Although people throughout history have represented sexuality in literature and art, pornography did not emerge as a mass industry until the late 1950s, eventually breaking into mainstream distribution outlets and growing to an estimated $12 billion-a-year business in the United States by the end of the 20th century. Although still proscribed by law in a variety of ways, pornography is increasingly mainstream in contemporary culture.
The terms obscenity and indecency have specific legal meanings. Pornography is sometimes used to describe all sexually explicit books, magazines, movies, and Internet sites, with a distinction made between soft-core (nudity with limited sexual activity, not including penetration) and hard-core (graphic images of actual, not simulated, sexual activity including penetration). Pornography also is often distinguished from erotica (material that depicts sexual behavior with mutuality and respect), leaving pornography as the term for material depicting sex with domination or degradation. Laboratory studies of pornography’s effects commonly use three categories: overtly violent; nonviolent, but degrading; and sexually explicit, but neither violent nor degrading.
Indecency, a term from broadcasting (over-the-air radio and television), defines a broader category that can be regulated: language or material that, in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium. The Federal Communications Commission administers indecency regulations.
In the 1973 Miller v. California decision, the U.S. Supreme Court established a three-part test for defining obscenity (material that appeals to the prurient interest, portrays sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value) and identified contemporary community standards as the measure of evaluation. Although a strict application of state and federal obscenity laws could lead to prosecution of much contemporary pornography, enforcement usually occurs only where there is political support from citizens. This prosecutorial discretion means material for sale openly in one jurisdiction may not be available in another. However, the availability of mail-order and computer pornography ensures that graphic, sexually explicit material can be obtained easily anywhere. The only exception is child pornography—material that is either made using children or in the digital age, made through the use of technology that makes it appear the sexual activity uses children. The former is illegal without question (New York v. Ferber, 1982) and available only underground; the legal status of the latter remains uncertain (Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 2002).
As legal prohibitions have lessened, a once underground industry with ties to organized crime has become a routine business with its own trade magazine, Adult Video News. Heterosexual pornography makes up the bulk of the commercial market. There is a significant amount of gay male pornography available, with a smaller amount of material produced commercially for lesbians. Pornography is distributed using all communication technologies: print, photographs, film, telephones, video, DVD, and computers. Playboy Magazine, which debuted in December 1953, was the first sex magazine to break into mainstream distribution channels. In the 1960s and 1970s, pornographic films moved into public theaters. In the 1980s, video swamped other forms, with the number of new pornographic video or DVD titles released each year increasing from 1,500 in 1986 to 13,000 in 2005. Computers emerged as a major vehicle for pornography in the 1990s.
The two main categories in today’s pornographic movie industry are features and wall-to-wall/gonzo. Features, shot mostly on video but occasionally on film, have a traditional three-act script with some plot and characters. The industry markets these as “couples’ movies” that can appeal to women as well as to the traditional male audience, although the vast majority of pornography consumers are men. Wall-to-wall movies are all-sex productions that have no pretense of plot or dialogue. Many of these movies are shot gonzo style in which performers acknowledge the camera and often speak directly to the audience. In addition, there are specialty titles—movies that feature sadomasochism and bondage, fetish material, transsexuals—that fill niche markets.
The majority of hard-core movies include oral, vaginal, and anal sex, almost always ending with ejaculation on the woman. In the wall-to-wall/gonzo movies, double penetration (anal and vaginal penetration by two men at the same time) and aggressive oral penetration of women are increasingly common, as are hair pulling, slapping, and rough treatment. As these movies push the limits of overt violence and brutality, pornography producers search for new ways to attract male viewers looking for increased stimulation.
Up to the 1970s, debates over pornography pitted liberal advocates of sexual freedom against conservative proponents of traditional sexual morality. That changed with the feminist critique of pornography, a critique which emerged out of the struggle against sexual violence during the women’s movement in the 1960s and which focused on the ways in which pornography eroticizes domination and subordination. Feminist critics argued for a focus not on subjective sexual mores, but on the harm to women used in pornography and against whom pornography is used.
Much of the debate about pornography concerns the question of effects. Does pornography, particularly material that explicitly eroticizes violence and/or domination, result in sexual violence against women, children, and other vulnerable people? Pornography’s supporters and some researchers argue there is no conclusive evidence. Other researchers contend the evidence points to some kind of effects with some groups of men. No one argues that pornography is the sole causal factor in rape; the question is whether the use of pornography can be considered a sufficient condition for triggering a sexual assault. Because experimental research on such topics using minors is more difficult and ethically problematic, there is little data specifically about pornography’s effects on children and adolescents.
Many feminists have argued that attention to the experiences of men and women—both those who use pornography and those against whom pornography is used—makes the connection clear. Such accounts provide specific examples of how pornography can (a) be an important factor in shaping a male-dominant view of sexuality, (b) contribute to a user’s difficulty in separating sexual fantasy and reality, (c) be used to initiate victims and break down resistance to sexual activity, and (d) provide a training manual for abuse.
- Dines, G., Jensen, R., & Russo, A. (1998). Pornography: The production and consumption of inequality. New York: Routledge.
- Dworkin, A. (1981). Pornography: Men possessing women. New York: Perigee.
- MacKinnon, C. A., & Dworkin, A. (1997). In harm’s way: The pornography civil rights hearings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Strossen, N. (1995). Defending pornography: Free speech, sex, and the fight for women’s rights. New York: Scribner.
- Williams, L. (1989). Hard core: Power, pleasure and the “frenzy of the visible.” Berkeley: University of California Press.
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