Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality? A Response

by Maeve McKeown

A response to NLP's recent debate which argues that feminists can and must find some common ground on the issue of pornography.

First published: 07 May, 2012 | Category: Activism, Culture, Gender equality, Law, Philosophy and Theory

New Left Project recently hosted a vigorous debate on pornography between two feminist writers – the journalist Sarah Ditum who took a pro-porn stance, and the academic and activist Gail Dines who holds an anti-porn stance.  After a brief summary of the debate (which can be skipped if you have read the articles), I argue that while the two authors represent the intractable philosophical positions of liberal and radical feminism respectively, there is a glimmer of hope that they can find common ground with regards to public policy on pornography by virtue of the fact that they are both feminists.  I argue specifically that the law against “Extreme Pornography” ought to be extended to include depictions of rape.  My response is to the debate presented in these articles – I have not read Dines’ book Pornland.


Sarah Ditum opened the debate with a critique of Dines’ influential book, Pornland.  She argued that Dines’ approach is flawed because she lacks a clear definition of pornography.  Moreover, Dines’ argument that pornography shapes the attitudes of men towards women in a misogynistic way is not founded on strong empirical evidence.  She accuses Dines of “essentialism” about sex, arguing that Dines has a view of what “natural” sex is compared to the type of sexuality portrayed in pornography which she considers inauthentic and mass-produced; when there is in fact a great diversity of pornographic material.  Finally, Ditum claims that Dines completely ignores the fact that there are women producers and consumers of porn.

Dines responded that she is guilty as charged in terms of not adopting a formal definition of pornography or engaging with niche varieties of porn.  Her reason for this is that she believes these two issues to be irrelevant to her project.  Dines is taking a macro approach to assessing the impact of pornography.  Therefore she took the majority variety of porn – gonzo – and made her arguments based on that.  Moreover, there is plenty of empirical evidence to back up her claims that porn is harmful to women.  She cites a recent academic study which found that in the top-fifty most rented porn movies, ‘90% of scenes contained at least one aggressive act.’  Dines refuted the claim that her approach is essentialist because she recognizes the fact that sexuality is shaped by culture, which is precisely the reason for fighting against violent pornography.  Dines concludes that the pro-porn position is a position of privilege, and that feminists have lost sight of their radical roots.  She writes, ‘what is there not to love about a “feminist” who fights for the rights of men to jerk off to porn?’

Ditum responded that actually in this instance, she will defend the right of men to masturbate to whatever they want.  She writes:

they have a right to jerk off to whatever materials they find arousing, so long as those materials are produced without coercion or deception.  If exposure to pornography were demonstrated to be a cause of harm to the psyche of the viewer, then it would be necessary to weigh up the public goods of a right to free speech and a right to a private life (in which an individual may make or consume pornography), against the public ill – if that ill could be proven. But it has not been proven.

Ditum argues further that Dines misinterprets the evidence that has been gathered on the effects of porn and uses it in a disingenuous and hyperbolic way.  And how do we know that gonzo porn is in the majority if we have no definition of porn?  Until we have a functional definition of porn and substantiated evidence that it is harmful, freedom of speech must be defended.

Dines concluded with a short post arguing that this debate demonstrates that feminism is like ‘a marriage gone sour.’  Ultimately liberal and radical/Marxist feminists will never agree, because while liberal feminists are interested in individual rights such as free speech, radical and Marxist feminists are interested in structural forces.  This profound philosophical difference means that the debate is intractable.

Philosophical Differences

I agree with Dines that the debate, as framed by these two authors, is intractable.  The two authors represent fundamentally different philosophical traditions.  On the one hand, Ditum’s perspective represents liberalism, which is based on a series of rights that are inalienable.  She claims that Dines’ call for a ban on pornography represents ‘an implicit attack on two rights (the right to a private life and the right to free speech) that are correctly held to be key human rights.’  Therefore, according to Ditum, it must be rejected outright, otherwise the consequences will be ‘horrible.’  For liberals, freedom constitutes non-interference with individuals.  If individuals choose to make or consume pornography, that is their choice and the government should not intervene.  Government intervention is an attack on individual freedom.

Dines, on the other hand, takes a radical feminist view inspired by Marxist political economy.  From this perspective, freedom of speech is not sacrosanct.  If the choices of uncoordinated individuals result in harmful structural outcomes, such as an excessive wealth gap or the subordination and domination of women, then the state ought to intervene to try to address that imbalance.  So when Ditum argues that porn is permissible so long as it is produced ‘without coercion or deception’, a radical or Marxist feminist will find this unpersuasive because it only considers the individuals involved, rather than the collective impact of the porn industry on the lives of women as a whole and how that contributes to the domination of women as a group.  From this perspective, freedom is not constituted by non-interference with individuals, but democratic political institutions can be harnessed to secure the conditions for the freedom of all people by equalizing power relations, which may mean the restriction of certain types of speech or behaviour.

So the liberal individualist perspective that individuals have a right to freedom of speech or expression, conflicts with the radical feminist and Marxist perspective that focuses on structures of power.  Ultimately, as long as these authors hold fast to their philosophical convictions, they cannot and will not agree.  Indeed this is the debate that split feminism apart in the 1980s, and from which it has never fully recovered.

The Liberal Critique of Radical Feminism

What was fascinating about this debate was that many of NLP’s readers sided with Sarah Ditum’s position – the liberal position.  This was surprising, because as a website for leftist debate, it demonstrated how entrenched liberal concepts such as individual rights, free speech and consent are even among persons who consider themselves of the left.  In this section, I want to explain why the Ditum’s liberal critiques of Dine’s radical feminist position are not as persuasive as they first appear.

1. The Definition Debate

Ditum argues that Dines only focuses on one type of porn – gonzo porn – meaning that she is basing her arguments on an inadequate definition of what porn is.  Porn is much more diverse, with various strands, not all of them degrading to women; in fact some porn is actually created by women, there is also gay porn and many niche varieties. 

It seems to me, however, that Dines can concede that there are different types of porn and still focus on the majority type of porn that people consume.  When carrying out an academic study of what people today are experiencing in terms of porn and its wider effects on society, it is essential to look at the majority strain of porn, at least in the first instance.  This is because that will tell you something important about what is happening on a meta-level; individualized experiences of porn are not really pertinent to the argument. 

Consider this point in relation to other feminist concerns.  Whenever feminists discuss issues like domestic violence and rape, which in over 90% of cases affect women, people always comment, “these issues affect men too and you’re not talking about it, therefore your argument’s wrong”.  But feminists are well aware that these issues affect men too; the problem is that in the vast majority of cases they affect women, so the question is why?  Why are women affected by these issues so much more than men?  In the case of Dines studying gonzo porn the question is, why is this type of porn, which is so humiliating and degrading to women, the most-watched type of porn?  What does this tell us?  And in what ways is this harmful?  These seem to me valid questions. 

But Ditum argues further, how do we know gonzo porn is the majority type of porn unless we have defined exactly what porn is.  She writes:

Dines is dismissive of my references to non-gonzo forms of pornography, claiming that gonzo is the overwhelming market leader. But how do we know? Are we counting every winsome, semi-dressed self portrait on the internet as pornographic? Do “pornified” pop videos – seen by millions more than any throat-fucking video will ever be – count? Dines has to say whether these things are pornographic or not. If they are, then her assertion that gonzo is the preeminent mode of porn simply cannot stand. And if they aren’t, why not? After all, all these things are perfectly valid and likely things for someone to have a wank over.

This argument does not stand up to scrutiny, however.  The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) uses the following definition:  ‘An image is pornographic if it is of such a nature that it must reasonably be assumed to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal.’  An individual may be able to ‘have a wank’ over pop videos, self-portraits or anything else for that matter, but it does not make it pornographic material.  It is pornographic only if it is designed ‘solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal.’ 

Now, Dines may not have used this definition herself, but it does seem fairly self-evident that pornography is a specific type of material produced for the purposes of sexual arousal.  And Dines’ failure to explicitly say this is not a problem as since I’ve pointed out, there is nothing disingenuous in focusing on the majority type of porn when looking at the issue from a macro perspective.  Moreover, Ditum’s point about definition is a diversion.  If Dines had used a more considered definition of porn, no doubt Ditum would have found ways of critiquing that.  Really this is simply skirting around the core issue of the debate – to what extent porn ought to be regulated.  And I think, in fact, that there is common ground to be found on this issue, as I argue below.

Before coming to that, however, a final comment on the definition issue.  If Ditum wants to have an expansive definition of porn, including the many diverse niche varieties, some of which are not exploitative of women and are made by and enjoyed by women; she also has to accept that there are minority types of porn that are even more degrading to women than gonzo porn.  If you want to assess non-majority strands of pornography this means taking into account all of these strands in their infinite variety, not just the ones that suit your argument.  We may find that the niche varieties of pornography that are not harmful to women are a minority within a minority. 

2. The Need for Evidence

Ditum also argues against Dines that she has not gathered sufficient empirical evidence to prove that pornography is objectively harmful.  Dines says that this is not the case, that she has gathered a multitude of evidence as demonstrated in Pornland.  Since I haven’t read Pornland, I’m not going to comment either way on that.  Instead, I want to make a different point – that you don’t need empirical evidence to make normative arguments.

Radical feminist arguments against pornography include the claim that women are objectified and viewed through heterosexual male eyes (the male gaze), reducing women to mere sex objects that exist for men’s pleasure and this encourages women to see themselves through male eyes.  Portrayals of violence against women and rape in pornography normalize this behaviour for the viewers.  The crux of all of this is that it reinforces male domination of women – patriarchy – reducing the chances of women achieving equal status and freedom to men.  Porn is about power. 

Ditum clearly wants empirical evidence to back up these claims.  But these are normative arguments.  Arguing that women ought to be equal to men is not something that is empirically falsifiable and can be quantified by gathering statistics.  You either believe it or you don’t.  The further radical feminist claims that pornography exacerbates the objectification of women is a philosophical argument.  We can hash out the claim in theory, but it is not something that can be tested using empirical methods.  Power cannot be measured.  It is a relation, not a thing.

Ditum might then claim that the argument is no good.  If it cannot be proved empirically, we shouldn’t believe it.  But of course, she holds fast to normative arguments herself.  The idea that freedom constitutes non-interference is a normative argument; it is not empirically falsifiable.  Human rights may be legal prescriptions, but they do not exist as objects that we can reach out and touch.  Dines may have been gathering empirical evidence to shore up her philosophical convictions, but even if she hasn’t fulfilled this sufficiently in Ditum’s eyes, it doesn’t mean the philosophical ideas are null and void.  The normative philosophical position can still be defended in its own terms.  What Ditum needs to do is prove it is logically incoherent, which she hasn’t done.

Treating philosophical theories like scientific ones is a misinterpretation of the practice; or at the least a very narrow interpretation of what philosophy can do.  So when Dines and other radical feminists suggest that porn is harmful to women they are putting forward a philosophical argument that can be tested via logical argumentation, not necessarily requiring empirical evidence.  There are different theories as to what constitutes “harm”, and different theories about the kind of harm that porn does to society.  I’m not sure why Ditum is so utterly insistent that Dines solve these difficult philosophical problems in two short articles.

Just to note, the radical feminist position has nothing to do with being puritanical about sex, it is about exposing the underlying gendered power relations that are perpetuated by the porn industry.

In sum, while we are on philosophical and methodological terrain, Ditum’s arguments against Dines are not persuasive.  But my aim in responding to this debate is not to exclusively defend one author over another, and I have not done nearly enough here to defend one philosophical position over another.  Instead I have a more modest aim – to suggest the possibility of common ground.

Current Regulation of Pornography

One of the core issues that both authors have avoided in this debate is the legal status of porn.  Ditum accuses Dines of not having a clear and coherent definition of porn; but as I have pointed out, this is not problematic if what we are interested in is what the majority of people are seeing that is called “porn”.  It becomes a problem, however, if we want to discuss the legal status of porn, and the issue of whether or not porn ought to be banned or regulated.  I think Ditum’s real concern is that if “porn” is banned, this means that non-abusive types of porn will be banned, which is not only a free-speech issue, but means that some women – those who make and enjoy porn – will be missing out.

The free speech point, however, is moot.  Porn is already regulated. The possession of images depicting paedophilia, bestiality and “extreme pornography” is illegal.  In 2008 it became illegal to, ‘possess pornographic images that depict acts which threaten a person's life, acts which result in or are likely to result in serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals, bestiality or necrophilia.’ The law banning the possession of extreme pornography was prompted by the case of Graham Coutts, who was found guilty of the sexual assault and murder by asphyxiation of Jane Longhurst, and who was found to have 699 violent pornographic images on his computer. The pragmatic purpose of this legislation is to prevent harm and protect the vulnerable who are unable to consent to what is being done to them (children, animals, dead people), and to prevent the use of porn as an excuse for murder or other forms of violence against persons. It also incorporates and gives effect to long-standing criminal law presumption that, generally speaking, even capable adults cannot consent to actual bodily harm for which there is no public interest case to be made. Presumably feminists who defend free speech do not object to these legal constraints, because they are founded on the concept of lawful consent.

There is also a normative foundation to legal prohibitions on certain types of pornography regarding public morality, however.  The Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964 make the publication or distribution of certain types of material illegal.  The material 'must be taken as a whole and have a tendency to deprave and corrupt (e.g. make morally bad) a significant proportion of those likely to see it.'  Now this is where we get into more difficult territory from a liberal perspective, because how can the government determine what is “obscene”?  From a liberal perspective, consenting adults should be able to engage in whatever activities they want behind closed doors.  The government should not be given the authority to decide what depraves or corrupts a rational adult individual; interfering with consenting adults’ private behaviour in the name of public morality is an infringement of civil liberties.  And as the CPS itself admits, what was considered obscene in 1959 has changed in the present day, so for example, consensual anal sex involving men or women no longer fits into that category.

So from a liberal perspective it is possible to argue that the government has no place determining what consensual sexual activity between adults is moral or not.  But surely from a liberal perspective, it is justifiable for the government to intervene in cases of harm to others.  If we conceive of morality in terms of causing no harm to others, then the government does have a role in safeguarding morality, even from a liberal perspective. 

Material portraying the following activities is outlawed by the current version of the obscene publications act:

• sexual act with an animal
• realistic portrayals of rape
• sadomasochistic material which goes beyond trifling and transient infliction of injury
• torture with instruments
• bondage (especially where gags are used with no apparent means of withdrawing consent)
• dismemberment or graphic mutilation
• activities involving perversion or degradation (such as drinking urine, urination or vomiting on to the body, or excretion or use of excreta)
• fisting

These activities in reality cause harm to others, and viewing these forms of material legitimates the idea of causing harm to others for the purposes of sexual stimulation, as well as creating a market for the commission of acts that harm others for the purposes of sexual stimulation of the viewing public.  For that reason, I think even liberal feminists can agree that they ought to be banned.     

Towards Common Ground on the Issue of Rape

I have suggested that from a liberal perspective some regulation of pornography is justifiable.  The problem is to what extent do we want to regulate the consensual behaviour of adults that does not cause physical harm.  If adult individuals have consented to participate in pornography and other adults are consensually watching it, then from the liberal perspective of individual freedom as non-interference, the law shouldn’t get involved.  As I’ve pointed out, certain types of pornographic material are already illegal and can be justified as being illegal even from a liberal perspective; the question is whether or not the scope of illegality ought to be extended.  To what extent we think porn ought to be regulated is where Ditum's insistence on a definition becomes relevant.  For the purposes of regulation, we need a careful and considered definition of what we are addressing.  And it is at this point that I think we can find some common ground among feminists.

Now a radical or Marxist feminist may intervene at this point and say that all porn is degrading to women.  Moreover, many women end up in pornography due to economic coercion – they have no other choice.  An obvious point to make is that we need to sort out our economic circumstances so that no women feel forced into having to work in pornography just to get by.  However, there is no reason why we cannot work towards an economically more progressive society and simultaneously look for plausible immediate policy solutions to the regulation of pornography.  In the meantime, while we are waiting for an economically more equitable society, it seems plausible that we need to categorize porn more clearly in order to protect those who are exploited by this industry and to mitigate its most pernicious effects.

Again, I think the practice of pornography regulation can be instructive.  The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is tasked with classifying all ‘video works’ that are available on data storage devices, e.g. DVDS, tapes etc.  It has a category of R18 (‘Restricted 18’) to classify hardcore pornography.   You can read a list of the activities that are not acceptable by BBFC standards even for an R18 film here.

In 2006, the BBFC rejected one R18 film in its entirety, “Struggle in Bondage”.  The reasoning is as follows:

The work consisted of a series of sequences depicting women bound and gagged, writhing and struggling against their restraints. The struggling and whimpering of the women appears calculated to suggest that they have been bound against their will and it is clear from the manner of presentation that the work is intended to stimulate sexual arousal in the viewer. Because of the lack of obvious consent, and in line with the Board’s policies on sexual violence, the work was rejected as cuts would not have left a viable work.

And so we can see here, that the problem is the combination of pornography (material designed to sexually arouse the viewer) with violence as intended to sexually arouse the viewer.  The problem is not depicting rape or violence against women per se, there may be reasons for doing so for artistic purposes, or campaigning purposes or for other reasons.  The problem is when sexual violence or violence against women is used with the specific purpose of sexually arousing the viewer.  This combination of violence against women with sex to stimulate the viewer is where I think as a feminist you have got to take issue, as the BBFC have done in this ruling. 

Feminists may disagree over their philosophical foundations – be it liberalism, Marxism or other political theories.  But they surely all agree that women deserve, and are entitled to, equal respect.  The regular depiction of rape and other forms of violence against women in pornography are a cause of concern in this regard.

Changing the Law

The depiction of rape is already illegal according to the Obscene Publications Act.  But it is my contention that it ought to be included in the category of “Extreme Pornography”.  This is because it is not possible to prosecute those who produce “obscene” material outside of the UK under the Obscene Publications Act.  Those responsible for the distribution and retailing of the material can be prosecuted, but if the material is produced in the UK, those who produced it or distributed it in the first instance are the persons liable for prosecution.  Under the Extreme Pornography Act, anyone possessing extreme pornographic material can be prosecuted and imprisoned for up to three years.  This is a much stronger deterrent, therefore, making it less likely that people would keep this sort of material in their possession.

The current definition of extreme pornography is 'images that depict acts which threaten a person's life, acts which result in or are likely to result in serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals, bestiality or necrophilia.'  So not rape.  As feminists, can we not agree that the law on “extreme pornography” ought to be expanded so that this does not just constitute harm to the breasts, anus or genitals but also depictions of rape?  Can we not agree that pornography that depicts rape ought to be included in the category of “extreme pornography” and banned on that basis?  This seems to me to be a way to exclude hardcore pornography which depicts rape from mass consumption, whilst preserving the niche varieties of pornography that pro-porn campaigners want to defend on the grounds of free speech. 

Two problems.  The first is what if a woman participating in a pornographic video consents to portray a rape.  Then, from a liberal perspective, it seems to be acceptable, as the individuals involved have consented.  I’m not sure how this can be a feminist argument however.  Does anyone have a right to watch the portrayal of a woman being raped in order to achieve sexual arousal?  Perhaps a right-wing libertarian or anarchist who believes that the state has no business regulating anything would think so, but I can’t see how anyone who calls themselves a “feminist” could think so.  Whether or not the individual woman in the film has consented is not the point; it is the portrayal of non-consent as legitimate and as something that can sexually arouse that is problematic. 

The second problem with such a policy solution is obviously enforceability.  There must be computers all over the country with porn videos depicting rape and other forms of violence against women.  How can all of these people be caught and prosecuted?  Enforceability is a problem facing any law, however.  Part of the point of making something unlawful is to say as a society we think it is wrong.  So if we take a stand and say brutalising women for the sexual enjoyment of pornography viewers is unlawful, we are taking a principled stand, not necessarily assuming that every participant in this practice will be caught.

This kind of pragmatic solution may not be very satisfactory to those who hold very firm philosophical convictions regarding pornography.  But I simply wish to suggest that it highlights the possibility of common ground.  There is undoubtedly a wider debate to be had about whether or not porn is right or wrong in its entirety.  As I have argued, however, one’s answer to this question this will depend on a person’s philosophical starting point, and so presents an intractable debate.  And since porn is now so ubiquitous in the internet age, there is an urgent need to find some real-world solutions to the problem.  As feminists, surely we can all agree that depictions of rape as erotically arousing are impermissible.  To argue that depictions of rape are permissible under the rubric of free speech seems to me that you have hung up your feminist hat and abandoned it.  I don’t see what can be “feminist” about that kind of argument; it is straightforwardly libertarian argument with no feminist component.  To be clear, I am not arguing that pursuing a ban on porn that portrays rape will solve the porn debate in toto.  What I am suggesting is that it is potentially a practicable policy solution that liberal, radical and Marxist feminists can agree upon.  And it seems achievable in practice.  For too long, feminists have engaged in endless mud-slinging over these issues.  It is time to set aside our differences and look for the common ground.

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