Pornography is defined in the New Oxford American Dictionary as “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” While pornography involving children is widely condemned, it remains a serious international problem. Pornography involving adults, although contentious, is a massive international media industry.
Pornography—from religious, commercial, social, cultural, artistic, feminist, and gay-friendly perspectives—is variously defined, criticized, and defended. While obscenity historically has not been protected under the First Amendment, very little material has been found by the courts to meet the standard for obscenity. The pornography industry is a multibillion-dollar one; novel technologies and media—beginning with the printing press and photography and continuing through film, home video, cable television, the Internet, and digital imaging—historically have worked to expand its reach. Researchers study the impact and effects of pornography on individuals as well as society: who uses pornography and why; how pornography influences attitudes and behaviors, including misogynist attitudes and violence against women; the history of pornography; textual analysis of stories and images; and pornography as a cinematic genre.
Feminists particularly have engaged in wide-ranging debate, with some viewing pornography as a cornerstone industry in promulgating sexist beliefs, actively oppressing women, and exploiting sexuality and others claiming pornography as a potentially liberatory genre, stressing the importance of maintaining the freedom of sexual imagination. In recent times, sexual and sexually objectifying and violent images, based in pornographic conventions, increasingly pervade mainstream culture, raising further debates as to their impact.
I. History of Pornography
II. Definition and Debates
III. Uses and Effects
History of Pornography
Sexually explicit and arousing stories and depictions have from earliest histories been part of human cultures—in erotic contexts as well as, and often simultaneously with, sacred, artistic, folkloric, and political. Modern pornography began to emerge in the 16th century, merging explicit sexual representation with a challenge to some, though not all, traditional moral conventions, for pornography was largely the terrain of male elites and represented their desires and points of view.
In the United States after World War II and spurred on by new sexological research, reproductive technologies, emerging movements for social justice, and the formation of the modern consumer economy, the state began to retreat from some of its efforts toward the regulation of sexuality. This allowed the emergence of the modern pornography industry. Playboy was launched in 1953, followed by a number of men’s magazines, the large-scale production and dissemination of pornographic film and video, and the burgeoning of the industry through mainstreaming as well as enhancement by new technologies. Since 1957, the Supreme Court has held that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. In 1973, the Court gave a three-part means of identifying obscenity, including: Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work appealing to the prurient interest; whether the work is patently offensive; and whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. All three conditions must be met for it to be considered obscene.
In the contemporary period, Fortune 500 corporations like AT&T and General Motors now have affiliates that produce pornography, and, although it is difficult to obtain precise data, most researchers conclude that pornography in the United States annually results in profits from $5 billion to $10 billion, if not more, and globally $56 billion or more. Legal actions against pornography have virtually halted, highlighted by a 2005 obscenity case brought by the federal government against Extreme Associates, a production company featured in a 2002 PBS Frontline documentary, “American Porn.” Extreme Associates has an Internet site for members and also makes films featuring scenes of men degrading, raping, sexually torturing, and murdering women. A U.S. District Court judge dismissed the case. There was no dispute that the materials were obscene. Rather, he found that obscenity laws interfered with the exercise of liberty, privacy, and speech and that the law could not rely upon a commonly accepted moral code or standard to prohibit obscene materials.
Definition and Debates
Pornography is generally associated with deliberately arousing and explicit sexual imagery, which renders it deviant for traditional patriarchal religious orientations that continue to associate sexuality with sin while equating chastity and strictly regulated sexual behavior in heterosexual marriage with goodness.
“Family values” functions as a byword for antipornography patriarchal positions that condemn not only all sexual representations but also women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy as well as any nonheterosexual and nonmonogamous sexuality. Some pornography advocates critique this heterosexist morality, identifying themselves as “prosex.” Others defend pornography by foregrounding it as a First Amendment issue. Both groups tend to defend sexual representations, as well as diverse adult consensual sexual practices, as a form of free speech and expression, as essential to the imagination, as an element of all of the arts, and as a potentially revolutionary force for social change.
Virtually all feminists argue that sexuality must be destigmatized, reconceptualized, and defined in ways that refuse sexist moralities. The association of sexuality with sin is a feature of specifically patriarchal (male-defined and dominating) societies. Such societies control and regulate female sexuality and reproduction, for example, by designating women as the sexual other while men stand in for the generic human; by mandating heterosexuality; and by basing that heterosexuality in supposedly innate gender roles of male dominance and female submission. These societies foster conditions that impose a sexual double standard, selecting some women (associated with men who have some social power) for socially acceptable if inferior status in the male-dominant family, and channel other women, girls, and boys and young men (those without social power or connections) into prostitution and pornography. Patriarchal societies give men, officially or not, far more latitude in sexual behavior, and pornography and prostitution—institutions historically geared to men’s desires and needs—are the necessary dark side of patriarchal marriage and moralistic impositions of sexual modesty. In this way, pornography and conventional morality, though supposedly opposites, actually work hand in glove to assure men’s access to women and male domination and female stigmatization and subordination.
Some feminists argue that as sexuality is destigmatized, sex work—including prostitution and pornography—can be modes whereby women can express agency and achieve sexual and fiscal autonomy. Those associated with what is defined affirmatively as queer culture—including gay, lesbian, transgendered, and heterosexual perspectives and practices that challenge conventional roles—often argue that open and free sexual representation is essential to communicate their history and culture and that social opposition to pornography is fundamentally based in opposition to sexual freedom and diversity.
Mainstream cultural critics of pornography point to the ways that contemporary pornography has become increasingly ubiquitous. They argue that pornography damages relationships between persons, producing unrealistic and often oppressive ideas of sex and beauty; that it limits rather than expands the sexual imagination; that it can foster addictive or obsessive responses; and that it increasingly serves as erroneous sex education for children and teenagers.
Antipornography feminists, while opposing censorship, point out that pornography is a historically misogynist institution—one whose very existence signifies that women are dominated. Pornography not only often openly humiliates and degrades women, but it brands women as sex objects in a world where sex itself is considered antithetical to mind or spirit. They contend that mainstream pornography defines sex in sexist ways, normalizing and naturalizing male dominance and female submission and, by virtue of its ocularcentric and voyeuristic base, promotes a fetishistic and objectifying view of the body and the sexual subject.
Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon are well known for their radical feminist approach to pornography. In a model Civil-Rights Antipornography Ordinance, they propose an ordinance that would have nothing to do with police action or censorship but would allow complaints and civil suits brought by individual plaintiff s. The ordinance defines pornography in a way that distinguishes it from sexually explicit materials in general. Rather, pornography consists of materials that represent “the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women” or “men, transsexuals or children used in the place of women.” Their extended discussion delineates specific elements—for example, women being put into “postures or positions of sexual submission, servility or display”; “scenarios of degradation, injury, abasement, torture”; and individuals “shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.” Although several communities passed versions of this law, it was overturned in the courts as a violation of the First Amendment. At the same time, courts have recognized the use of pornography as a tool of sexual harassment that generates a hostile climate for women workers in offices, factories, and other job sites.
Numerous feminists link the practices and underlying themes of pornography to other forms of oppression. For example, Patricia Hill Collins links the style and themes of U.S. pornography to the beliefs and practices associated with white enslavement of Africans and their descendents—including bondage, whipping, and the association of black women and men with animals and hypersexuality.
Uses and Effects
Research has examined the role of mass-mediated pornography in causing harmful or unwanted social effects, including the furtherance of sexism as well as violence against women and/or willingness to tolerate such violence; profiles of those who work in pornography as well as those who enjoy it; and the potentially addictive aspects of pornography.
Research into the uses and effects of pornography has been conducted employing experimental studies, anecdotal evidence from interviews and personal stories, polling, and statistical data asserting connections between the existence or use of pornography and undesirable social phenomena. Two presidential commissions studied the effects of pornography, one beginning in the 1960s and the other in the 1980s. The first concluded that there were no harmful effects; the second concluded that sexually violent and degrading pornography normalized sexist attitudes (e.g., believing that women want to be raped by men) and therefore contributed to actual violence. These conclusions have been subjected to wide-ranging debate, for example, around the validity of information obtained from necessarily contrived laboratory experiments (usually with male students), the difficulty of defining common terms like degradation, the unwillingness of people to accurately report their own behavior, the political bias of the researchers, and so on.
Internationally, feminist researchers point out links between pornography and sex trafficking and slavery as well as the use of pornography in conquest, where prostitution is imposed and pornography is made of the subjugated women as well as men. For example, during the war between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, Serbian forces systematically raped women as a tactic of genocide, and these rapes were photographed and videotaped. Sexual torture, photographed and displayed as kind of war pornography, also was practiced by U.S. troops against Iraqi prisoners in the U.S. prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003. Subsequently, investigators released photographs of male Iraqis sexually humiliated and tortured by U.S. soldiers. There also were pornographic videos and photographs made of female prisoners, but these have not been released. Feminist activists argue that, in the case of war and forced occupation, pornography regularly is used to bolster the invading forces’ morale and to destroy the self-regard of occupied peoples who are used for pornography as well as sex tourism.
Pornography is now openly diff used throughout U.S. society. Not only has it grown enormously as an industry, but, in mainstream imagery, other media outlets use typical pornographic images and themes in advertisements, music videos, and video games and to publicize celebrities and events. Pornography also has become a legitimate topic for academic study and the subject of college classes.
Research shows that more women now use pornography. As part of the feminist project of redefining sexuality, there has been a surge in erotic stories and images aimed at women audiences. Some feminists and those identified with queer communities have begun to produce what they consider to be subversive pornographies that challenge both traditional morality and the conventions of mainstream, sexist pornography—for example, by featuring models who are not conventionally beautiful and by valorizing nontraditional gender roles and nonheterosexist practices; by celebrating the body, sexuality, and pleasure; by acknowledging lesbian, gay, and transgender realities and desires; and by stressing women’s sexual desire and agency.
Some applaud this expansion of pornography as reflecting greater sexual autonomy for women as well as a liberalization of social attitudes toward sexuality. Others argue that the mainstreaming of pornography does not produce or reflect freedom, but instead represents a backlash against the women’s liberation movement and furthers the commoditization of sexuality—for example, in the ways that young girls are now routinely represented, often fashionably dressed, as sexually available. The system of patriarchal domination has always, one way or another, colonized the erotic. Modern pornography furthers the interests not only of sexism but also capitalism and other forms of domination. Sexuality, conflated with both domination and objectification, can more readily be channeled into, for example, the desire for consumer goods or the thrill of military conquest.
Visionary feminist thinkers aver that to be truly “pro-sex” we need to be critically “antipornography.” Eroticism is humanity’s birthright, a force of creativity, necessary to wholeness, and the energy source of art, connection, resistance, and transformation. Patricia Hill Collins urges both women and men to reject pornographic definitions of self and sexuality that are fragmenting, objectifying, or exploitative and instead articulate a goal of “honest bodies,” those based in “sexual autonomy and soul, expressiveness, spirituality, sensuality, sexuality, and an expanded notion of the erotic as a life force.”
Jane Caputi and Casey McCabe
- Brison, Susan J., “Torture, or ‘Good Old American Pornography.’ ” Chronicle Review/ Chronicle of Higher Education ( June 4, 2004): B10–B11.
- Caputi, Jane, The Pornography of Everyday Life (documentary film). Berkeley Media. 2006. http://www.berkeleymedia.com/catalog/berkeleymedia/films/history/the_pornography_of_everyday_life/
- Collins, Patricia Hill, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge, 2004.
- Cornell, Drucilla, ed., Feminism and Pornography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Dines, Gail, Robert Jensen, and Ann Russo, Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality. New York: Routledge, 1998.
- Gutfield, G., “The Sex Drive: Men Who Are Hooked on Cyberpornography.” Men’s Health (October 1999): 116–121.
- Hilden, Julie, “A Federal Judge Dismisses an Obscenity Prosecution on Privacy Grounds.” 2005. http://writ.news.findlaw.com/hilden/20050131.html
- Kammeyer, Kenneth C., A Hypersexual Society: Sexual Discourse, Erotica, and Pornography in America Today. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
- MacKinnon, Catharine, Are Women Human? and Other International Dialogues. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
- McNair, Brian, Mediated Sex: Pornography and Postmodern Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
- Paul, Pamela, Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.
- PBS Frontline, American Porn (documentary), 2002. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/porn/view/
- Stark, Christine, and Rebecca Whisnant, eds., Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. North Melbourne, Victoria: Spinifex Press, 2004.