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Soft Pornography: What’s the Problem?

Asks Paul Davis.

What problem, if any, is there regarding soft pornography?

I examine the claim that pornography is bad because it portrays women as sexual objects. There is, I argue, no a priori connection between soft pornography and the denial of personhood to women.

However, in elucidating what I see as the problem about pornography, it becomes apparent why the foregoing argument has been endorsed. There is a clash between the essential nature of pornography and contingent features of the context in which it is often placed. Some pornography-consumption events are different from other pornography-consumption events; some are bad and some are not. The former are those which are constituted by some set of social attitudes or prejudices which mean that the event does entail the denial of personhood to women, whilst the others are those which aren’t so constituted. The former events reinforce women’s subjugation, the latter do not. The legislative dilemma is that of dealing with the former without also affecting the latter. – Dr. Paul Davis

[This paper was originally presented to the Edinburgh University Philosophy Society]

Restrictions on time dictate that what I will say here will be nowhere near as thorough as I would like it to be, and I would hope to publish a much fuller treatment of the issue in the near future.

I am concerned here with the question of whether there is any moral/legislative problem regarding soft pornography. I will largely assume that everyone has a fair idea of what the latter is. However, perhaps I can provide the most useful clarification by specifying some things which are excluded from my present concerns. I am not concerned with pornography which includes images of violence, of children, or of animals. I am concerned only with the kind of stuff which can be bought in small, downmarket sorts of stores. Also, although I am aware of the existence of other kinds of markets, I will tend to assume that the pornographic images are of women, and that the consumer is a heterosexual male. The primary reason for this last move is that pornography has tended to be turned into a singularly feminist issue. The grievances about pornography given the most frequent airing are feminist ones, focusing (obviously) on photographic images of women consumed by heterosexual males. So I think it expedient to take this sort of context as my point of departure, and if I am led in the process to say things with a more general import, then so much the better. I will present and examine some stock-in-trade protests about soft pornography, before moving on to what I see as the actual moral/legislative problem.

It is frequently argued that pornography portrays women as sexual objects, therefore it is bad. As it stands, I have difficulty knowing even what this claim is, let alone how to evaluate it. It seems to me that the premise could mean two different things. And in neither case would the normative conclusion be established because, in the one case, whilst the premise may be true, the conclusion doesn’t follow from it, and, in the other case, whilst the conclusion certainly would follow from the premise, the premise is false. I will clarify.

The argument seems to me to turn on the notion of a “sexual object”. What is it to be a sexual object? What is it, according to the argument, that pornography essentially suggests that women are? I will first sketch a meaning of the key term, which I think yields a true premise, but from which the normative conclusion does not follow. This first meaning identifies sexual object-hood with the possession, simply, of features which stimulate sexual desire or provide sexual pleasure or titillation. This would mean, naturally, that almost every single person who has ever lived has been a sexual object. I expect that a great many people in this room have either a husband, a wife, a boyfriend or girlfriend, and are, therefore, according to this first meaning, a sexual object for at least one other person. In the vocabulary closest to home (or my home at least), most persons are, at some juncture, “fancied“ by someone, which makes them, in this sense, sexual objects. As I’ve said, where this first meaning is the relevant one, the premise seems to me to be true. Surely the primary objective of pornography is to bring it to the attention of the consumer that the women on the pages have features which make them sexually desirable, that they are capable of providing sexual pleasure or titillation. They are not there because of their knowledge of the theory of action, but because of features which can provide a sexual response in the consumer. Pornography which fails to do that fails pretty miserably. However, I do not see that any normative conclusion follows from this. Indeed, it strikes me that, if it did, some quite bizarre consequences would follow. Because it is sexual objecthood which provides the normative significance, it would surely follow that all cases of sexual objecthood’s being significant would facilitate an identical normative conclusion, i.e. all sexual pleasure would be bad, all “fancying” would be bad, etc. In short, such an argument seems to be simply that sexuality is bad, and although there are classes of person who adhere to such an argument, this paper is not addressed to them. However, before I move on to the second, more interesting meaning of “sexual object”, let me briefly anticipate one or two objections and responses to the foregoing, concerns that I will give a much fuller treatment to in another place.

One is that, in speaking of sexually stimulating features, I am guilty of artificially dividing the component parts of the body (or even, for that matter, artificially dividing the self). If pornography were in fact to do this, it would seem that the objection that pornography reduces women to the status of mere providers would be vindicated. My response to this is that pornography no more divides the body in an artificial way than you yourself do when you say that your partner has (say) attractive eyes or hair. When you say that your partner has good eyes, you are hardly committing yourself to holding that you would appreciate them just as much if they were taken from the head and placed on the table in front of you. And, as for the worry about division of self, you are also hardly committed to saying that it would make no difference if your partner were actually dead, with the eyes merely looking authentic. Exactly the same holds for any part of the body, and so I think that pornography can escape the lash of this criticism. Indeed, I am drawn to the analogy provided by Isenberg in the essay “Critical Communication”(1), between response to features of art works and response to features of persons. When I point to a smile, a pose, or simply a part of the body as bringing about a certain response, I no more talk of the favourable feature in isolation from a body or a self any more than I talk of a wavelike contour in isolation from a whole painting, when I point to a wavelike contour in a painting as a reason for my response.

Another objection may concern the logic of sexual attraction, what I called “fancying”. It might be protested that there is something questionable, or even sinister, about pornography, because we don’t normally go out actively seeking sexually stimulating features, as the consumer of pornography does. Rather, it is more the case that sexual features draw us in, in a way. My response to this would be two-fold. On the one hand, I take the premise to be completely overblown, and, on the other hand, even if it were correct, I don’t see that the desired conclusion follows. It is undoubtedly true that a lot of our sexual responses are as the premise has it, i.e. sexually stimulating features are not actively sought but emerge for us, and this over vastly varying periods of time. However, it strikes me as plainly false to suggest that all our sexual awareness is constituted like this. On the contrary, it strikes me that there are a myriad of sexual contexts, a myriad of kinds of sexual constitution, and a myriad of sexual moods experienced by individual persons over time. Indeed, I think that the explicit, acknowledged seeking done by the consumer of pornography may usefully be viewed as a limiting case of something that happens pretty much constantly. Some individuals are constantly sexually charged, and are, therefore, almost always on the lookout. Others less so. And so on. The disco is, of course, the kind of situation where seeking receives the most honest acknowledgement which it ever receives. However, even much less obvious contexts can be permeated by individuals, to a greater or lesser degree, seeking sexual interest, this fact also being honestly acknowledged to a greater or lesser degree, both to themselves and others. Reasons for dishonesty on this point are, of course, another matter. However, what if the premise here were completely true? What if sexual response were never by any stretch sought, except through pornography? I don’t see that any normative conclusion about pornography would follow. It would have to be established that there were something wrong in seeking sexual response and I do not myself see any reason to think this.

Let me now move on to the second, more interesting meaning of “sexual object”, which yields, I think, a valid argument, but a false premise. I will introduce a notion which will become extremely important, but which I can only be very sketchy about here. I will call it the Denial of Personhood To Women (hereafter DPW). Every woman here, I expect, has daily first-person experience of this. It is surely only banal to say that women are still far from being granted the status of full-blown persons or straightforwardly legitimate members of society. Still it is the case that there is society and there are women. The most specific manifestations of it are familiar enough. Our culture is permeated by DPW and I have no more time here to persuade or even explicate.

The second meaning of the key term is such that the premise asserts that pornography is another variant of, or contributor to, DPW. That is, in saying that pornography portrays women as sexual objects, it is not merely being said that pornography draws attention to sexually interesting features of women, but something much more than this. Specifically, that pornography is essentially constituted by the suggestion that (a) women are, or ought to be, nothing other than vehicles of male sexual satisfaction; (b) any feelings women may have themselves about this don’t matter; (c) the entire conception a woman has of herself in relation to the rest of the world ought to be grounded on her realising that her virtue, the thing which makes her function well, is her privilege of providing men with any amount and any kind of sexual gratification.

If anything like this were true, if pornography were essentially as this premise has it, then the normative conclusion “pornography is bad” would follow. However, the thing is, there seems no reason to believe the premise. How pornography essentially involves any of the monstrous things this premise attributes to it is not at all clear. This second sense of “sexual object” surely doesn’t follow from the first, and, indeed, I expect that most of us would hope to be a sexual object in the first sense, but not in the second. Apart from all else, since when could it be supposed that an image of something is an index to an exhaustive description of it? How is it supposed (as it seems to be here) that an image essentially reduces the object of depiction to the way it is depicted? How is it supposed that pornography essentially reduces women in the way this premise makes out? The second sense of “sexual object” no more follows from the first than it follows from a picture of my coughing in the street that (for instance), I do nothing else, that I do sponsored coughing for charity, that I like Mozart, or that I don’t like Mozart. The notion that pornography essentially involves sexual objecthood in the second sense, is something which requires a diagnosis more than a refutation. I fear, too, that the diagnosis is messy and painful, involving a hotchpotch of confusions and prejudices, such as puritanism about sexuality, a condescension about appearances (this itself being conjoined with attitudes centring on the historical economic powerlessness of women), misogyny, beliefs about a supposedly prototypical sexual context and its nature, and a set of misconceptions grounded on a grossly exaggerated stress on the notions of uniqueness, individuality, and their alleged relation to persons as ends. Again, I am aware of the need to deal with these issues more fully.

However, it seems to me as plausible as anything else to believe that pornography would exist in a great many possible worlds, not only those where DPW were true, and that male heterosexuality alone would be enough, however much the other allegedly relevant conditions were varied, to generate an interest in it. I am unpersuaded either that pornography essentially involves the denial of personhood to women or (a weaker claim) that it could only occur in a culture where the personhood of women were, in some way, denied.

I will now move on to what I see as a genuine moral and legislative problem regarding pornography. I think it fair to call it a dilemma, and I think it a kind of problem which accrues with regard to several legislative questions. We could imagine someone responding to what I have said so far something like this: “What you’ve said may be fair enough, but you’ve been concerning yourself with essential natures, possible worlds, entailments and all that. But surely the only possible world which matters is the actual world. Pornography may not entail or require DPW, but the fact is that, in the actual world, pornography exists alongside DPW, not in some vacuum of essential natures. This means that consumers indulge, already theory-laden, in this case laden with the values and baggage of a culture which already represses women and this prior mind set, though not entailed by pornography itself, transforms the pornographic image into something significantly more than what it essentially is. That is (for fans of phenomenology), the intentional object is different from what the pornographic image alone entails, and, most importantly, the intentional object becomes a “sexual object” not only in the first sense, but also in the second (i.e. bad) sense. The social backdrop you mentioned, such as attitudes to appearances, misogyny and economic factors, facilitate this calamitous transformation; the gap between the first and second senses of “sexual object” in fact becomes filled. DPW is, therefore, merely reinforced, a relationship being generated in two directions between the pornographic image and the denial of personhood to women. Therefore, steps ought to be taken against pornography.”

This, I think, is a powerful argument, and surely at least points towards some incontestable truths. It is surely implausible to deny that the argument identifies what must be a fairly typical pornographic context. Despite this, however, I do not feel secure about everything going on in the argument. One of the reasons for talking, for instance, about possible worlds, is to guard against a lack of circumspection where the actual world is concerned, and as I will attempt to spell out, such a lack seems to me to be a crucially defective feature of this argument. That is, we have to beware of assuming without good reason, that the typical context for a thing is the only context in which it does, in fact, occur. If we can close the limits on context a priori, then we know from the outset, sets of contexts which cannot occur. On the other hand, if a priori questions leave open certain non-typical possible contexts, then we know that we must be ready to spot their actual occurrence. It seems to me a form of intellectual or legislative wish-fulfilment to conclude, straight off, that a typical context must be exhaustive. From the realisation that there is no ideal observer, it doesn’t follow that all observers are the same. The falsity of naive realism about imagery doesn't entail that the subject-input is identical on all occasions. I think that such an unwarranted, and moreover false, assumption plays an important part in this argument against pornography. I will try to elucidate in a moment, but I myself think that we cannot abandon either considerations of what is essential to something, or considerations of what is contextual. The political Right tend to be rather oblivious to context, the apotheosis being reached when Mrs. Thatcher announced that society is a fiction. The Left tend to be overimpressed by considerations of context. Society is no fiction, but nor does everything collapse into a context of social interrelations and the like.

This gets us near to what I see as the dilemma. It is, I think, generated by the realisation that once the possibility of a thing’s occurring outside of typical context is allowed, the possibility is opened up that it does, in fact, in some actual cases, occur unmediated by such a context. So, if it is only a typical context which makes something dubious, to legislate against the thing itself would entail legislating against any such cases of the thing’s occurring free from the interference of the undesirable context. Therefore, legislating against that which we want to eliminate would entail legislating against that, against which there is no reason to legislate. In the process of getting rid of something we want to be rid of, we also penalise persons who are, quite straightforwardly, doing nothing wrong.

I can perhaps make this clearer by comparing pornography with something which I think manifests an identical problem: alcohol. No one here, I expect, takes there to be anything essentially wrong with the consumption of alcohol. The problem is a set of alcoholic contexts which, notoriously, tie up alcohol with the likes of violence, illness and premature death. However, surely no one would dispute that some persons do, in fact, consume alcohol free from the interference of any of these undesirable contexts, thus presenting a desperate problem for alcohol legislation. For instance, to restrict drinking opportunities (say) because of alcohol contexts is also to penalise those who have no parts in the harmful contexts.

As I say, I think it true that soft pornography presents an identical problem. As I've indicated, not only do I see no a priori connection between images of women in soft pornography and the denial of personhood to women, but I also am in no doubt that, as a matter of fact,there is a class of pornography-consumption events not at all constituted by the typical context which presents the problem. In such cases, the intentional object is a sexual object in the first sense, from which no normative conclusion follows. I see no reason to regard this kind of case as different, in the significant sense, from the case of the genuinely harmless drink; in the most straightforward sense, I see nothing wrong here.

However, at the same time, there is another class of cases, an appreciable majority I would expect, where the context we want rid of is essentially constitutive of the experience. In these cases, the social attitudes, prejudices and the like to which I alluded earlier bring about the transformation from the first sense of “sexual object” to the second sense. Here, the intentional object is a sexual object in the second sense, from which a normative conclusion does follow. I say, a normative conclusion because the conclusion is not, of course, the bland one that pornography is bad, but a more restricted one about a class of pornography-consumption events. This kind of consumer sees something different from the other kind when they look at the same page, in the same way that the problem drinker sees something different from the occasional social drinker, when they are exposed to the same glass of whisky. What worries me, of course, is this second kind of consumer of pornography, and if we feel we cannot wait for the required social revolution, how can we do anything which doesn't also penalise the first kind of consumer? I've no answers to offer here, but I hope that, in attempting to articulate the problem, I can at least help free this issue from the conceptual anaemia from which it so frequently suffers.

Reference :
1. Philosophical Review, 54, 4, 1949.

© Dr. Paul Davis 1991


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