A Study on Pornography

In a recent post entitled Let’s Have a Conversation About Pornography, I paid special attention to finding a proper definition of pornography and why it is important with respect to the conversation/debate taking place around the subject of pornography. The definition I used was taken from Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon (1988) who defined pornography as “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words” [1]. However, although we looked at some supposed problems with that definition [2], I think that with respect to generalizing the aim of pornographic material Dworkin and MacKinnon did a rather fair job.

However, I still can’t seem to get passed a few problems. Drucilla Cornell (2007) made the notable point that if we are to hold to the Dworkin/MacKinnon definition, then, for example, “should literature necessarily be excluded simply because no one is being paid for actually having sex in the author’s work?” [3] What seems distinctive in the Dworkin/MacKinnon definition is its characteristic of “dehumanization” (although their definition focuses more so on the sexually explicit) which, in a lot of ways seems to be the very problem of trying to cover a large range of phenomena with respect to characteristics in (i) violent and (ii) nonviolent but dehumanizing situations of pictorial and/or literary material that could be deemed or viewed as pornographic.

However, Diana E. H. Russell (2007) makes the interesting distinction between pornography and erotica that I think is worth mentioning here. In her essay “Pornography and Rape: A Causal Model”, she writes:

Although women’s bodies are the staple of adult pornography, it is important to have a gender-neutral definition that encompasses the various types of pornography. . . Hence, I define pornography as material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behavior. . . Erotica refers to sexually suggestive or arousing material that is free of sexism, racism, and homophobia and is respectful of all human beings and animals portrayed. [4]

With respect to pornographic materials Russell is more so concerned with its “abusive and degrading portrayal of females and female sexuality, not its sexual content or explicitness” [5]. Hence, erotica is something that anti-pornography feminists would say that although they condemn pornography, “most of us approve of, or even advocate, erotica” [6]. Erotica can be something where humans aren’t necessarily the center of attention in question. For instance, Russell uses the example of people finding Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings to be considered erotic. Though, she admits, “erotica can also include overtly or explicitly sexual images” [7].

Russell in this essay and in her book Dangerous Relationships (1998) cites a study preformed by two Feminist Psychologist’s named Charlene Senn and Lorraine Radtke (1986) where they used “slides that demonstrate the significance and meaningfulness to female subjects of distinguishing between pornography and erotica” [8]. The researchers categorized the slides into the following groups:

  1. violent pornography
  2. nonviolent but dehumanizing pornography
  3. erotica (material that was nonsexist and nonviolent)

The study was conducted using ninety-six female undergraduate participants where each participant completed a questionnaire “measuring previous exposure to pornography, past history of coercive sexual experiences, attitudes toward feminism, hostility toward men, adversarial sexual beliefs, and rape myth acceptance” [9]. The women viewed 50 slides in two 30 minute intervals (or “sessions”), which showed that “erotica was evaluated positively, while the [nonviolent] pornography was evaluated negatively, and the violent pornography was evaluated more negatively than the other. . . conditions” [10].

In light of Russell’s nonsexist understanding of erotica, the following would thence qualify as pornographic pictorial materials:

  1. Sexually arousing images in which women are consistently shown naked while men are clothed.
  2. Pictures in which women’s genitals are displayed but men’s are not.
  3. Images in which men are always portrayed in the initiating, dominant role.

Thus, a concluding point from Russell for clarification: “My definition of pornography differs from the current legal definition, which focuses instead on material that is judged to be obscene. It also differs from the definition that I used in previous publications which limited pornography to sexually explicit materials. . . I decided to broaden my definition to include materials like slasher films, record covers, and cartoons that meet my definition” [11].

The “Constitutional Dodge”

William Struthers is the associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. In his book Wired for Intimacy (2009) Struthers discusses what he calls the “Definition Dodge.” Namely, ways in which those involved in the pornography debate “try to obscure what pornography really is. These dodges confuse the issue by ‘dodging’ and derailing any criticism of the industry or medium” [12]. Although Struthers focuses on several dodges – such as the issue of semantics and the “causal dodge” – I am interested in his discussion on the “Constitutional Dodge.”

Morgan Bennett in her article Internet Pornography and the First Amendment (2013) recognizes that “the First Amendment is the ultimate hurdle to clear in order to regulate or prosecute internet pornography” [13]. Catherine MacKinnon (1987) has also written that “[t]he legal doctrine of obscenity, the state’s closest approximation to addressing the pornography question, has made the First Amendment into a barrier to this process” [14]. Struthers recognizes the same issue, but draws out the implication of the First Amendment objection even further:

[P]ornography’s proponents argue that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the freedom to produce, market and distribute pornography in the context of free speech and free press. This appeals to our sense of independence and autonomy. Cries of “censorship” call out to the individualist in each of us, and the implied notion that we are not capable of responsible conduct rankles our pride. [15]

The summary of the problem can be posed with the following question: “[W]hy should the government get involved at all? Isn’t consuming internet pornography a private decision that doesn’t hurt anyone?” [16] There seem to be several problems with this objection. First, some forms of pornography have already been legislated against – such as child pornography. We already legislate what forms of pornography may or may not be produced/consumed.

Furthermore, “[a]ny retreat to a legal position which denies pornography’s real-world effects – the emotional, social and psychological impact of pornography on the producers, participants and consumers both young and old – is nothing short of irresponsible” [17]. Struthers argues that using the Constitutional defense here dodges several meaningful social discussions and “misses the reality that pornography wounds its participants” [18].

Bennett goes down the same road as Struthers arguing that this idea that “pornography is a decision that isn’t really hurting anyone” is

patently disproved by years of multidisciplinary studies in the hard sciences and the social sciences. These studies have exposed internet pornography as a massive, paradigm-shifting social harm that undermines the family unit and causes abuse, life-long addictions, infidelity, and unhealthy perceptions and expectations among men, women, and children. [19]

Thence, to conclude, the Constitutional dodge used as a reply to those who oppose the negative emotional, social and psychological effects pornography has on its producers, participants and consumers are avoiding the real issues at hand. It is as if they are trying to hide a dead horse under the welcome mat – too much has to be missed in order for that objection to be taken seriously or credibly.

The Negative Effects – Objectification

Perhaps we are being too easy by dismissing the “pornography doesn’t hurt anyone” objection by just saying pornography has negative social, emotional and psychological effects. What real evidence is there that pornography is harmful in any way? Gary Brooks in his interesting book The Centerfold Syndrome (1995) has identified a number of ways in which men have succumbed to the objectification of women without having the emotional experience of intimacy.

He argues that there are 5 elements responsible for what he calls “Centerfold Syndrome”; Particularly, that “[o]f all these assumptions [of men]. . . none has been more deeply ingrained than the belief that physically attractive women’s bodies are the most magnificent spectacles in nature and that men are destined to fervently desire them, to compete for them, to sacrifice emotional and physical well-being for them, but rarely to enjoy them except from afar” [20]. These five elements are as follows:

  1. Voyeurism
  2. Objectification
  3. The need for validation
  4. Trophyism
  5. The fear of true intimacy

With respect to (1), it would best to define Voyeurism as “one obtaining sexual gratification from observing unsuspecting individuals who are partly undressed, naked, or engaged in sexual acts” [21]. For instance, there is a certain degree of a very high and emotional experience associated with looking directly into the eye’s of ones partner. As Brooks notes, “[c]ertainly, the visual sense always has and probably always will play a major role in men’s sexual responsiveness” [22].

However, “In the latter half of this century. . . this component of men’s sexuality has been so exploited, distorted, and outrageously exaggerated that the emotional and sexual health of most contemporary men has been seriously compromised” [23].  Brooks contends that since this is the current (or modern) function of men’s sexuality – the glorification and objectification of women’s bodies – it leads to the promotion of “unreal images of women, distorts physical reality, creates an obsession with visual stimulation, and trivializes all other natural features of a healthy psychosexual relationship” [24].

After taking a deeper look into this subject of “visual stimulation” and the “objectification” of women, I came across an interesting lecture given by Dr. Caroline Heldman, Chair of the politics department at Occidential College in Los Angeles, California. In her TED Talk speech, she defines objectification as “the process of representing or treating a person like a sex object, one that serves another’s sexual pleasure” [25]. Thence, after proceeding through some preliminary understanding of the subject, she brings the audiences’ attention to the following ad:

You probably can’t read it too well, but in small white print the ad reads: “You know you’re not the first. But do you really care?” This is a BMW advertisement in Greece supposedly promoting the idea that although you are not the first person to drive the car, BMW still offers premium quality for their product [26]. This ad has seen its fair share of negative reactions [27], but I think the point that Dr. Heldman tried to draw from this image is particularly one of notable importance; namely, “[d]oes the image suggest that sexual availability is the defining characteristic of the person?” Heldman argues that if you answered yes to the following question, then this images counts as objectification.

What can account for this hypersexualization of images? Heldman draws attention to the growth of technology. Particularly, that over the last 30 years we have been exposed to an unbelievable growth in the amount of images we encounter per day. For instance, with respect to pornographic materials, Robert Rosen in his book Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography (2012) recollects over the overwhelming change pornography has seen in just the last 30 years – from magazines, graphic novels, to the burst of phone sex in the mid 1980’s [28], the world wide web in the 90’s, and etc.

The dangerous result of this constant exposure to pornography has been interestingly put by William Struthers (whom we’ve discussed before):

Many people have asked me if I have ever looked at pornography. I’m not sure if the question is geared to label me a hypocrite or to appeal to an “everybody does it” mentality. . . Yes, I have viewed pornography because it is everywhere. You cannot get away from it; if you don’t view it intentionally, you will unintentionally. The result is that repeated exposure to pornography and the objectification of the female body changes the way our brains see each other. Repeated exposure to any stimulus results in neurological circuit making. That is how we learn. [29]

The impact of the objectification of women has lead to a cultural corruption of intimacy. Where pornography is acted upon, sexual technique takes precedence over sexual intimacy. Furthermore, there is a focus on “the physiology of sexual sensations and not on the relationships for which those sensations are intended” [30]. To conclude our section here on the subject:

The rapid growth in the use and availability of media technology has given pornography wide exposure. Factor into the equation confusion about what it means to be a man and the biological predispositions of the male brain and you have the perfect storm for pornography and cybersexual compulsions, addictions and impulse control disorders. [31]



  • [1] Catherine Mackinnon, Only Words (Harvard University Press: 1993) p. 22
  • [2] I quoted Drucilla Cornell (2007) and her exposition of Dworkin and MacKinnon’s definition (see notes 9 and 10 on that post).
  • [3] Drucilla Cornell, “Introduction” in Oxford Readings in Feminism and Pornography (2007) p. 4
  • [4] Diana E. H. Russell, “Pornography and Rape: A Causal Model” in Oxford Readings in Feminism and Pornography (2007) p. 48
  • [5] Ibid., p. 50
  • [6] Ibid., p. 48
  • [7] Ibid., p. 49
  • [8] Diana E. H. Russell, Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny, and Rape (Sage Publications: 1998) p. 3
  • [9] Quoted from Charlene Senn and Lorraine Radtke, Victims and Violence, vol. 5, issue 3 (1990) abstract; p. 143
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Russell (2007), pp. 50-51
  • [12] William Struthers, Wired for Intimacy (IVP Academic: 2009) p. 24
  • [13] Morgan Bennett, “Internet Pornography and the First Amendment” at The Public Discourse (October, 2013) see here.
  • [14] Catherine MacKinnon, “Not a Moral Issue” in Feminism Unmodified: Discourse on Life and Law (Harvard University Press: 1987) p. 146
  • [15] William Struthers (2009), p. 29
  • [16] Morgan Bennett (2013)
  • [17] Struthers (2009), p. 30
  • [18] ibid.
  • [19] Bennett (2013) – I would go and read the article for this quote. Bennett inserted links in this paragraph pointing to several lines of evidences to support her statement(s) here.
  • [20] Gary R. Brooks, The Centerfold Syndrome (Jossey-Bass: 1995) p. 1
  • [21] Definition was taken from the Online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. See full definition here.
  • [22] Gary Brooks (1995), p. 2
  • [23] Ibid.
  • [24] Ibid., p. 3
  • [25] See the video for the TED Talk here.
  • [26] At least according to Rindert Dalstra and his article at Creative Criminals. See article here.
  • [27] See Yvonne DeVita’s (2008) article over at Lipsticking.
  • [28] In case you cared, Rosen says that free phone sex “came into being” on February 1, 1983 (see chapter 2 for “The Invention of Phone Sex”).
  • [29] William Struthers (2009), p. 13
  • [30] Ibid., p. 55
  • [31] Ibid.

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