What is the problem with pornography? – Review

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 4 Lent 2003

The magazine of

Women's Union

What is the problem with pornography?

Catherine MacKinnon

Many feminists have objected to pornography. Unexamined, those objections can contribute to
the bad name feminism has tended to acquire, the impression that feminists are dried-up
man-haters who don’t like sex. I like sex. I don’t like some pornography. This is why.

In UK law, pornography is material which is sexually explicit and which aims at sexual
arousal. Feminists, as feminists, should have no problem with that. It is an issue of
censorship and obscenity. These considerations are not sex-specific. Feminists are concerned
with correcting biases which lead to the subordination or disparagement of women in
particular, and so there need be no feminist take on an issue which concerns men and women in
identical ways, as with offence at sexual explicitness.

The problem is not the sex. Leave that to Mary Whitehouse. The problem is that a lot of
pornography is sexually explicit, aims at sexual arousal and depicts women as subordinate and
objectified. It eroticises inequality. It depicts violence against women and presents it as
sexy. Women are shown tied up, tied down, bruised, raped, violated, hurt, and enjoying
it. Women are portrayed as constantly having an appetite for sex, as being objects for men to
use. Feminist objections to the eroticisation of inequality are independent of Moral Majority
objections to sexual explicitness. The pornography on the top shelf in a newsagent is limited
in what it can show according to obscenity legislation. That doesn’t stop it conveying
messages about what women are like and how women should be treated.

The problem is not that pornography causes direct harm to individual women through its
consumption or production. There is no clear evidence that it does so. It has not been shown
to cause direct harm through consumption. Men who abuse women may use pornography, but it has
not been shown that the pornography makes them more likely to be abusive. It need not
necessarily cause harm to women in its production. If women are directly harmed then there
are employment laws and laws against physical abuse which should protect them. If individual
women voluntarily involve themselves in making pornography, then they have made a choice that
the benefits outweigh the costs. It has been argued that many women who make pornography are
in a vulnerable situation and therefore their choice is not fully voluntary. They tend to be
‘poor, desperate, homeless, pimped women who were sexually abused as children’1. This implies
that they are psychologically damaged and so do not realise that they are being further
damaged and degraded by their involvement in pornography, or that they are in too weak a
position to have real alternatives to making pornography. It may be the case that many of the
women involved in making pornography are thus vulnerable, but this is a result of background
inequalities and abuse, not the making of pornography in itself. It is those background
inequalities and abuses that should be remedied. Depriving of a woman in this position of the
choice of making pornography to earn a reasonable amount of money may leave her in a weaker
and more degraded position than permitting her the option of participating.

So what is the problem with pornography? Is pornography just a fantasy? The fact that
many men seek out pornography which depicts the subordination of women shows that they find it
sexually arousing. This may be repellent, and not what women themselves want, but if it were
only a fantasy then it would have no effect on equality. If it were purely a symptom of what
men desire, without having any effect on their behaviour, it might in fact be useful in the
debate about equality. Free speech can enliven debate, and having porn as a target and symbol
of the problem could help, and permitting it would be better than legislating against it and
thereby pushing it underground and unnecessarily restricting freedom.

Pornography may be a fantasy, but it is not just a fantasy. It may be a symptom of
inequality, but it also propagates that inequality. It not only recites but also exaggerates
gender norms. It does not reflect or describe what really happens elsewhere, but it does
present a way that men and women could behave sexually, and present it as if it were
truth. This makes it more difficult to separate from reality than other types of
fantasy. Further, sex is a topic about which people tend to have few other sources of
information. Therefore pornography is a means by which men’s attitudes to sex, as they are
the main consumers of pornography, are not just expressed but also formed. The problem is
that it shows men what sex could be like, and this tends to form sexual roles

The pervasiveness of pornography means that if women are concerned to end domestic
violence, rape and other abuses, then communication of the message that they enjoy rape, that
they always have an appetite for sex or that their appropriate role is a subordinate one will
be damaging. At least some pornography communicates this message. A jury to whom that
message had been communicated would be unlikely to treat women with justice, so pornography
would damage equality.

Gender and sexuality are very closely connected. This means that if women are thought of
and treated as sexually subordinate, this will tend to transfer into their gender
role. Showing woman in a subordinate sexual role transfers to non-sexual
situations. Therefore the consumption of pornography may have an effect on the social
environment women find themselves in. It may make it more difficult for women to be taken
seriously and to take themselves seriously. Sexual harassment creates an environment of
insult and ridicule, and sexualises women’s roles in non-sexual situations. Pornography may
also do this. Sexualised images of women, especially if subordinated, whether physically
present or present in the minds of people, may make it hard for a woman to have gravitas, to
be taken seriously, and this damages equality.

The problem is not that pornography is sexually explicit. The problem is not that it
directly causes harm to individual women. The problem is not that it shows us something about
what men want, something we would rather not see. The problem with porn is that it reinforces
the current sexual inequality. It contributes to the eroticisation of women’s
subordination. It offers a fantasy which tends to shape the way men and women think about
sex. It shapes women’s sexual roles, which affects the way they are treated in non-sexual
situations. The problem with pornography is that much of it sexualises women’s subordination
and objectification, and thereby reinforces our inferior social status.



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