Pornography: Open Thread

Saturday, August 29, 2009 -- 5:00 PM
Ken Taylor

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. 

Comments (12)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, August 29, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

JOE's obsession with bondage photographs points to

JOE's obsession with bondage photographs points to interesting ground. It's a fact that some men are aroused by seeing women bound and helpless. It's also a fact that some women enjoy and consent to being bound and (ostensibly) helpless for a while. How does JOE know that the women in the photographs he deplores didn't consent to being tied up? How does he know whether most of the men who enjoy these photographs imagine that the women have not consented? Viewing someone bound and helpless and viewing someone bound and helpless in play are two different things, aren't they?
Outlawing certain kinds of images helps eroticize them; it's a losing strategy. We might do better to concentrate on prosecuting the perpetrators of any criminal acts recorded in the photos/videos. That would satisfy the requirement of protecting those unwilling or unable to give consent to sexual/parasexual acts, while avoiding the thicket of "intent."

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, August 29, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

The opening on the program on pornography was a

The opening on the program on pornography was a male view of the topic. I didn't get to listen to the whole program, but I do hope that some women were able to comment. I spent four years as the advisor to a central European delegation to the UN Beijing Women's Conference while living in Central Europe. My eyes were opened in a new way.I learned about women who were kidnapped, had their passports taken away and forced into prostitution, pornography, and other forms of sexual slavery. Children who were sold by their parents and enslaved by brothels or families! Women who were sexually abused as small children by members of their family and had little self worth so they worked in porn. There were few woman involved in pornography who chose to engage in these acts that supposedly give men pleasure. Have you noticed that there are few records of the men giving woman pleasure? Try comparing erotica to pornography and you might come up with beautiful bodies of both sexes , consenting adults, the exchange of pleasures for fun and love compared to enslavement. I want to be certain that Stanford men get a little more down to earth about the cost of life to women in pornography rather than merely stating that some men like it and some don't. Try seeing it from the point of view of women and children.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, August 29, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

On this topic, I have to side with Joe. While "the

On this topic, I have to side with Joe. While "theoretically" pornography needn't be patriarchal, objectifying of women, and violence-promoting, the reality is that mainstream pornography is clearly all three.
The argument that "perversion is in the eye of the beholder" risks moral nihilism. Some people experience sublime pleasure in watching or committing violence, but it should still be regulated and morally condemned.
Consent is not the most important issue in this debate, as feminists have long pointed out that women are publicly celebrated in patriarchal societies for willingly and enthusiastically embracing their own degradation and oppression. A female porn actress that apparently enjoys her humiliation and objectification is rewarded for embracing her "bondage" by becoming a "star." This is hardly adequate compensation for venereal disease (only 17% of male porn stars use condoms), abuse, and public humiliation.
Seeing pornography as a matter of "taste" masks the structural abuse, poor treatment of women in the sex industries, and perpetuates moral relativism with matters of gender equality.
Whether or not there is room for erotic imagery in culture, and whether this imagery can be created in such a way as to be non-patriarchal is a very interesting question, but should be treated as a separate question from the factual realities of our existing "pornographied" culture.
I recommend the eye-opening and balanced documentary Price of Pleasure (a preview of which is available here for viewing online: http://www.mediaed.org/cgi-bin/commerce.cgi?preadd=action&key=235) for some intelligent views and clear examples regarding this important subject.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, August 29, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments on a sub

Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments on a subject that generates a lot of ambivalence for me.
While I detest the degradation of women (or anyone else) by the industry, I have yet to come across any tolerable proposals that allow government to suppress any form of expression. (Let's not forget that, at one time, James Joyce's "Ulysses" and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" were deemed pornographic.)
The better solution may be sustained public education on the degradation inflicted by the industry on both actors and audiences. Aggressive boycotts and sustained condemnation of the industry's practices and adverse social impacts (following Sara's example) are two options. As someone, I forget who, famously said: "the best answer to offensive speech is more speech."
In a free marketplace of ideas, pornography will eventually lose. As with the absurd "war on drugs," the struggle against the exploitation of actors and the debasement of its audience by the porn industry should focus on curtailing demand rather than supply.
Sara suggests that eroticism becomes pornographic when the participants, especially women, are subjected to coercion or, less overtly, some form of duress. This seems like a workable definition. But I balk at the idea that government can be trusted to distinguish eroticism -- depictions of sexual activity between freely consenting adults -- and pornographic imagery in which the will of the actors is overborne by some form of coercion.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, August 29, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

I agree with Duff. I know women who LOVE bondage

I agree with Duff. I know women who LOVE bondage and so forth. There are women who love being mistresses, and men who love the stuff their mistress do to them. I would consider all of that stuff "porn." But who is to debate taste in sexual expression? What is totally unacceptable to me is child porn, unnecessary violence like "snuff films." and anything that is produced because women (or men!) are enslaved or feel like their only options to survive are to do things with their bodies that they would prefer not do under normal circumstances. This takes education, not legistlation that messes with the 1st Ammendment!

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, August 29, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Weather consented or not, I believe in general

Weather consented or not, I believe in general humans look to each other for knowledge of truth, when used , trust is broken. Because one may consent, dosn't mean it is enjoyed. Pleasuring your mate is something a couple married through God is where this belongs.
If an act is started then decidedly feels wrong there is no reason to continue to falseify that because consented could not be resinded. To me each and every act a man performs on a woman is for his own pleasure and only ends with his satisfaction. This has been my experience.
Once an act of violent sex has been performed it seems to stay in that man's mind and he then continues to look at all women in such manner. I've seen the look come my way and it feels belittling even tho I had nothing to do with the consent or act, I feel the vibrations of it.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, August 30, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

I haven't gotten a chance to listen to the show ye

I haven't gotten a chance to listen to the show yet, but I can't wait until it's up online.
I also just want to respond to a few of you who seem to make overbroad generalizations about the people (consenting women) who do porn.
I've done porn for coming on 4 years. I have a graduate degree and a professional career; I don't do it because I have to but because I enjoy it. And I don't find it to be objectifying; what's more objectifying for me are people like Duff who pigeon-hole me for the simple fact that I do porn.
The truth is, I make porn because I love my body and I love to share that with others. Not to get all hippie righteous on you, but sex is a natural, beautiful thing. Why can't we celebrate that once in a while instead of labeling any depiction of it degrading and objectifying?
And while there are a lot of bad parts of the porn industry, it's not like every woman who goes into it gets taken advantage of and infected with HIV. I only work with photographers that I trust, and I have never felt endangered. It takes a little discretion, but there girls out there all over the place getting into bad situations and getting venereal diseases NOT doing porn. All of you who suggest better sex-ed are totally on point.
Finally, why do all of you people care so much about bondage? It sounds like you've all got some closet fetishes to deal with. Bondage is no more objectifying than any other genre of porn, just because it involves ropes. Let people have their kinks and get over it. If there's criminal behavior it's not porn's fault.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, September 3, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Please don't interrupt your guests! She is very i

Please don't interrupt your guests! She is very interesting, and I felt annoyed that the hosts seemed more interested in expressing their own somewhat misinformed ideas than letting the audience hear about her research.

Michael's picture

Michael

Saturday, September 5, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

What Hera said. And it's too bad you didn't clari

What Hera said.
And it's too bad you didn't clarify the distinction between erotic art and pornography, which will never be a "value neutral" term because it implies moral (and legal) opprobrium. "Pornography" is a subset of eroticism that's generally objectionable for some reason or other, though there's little agreement beyond that. You barely approached the critical issue of what should be "done" about pornography, and specifically whether government (or civil claims) can address it in some way without colliding with the 1st Amendment. (Rae began to discuss this but your questions led her in other directions.)
Finally, you might consider a show exploring whether there are innate "male" and "female" forms of sexuality (or worldviews), a topic that was touched upon this week.
Thanks again to Rae, who was an excellent guest. Bring her back for an encore!
Off-topic: it's frustrating to get the podcast (for which I'm a paid subscriber) on Thursday and find that the thread is already going stale on this blog. If subscribers really want to take part, they're obligated to listen to the live show or stream early in the week. Which defeats the purpose of buying the podcast.

rm's picture

rm

Tuesday, September 8, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

It might be helpful to distinguish the moral statu

It might be helpful to distinguish the moral status of certain sexual acts themselves from the moral status of the depiction of those acts. If bondage, even in the unpublished privacy of one's home, subordinates women and is wrong on that ground, then the *depiction* of that act may amplify the wrongness, but ultimately derives it moral status from the original judgment.
For the critics of pornography, the more telling case deals with an act which itself is unobjectionable - say two consenting adults having vanilla, though rousing, sex. I'm wondering if Rae Langton (I haven't read her book) would object to the depiction of this kind of sex? Is it possible that a depiction would subordinate even if the act depicted was not one of subordination?

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 17, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

This topic - and especially the one of sadomasochi

This topic - and especially the one of sadomasochism - cannot even begin to be discussed without first discussing general views of morality. As a moral relativist, I see most of what has been said as being very far removed from the issue at hand, and so I can't say much about it other than in advocating moral relativism. Believe it or not, moral relativism would actually help humanity satisfy our most shared moral feelings, by illuminating the where the issue actually is - in our heads.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, December 17, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

And I am willing to bet, if Joe is a real-life per

And I am willing to bet, if Joe is a real-life person, his fantasies "debase women," by his own definition. One can argue that human nature is inherently undignified. One can argue anything. Prudish anti-porn rants are ineffective, in any case.

 

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