularly because she claimed at a Tufts panel where she was essentially annihilated by pro-sex panelists that no one would ever create pornography if they didn’t need the money.
LL: Thank you, Beth. Sex work is a controversial topic and I thank you for being so forthright about your experiences.
Asking actual sex workers and fans of pornography what they think is something anti-pornographers never do unless that person’s ‘anti’ views match their own. There is a reason why.
For more about Beth Brigham, visit her site On the Blank, and bookmark her list of secular sex worker resources: http://ontheblank.com/2012/07/on-the-secular-resources-available-to-sex-workers/
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