Since the arrival of the internet we have seen so many things propelled into high speed but nothing quite compares to the growth of one particular industry. Pornography. Both the amount and ease of access has transformed the porn business into what it is today. But what effects does this increased exposure really have on Western society? In this article I will explore the reasons why some oppose pornography and why others support it. By examining arguments for and against porn I hope to provide a variety of perspectives on the issue.
From a certain feminist standpoint the case is clear. Most pornography on the market is undeniably harmful to women and should therefore be restricted. It is an expression of patriarchy through which women are subject to commodification, degradation and exploitation. This perspective is held by many prominent feminists including Catherine McKinnon.
“In pornography there it is in one place, all of the abuses that women had to struggle so long to begin to articulate, all the unspeakable abuse: the rape, the battery, the sexual harassment, the prostitution, and the sexual abuse of children. Only in pornography that is called something else: sex, sex, sex, sex, and sex, respectively. Pornography sexualizes rape, battery, sexual harassment, prostitution, and child sexual abuse; it thereby celebrates, promotes, authorizes, and legitimizes them. More generally, it eroticizes the dominance and submission that is the dynamic common to them all. It makes hierarchy sexy and calls that 'the truth about sex' or just a mirror of reality. Through this process pornography constructs what a women is as what men want from sex. That is what pornography means" (McKinnon, 1987).
This position argues that porn ought to be restricted due to the way it subordinates and silences women, partially by helping to cause sexual violence and shaping negative attitudes and ideas toward women. It is claimed that pornography promotes inequality, misogyny and sexism and that the violence depicted in porn is real and that alone is reason enough to intervene. Although many advocate for restriction, most of the campaigns against pornography have proposed a law that would allow women who have been harmed by pornography to sue those who made and distributed it (Saul, 2003). As long as they can prove they were harmed they can win damage reparations.
Plenty of Positions on Pornography
Another stance in the debate sides with freedom of expression and the liberal principle "a woman's body, a woman's right." While this opinion is not necessarily advocation for porn, it is not anti porn either. For the state to intervene would mean someone else would be making decisions on what is deemed appropriate and what is deemed damaging. Therefore a degree of censorship would take place. This perspective is critical of an approach to legally restrict porn but it does not defend adult entertainment outright. Those holding this view argue that rather than suppressing pornography it should be debated openly and freely.
“As feminists we have a responsibility to be critical of those images we find sexist, racist, or exploitative and to counter them in the most effective way there is, not by seeking to get them banned, but by initiating a much more wide-ranging debate about sex, by lobbying for better sex education in schools, by creating more informed, tolerant and responsible social attitudes to the expression of sexuality, and by supporting those who are creating an alternative body of sexual images for women” (Feminists Against Censorship, 1991).
Another important point made in defense of porn is that it is open to interpretation. What may be degrading to some could be seen as empowering to others. Although individual desires are complex and at times difficult to navigate one feminist author concludes that what is key to all sexual activity is that it is fully consensual (Califia, 1994). This view takes into account those who are willingly involved in the industry as opposed to those thought of to be forced or coerced into it.
In response to the way the anti-pornography movement has led to organizations such as Feminists Against Pornography, a new coalition of sex-positive and pro-porn feminists have come together under the name of Our Porn, Ourselves. In their manifesto they state,
“WE who declare that organizations such as Feminists Against Pornography do not speak for us.
WE who want the world to know that organizations such as Feminists Against Pornography do not represent feminists as a group.
WE who believe that every woman has the right and power to enjoy her sexuality as she decides.
WE who believe that to tell a woman how she may or may not enjoy her sexuality in any way is to deny that woman of her rights over her sexuality.
WE who state that any woman who attempts to control the way another woman enjoys, explores or expresses her sexuality is in fact creating a world that is harmful for all women.
WE who state that we are women, and we like pornography.
WE who state that as women, we are not harmed or threatened by the creation or viewing of pornography, and we wholly support the rights of any gender to view, create and enjoy pornography without judgement.
WE who want a world in which pornography is simply a sex toy enjoyed by all genders and sexual orientations, where women and men view porn within their own self-defined healthy sexuality, without being considered sick, twisted, wrong or mentally ill, and that men who enjoy pornography are no more likely to beat their wives, rape women or become pedophiles than anyone else in society.
WE hereby declare ourselves as adult women capable of making our own choices about our bodies and enjoyment of explicit visual stimulation for our sexual health and well-being.
WE hereby demand that our voices be heard” (Our Porn, Ourselves, 2010).
There is not one right or wrong argument, however, it can be said that the debate surrounding pornography will without a doubt focus on the extent to which women are actually silenced by it, how important it is in shaping attitudes and ideas toward women and what the most effective ways to fight any or all of its negative effects are.
To challenge anti-pornography positions pro-sex feminists such as, Wendy McElroy, argue that, “Pornography benefits women, both personally and politically” (McElroy, 1995). This take on the industry questions the evidence that pornography alone is especially responsible for influencing the the attitudes toward women and causing sexual violence. Studies and experts disagree as to whether any real relationship actually exists between porn and violence, between images and behaviour. According to McElroy, “Even the pro-censorship Meese Commission Report admitted that the data connecting pornography to violence was unreliable” (McElroy, 1997). Without any conclusive evidence causal accusations merely seek to blame porn for behaviour it isn't altogether at fault for. And what about other contributors to the inequality that exists among us would anti porn laws not simply act as a comforting placebo in an effort to eliminate these symptoms? Additionally, McElroy contends that pornography provides sexual education in at least three ways:
“It gives a panoramic view of the world's sexual possibilities. This is true even of basic sexual information such as masturbation. It is not uncommon for women to reach adulthood without knowing how to give themselves pleasure.
It allows women to "safely" experience sexual alternatives and satisfy a healthy sexual curiosity. The world is a dangerous place. By contrast, pornography can be a source of solitary enlightenment.
It offers the emotional information that comes only from experiencing something either directly or vicariously. It provides us with a sense how it would "feel" to do something” (McElroy, 1997).