Is pornography an art form, or simply anything that depicts genitals in action? Where does mere eroticism end and pornography begin?
Blogging has been light around here as of late -- what with our gang's various and sundry summer travels and the fact that we were often not in the studio this summer. But it's time to kick this blog back into at least moderate gear. For the upcoming season, I plan to blog more regularly -- at least weekly, I hope. (Daily is way more than I can manage.)
Not going to make an elaborate entry this morning, before the show. But I thought I'd give you a taste of what we're going to talk about today, Here's a little dialogue, between Joe and Blow, that sets up some of the issues we'll talk about today.
JOE: I was thinking about the nature of pornography and I got stuck on the problem of definition. The late Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, is famous for having said that pornography he couldn’t define pornography, but that he knew it when he saw it. Seems like he's right. Or do you think you can do better?
BLOW: Well, try this definition on for size. Pornography is the graphic depiction or description intimate sexual acts, with an intense focus on sexual organs, for the express purpose of causing sexual arousal in the viewer, listener, or reader.
JOE: My first reaction is that seems too broad. That definition would make things that are romantic, artistic and erotic count as something base and pornographic.
BLOW: You’re making the pretty common, but mistaken assumption that pornography is, by definition, a bad thing. Do yo really think it's an analytic truth, as philosophers like to say, that pornography is a bad thing?
JOE: Definitely, pornography is a bad thing. It debases and objectifies woman; it promotes the sexual exploitation of children; it glorifies sexual violence.
BLOW: Are you deliberately being obtuse, Joe? I don't doubt that some pornography is bad. And probably some of it is bad in just the ways you say. But that's not what I was denying. I was denying that pornography is bad by definition.
JOE: I'm not being obstuse. I get that you're suggesting that we shouldn’t define pornography in value-laden terms. I just disagree -- that's all.
BLOW: You want to try and settle the moral issues about pornography by appeal to definitions? But that's a mistake. We have to look at how pornography actually works – at its real world social, and psychological and economic effects.
JOE: I hate to appeal to the authority of dictionaries in philosophical arguments. But if you go looking in the dictionaries you get conflicting data. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines pornography as “the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement. That’s a value-neutral definition. But at dictionary.com you find a more value-laden definition, “obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, esp. those having little or no artistic merit.”
BLOW: I’m with Merriam Webster, obviously. But however we want to define pornography, we’ve got the same problem. The real question is which, if any depictions of sex organs and sex acts, are morally problematic and which are not? And what distinguishes the morally problematic ones from the ones that are not morally problematic?
JOE: The morally problematic ones are the ones that debase woman, that exploit children, that promote sexual violence.
BLOW: Can we agree to set aside child pornography? That has no defenders. But are you suggesting that certain representations of sexual acts are intrinsically or constitutively morally problematic?
JOE: I am indeed, suggesting that. I more than suggesting it, I'm outright claiming it. There’s just something plain distasteful about pictures of naked women in bondage. Such representations treat woman as if they were mere things, mere tools. Woman are not and should not be represented as tools. Don’t you agree? Don't you find that sort of thing just disgusting. I know I do.
BLOW: You sound like you're trying to legislate tastes, Joe. But tastes vary and should be allowed to vary. Some people like that sort of thing, obviously. And some people don’t.
JOE: I don't think we're talking about matters of taste. I think we're talking about matters of morality. There is something intrinsically morally wrong with pornographic representations of woman in sexual bondage. Anybody ought to find such representations distasteful. It's a perversion of taste that some men find the objectification of woman aesthetically pleasing. So I might not want to call someone who likes that sort of thing evil. But I would call them perverted. And I take perversion to be a term of moral condemnation.
BLOW: Perversion is in the eye of the beholder. What you call a perversion may for another person be a supreme and sublime erotic experience. Look, I'll grant you this. Some people can’t handle explicit sexual representations. It might lead them to sexual violence or other untoward behavior toward woman. But some people can’t handle explicit violence in the movies either. Perhaps we should keep pornography out the hands who people who can’t handle it. But otherwise leave it alone. That's about as far as I'm inclined to go in morally condemnation of pornography.
JOE: Look, I gotta run, Blow. I wish I could stay and talk you out of your silly views. But my favorite radio show, Philosophy Talk, is about to air and it just so happens they are doing an episode on Pornography, with Rae Langton --who has written a wonderful book about the subject. I wouldn't miss it for anything,
BLOW: That sounds cool. Mind if I come along and listen too?
JOE: Not at all. I'd like that. Maybe you'll learn something.