Pornography generally refers to sexually explicit materials, including movies, television, Web sites, books, and magazines depicting various aspects of sexuality. This material ranges from “soft-core” to “hard-core” pornography. Soft-core pornography generally includes sexually explicit materials involving nudity and does not directly include images of intercourse, although intercourse may be implied. For example, magazines that provide sexualized images of nude or seminude individuals would be considered a form of soft-core pornography. In contrast, videos providing direct images of sexual intercourse or activities would be considered a type of hard-core pornography. Pornography became a large-scale industry in the 1950s to circulate such materials for profit. Currently, pornography is a multibillion dollar industry that is a normalized part of American culture. Pornographic materials are easily accessible, particularly via the Internet.
Up until the 1970s, the ethical discourse surrounding pornography largely centered on sociopolitical debates between those with liberal or conservative perspectives on pornography. Conservatives generally opposed pornography on moral grounds and maintained that sexuality should be a private matter involving a man and a woman in a monogamous marriage. They indicated that pornography undermined traditional mores and was detrimental to society. In contrast, liberals supported sexual freedom of expression. They maintained that individuals should have a right to express themselves sexually in the way they chose, including participating in and viewing pornography. The liberal/ conservative dichotomy in pornography debates changed in the 1970s, as some feminists pointed out that instead of sexual freedom for women, pornography often involved sexual violence directed toward women, in addition to male domination and sexual objectification of women. Both conservative and radical feminist groups were politically aligned in their joint opposition to pornography, albeit such opposition occurred for different reasons. Conservatives continued to reject pornography on moral grounds related to their views supporting traditional sexual expression. Radical feminists in the women’s movement opposed pornography on political grounds, suggesting that pornography disempowered women in society by depicting them as sexual objects.
Yet, feminists as a whole were somewhat divided on the issue. In what became known as the Porn Wars of the 1980s, debates within the feminist community added a layer of complexity to the liberal/conservative social and political debates. Some liberal feminists indicated that women should have the right to do whatever they want to with their bodies, including making and profiting from pornographic videos. They pointed out that state control of pornography meant state control of women’s bodies. As the state is patriarchal in its disproportionate male representation, they maintained that this represented male domination of women’s sexuality and reinforced traditional sexism in women’s disempowered sexuality. Further, some liberal feminists indicated that censorship of pornography reinforced a sexual double standard of repressed female sexuality involving purity and monogamy for women. In contrast, radical feminists rejected the conceptualization of pornography support as liberal and objection as conservative, pointing out that sexual objectification of women reinforced conservative values of traditional sexism where women are subordinate to men. Radical feminists countered that when women are sexually objectified, it impacts all women in society as it reinforces a cultural environment in which women are viewed as sex objects dominated by men, and pornography thus reflects and reproduces patriarchy. Moreover, radical feminists particularly emphasized the role of pornography in relationship to violence against women. For example, antipornography feminist activist Andrea Dworkin maintained that objectification of women is an inherent part of pornography, in which a woman is reduced to her body parts. Dworkin indicated that objectification is associated with dehumanization; it is easier to commit an act of violence directed toward an object rather than a person.
Pornography has been criticized by various groups for sexualizing violence against women. For example, pornography depicts women as always desirous of sex, willing to do and enjoy any form of sexual behavior, and at times as objects of aggression. Further, pornography may include scenes of men overpowering women, who eventually enjoy it. This supports the “rape myth mentality” that women say no but mean yes. Some forms of pornography eroticize rape, sexual torture, and even images depicting sexualized death of women. The research examining the relationship between pornography and violence against women is mixed. Research does not find a direct correlation between viewing pornography and violence against women, but it does find that viewers of pornography are more likely to support rape myth mentalities and hold beliefs in rigid gender roles.
By law, pornography itself is largely protected by the First Amendment, as it is considered a form of free speech. However, indecency and obscenity are not legal. Indecency involves language or images that include excretory organs or otherwise offend community standards. Obscenity includes material considered to be offensive, unhealthy, and lacking in any real contribution to society in terms of its literary, artistic, social, political, or scientific value. What qualifies as both indecency and obscenity remains subjective and unclear in legal terms. For example, in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the art film Les Amants, determining that the film was not obscene as it did not involve hard-core pornography. In this case, Justice Potter Stewart acknowledged that defining obscenity was difficult and subjective.
Stanley v. Georgia (1969) is regarded as the case that legitimized private possession of pornographic materials. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that obscenity laws violated the First Amendment, and sided with Stanley. Justice Thurgood Marshall indicated that in this context, pornography was protected by the First Amendment, supporting private ownership and rights toward material possession of pornography. This solidified the rights of individuals to own and view pornography, but the industry itself and the makers of pornography were still in question. Miller v. California (1973) was regarded as a milestone case that led to the development of the Miller test as criterion for obscenity. Justice William O. Douglas maintained that obscenity was not in the Constitution, and thus did not qualify as a caveat for free speech. This case resulted in obscenity criteria, including material promoting an indecent interest in sex, in an offensive way, and lacking in societal value according to perceived community consensus.
The definition of obscenity remains subjectively measured by the court’s perception of community standards. Perhaps the most relevant Supreme Court case was American Booksellers Association v. Hudnut (1985). The courts determined that pornography was not a violation of civil rights and further solidified pornography as a form of free speech under the First Amendment. Dworkin and law professor Catherine MacKinnon developed an ordinance indicating that pornography violated civil rights, under the ideology that pornography oppressed all women as a class in its subordinate portrayal of women. This ordinance gave women the right to sue makers and consumers of pornography for damages. Indianapolis adopted the ordinance, but the U.S. Supreme Court declared the ordinance unconstitutional.
Enforcement of obscenity or indecency laws is relatively rare, and usually only occurs with political support, if it involves children, or occurs in combination with other serious crimes. The selling of sexual material for profit is a legal and profitable business. However, the individual selling of a sexual act involving intercourse or oral sex for profit is not legal under prostitution laws. In addition, unregulated pornography has the potential for sexual trafficking, as trafficking victims may be induced by force, fraud, or coercion to perform for Web site-based or other pornography.
- Burstyn, Varda. Women Against Censorship. Vancouver: Douglass and MacIntyre, 1985.
- Dines, Gail. Pornland: How Porn Hijacked Our Sexuality. Boston: Beacon, 2010.
- Dworkin, Andrea, and Catharine MacKinnon. Pornography and Civil Rights. Minneapolis, MN: Organizing Against Pornography, 1988.
- MacKinnon, Catharine and Andrea Dworkin, eds. In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
- Strossen, Nadine. Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights. New York: Scribner, 1995.
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