Gail Dines was 22 and living in Israel when she saw images that would alter the direction of her life.

A graduate student studying the sociology of education, she was at an event where there was a slideshow about women and violence. Disturbing photos popped up on the screen. She couldn’t shake them off afterwards. “It was very clear to me as a feminist that women can’t live in a world safely when images like this are being distributed and men are consuming them,” Dines told me. After the event, she called her thesis advisor and changed her thesis topic to sociology of pornography.

Today, Dines says she didn’t choose this work. It chose her.

Dines is an anti-pornography scholar and former professor at Wheelock College in Boston (now part of Boston University), who has been researching and writing about the harms of pornography for nearly 40 years. But over the past eight years, she’s focused her attention on children. In 2015, she started Culture Reframed, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps parents talk with their children about pornography in ways that can make them resistant, even pornography-proof.

“We all want to think that our kids are not looking at porn, and I perfectly understand that desire to think: not my kid,” Dines said in a video on Culture Reframed site. But study after study confirms that by age 13 or 14 most boys have looked at pornography, she said. And parents are reluctant to accept this reality — research shows that parents underestimate what their kids are seeing by about 10-fold.

At Culture Reframed, Dines and her team are on a mission to close what they call the “parental naïveté gap.” Last year, the nonprofit unveiled a free sex-education curriculum, billed as “porn-critical,” that incorporates the harms of pornography and the messages that are promoted by the multi-billion dollar industry.

“Around adolescence, children are beginning to get sexually interested, which is a normal developmental stage,” Dines told me. “What the pornographers have done is come in and hijack that very normal developmental stage.”

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Parents, pediatricians and policymakers are starting to pay attention. In 2016, then-Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared pornography a public health crisis. Since then, more than a dozen other states have followed suit, prompting pushback from critics who say the problem is not so dire, and that what is needed is “porn literacy” or even “ethical porn.”

But for Dines, there is no “good” porn — all porn exploits and degrades women and corrupts healthy sexuality, and children, in particular, need protection from the onslaught of images they’re exposed to as early as grade school.

Trail-blazing scholar

In a way, Dines’s anti-pornography work began with a fight to keep children out of pornographic spaces. While working on her thesis, she noticed that many cartoons in Playboy magazine had images of children in them. She scheduled an interview with a Playboy editor and brought along a stack of examples from the magazine, questioning her on why Playboy would feature children in any way. “There was nothing she could say,” Dines told me.

Dines argues that all pornography perpetuates violence against women, and is at its core exploitative and damaging to everyone in society, including men and children. In this belief, she follows in the footsteps of renowned feminist scholars Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who also believe that all pornography degrades and objectifies women.

Dines’s 2011 book “Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality” elevated her to the forefront of the work being done against pornography, but it also drew criticism from pro-pornography activists, who dubbed Dines as prudish and anti-sexual. She’s faced criticism, too, from the academic community that has historically studied pornography through the lens of women’s empowerment and has resisted critical views. Some took issue with Dines’s research methods: “With so much porn available today on the Internet and elsewhere, how could we ever construct a random sample from this universe to reach generalizable conclusions?,” wrote sociologist Ronald Weitzer in a review of Dines’s book. Despite the critics, however, Dines hasn’t backed down from advancing her work.

In the early aughts, Dines was among the few researchers who began looking at the machine that fueled the production of pornography. “Gail’s work shone out like a beacon in many ways,” said Meagan Tyler, a senior lecturer and researcher at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who came across Dines’s work around 2005. Since then, the two have collaborated and spoken at conferences together. “The fact that she was looking at the industry and grounding it in capitalism was making her work stand out,” Tyler said.

Dines, who was born in Manchester, England, and now lives near Boston with her husband, doesn’t mince words when talking about the hyper-sexualization of culture today. Her language is to-the-point, and sometimes graphic, with no tolerance for sugar-coating the harms of pornography. She’s funny, too. In her TedX talk, she asked the audience to consider what the seductively dressed woman on a magazine cover might be saying to people who look at the image: “Do you think she’s speaking to her mother, saying: ‘Let’s go for a cup of coffee after the photo shoot?’” The room erupted in laughter.

The consciousness is shifting

Over the years, Dines has heard hundreds of devastating stories: women who were exploited in pornographic videos and fear seeing those videos online; children who couldn’t make sense of the images that came across a screen; a woman who, in the middle of the night, found her husband looking at images that involved their daughter. She has also interviewed men imprisoned for crimes related to child pornography, but did not consider themselves predators of children.

When people view pornography, “Your sexual template is formed through pornography, the way you think about gender, the way you think about yourself, the way you think about women, the way you think about violence, all of those are shifted because what you’re doing is you’re sexualizing violence,” Dines told me. “And when you sexualize violence, you render violence invisible and you focus on the sex.”

A close observer of the industry, Dines said that in the past few years the mainstream attitudes about pornography have started to change, as people grow more aware of the harms of porn. “It used to be that when I give a lecture or speak to a journalist, they would be hostile,” she told me. She no longer feels the same hostility and has seen a growing interest in her work from child protection services, pediatricians and medical experts.

The pressure from anti-pornography groups has catalyzed changes by states and tech giants. Since 2022, at least eight states, including Utah, have passed age-verification laws (18 and older) for users of sites that host adult content. Patreon suspended adult content creator accounts. Tech giants have adopted changes to make the internet safer, too: Google now automatically blurs sexually explicit images for all users. Pornhub has been permanently banned from Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. “The consciousness of Americans is shifting around pornography,” Dines said.

Yet, the digital landscape is still brimming with pornography that renders women as disposable objects. About 12% of all websites include pornography, according to a recent study. Women are often the targets of violence or aggression in porn, another study showed.

The internet has changed pornography by making it instantly accessible and blurring its lines. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said that he knew what obscenity was when he saw it. Today, it’s not always clear, as websites such as OnlyFans have mainstreamed pornographic content and promote it as economic empowerment.

Gail Dines, center, participates in AOL's BUILD speaker series to discuss the new film "Hot Girls Wanted" at AOL Studios on Wednesday, May 27, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP) | Evan Agostini

“I would call it where porn and prostitution meet,” Dines said about OnlyFans, as reported by the Deseret News. The New York Times called OnlyFans a “virtual strip club.” Dines believes that even though OnlyFans does not bill itself as a pornographic marketplace, “porn is the reason it exists.”

Meanwhile, smartphones and other devices have allowed for pornographic content to easily seep into everyday lives in ways that wasn’t possible in decades past, when it took more effort to obtain pornographic material. As such, pornography is increasingly affecting how men and women relate to each other. Last year, a study from Brigham Young University found that pornography presents a threat to stable romantic relationships. About 69% of American men and 40% of women view pornography in any given year in the United States, according to recent data. And the emergence of AI technologies is poised to make the matters much worse, the Deseret News reported recently.

Reclaiming the narrative

The ubiquitous presence of sexualized content means that parents need to begin conversations around pornography earlier than they might think: Most kids are exposed to porn between ages 9 and 12, and in 70% of the cases, the exposure is accidental, research has shown. But it’s often the “parental naïveté gap” that precludes many from diving into the uncomfortable conversations. Parents just don’t understand the degree to which pornography has become sex ed for kids, according to Culture Reframed.

“If they’re not getting conversations from parents or age-developmentally appropriate, comprehensive sex-ed in schools, they go to porn, they go to Google, they go to their friends,” said Mandy Sanchez, director of programming at Culture Reframed. “If we can’t talk about it, whether it’s parents, professionals or teachers, then we’re allowing the industry to control the narrative.”

Another myth prevalent among parents, according to Sanchez, is that “if we talk about pornography, they’ll seek it out.” But the effectiveness of public health campaigns around smoking, vaping and drugs have proven that it’s not the case, she said. “It’s not a moralistic or religious approach — it’s science,” Sanchez said. “And the science says that the more kids are informed about sex and the harms of pornography, they’re less likely to engage in risky behaviors.”

The subject of sex education in schools has become a political battleground, with critics arguing that explicit sex education materials introduce “left-wing proselytization” and other topics to children prematurely. Dines argues that age-appropriate sex education should not be delayed and she says it has shown to improve health outcomes for young people.

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Dines acknowledges that it can be difficult for parents to talk with their children about pornography, and she offers tips for broaching those conversations. Non-threatening questions to start with can include: Have you ever seen anything that’s upset you on the internet? Anything you didn’t understand? Has anyone shown you something that you don’t feel comfortable with?

Don’t shame or blame your child, she said, and instead of having a 100-minute conversation, have 100 one-minute conversations.

Dines advises against lecturing, and especially with boys, parents should chat with their children while walking, driving or biking together. “The best way to talk to boys is when you’re not eye to eye,” she said. And keep it age-appropriate: “You’ve got to figure out what your child’s ready for. And let them be the lead.” Parents can begin with introducing to children the notion of bodily boundaries and move on to more complex topics as children get older.

If you find your child looking at pornography, she said, the first thing to do is to leave the room and compose yourself. “Remember, this kid is a victim of the porn industry,” she said. “Once you start shouting, screaming, yelling, you’re finished. You won’t be a ‘safe’ adult” for your child.

Making an impact

Universities continue to fall behind in getting on board with anti-pornography movement, Tyler said. “There are just a lot of assumptions in the academy that are still 10 to 20 years old that we’re still pushing against,” said Tyler, who struggled to publish her research in which she interviewed 200 men who made the choice not to watch pornography.

Culture Reframed has been working with child advocacy centers, rape and sexual abuse centers, anti-trafficking organizations and safe parenting and digital literacy organizations. Dines also hopes to reach more pediatricians with her work. “We feel it’s really important to get into pediatricians’ offices, where part of the well-child visit is asking questions about pornography use,” she said.

Dines’s work has catalyzed a shift in public health perspectives on pornography, moving beyond debate to widespread recognition of its harms, according to Dawn Hawkins, CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, who considers Dines her mentor. “This movement stands on the shoulders of giants, and Gail (all 5 ft of her),” Hawkins said in an email. Dines is an “unsung hero,” whose legacy is of hope and defiance, Hawkins said.

The work can get bleak, Dines admits, and to remain hopeful, she relies on a network of friends and colleagues, who are engaged in the work and understand its emotional toll. “You can’t be alone with this,” she said, and channeling her energy into Culture Reframed has helped.

“You can’t do this work without hope and the belief that you’re on the right side of history here,” Dines told me. “And even if you don’t see it in your lifetime, you’re planting seeds — you’re leaving a body of work for the next generation.”