Is Pornography Morally Problematic and Does Pornography Have Harmful Effects?
Many critics of pornography (e.g. feminists, Focus on the Family, and politically right-wing Conservatives) have argued that pornography is morally problematic because it has harmful effects. I do not believe that pornography has any significant effects (in fact, pornography may even be beneficial to society; a point I am unable to address in this paper) and I counter three arguments that the aforementioned critics may have about their perceived ways in which pornography is harmful to society. These arguments are (1) that human males, if exposed long enough to pornography, will eventually try to carry out the behavior they find in pornography to human females in a real context; (2) pornography distorts human males’ perception of female sexuality; and (3) viewing pornography is inherently immoral.
Longino defines pornography as:
“verbal or pictorial explicit representations of sexual behavior that… has as a distinguishing characteristic ‘the degrading and demeaning portrayal of the role and status of the human female… as a mere sexual object to be exploited and manipulated sexually.’” (Longino, 42)I believe that Longino’s definition of pornography is a sufficient starting point in defining the types of pornography that most critics object to, however I believe this definition needs to be broadened to accommodate other reasons I would think people would object to pornography. In addition to defining pornography as depicting human females in a “degrading and demeaning” manner, I am explicitly adding that pornography must treat human females as inferior and must necessarily be submissive to human males.
Those critics of pornography that wish for the state to regulate pornography are often citing harmful effects that pornography has on society. This has been a popular strategy in arguing for state regulation of pornography because, I would argue, that a harm based argument is the only proverbial leg these critics have to stand on. Other than showing how pornography demonstrably harms society in a significant way, critics of pornography have little hope for changing or legislating laws to regulate pornography because of the high value the United States places on The First Amendment. This is not to say that the critics of pornography may have a decent case for states regulating pornography on the basis that it is obscene, however the United States has vague guidelines on determining what is obscene. Examine the United States Supreme Court’s holding of the Miller v. California (1973) in which Chief Justice Warren Burger attempts to establish a set of criterion that defines what obscene materials are.
“The basic guidelines for [obscenities] must be: (a) whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, Roth, supra, at 354 U. S. 489, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” (Miller v. California (1973))Take criteria (b) for instance, “…whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law…” I believe that a court would be more likely to start regulating pornography if there was demonstrable harm rather than arbitrarily deciding that pornography, as I have defined it, is “patently offensive”.
I am of the opinion that pornography has very few harmful effects (of those few effects, none are more than negligible) on society; much to the same extent as violent films and video games are insignificant in the harm they inflict on society. I am sure that critics of pornography may find this as a very strong and controversial statement to make, so I will take some time in dispelling counter-examples I find likely for my opposition to use against me.
The first counter-argument, relative to my position, I would like to dispel is that human males, if exposed to degrading, demeaning, male dominating pornography for long enough, will eventually try to carry out the behavior they find in pornography to human females in a real context. Cameron and Frazer address this fallacy by referring to this type of behavior as “[the] copycat model” or “…you see it, then (therefore?) you do it…” (Cameron, 242) Humans, being animals with the ability to rationalize and come to conclusions that may be contradictory to our natural instincts, have the self control to watch violent pornography and then not copy what they see. Cameron and Frazier believe (and I think they are correct) that:
“Humans are not like billiard balls – or indeed like animals, whose behavior can be described in terms of a stimulus-response model… [Human Behavior] is not deterministically ‘caused’. It needs to be explained in a different way, by interpretation of what it means and elucidation of the beliefs or understandings that make it possible and intelligible.” (Cameron, 249)Human sexuality or the impulse to have sex is relatively easy to control and more easily controlled compared to animals, some of which show no reserve to act out sexually on the nearest potential mate.
The second counter-argument that is worth mentioning is from pornography critics that would assert that pornography distorts human males’ perception of female sexuality. Longino, among other critics about pornography, makes no reference to women who enjoy bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM), to women who enjoy humiliating and compromising sexual positions, nor to women who enjoy degrading and demeaning behaviors from their male partners. I do not believe that pornography advocates indiscriminate sexual abuse with nonconsensual females, but rather, provides the same type of sexual gratification to those with BDSM/humiliation fetishes in the same way as sexually explicit material does with people who find sexual gratification in male/female consensual, respectful intercourse. I believe that most human males have no misconception of the fact that what they see in pornography is not necessarily what women enjoy. Pornography may be an outlet for which men, with fetishes that are impractical in the real world, may live out their fantasies. However, I do not find that these men with these particular fetishes are immoral. The men I would consider immoral are the men as a subset of these men with fetishes for pornography whom treat women as inferior “outside the bedroom” and sincerely hold sexist beliefs.
The third counter-argument in which a pornography critic would incorrectly find convincing is that viewing pornography is inherently immoral. I would contest the assertion that deriving pleasure from the viewing of two humans engaging in heterosexual or homosexual sexual intercourse, however demeaning, degrading, or dominating one sex or person is to another, is morally problematic. Consider this example, is it morally problematic if a human male or human female is sexually attracted to children that would be consider “underage” (under 18 years of age in the United States)? I believe that being sexually attracted to children is not morally problematic, but taking action upon real children to satisfy your sexual fantasies is, however, morally problematic (having sexual intercourse with someone who society deems unfit of making personal decisions and perhaps against their will). A person with a fetish for children may turn towards child pornography as a cathartic experience to prevent themselves from harming real children. I am not advocating child pornography to be produced for any reason (this would be immoral), but rather, I would advocate consuming computer generated child pornography (such as “lolicon” pornography). I cannot conceive anything immoral about human males and females being “turned onto” or having fetishes about having sex with children, so long as they never act out on this fetish.
Returning to the original counter-argument and relating it to people with fetishes for children, viewing pornography, for any reason one may choose to, cannot possibly be inherently immoral. I would assume that most people, including these critics of pornography, agree that playing first person shooters (FPSs) is not morally problematic. I have played and enjoyed FPSs in the past and, to be honest, never thought about the action of killing other persons via a video game. Mentally, FPSs are like engaging in laser tag. No matter how gruesome or disturbing the graphics used are, I am only thinking about the strategy similar to the one found in laser tag. Furthermore, I would never kill another human being and doubt that any of the other players in the game would kill another human being. Extending the analogy to the viewing of pornography, even if a person enjoys the degradation of women, demeaning treatment of women, and dominance over women in the context of pornography, I would not be able to make the claim that they are an immoral person.
In conclusion, although arguments that critics make against pornography that are harm based are the best arguments the critics have, these arguments alone still do not justify that states should regulate pornographic materials. I have attempted to counter three major arguments that critics of pornography may use as an attempt to demonstrate that pornography is harmful, namely that pornography is immoral, pornography distorts males’ views of female sexuality, and pornography encourages men to act on their sexual fetishes indiscriminately and with malice.
Cameron, Deborah, and Elizabeth Frazer. "On the Question of Pornography and Sexual Violence: Moving Beyond Cause and Effect." Pornography: Woman, Violence, and Civil Liberties (1994). P. 240-53. Electronic
Longino, Helen E.. “Pornography, Oppression, and Freedom: A Closer Look.” Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. Lederer, Laura. p. 40-54. New York. William & Co. 1980. Electronic
Miller vs. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973). Full text of majority decision found at http://supreme.justia.com/us/413/15/case.html. I find this source to be reliable because supreme.justia.com has full text copies of Supreme Court decisions verbatim.