“You’re using the wrong definition of pornography!”

Whenever one talks about pornography and how noxious it is, there is a fairly common sort of reply, which is to argue that we’re not talking about all pornography, that our discussion only addresses some pornography, and that there are things about it that aren’t “so bad.”

First of all, let me clarify once again what I mean by pornography. By pornography I mean a product of the mass capitalist production of representations of what is supposed to be sexual activity. By capitalist I mean to imply that some people are getting paid in exchange for their labor (in this case, “labor”) under someone’s orders.

This definition excludes a lot of things that most people call pornography. For example, it excludes two people filming themselves having consensual sex and keeping the video for themselves, or giving it to a few friends. It excludes pictures or videos of naked people who are not having sex. The feminist position on pornography, as far as I am aware, does not argue against either of those things. The main feminist arguments against pornography are as follows:

1. Many women are abused, assaulted and raped during the production of pornography.
2. Pornography is a propaganda tool for the patriarchy, depicting women’s submission and objectification in a way that is addictive for men and women and changes their attitude towards women (as well as POC and children).
3. Money does not entail consent. Getting paid to have sex does not entail that the act was consensual. Therefore, in the absence of contrary evidence, we must assume that any pornographic product may show actual non-consensual sexual acts.
4. Sex is not a commodity1, and having sex is not a form of “labor.” To posit that sexuality is labor means positing a person’s entire body, including its most intimate parts, as a means of production, objectifying them as a literal tool of production.

Note that these are not all the arguments against pornography, only the most important ones. As for the arguments for pornography, I have discussed them in various entries (e.g. see 1, 2, 3), so I will not repeat them here.

Now, you will note that the two cases I excluded above would not tend to run into any of these four arguments. While I’m sure there are exceptions, self-shot sex between two lovers will not generally contain abuse, objectification, or a monetary exchange. And while there may again be exceptions, pictures or videos of naked people who are not having sex will not generally involve abuse or objectification. Things like “camgirls” and paid pictorials enter a grey area, in that they do involve monetary exchange, but they do not generally involve a sexual act. So I would not tend to include these things in the category of pornography, although again some of them may be reprehensible. A depiction of sex does not have to be pornographic to be reprehensible.

Those are the reasons why my definition of pornography is narrower than the definition used by the general public, which seems to be basically “anything that shows intimate parts of the human body and is not safe for work.” I do not think that a naked human body is pornographic. It is precisely that, the body that we were born with and will die with. Anyone who takes offense from that is inane at best. It is not the vulva or the penis that is the problem, people who believe that those things are inherently erotic and dirty notwithstanding. It is the attitude that abuse and objectification are permitted as long as they are for sexual purposes, in short sex-positivity, that is the problem. If anything, people who claim that naked bodies are dirty and reprehensible (especially normal bodies) prevent healthy body images from being accepted, leaving us only the pornified and idealized sexual images. And both the purity-obsessed and the sex-positive are responsible for this state of affairs.

There are other areas that people usually bring up in such discussions. For example, drawn depictions of sex, such as hentai, are sometimes presented as a healthy alternative, because they do not involve actual people having sex. That is true, but hentai can still present abusive, objectifying stories, which have an effect on our subconscious. Drawn depictions of naked people not having sex would fall under the same category as real pictures of naked people not having sex.

Another example sometimes brought up is gay pornography. This is a silly response, but it is somewhat understandable by the fact that feminists are talking about women’s oppression, and gay pornography does not explicitly portray women’s oppression or involve women being abused. However, a lot of gay pornography does involve femininity as a mark of inferiority which targets a man for abuse. While women are not abused, the root of their oppression, their gender, is still presented as a reason for abuse. Furthermore, gay pornography is, well, pornography, which is reprehensible because of the arguments I listed (amongst others).

In any case, what we want to talk about is precisely that which I have defined as pornography. If a person is not satisfied with my definition and wants to define pornography with a wider scope, that is fine. I care mainly about the concept, not the definition. Whatever you want to call “a product of the mass capitalist production of representations of what is supposed to be sexual activity,” that’s what we need to talk about. Call it pornography, call it commercial pornography, call it X, it doesn’t really matter. We call it pornography because what we are talking about is by and large what pornography is in the real world, it is what people pay for, it is what sustains this gigantic capitalist industry, and it is what sustains the abuse and objectification of women.

1 I say this in the same way that a person might say “human beings are not a commodity.” The existence of slavery does not refute this assertion any more than buying and selling sex disproves the assertion that sex is not a commodity. What it actually means is that anyone who claims that such exchanges are valid is in error. In itself, it does not logically entail that such exchanges cannot happen or should not happen, but it does entail that they should not happen if there is no further justification for them.

2 thoughts on ““You’re using the wrong definition of pornography!”

  1. gendercriticaldad May 29, 2017 at 15:17

    Thanks for a very interesting piece. I guess my working definition would be “material designed to facilitate masturbation”. Perhaps I’m judging men by a low standard but I think my definition is wider. I feel, though I’m not exactly sure why, that masturbating to images of people is neither healthy or non-objectifying.

    I hope this isn’t too creepy, I’m really not sure hope to write about this sort of stuff, but I’m equally sure that men need to work this stuff out.

    • Francois Tremblay May 29, 2017 at 16:41

      I don’t care what the intention of the author is. I’m pretty sure the intention or design of most pornography is to make money. Masturbation is an implied background fact.

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