Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Communicating Perversion: The Role and Function of Pornography in Society

Defining Pornography

Pornography has elicited at least as many heated words as it has orgasms. While the etymology of the word “pornography” is clear and uncontroversial, defining pornography in a clear and unambiguous way has proven notoriously difficult. The word derives from the Greek compound porne (“prostitute”) and graphos (“to write”) [1]. This compound word denoted “the depiction of whores [2]” and was originally used to describe the lifestyle and mannerisms associated with prostitutes and “later came to include any text that is specifically designed to elicit sexual desire [3].” Thus, even the word “pornography” is a loaded one that, from the get-go, paints anyone who argues that it serves a beneficial role in society in a negative light and renders to such arguments a high degree of ostensible non-intuitiveness. Ciclitira notes that “Researchers’ apparent bias regarding the negative effects of pornography has influenced (and is influenced by) the way pornography is defined [4].”

However, the word “pornography” has since come to refer to such a wide range of sexually explicit materials to the extent that generalized definitions are often inadequate and specific examples do not take into account its far-reaching applications. The result is that “different definitions and genres of pornography have been employed in research studies, thereby complicating a coherent synthesis of key findings” and that “the operationalization of terms, or the lack thereof, has been a common critique and limitation of many studies [5].”

The fact that any exercise in defining pornography depends upon cultural, historical and social factors, as well as upon the experiences and beliefs of individuals, readily explains the elusive nature of the term. Defining obscenity (which refers specifically to the legal aspect of pornography) is just as obscure and convoluted an issue to pin down, since the severity of societal reactions to perceived boundaries is determined by public taste and their designation of the particular style employed by those labeled “deviant” rather than by the content of any given law or set of laws. This was perhaps most clearly demonstrated by R. George Kirkpatrick in his study of two major anti-pornography crusades in the 1960s, in which he highlighted “the relationship between the size of the community, the division of labor, the degree of mechanical solidarity and the style of the deviant and his act in determining the degree of insult to the collective consciousness, and the degree of mass hysteria and the severity of the social movement which tries to reconstitute the disturbed collective entity [6].”

For the sake of clarity in this essay, Michael Rea’s definition will suffice:

[B]y far the most pervasive definitions in the literature on pornography are those that hold that the defining feature of pornography is that it is intended to produce sexual arousal or in fact has the effect of producing such arousal [7].
The importance of the inclusion of both intention and effect in approaching a coherent definition is brought to the forefront by, for example, the 1922 court case of Halsey v. New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, in which the judge stated that selections ranging “from Aristophanes or Chaucer or Boccaccio or even from the Bible” in all likelihood contain many passages “which taken by themselves are undoubtedly vulgar and indecent [8].” There is a reason why arguments about the “effects” of culture seem to be applied only to forms of culture that fall on what are perceived to be lower scales, such as comic books, video games, cartoons and, of course, pornography. As Laura Kipnis points out,
The violence of high culture seems not to have effects on its consumers, or rather, no one bothers to research this question, so we don’t hear much about how Taming of the Shrew expresses contempt for women, or watching Medea might compel a mother to go out and kill her children; when a South Carolina mother did recently drown her two kids, no one suggested banning Euripides. When Lorena Bobbitt severed husband John’s penis, no one wondered if she’d recently watched Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, the Japanese art film where a male character meets a similar bloody fate. Is that because the audiences of Euripides and Oshima have greater self-control than the audiences of pornography and other low culture, or is this a class prejudice that masquerades as the “redeeming social value” issue? [9]
Indeed, even the Number One bestseller of all history, the Holy Bible containing the Christian Old and New Testaments, is not exempt from a similar inquiry, as an unbiased and straightforward examination of its contents yields the conclusion that it is one of the most perverse and obscene pieces of literature ever produced [10].

This strange cognitive disconnect between attributing possible effects to low art while leaving possible effects of high art off the hook is why, for example, Gerard Damiano’s pornographic movie The Story of Joanna (1975) induces laughter on the part of its viewers whenever a supposedly high-class, aristocratic character speaks about sex in lower-class terms, i.e., “I want you to lick my pussy.” It is also why the extremely dirty and deliciously obscene “Aristocrats” joke known by many professional comedians works so well, as documented in Penn Jillette’s and Paul Provenza’s 2005 film The Aristocrats.

Establishing an adequate and accurate definition of pornography is crucial in light of the fact that mass media has become a major agent of socialization in the development of individuals. “If individuals do indeed depend on the mass media for their sexual socialization, the accuracy of these media portrayals of sexual behavior becomes critical. If these presentations are inaccurate, their effect may be damaging [11].” Depending on how pornography is defined, understood and interpreted, the argument made here that pornography plays a beneficial role and serves necessary functions in society and in the lives of individual people stands or falls. The “study and existence of pornography [may] elucidate our sexual desire and the function of pleasure and power, enhance sexual equality, diminish sexual inhibitions, nurture essential dreams and fantasies, and promote the freedom of speech to express sexual difference [12],” and this means that addressing the modifications made to the term “pornography” by anti-porn feminists, conservatives and status-quo conformists is also crucial. The belief that erotic material precipitates sexual violence and the degradation/objectification of women has manifested itself in attacks on pornography which potentially threatens freedom of expression in the arts. Such crusades have also threatened even the science of medicine [13].

Does Pornography Damage Intimate Relationships?

A growing number of studies on the relationship between pornography use and socioemotional intimacy between couples is beginning to break away from traditional assumptions that drive many researchers to posit negative correlations between the two. “Many women feel that the guy who looks at porn must harbor some hostility toward women. Yet research hasn't established a link between pornography consumption and misogyny. One 2004 study found that porn users actually had slightly more positive and egalitarian views of women than other men did, though porn users were also more likely to hold stereotypical beliefs—for example, that women are more moral [14].” Miodrag Popovic’s research found that many men’s “socioemotional closeness and pornography consumption were associated in a way that was not often brought to light. Compared to male pornography non-users, male pornography users reported higher total closeness numbers and scores [15].” The results of this study, obtained using a non-clinical sample of 164 males to distill the potential effects of two carefully-measured variables (socioemotional closeness and pornography use), confirmed that “pornography use was not just an escape from intimacy but also an expression of the search for it [16].”

Previous studies examining the relationship between intimacy/closeness with significant others and pornography use have tended to over-generalize gender power inequalities, focusing on pornographic web sites rather than the users themselves [17]. Another tendency in such studies has been to emphasize adverse effects of frequent and habitual pornography use, thereby misattributing resultant relationship problems to pornography rather than on overuse and overindulgence itself [18]. But overuse and overindulgence wreaks adverse effects on relationships regardless of what they are exercised upon and says nothing about the inherent goodness or badness of the object of overindulgence itself. As Christensen remarks, “It is a truism that anything can be carried to excess, [but] those who make the mental health charges are usually in a poor position to judge what is excessive or inadequate in regard to sex [19].” Thus, the charge that use of pornography is corrosive to intimate and lasting relationships between men and women is highly subjective. “How couples intensify their sexual relationship differs radically depending on the individuals and on the dynamic between them. But fantasy is certainly a part of a healthy sex life, and porn does contribute significantly to the archive of sexy scenarios in our heads. It can also inspire couples to experiment more [20].”

But even so, unbiased examination of the literature on sex addiction yields no evidence supporting the case that pornography is actually even addictive. “So-called sexual addiction may be nothing more than learned behavior that can be unlearned; labels such as ‘sex addict’ may tell us more about society’s prejudices and the therapist doing the labeling than the client; scientists who have undertaken scientifically rigorous studies of exposure to sex materials report that despite high levels of exposure to pornography in venues such as the Internet, few negative effects are observed [21].” The negative effects that are not observed include violence and aggression towards women. As per the “safety valve” or substitution hypothesis, pornography may defuse more strong urges than it instills in the consumer. Even violent and aggressive pornographic portrayals (perhaps especially these portrayals) provide a healthy catharsis by which sexual aggression is calmed through explicit depictions and vicarious fantasy roleplaying. In fact, in the absence of pornography, sexual tensions would be such that we would expect dramatic rises in sexual crime.

There also exists a body of research that indicates a positive correlation between adults’ socioemotional closeness with significant others and pornography. Kingsley Davis’s study of the sociology of prostitution, for example, demonstrated that prostitution ameliorates the conflict between sexual dispositions/urges and the expectations and requirements embedded in social contracts. Arguing that the goals of sexual behavior in humans are not inherently social, Davis shows that the institutions of marriage and family are society’s way of attaching a makeshift association of sexuality and social goals. Thus, prostitution and pornography, both of which, on an intuitive level, seem to stand adamantly opposed to marriage and family, actually support them. This explains why society has not completely repressed prostitution and pornography; they are retained as sexual alternatives because they serve necessary functions. The sociological evidence indicates strongly that increases in sexual freedom among women of all classes does not and cannot reduce the role played by prostitution. Therefore, “we find ourselves admitting that increased prostitution can reduce the sexual irregularities of respectable women . . . Such a view seems paradoxical, because in popular thought an evil such as prostitution cannot cause a good such as feminine virtue, or vice versa. Yet . . . there is a close connection between prostitution and the structure of the family [22].” Ned Polsky proposes that Davis’s theories concerning prostitution apply equally well to pornography: “[B]oth prostitutes and pornographers are stigmatized because they provide for the socially illegitimate expression of sex, yet their very existence helps to make tolerable the institutionalizing of legitimate sex in the family [23].”

The Economics of Pornography

Until very recently, investigation of the economics behind the pornography market has been largely ignored by researchers. Studies undertaking this focus, such as the recent one by D’Orlando [24], find that models of addiction that have traditionally been used in examining the demand for pornography do not fit nearly as well as models that posit healthy hedonic adaptation. “The hedonic adaptation framework is founded on the empirical finding that people adapt to life events . . . Hedonic adaptation is sometimes called ‘habituation’, and the existence of a baseline level of wellbeing towards which actual wellbeing tends to return is a crucial characteristic of this approach [25].” This hedonic adaptation approach is able to explain very well the desire for variety and novelty among pornography consumers, a common desire which significantly influences the demand for pornography. According to D’Orlando’s interpretation, people experience habituation when viewing pornography, a process which reduces the potential level of wellbeing they can gain from a given type of pornography. But this reduction is balanced out by the simultaneous skill accumulation they gain, which is gleaned from “harder” material. In searching for this “harder” material through the process of escalation, pornography users necessarily consume ever-growing amounts of pornography in order to find the harder content (this in part explains why, for example, web sites which provide large quantities of free material such as, and has not come close to crowding out pay pornography). The creators of Comedy Central’s South Park show cleverly highlighted this concept in the episode “Over Logging” when they had one of their characters say, “I need the Internet to jack off. I got used to being able to see anything at the click of a button, you know? Once you jack off to Japanese girls puking in each other's mouths, you can't exactly go back to Playboy!” Throughout the remainder of the episode, this character explores such categories as “interracial gang bang,” “shemales” and “Brazilian fart fetish porn [26].”

According to D’Orlando’s research, “Having purchased this new material, people actually achieve an increase in their wellbeing, but habituation soon forces them back, once again, towards their baseline level of wellbeing. Only creativity, i.e. the capacity to go on finding ever-new types of pornography, can offset habituation [27].” Pornography, therefore, is highly conducive to the creative impulse, and as such is a natural engine of diversification.

Pornography and Technological Progress

The high demand for pornography is such that it is often the very first to test and use new and cutting-edge media technologies. “Pornography has always been inextricably tied to technology and innovations in technology [28],” and therefore pornography also facilitates technological advancement and progress in ways few people have considered. “Porn, like its subject matter, is always eager to experiment. It is also free from ideological and sociological baggage. Its design is, simply, to get to market as quickly and easily as possible. When new media offer new markets, porn spies them quickly and rushes to fill them, like an amoeba extruding a new pseudopod where its skin is thinnest [29].” Rather than constituting a new phenomenon suggestive of exponential development from initially slow beginnings, this technological immediacy has been noted by sociologists and media historians to have been present from pornography’s earliest manifestations. Lawrence O’Toole notes that “the folk history of nude photography suggests that the day after the guy invented the camera he had his girlfriend come round and persuaded her to get naked for the sake of record [30].”

This means that pornography evolves, and has, in addition to becoming much less of a patriarchal monolith, seen the emergence of new and novel forms that are liberating to the sexuality of women and minorities. The ubiquity of and demand for pornography is directly responsible for these trends, and it is inevitable that a female-centered pornography, in which man serves as the “sexual other,” will grow (and is already beginning to become) just as ubiquitous and commonplace as so-called “male-centered” porn. Developments in popular culture have come a long way since the 1980s in legitimizing the concept of women’s pornography [31].

Addressing Common Anti-Porn Arguments

Pornography is laden with a complexity that defies simple denouncements such as that it is somehow a product of patriarchal, male-centered heteronormativity and that it is categorically degrading to and objectifying of women. Laura Kipnis notes, [T]he presumption that only low culture causes ‘effects’ starts to look more and more like a stereotype about its imagined viewers . . . Pornography isn’t viewed as having complexity, because its audience isn’t viewed as having complexity, and this propensity for oversimplification gets reproduced in every discussion about pornography [32].

As an example of this oversimplification, one may consider the common charge that sexually explicit materials treat the persons portrayed as “sexual objects,” or that pornography “objectifies women as sexual objects.” There is a subtle contradiction in terms at play in such accusations. Objects do not possess any inherent sexuality, but people do, which is precisely why anti-porn rhetoric never charges pornography with treating people as sexual beings. Of course, we can and do imbue and project sexual meaning and significance to inanimate objects (dildos, strap-ons, butt-plugs, whips, chains, paddles, hairbrushes, even bananas and various elongated vegetables, etc.), but these things are not possessed of any inherent sexuality. “Having a body is just as much a part of being a person as is having intelligence or emotions . . . Since real objects have no sexuality, regarding a person as being without a sexual nature would come closer to treating him or her as a mere object [33].”

Another oft-voiced concern has to do with the “snuff” element of pornography, i.e. the notion that pornography is associated with layers of organized crime that specializes in the actual of oppression of its women subjects unbeknownst to average consumers who are under the impression that what they are seeing is consensual acting. This myth was promoted in the notorious 1976 cult film Snuff. A slasher film loosely based on the Sharon Tate murders, the film concludes with footage of its director hacking a female production assistant to pieces after making sexual advances on her. In addition to bordering on the level of a conspiracy theory, this notion is an exaggerated one intended by its claimants and promoters to frighten the public. Numerous erotic models and actresses have gone on record in response to this charge to say that genuine mistreatment is very rare. In fact, these models and actresses have testified to the effect that they are treated with a great deal of respect, and even that they enjoy a much higher salary than men do in the business, which is by far not the case for women in the workplace elsewhere [34]. This is a factor almost universally overlooked or denied by academics and scholars, including the famous linguist and social activist Noam Chomsky. In an interview for a 2008 documentary on pornography and relationships, Chomsky compared the consensual pornography business to sweatshops that mistreated “consenting” women employees, then proceeded to compare pornography to child abuse:

“Suppose [there is] a starving child in the slums, and you say, 'Well, I’ll give you food if you’ll let me abuse you.' . . . Well, after all, you know, the child’s starving otherwise, so you’re taking away his chance to get some food if you ban abuse. Is that an argument? The answer to that is: stop the conditions in which the child is starving. And the same is true here. Eliminate the conditions in which women can’t get decent jobs, not permit abusive and destructive behavior [35].”
This reasoning is grossly flawed because it overlooks the fact that the wages made by women who work in pornography (as well as in prostitution) are far above the wages of earned by women in ordinary, “legitimate” work. “No practicable rise in the rate of wages paid to women in ordinary industries can possibly compete with the wages which fairly attractive women of quite ordinary ability can earn by prostitution [36].” Murtagh and Harris report that “There are call-girls who earn between fifty and a hundred thousand dollars a year [37].”

This data demonstrates yet another way in which pornography serves a beneficial role in society; the metaphor of the “glass ceiling,” useful for illustrating occupational segregation and gender wage inequality in the workplace, refers to the socially constructed barrier that, while transparent and thus without any overt suggestion of being discriminatory, limits upward mobility for women. This barrier is built and maintained by, among other things, the system most companies develop and utilize to determine salaries. The reason society often undervalues, for example, paid care work in the home as well as care work in the workplace often has to do with the value our patriarchal and capitalistic society places on women in general. Not so in the pornography business, where there is no glass ceiling and where women enjoy a higher wage than men. While some may retort by pointing out that women who want to move beyond the porn industry and break out into a more mainstream and respectable career are often not granted that opportunity because of the stigmas attached to their current work, this is a failure of society to see through the stigma and take into account women’s individual merits, not something that pornography itself can be faulted with.

“Look,” writes pornographer Lisa Palac, founder of the cybersex magazine Future Sex, “if someone presented me with a genuine snuff film there’d be nothing to defend. I would be horrified and sickened. But no one ever has and no one ever will because snuff films, as some kind of readily-available, black-market commercial enterprise, don’t exist. They’re an urban myth [38].” Such urban myths and legends are the natural consequence of any frowned-upon industry coming into its own with a decent level of organization and hierarchy. An analogy that works in dispelling the “organized crime” perception of how pornography operates is organized religion; if religion were illegal (as it has historically been in some corners of the world), then according to this logic religion would constitute organized crime.

Pornography as an Indispensable Cultural Narrative

Technological advancement goes hand-in-hand with increased levels of sophisticated organization. The fact that pornography has served as a facilitator of technological improvement and progress also tells us about the centrality of sexuality to the human experience. “Pornography is the royal road to the cultural psyche . . . So the question is, if you put it on the couch and let it free-associate, what is it really saying? What are the inner tensions and unconscious conflicts that propel its narratives? [39]” It is useful to invoke the power of narrative along with the power of technology in this regard. In his classic essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that technology, far from being merely a mechanized means to an end, represents a particular “way of revealing [40].” For Heidegger, modern technology should be conceived of in the context of its original Greek meaning, a “bringing-forth” that is linked to the concept of knowledge. Technology in this sense means a simultaneous opening up and revealing.

Humans cannot function without an emulative narrative that corresponds to almost every aspect of life, and pornography provides just such a narrative counterpart to our life as sexual beings. More than that, pornography challenges sexual status quos, and this constitutes the primary reason it has been unfairly blamed for a wide array of social ills. In order to understand pornography better, one must progress beyond what German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies called Gesellschaft, a definitional approach in which larger, contextual associations never take precedence over individual self-interest. “In the most general way, one could speak of a Gemeinschaft comprising the whole of mankind . . . But human Gesellschaft is conceived as mere coexistence of people independent of each other [41].” This progression beyond idiosyncratic and parochial classifications of pornography is achieved by placing cultural labeling itself under scrutiny, and not just conflicting definitions. This allows us to see pornography in the light of the larger context of other discourses and categories. “By stepping back from pornography in this way, its functions as a ‘melodrama’ or ‘allegory’ for a given culture are thrown into sharp relief [42].” This Heideggerian/Gemeinschaft approach reveals that it is “the particularly explicit way in which porn depicts sex and bodies, its flaunting of boundaries, its perversity and its irredeemable ‘lowness’ that are often used to justify its condemnation [43].”

However, such attempts to create a distinction between pornography and “high” art or literature only demonstrate the fact that pornography cannot be thus classified on the basis of content/viewer relations, since as was briefly noted above, “high” art and literature often contains the same relations (for instance, a male viewer looking at a naked female body). The decisive factor is the dirty, transgressive, limit-pushing and “carnivalesque” quality of pornography, qualities which confer upon it the challenge to sexual status quos. As art historian Lynda Nead points out, “Art and pornography are caught in a cycle of reciprocal definition, in which each depends on the other for its meaning, significance and status [44].” In the absence of pornography, art dies, and vice versa.

This symbiosis is put on a bold, in-your-face display in Virginie Despentes’s and Coralie Trinh Thi’s controversial 2000 film Baise-moi (“Fuck Me” in English). The controversy surrounding this film was due less to the fact that it featured an extremely graphic rape scene with a close-up of vaginal penetration and more to the fact that it blended art cinema with raw and gritty pornographic images and motifs. It was “the interstitial nature of the film and its resistance to classification as either art cinema or hardcore [45]” that compelled the censors to swift action. Baise-moi effectively blurred the lines between art cinema and porn and created a tension-filled dilemma for censors and film critics.

Based on Despentes’s 1999 novel of the same name, the film experiments with new territory in the porn genre, exploring the aesthetic side of hardcore sexual explicitness to the greatest degree possible as it tells the story of two women who embark on a road trip killing spree in the wake of one being brutally raped and the other committing an aggravated murder, two events that draw them together. At first vaguely repelled by their own heinous actions, Nadine (played by Karen Bach) and Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) soon form a tight bond in their mutual drive to strike back at a bourgeois society that marginalized them, and particularly at men. Along the way, the two women have sex with a number of men, some of whom are killed. The ones that survive do so by sexually satisfying the women to a sufficient degree, and by ceding control to the women.

In his review of the controversy the film immediately sparked, MacKenzie writes, “If a fiction film is deemed pornographic because it has no redeeming social function and only provides illicit titillation, then the precise nature of the images on the screen . . . should not play a role in the determination of pornographic content, because if there is content beyond prurient interest, the film is de facto not pornographic [46].” In other words, more important than the nature of the sexual acts which are depicted in any given film are the themes and intents that the story seeks to make understandable. On the other hand, if “the status of heterosexual, hardcore pornography is determined solely through the visual representation of penetration or through the presence of an erection, then the precise context of the act – be it consensual sex or violent rape – bears little weight in the determination of whether or not a film is pornographic in nature [47].”

But another case can be made that the raw realism that hardcore porn strives for, even when employing fantasy scenarios, is itself a redeeming feature of pornography, quite aside from any additional “redeeming” social commentary that may or may not be incorporated. The “debasement” element of pornography that is so often cited by its condemners is in this sense a desirable and positive one, rendering its detractors’ condemnations a reaction against unrestrained visibility that threatens outwardly-projected personal preferences. As Lynda Nead writes,

[P]ornography is imbued with an ideology of realism; it is regarded as a transparent medium, offering more or less direct access to its image. Within Platonic terms, the visual image is less removed from corrupt reality (and therefore is more debased) than the written word which is regarded as the medium of imagination and self-expression [48].
The genre of pornography to which this idea can be most readily seen in action is sadomasochism, or Bondage & Discipline porn. This genre, more than any other, has gone a long way toward shifting pornography closer to the center dividing line where fantasy and reality meet and stare at each other across the proverbial fence. Greta Christina, in her interesting analysis of this blurred line, makes the case that crying is to spanking porn what cum shots are to “regular” porn:
Crying is like cum shots because it's proof that what's happening is real. It's proof, not only that the actors are physically engaging in the sexual acts they're portraying, but that they're feeling them [49].
This analysis of a fetish practiced by consenting adults who feel real pain, but for whom pain is pleasure (and thus not an instance of snuff urban myth), effectively dismantles the charge that pornography is a social ill because it is inherently a superficial fantasy that instills unattainable expectations in the minds of its viewers. It is more accurate to posit that when anti-porn activists condemn pornography as unattainable fantasy with no parallel in real life, they are actually reacting to something they do not want to be real.

Consistency would oblige those who condemn pornography on this basis to condemn exhibitions in animal zoos; zoos are after all pornographic by nature, and while they by necessity overly-simplify factors such as natural habitat, few would argue that zoos misrepresent the creatures on display. Environmental philosopher Ralph Acampora tries to persuade us that the “broad analogy between zoos and pornography is useful because, if it holds true in the relevant respects, the comparison casts a new and decidedly critical light on the debate over keeping and breeding animals in the wild in captivity [50].” But he is one of the very few academics who actually manage to remain consistent by arguing this, which only serves to highlight the difficulty of his position.

Campaigns against Pornography: A Historical Perspective

As we have just begun to see, conservative and feminist arguments against pornography, responsible for creating controversies and resultant censorship campaigns against important films such as Baise-moi and others like it, represent the most significant objections to the claim that pornography serves a beneficial role and necessary function in society, yet they derive from questionable foundations and assumptions. A substantial body of research that overviews the history of pornography and obscenity in America bears this out most strongly, demonstrating clearly that campaigns against pornography have always been more about politics than about sex.

In 1834, the New York Female Moral Reform Society was formed by Lydia A. Finney, the wife of the revivalist Charles Grandison Finney. Dedicated to the moral reform of the city, this organization made prostitution central to their agenda; their goal became to purge the city of them, and the means they employed toward that goal was hardly sensitive to prostitutes. Rather than create an infrastructure that would help young women avoid prostitution, the NYFMRS relied on sanctimonious lectures that placed the blame for prostitutes having gone astray on the troubled women themselves. Several historians (predominantly male), have traditionally portrayed this organization as a rigid and puritanical one that appealed to the sexually repressed and reactionary in society. However, a generation’s worth of feminist historians in the last thirty years have offered a reinterpretation of the nature of the activism at work here, suggesting that a fair amount of conservative gender politics tells a somewhat different story. Of particular note is the work of Nicola Beisel, who argues that the politics surrounding the legislation of lifestyles is more often than not a manifestation of class politics. Beisel’s research showcases the “necessity of understanding how ideological appeals made by movement leaders reflect problems facing the social class or class segment supporting the movement at that historical moment [51]” and shows that “much of the literature on twentieth-century moral reform movements does not explain the rise of anti-vice societies because it neglects or denies the origins of moral reform movements in class conflict [52].”

Beisel’s arguments for class conflict constituting a significant part of the basis for anti-porn activism is also supported by a look at the literature targeted at lower-class males in the early 19th century. The rise of a young, urban and single demographic in America’s burgeoning cities occasioned the rallying-around of a sexualized culture by young ‘men of the sporting culture,” which led to a flurry of overtly tawdry dime-store novels which were very lurid and explicit for the time period in which they appeared. George Lippard’s infamous underground novel The Quaker City, which appeared in 1845, became the highest-selling American novel before it was superseded by Uncle Tom’s Cabin upon its release seven years later. Published serially over the course of the decade, the novel describes the lurid sex underworld of Philadelphia, complete with deflowered maidens, abortionists, interracial sex, pederasty and every subject that could possibly violate the taboos of 1840s society.

Works such as this were written with a distinct nod to class consciousness, and they were tailored toward the culture of working-class single males in their overt resentment of the elite, who are depicted in this genre as a debauched bunch. Virtually all pornographic material in this period featured this theme as a common trope, one that dates back even to pornography written during the French Revolution in the 1790s, which witnessed a groundswell of porn about Marie Antoinette and the Catholic clergy. Thus, the moral indignation instigated by books like Lippard’s and those of his contemporary George Thompson (author of over a hundred “sexual” romance novels, most of which are not preserved) was only a thin veneer masking the larger issue, namely the offense felt by the middle and upper classes at the sentiment expressed by the lower class. The pornographic nature of this cheap literature merely provided reformers ostensibly concerned with morality an excuse to lash back. This ulterior motive of crusaders against pornography still exists (though in subtler shades) to this day, as shown by the research of Anne Sabo, who examined the prevailing stigmas attached to forms of pornography that are crudely-made and male-centered, as opposed to more widespread tolerance for “highbrow” forms of pornography. “Although popular pornography has received significant scholarly attention in recent years . . . such elitism haunts popular pornography. Hence, though there are some scholars who now speak up in the name of pornography, most viewers of X-rated videos prefer to remain private about it [53].”

This class-consciousness perspective, relevant today as well as to the period under consideration, suggests that most of the women who involved themselves with moral reform movements in the early 19th century, the period of the so-called “separate spheres” doctrine, already operated within tightly-constrained gender roles. The women’s place was perceived to be the home, while the public sphere was allotted to men. Thus, staking claim to crusades of moral purity represented one of the very few avenues by which women could engage in political activism and the public sphere. This is why a large body of feminist historical research has reclaimed much nineteenth-century activism of this kind as something of a “proto-feminist” project, in the sense that women were claiming political power in the public sphere with the only kind of social space allotted to them, that being the realm of female moral purity. While this complex dynamic succeeded in establishing an infrastructure for moral reform, it was an infrastructure that was ultimately co-opted by men, and has been to this day.

This history suggests that today’s radical feminist opposition to pornography is a lingering relic of these women’s moral reform movements in the early to mid-19th century, when women’s involvement in such movements represented “proto-feminism,” or a pragmatic good in the sense that women were engaging the public sphere in those places allotted to them. The point that reasonably follows from this is that given the liberal progress made in modern times in terms of women’s rights, the “pragmatic scaffolding” of feminist objections to pornography that once indirectly served the cause of women’s rights can be removed. This would also decouple the patriarchal, androcentric element of the anti-pornography cause, which only ostensibly bears the flag of feminism (and an outdated feminism at that), and whose actual agenda is the repression of sexual freedom.

Again, conservative anti-pornography movements have virtually always been more political in nature (especially with regard to class and gender politics) than they have been a legitimate discourse on the benefits and liabilities of sexualized culture. The case of Frederick Hollick, the 19th century sex educator and reformer, is an illustrative one in this regard. Hollick toured the country in the 1840s with lecture material on sex education, which were collected into a very popular and bestselling book, The Origin of Life, in 1846. He talked about the physiology and anatomy of sex in a radical way that very few people dared to do in the public sphere, and his reputation as a bestselling and popular author allows him to get away with the routine for some time. He finally found himself in legal trouble in Philadelphia in 1846, where he made use of very realistic and lifelike naked mannequins to demonstrate various aspects of how sex works. Hollick himself described the mannequins as “so true [to] nature, that many have even fainted away at a first view, from the impression that they were viewing a real body! [54]” To be sure, many people viewed this as pornographic, but the bigger taboo at play was that women were allowed into these lectures. Bringing the “pure and sanctified” women into these presentations was viewed as a social problem, while male attendance was slightly more acceptable. Hollick was prosecuted for obscenity in Philadelphia that year, mostly on the basis of his lifelike teaching aids but also for his popular pamphlets. The case against him did not ultimately have a significant result; Hollick jumped bail and left the city, and no legal resolution was made [55]. The key point here is that it was primarily due to the fact that Hollick allowed women into his lectures that he was prosecuted, not due to his content and methods. The decisive issue at play was the mixed-gender audience and the idea of exposing women to sexual knowledge, which was a shocking and impermissible idea at this time.

Summary and Conclusion

In summary, the case made here that pornography serves both a necessary function and a beneficial role in society is supported by a multitude of factors. (1) It helps society concretely define its limits in unambiguous terms, a level of control wielded flexibly by the consensus of public taste that has democratized sexuality and exercised influence over laws, not vice versa. (2) The fact that mainstream society, despite its deep-running misgivings of pornography, has not completely repressed and eradicated it testifies to its narrative power, something humans are not wired to function without, and indeed, something which may even be dangerous to live without. (3) Pornography, in addition to indirectly supporting the institution of marriage, facilitates technological advancement and progress. One reason for this is because the high, ubiquitous and perpetual demand for pornography is such that it is almost always the first to test and use new and cutting-media technologies. Because interpersonal communication represents and operates as a microcosm of society as a whole, the same benefits apply on this microcosmic scale as well. (4) Not only is the alleged connection between pornography consumption and gender power inequalities more assumed than critically examined, but pornography use among women is becoming much more prevalent in today’s society. Meanwhile, the precise relation of pornography to contemporary expressions of hegemonic masculinity grow ever more obscure, as socioemotional closeness of men to significant adults in their lives climbs higher among porn users than among non-users. The evidence thus indicates that pornography facilitates a craving for intimacy, a craving that is too often mistaken by porn’s detractors as a dangerous craving for objectified women. Finally, (5) the most significant anti-pornography arguments derive from questionable foundations and assumptions. Not only do feminist objections to pornography too often rely on caricatures of males without taking into account the motives of female consumers, but they also often work against feminism’s own interests, serving only to reinforce the sentiments characteristic of hegemonic masculinities that perpetuate disparate gender relations. Conservative and religious objections to pornography are often rooted in anti-progressive desires to control and suppress women’s sexuality, rather than in a desire to protect their dignity.

As a matter of finding a practical application for these considerations, popular opposition to censorship of all kinds must be rediscovered and brought back to the mainstream status it enjoyed over half a century ago. But this time we must not make arbitrary exceptions for the class of material popularly viewed as “obscene,” as liberals made the mistake of doing in in the 1950s. Whitney Strub writes, “Though the fundamental intellectual incoherence of the liberal position remained successfully obscured for several years, new rhetorical strategies allowing conservatives to frame repressive policies as secular and reasonable put liberals in an untenable position regarding pornography by the 1960s. Unwillingly, they ceded social authority on the matter to the nascent Right [56].”

Not only must we stop looking away from explicit sex, we must also start looking at sex in a more balanced manner. As Murray S. Davis explains, social scientists too often look at sex either presbyopically or myopically – both of which are exaggerated distances from which to coherently view the subject. “Sociologists like Kinsey looked at sex from so far away (as though with the wrong end of a telescope) that they observed only an exterior behavior without human meaning. Psychologists like Freud looked at sex so closely (as though with X-ray eyes) that they saw through it to observe only an inhuman and meaningless interior instinct [57].”

Being as we are in a position to see the mistakes made by activists for freedom of expression and to bring shared human experience and interpretations of sexual behavior into a more balanced and sharper focus, we are in a position to end the monopoly on what counts as free expression enjoyed by the Right. In doing so we restate the question of pornography’s place in society in secular and reasonable terms, and come to understand that part of us that is perhaps what makes us most human.


1. Brenda Love, The Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices (London: Greenwich Editions, 1999), p. 215.

2. Karen Ciclitira, “Researching Pornography and Sexual Bodies,” The Psychologist 15.1 (2002): 191-194.

3. Love, Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices (see note 1), p. 215.

4. Ciclitira, “Researching Pornography and Sexual Bodies” (see note 2).

5. Jill C. Manning, “The Impact of Internet Pornography on Marriage and the Family: A Review of the Research,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 13 (2006): 131-165.

6. R. George Kirkpatrick, “Collective Consciousness and Mass Hysteria: Collective Behavior and Anti-pornography Crusades in Durkheimian Perspective,” Human Relations 28.1 (1975): 67.

7. Michael Rea, “What is Pornography?” Noûs 35.1 (2001): 132.

8. Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, Clyde E. Martin and Paul H. Gebhard, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia and London: W.B. Saunders Company, 1953), p. 671.

9. Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 176.

10. “Bible Drawn into Sex Publication Controversy,” Reuters 16 May 2007, (accessed 7 June 2011); Ben Leach, “Biblical Sex Row over Explicit Illustrated Book of Genesis,” The Telegraph 17 October 2009, (accessed 7 June 2011); Nathan Dickey, “The Unholy Bible: A Case Study in Perverse and Obscene Literature,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 25 March 2011, (accessed 7 June 2011).

11. Stanley J. Baran, “How TV and Film Portrayals Affect Sexual Satisfaction in College Students,” Journalism Quarterly 53.3 (1976): 468.

12. Anne G. Sabo, “Highbrow and Lowbrow Pornography: Prejudice Prevails Against Popular Culture. A Case Study,” Journal of Popular Culture 42.1 (2009): 147.

13. April Haynes, “The Trials of Frederick Hollick: Obscenity, Sex Education, and Medical Democracy in the Antebellum United States,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 12.4 (2003): 543-574.

14. Liza Featherstone, “You, Me and PORN Make Three,” Psychology Today 38.5 (2005): 84.

15. Miodrag Popovic, “Pornography Use and Closeness with Others in Men,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 40.2 (2011): 455.

16. Ibid.

17. For example, see Ian Cook, “Western Heterosexual Masculinity, Anxiety and Web Porn,” Journal of Men’s Studies 14 (2006): 47-63.

18. For example, see Jennifer P. Schneider, “A Qualitative Study of Cybersex Participants: Gender Differences, Recovery Issues, and Implications for Therapists,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 7.4 (2000): 249-278.

19. F.M. Christensen, Pornography: The Other Side (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1990), p. 103.

20. Featherstone, “You, Me and PORN Make Three” (see note 14), 85.

21. Daniel Linz, “Online Pornography Is Not Addictive,” in Emma Carlson Berne, ed., Online Pornography: Opposing Viewpoints (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2007), p. 66.

22. Kingsley Davis, “Sexual Behavior,” in Robert K. Merton and Robert Nisbet, eds., Contemporary Social Problems 3rd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), p. 350.

23. Ned Polsky, Hustlers, Beats, and Others (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1967), p. 188.

24. Fabio D’Orlando, “The Demand for Pornography,” Journal of Happiness Studies 12.1 (2011): 51-75.

25. Ibid., 65.

26. “Over Logging,” South Park: The Complete Twelfth Season, written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, directed by Trey Parker (Comedy Central, 2009).

27. D’Orlando, “The Demand for Pornography” (see note 24), 72.

28. Jack M. Beckham II, “From ‘Seedy Roms’ to DVDs: Virtual Sex and the Search for Control,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 24 (2007): 226.

29. Peter Johnson, “Pornography Drives Technology: Why Not Censor the Internet?” Federal Communications Law Journal 49.1 (1996): 221.

30. Laurence O’Toole, Pornocopia: Porn, Sex, Technology and Desire (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998), p. 61.

31. Clarissa Smith, “Pornography for Women, or What They Don’t Show You in Cosmo!” Journalism Studies 8.4 (2007): 529-538.

32. Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged (see note 9), p. 177.

33. Christensen, Pornography: The Other Side (see note 19), p. 28.

34. Sheldon Ranz, “Interview: Nina Hartley,” Shmate: A Magazine of Progressive Jewish Thought 22 (1989): 15-29.

35. Challenging Media, “The Price of Pleasure – Noam Chomsky on Pornography (Extra Feature) – Available on DVD” (video, 3:35), YouTube 23 July 2008, (accessed 6 June 2011).

36. Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. 6. – Sex in Relation to Society (Philadelphia: Davis, 1913), p. 263.

37. John M. Murtagh and Sara Harris, Cast the First Stone (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957), p. 2.

38. Lisa Palac, The Edge of the Bed: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life (Canada: Little, Brown & Company, 1998), p. 147.

39. Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged (see note 9), p. 162.

40. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 12.

41. Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society, trans. Charles P. Loomis (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1957), p. 34.

42. Feona Attwood, “Reading Porn: The Paradigm Shift in Pornography Research,” Sexualities 5.1 (2002): 95-96.

43. Ibid., 96.

44. Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 91.

45. Scott MacKenzie, “Baise-moi, Feminist Cinemas and the Censorship Controversy,” Screen: The Journal of the Society for Education in Film and Television 43.3 (2002): 318.

46. Ibid., 323.

47. Ibid.

48. Nead, The Female Nude (see note 44), p. 97.

49. Greta Christina, “Tears,” Greta Christina’s Blog 19 March 2010, (accessed 7 June 2011).

50. Ralph Acampora, “Zoos and Eyes: Contesting Captivity and Seeking Successor Practices,” Society & Animals 13.1 (2005): 72.

51. Nicola Beisel, “Class, Culture, and Campaigns Against Vice in Three American Cities, 1872-1892,” American Sociological Review 55.1 (1990): 58-59.

52. Ibid., 58.

53. Sabo, “Highbrow and Lowbrow Pornography” (see note 12), 148.

54. Frederick Hollick, The Origin of Life: A Popular Treatise on the Philosophy and Physiology of Reproduction, in Plants and Animals including the Details of Human Generation, with a Full Description of the Male and Female Organs (New York: Nafis & Cornish, 1845), p. xix.

55. Haynes, “The Trials of Frederick Hollick” (see note 13), 573.

56. Whitney Strub, Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), pp. 1-2.

57. Murray S. Davis, Smut: Erotic Reality / Obscene Ideology (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. xxvi.

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