Why would Susan Cole put herself though this? Why tolerate the hostility, anger, and the perverted questions?
What could possibly cause her to want to debate Ron Jeremy, the self-styled “most famous porn star in the world,” especially on the subject he has made his living from?
Possibly the biggest question of all: What does she have to gain? Petty cash from the University Program Council? That can’t possibly be all that drives her so intensely. There must be something more.
It is difficult to tell how she remains so calm. Flying in from her native Toronto mere hours before the debate must be unsettling. However, much like my expectations for her argument, Cole is hardly what anyone who came to the debate Feb. 2, expected.
Few places are more public than a coffee shop, where she had consented to meet me. And yet, is there anywhere less fitting to discuss pornography? What happens if the conversation turns explicit?
And what happens when I don’t agree with her? After all, I don’t see any problem with pornography. Despite the image of objective journalism, every reporter has an opinion. If she starts making suspect claims and blind accusations, is it my place to call her out?
Yet as Susan Cole strides toward me, I see that my fears are likely in vain. My expectations of a radical feminist, or an elderly woman clutching a Bible are false.
A woman who appears in her early 50s, with graying hair and a seemingly quiet demeanor, Cole continues to defy my expectations.
“I am an editor, writer, activist, feminist,” she says with confidence. No, more than confidence–she says it as a woman with expectations to defy and a debate to win. We lock eyes, and her character is revealed. Tired yet alert, a window to her soul has opened.
And this was when it hits me: Cole is not here to merely be a placeholder at the debate. She is not here to offer token resistance to Ron Jeremy, as he advocates for an industry constantly on the cusp of legality. She is here to leave an impression, and maybe even change some minds.
An author of two books on pornography and violence against women, Cole wastes no time and minces few words.
“Sexuality has turned into a vehicle for contempt for women, because of pornography,” Cole said.
“Any time a pornographer wants to put a particular woman down, they’ll put her into some pornographic context. Pornography is self-perpetuating. It operates so that you would never know that the women are having a hard time. It perpetuates all the myths: women really like it, they love doing this, it’s the best job ever and that the rest of us are just uptight and we don’t get how great sex is.”
The intensity behind her words increases as she continues.
“But it isn’t sex, it’s a commodity,” Cole said. “Women aren’t sexual beings [in porn], they’re objects to be used and abused.”
To Cole, the pornography industry isn’t simply hurting humanity, it is holding real progress and discussion back.
“I think [pornography] is an industry that thrives on contempt for women. And I think that it’s basically colonizing our sexuality; stealing our freedoms. I find it ironic that people think the right to pornography means the right to their freedom. I see pornographers as taking peoples’ freedom away from them.”
Cole is a firm believer that pornography has changed from the environment that Ron Jeremy worked in almost 30 years ago. In fact, she shows little patience for one of his pet arguments: that pornography is rapidly becoming a woman’s industry.
“Ron is making the ludicrous argument that women actually are now controlling the industry, which is really a preposterous thing,” she states. “Yes, there are women making pornography. It is not the porn the vast majority of people are buying, because the vast majority of pornography is now being consumed online.”
The sales of DVDs, videos and magazines are down 25 to 40 percent, according to Cole.
“The stuff that women are making, nobody’s buying,” Cole said. “It’s a kind of tamed down version of pornography. Really the trend is in the other direction, which is that pornography is more extreme, more graphic, more abusive, more do-it-yourself, less regulated.”
She continues by stating a startling fact: The largest market for pornography is now boys between the ages of 12 and 17. Cole sees this as a significant problem, because pornography “operates as a kind of ‘sex manual,’ especially in this country, where sex education is so terrible.”
The topic shifts to the debate to come. She’s no stranger to the debate, having done it quite a few times. In fact, she’s lost count. However, she is quick to assure me this won’t simply be a retread of previously covered ground.
“I’ll come up with a little twist every time, a little something for him,” Cole said. “It also depends on what mood I’m in. Last time, he was pretty vicious. The time before, I was a bit more aggressive. We try to keep it a little bit more entertaining. I don’t mind if he goes off on one of his tangents.”
If one thing can be said about Susan Cole, she certainly does not underestimate or disrespect who she is dealing with.
“I find him [Jeremy] an interesting personality,” Cole said. “He’s very smart, very entertaining. I think the reason why these debates have worked out, is that neither of us is what the other expected. I thought he was just going to be a dumb dork, and he thought I was going to be some bible-thumping freak. I found out that he is very smart, very well prepared, very entertaining. Once we found our ground together, we found some mutual respect.”
It appears as if Cole, though more than willing to discuss the topic, is attempting to explain Jeremy to herself as much as anyone around. She isn’t speaking simply to me, she’s speaking to anyone who will listen.
“Part of it is that he’s looking for legitimacy, himself–it’s really important to him,” Cole said. “I think he’s really happy to do this, to come on a university campus, and be taken seriously. It’s a lifetime goal for him. He isn’t in porn anymore, he just wants to continue to be a star.”
Though this debate is likely to be nothing new, Cole is quick to point out the vastly differing reception of Jeremy in Canada. A mere two debates have taken place there, and Cole is more than willing to outline the vast differences.
“People weren’t as obsessed with him. In fact, it kind of put him off. When we were in Windsor, we actually walked though the cafeteria and nobody was screaming and hollering for Ron. He was… he lost his equilibrium because he’s so used to it.”
Pornography in Canada is another topic Cole is more than willing to speak on.
“Canada doesn’t make any [porn]. Period. Except for the DIY on the Internet, there are no porn studios. We import all of ours. The attempt is to regulate though customs regulations.”
No pornography in Canada? An astonishing statement, to be sure. How on earth is this possible? Once again, Cole is ready and willing to explain.
“In Canada, we have a different political culture. Freedom of speech is not etched in stone as it is here, in the First Amendment in the United States. We don’t walk around as rugged individuals that have to speak, no matter what. We don’t think speech is so precious and valuable that to curtain anybody’s speech means not only the end of the world, but that, God forbid, we would never have sex again.”
Canada is not without it’s own quirks, and Cole is more than willing to admit it.
“What’s ironic is that Canada has the political culture where gay marriage is legal, and where marijuana is legal. So it’s not like we have this repressive environment.” According to Cole, Canadian citizens are more willing to compromise than the American citizens she sees.
What sort of solution does she propose, then? Is it even possible to control the epidemic she describes?
“In Canada, the criminal code is a very blunt instrument. I’m cautious about using it against pornographers. We have a really good law that only looks at pornography that subordinates women. I think it all subordinates women, with the working conditions and the people it in, but it needs to have some kind of narrative. If it’s obviously contemptuous violence, abusive, aggressive, our pornography laws target that.”
But fear not, creators of contemptuous pornography. Cole sees a much simpler solution as the better way to progress.
“The answer is good sex education, which is why I’m not a right-winger. I don’t approach it from that perspective, or from a religious one. I’m in favor of a public discussion of sexuality; an explicit discussion. I’m in favor of better sex education so that people aren’t turning to pornography because it’s the only sexual information they can get.”
Susan Cole sits in front of me, sipping a latte, staring into the space above my head, no doubt mentally preparing for my next question. However, for the first time in recent memory, I have nothing more to say. Far from being the crazy feminist I expected, Cole has rationalized every single one of her arguments.
This is why Susan Cole is here: because she believes, sincerely and completely, in what she says.
Has she changed any minds on pornography? It’s difficult to tell. Has she changed mine?
She has. In more ways than one.