Abstract: The main argument surrounding the theme of censoring pornography is whether pornography causes demonstrable harm, either to the people, mostly women, cast in the filming, or to womankind in general. Conservatives argue for the censorship of pornography based on moral reasons, whereas some feminists argue for censorship because they suggest there is a causal link between consumption of pornography and real-life violence against women. On the other hand, liberals tend to argue that censorship to safeguard morality can never be justified. The censorship theme of pornography is interesting because, while freedom of speech is important, the rising popularity and prevalence of hard-core pornography is also alarming, especially when considering that many young people use pornography as a form of sex education.
The theme of censoring pornography is a long-standing one. In 1964, Jacobellis v. Ohio (378 U.S. 184) made it to the Supreme Court, where Justice Stewart summarized the difficulty with defining pornography as such: “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it” (Stanford University). This difficulty with definitions has muddied the waters of the debate over the censorship of pornography, with conservatives, liberals, and feminists speaking past each other in their arguments for or against censorship.
The main argument surrounding the theme of censoring pornography is whether pornography causes demonstrable harm, either to the people, mostly women, cast in the filming, or to womankind in general. In this debate, many people come under scrutiny. The male purveyors and customers of pornography are scrutinized by feminists, who argue that “In pornography women are regarded as sexual objects; men who consume pornography learn to regard real-life women likewise” (Coetzee 22). Those who buy and sell pornography also come under scrutiny of conservatives who argue that pornography harms “not only women as a class, but the mores of the whole of society” (Coetzee 21). Finally, those who argue for the censorship of pornography come under the scrutiny of liberals who believe that, as John Stuart Mill argued, it is the individual, in this case, the pornography industry or consumer, whose rights of freedom of speech and expression need to be protected, rather than society requiring protection against the “deviant individual” (Coetzee 17). In general, conservatives and feminists stand for censorship of pornography, to varying degrees, while liberals stand against censorship of pornography.
The first argument for the censorship of pornography comes from the conservatives. The conservative argument on this theme is that, “morality being valuable in itself, whatever steps need to be taken against immorality [i.e. pornography] in any of its manifestations are justified” (Coetzee 15). A more moderate argument for the censorship of pornography would reason that since society holds shared morals, a breach of morality is thus “an offense against society as a whole, against which society is entitled to defend itself” (Coetzee 15). An example of this might be churches or other organizations which advocate abstinence from pornography for its members, in the hopes that a lack of customers will cause pornography to die out on its own.
A different argument for censorship of pornography comes from feminists. Some feminists argue that “there is an empirically verifiable link of causation between the consumption of pornography and violent acts against women” (Coetzee 21). However, this argument has be widely rejected (Coetzee), since it is difficult to prove such a link is truly causal and not merely correlational. Other feminist arguments from writers such as Catharine MacKinnon, as described by Coetzee, are more moderate than conservative in nature. These moderate feminists neither invoke societal mores and norms to denounce pornography, i.e. the conservatives’ standpoint, nor do they sympathize with the rights to freedom of speech of pornographer, i.e. the liberal viewpoint (Coetzee 61).
The final group involved in the debate over the censorship of pornography is liberals. Liberals tend to argue against the censorship of pornography, on the grounds that “[i]ntervention in the name of safeguarding the moral welfare of the individual can never be justified. The state should be neutral in the arena of morals, neither promoting the morally admirable nor sanctioning the morally deplorable, as long as no one is harmed” (Coetzee 17, emphases are mine). Feminists challenge the liberal position on free-speech protection of pornography (Coetzee 22), since pornography, particularly the more recent sadistic trend in pornography, is harmful to those involved, as well as indirectly harmful to the wider society.
This theme is interesting because, while freedom of speech is important, the rising popularity and prevalence of hard-core pornography is also alarming. While I personally do not believe that pornography itself is damaging, harmful, or even evil, as Coetzee suggests, violent and sadistic pornography is dangerous in the sense that it normalizes violent behavior against women. Violent pornography is increasing because “more and more violence has become necessary to keep the progressively desensitized consumer aroused to the illusion that sex is (and he is) daring and dangerous” (Coetzee 66). Some would argue that, since not everyone who watches sadistic pornography rapes or hurts women in real life, violent pornography is not harmful. However, I agree with the feminist critics who assert that “consumers of this material – mainly men – not only acquire from it a taste for sexualized violence but pick up techniques of physical sadism….[and], to the degree that representations of women being physically abused or undergoing degrading relationships with men are disseminated in society, women as a class are harmed” (Coetzee 61). The most convincing argument against pornography, in my view, is not the conservative moral argument, but rather the feminist critique that it is “’not a question of good or bad, false or true, edifying or tawdry, but of power and powerlessness’” (MacKinnon in Coetzee, 62).
Another reason why this theme of censorship is interesting and important, and why I prefer the feminist argument that violent or anti-woman porn can be harmful, is the large role that pornography plays in the sex education of young people. A study in Britain found that three in ten schoolchildren learn about sex from porn (Campbell). This is problematic because 60 percent of those students polled said that “pornography might give boys or girls false ideas about sex” (Campbell). A different set of researchers found that porn is the “most prominent sex educator” in Britain, and, troublingly, as one teenage boy stated, “…watching porn – that’s sort of where you get your grasp on what’s normal and what’s not” (Bowater). Not only does such a use of porn as an educator misinform youths about things like what a natural female body really looks like, how to use contraception, or what is really pleasurable for women, the same study also found that porn contributes towards violent behavior, since 88 percent of scenes in pornographic films “showed an element of physical aggression, with most directed at the female participant. Pupils also appeared to believe that sexual practices shown in porn were normal features of sexual relationships” (Bowater). This is alarming because the ubiquitous nature of porn on the Internet means that what is shown in pornographic films becomes normalized for teenage boys and girls, who grow up thinking this is expected as a normal part of sex. As MacKinnon states, “‘women live in the world pornography creates’” (in Coetzee, 81).
Although I agree with some of MacKinnon’s arguments about the problem with the power dynamics and inequality in pornography, I disagreed with her blanket statements about pornography in general. At some points, it seemed as if MacKinnon was criticizing not just violent and sadistic pornography, but all pornography for institutionalizing “‘the sexuality of male supremacy’” and arguing that pornography “‘causes attitudes and behaviors of violence and discrimination that define the treatment and status of half the population’” (MacKinnon in Coetzee, 63). I disagree that pornography causes these attitudes and behaviors – I think rather it is a symptom of a wider societal problem such as attitudes toward women and sexuality. Coetzee points to the example of different countries where pornography is more curtailed than in the United States where violence against women nonetheless continues to flourish; “in each nation, each culture, oppression has its own historical determinants and its own forms” (Coetzee 81). The answer, therefore, is to address not only pornography, but certain aspects of the society within which the pornography is produced.
While I agree with MacKinnon that the true harm in pornography comes not from the fact that it is offensive, but rather because it is “‘an industry that mass produces sexual intrusion, access to, possession and use of women by men for profit’” (MacKinnon in Coetzee, 63), I see evidence that this trend is changing, particularly in the growing popularity of women- and couples-friendly pornography. One example of this is Playboy TV, which in January 2013 switched from showing “traditional pornography toward a higher-quality, female-friendly slate of reality shows” (Barnes). Playboy TV found that “women…were not opposed to pornography as long as it had certain attributes [such as]…real chemistry, nonenhanced body parts, varied body shapes and ‘contextualized’ sex” (Barnes). Another example of women-friendly pornographic films come from new pornography production companies, which “craft plots that are designed to resonate with women, focusing on plots like marriages that have lost their spark and the early days of falling in love” (Morris). A website called Makelovenotporn.tv has also recently launched, featuring couples engaging in real-life sexual activities in order to showcase passion and intimacy that is usually missing from hardcore pornography (Walters). The website’s creator, Cindy Gallop, has the goal of re-educating young people about real sex, “so that young men don’t think that’s always the normal way of behaving in the bedroom and their girlfriends don’t have to pretend to like it” (Walters). These new trends in porn may be one step toward the goal described by MacKinnon of defeating “the pornography of power” (Coetzee 75).
The debate over the censorship of pornography has a long history, and will probably continue for some time. The increase in sadistic pornography is alarming, and I find the feminist argument against violent pornography to be more convincing than the arguments from both conservatives and liberals. However, I think it is important not to censor such pornography, since banning violent material would potentially “eroticize” it and make it more appealing to consumers (Coetzee 63). Instead, I think the answer is in the new trend of realistic, women- and couples-friendly pornography, which can serve to educate young people, who are likely to watch porn anyway, about healthy, intimate sexual relationships. By flooding the market with different types of porn, it is possible to undermine the male power/female inequality dynamic which is too common in today’s hardcore pornography.
Barnes, Brooks. “Courting Women, Playboy TV Puts Emphasis on Intimacy.” The New York Time. 16 Nov. 2010. Web. Accessed 17 Feb 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/arts/television/17playboy.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss
Bowater, Donna. “Pornography is replacing sex education.” The Telegraph. 16 Dec 2011. Web. Accessed 17 Feb 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8961010/Pornography-is-replacing-sex-education.html
Campbell, Denis. “Porn: the new sex education.” The Guardian. 30 Mar 2009. Web. Accessed 17 Feb 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/joepublic/2009/mar/30/teenagers-porn-sex-education
Coetzee, J.M. Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. Book.
Morris, Chris. “Porn’s New Market: Women.” CNBC. 15 Jan 2013. Web. Accessed 17 Feb 2013. http://www.cnbc.com/id/100360209/Porn039s_New_Market_Women
Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Pornography and Censorship.” Stanford University. 1 Oct 2012. Web. Accessed 17 Feb 2013. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pornography-censorship/
Walters, Joanna. “Make love not porn, says Oxford graduate on a mission to make sex more erotic.” The Guardian. 15 Sep 2012. Web. Accessed 17 Feb 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/sep/16/make-love-not-porn