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There is no universally accepted definition of either term ”pornography” or ”erotica”: mediated communication depicting sexually explicit subject matter. ”Erotica” was first coined to differentiate more elevated and exclusive material and is now often used in reference to material produced by and for women and gays. A range of other distinctions have been made; pornography is designed only to induce sexual arousal, whereas erotica combines sexual with emotional and aesthetic responses; pornography stimulates solitary masturbation whereas erotica inspires interpersonal sex. Another approach is to see the category of pornography as a function of censorship: the ”hard-core” left once erotic material with artistic or scientific value has been redeemed. Another way of drawing the distinction between erotica and hard-core, is to class the former as the creative representation of sexual subject matter and the latter as the direct visual documentation of sexual acts.
Until the 1960s, when many western states began to ease restrictions, the concern of political and moral authorities was that pornography would deprave and corrupt what they regarded as the more susceptible parts of the population, such as the young or uneducated. The process of liberalization culminated with the Johnson Commission (1970), which drew the majority conclusion that the social effects of pornography were, if anything, ”benign.” Although these findings were rejected by President Nixon, this marks the end of any consensus behind the effort to control pornography on moral grounds. But soon a new concern began to be expressed by feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin, who saw pornography as inciting sexual violence against women. In the 1980s Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon introduced anti-porn ordinances in American cities. These were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court but the furore inspired President Reagan to establish the Meese Commission (1986), which condemned pornography as a cause of harm to women. In response a second body of feminist opinion began to organize anti-censorship campaigns. These feminists agreed that much existing pornography was sexist but argued that the best way to bring about change was through a diversification of erotic representation involving the creative participation of lesbians, gay men and straight women.
Since 1970 a great deal of social science research has tested the harmful effects of pornography on men’s conduct towards women. The data can be divided into three categories: survey, experimental and testimonial. However such research has usually been framed in behaviorist terms, which fail to recognize that the subjectivity of the social actor intervenes between stimuli and response, so that responses to pornography are not objectively determinate. In recent years the political debate and the research effort have diminished, while restrictions have further relaxed and the Internet has extended access to unregulated material. The porn industry has continued to grow and now operates on a massive scale. Yet this significant part of modern mass-culture now goes virtually unnoticed by the social sciences.
The current scope for research can be divided into two broad areas concerning the industry/production and audiences/cultural impact. As far as the industry is concerned there are issues about the health and exploitation of performers. We should also ask how far porn reflects the full gamut of human sexual diversity or simply the commercial homogenization of desire. As regards audiences and cultural impact, qualitative data can greatly enhance our understanding of the experiences and subjective responses of those who view pornography. In this way researchers are beginning to address neglected questions about the impact of pornography, such as the role it plays in the development of young people’s sexuality. Finally, we must ask how far new media technologies have broken down the division between producer and consumer, or contributed to the growth of radical new pornographies that challenge the conventions of the genre.
- Dworkin, (1981) Pornography: Men Possessing Women. The Women’s Press, London.
- Williams, L. (ed.) (2004) Porn Studies. Duke University Press, London.