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Should feminists oppose pornography?

By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge


TW: Pornography, sexual violence

Pornography has famously been a polarising issue among feminists, notably during the so-called ‘porn wars’ of the late 1970s, and the debate is still alive and kicking in the modern day. Many, such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, have opposed porn on the grounds that it harms women by reinforcing misogynistic attitudes in male viewers, potentially leading to increased sexual violence. On the other hand, ‘sex-positive’ feminists have criticised anti-pornography campaigners as overly moralistic and pro-censorship. In the age of internet porn, others have argued that debates about pornography have been rendered pointless – porn is here to stay and is supposedly impossible to regulate. This is an overly pessimistic view - if anything we should be paying more attention. For many people porn is now likely to be their first sexual experience of any kind, going on to shape their opinion of what counts as ‘normal’ sex (the average age boys start watching pornography is 12, these studies mainly focus on men). In the rest of this article, I’ll say a bit more about the history of the debate and give an overview of what is widely considered to be the strongest reason to be sceptical of pornography.

Historically, feminists have opposed porn on the grounds that it causes harm to women. However, these arguments haven’t seen much success. For one thing, it is difficult to prove that porn directly causes any specific kind of behaviour. Whether or not direct causation is a fair standard to demand (try proving direct causation for any kind of social phenomenon), this was widely accepted as a big problem for anti-porn feminists. The other large issue has been that porn has been interpreted legally as a form of speech. This is significant because it means that the right to make porn is protected under freedom of speech legislation. We can reconstruct this kind of liberal defence of pornography as follows:

1. Individuals have a right to freedom of speech.

2. Therefore, speech ought to not be restricted.

3. If pornography is speech, it ought not to be restricted.

4. Pornography is speech.

5. Therefore, pornography ought not to be restricted.

For some time this was where the debate was left – pornographers were in the clear because they had a right to free expression, and it was impossible to prove their ‘speech’ was directly harmful. Yet more recently, Rae Langton has attempted to meet those who use this free speech on their own ground by showing how porn has harmful effects on women’s free speech. Langton notes, like other feminists, that mainstream porn often places no focus on consent and instead perpetuates a ‘rape myth’ that women want sex in all circumstances, whether they admit it or not. This is evident in cases where women are depicted as enjoying sex that they did not consent to. From this Langton argues that porn teaches its viewers that women’s ‘no’ really means ‘yes’. As Amia Srinivasan puts it, porn ‘does not inform, or persuade, or debate. Porn trains.’

This is problematic because if this myth is internalised and accepted by male viewers it will lead to what Langton calls ‘illocutionary disablement’. This is a technical term for what is ultimately a fairly simple idea. When we speak we don’t just say things – we also do things. For example, when we say ‘I do’ in front of a priest we can perform the act of getting married simply by speaking. However, there are ways that our attempts to perform these speech-acts can be frustrated. For example, if the priest is secretly a monkey in disguise, no matter how much we say ‘I do’ we won’t succeed in getting married. Langton’s point here is that pornography can similarly frustrate women’s ability to refuse sex by saying ‘no’, because their refusals will no longer be heard as refusals.

This is significant because it goes to show that even if we understand porn as speech we can still reasonably oppose it based on how it affects the speech of women. The issue is that affording unrestricted speech to some (pornographers) can sometimes restrict the free speech of others (women). As Lorna Finlayson puts it, the crucial insight here is that ‘speech does things, and moreover, that the speech of one person may affect what another is able to do with her speech.’ This goes to show that free speech can’t be wielded as a trump card like it is in the liberal argument we considered earlier.

Finally, it is important to consider what free speech actually means here. Langton’s argument goes a long way toward showing that genuine free speech requires more than just the ability to utter words. After all, Langton argues that if women’s refusals are systematically disbelieved then they might as well not be speaking at all, even though they are uttering the correct words. As such, speech also requires the possibility of being genuinely understood in order to be considered free.

Further reading:

1. On Liberty – John Stuart Mill

2. Talking to my students about Porn in The Right to Sex – Amia Srinivasan

3. How to screw things with words – Lorna Finlayson


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