THE MORAL PERMISSIBILITY OF PORNOGRAPHY

Asserting the connections between oppressed groups, many modern feminists argue that fighting for women’s rights is not enough—that one must consider other oppressed groups in order to more effectively usurp oppressive practices. Some activists want to completely rewrite our conception of feminism so that it is more inclusive, not only dealing with matters of gender and sex, but also race, species, and ecology to name a few; others simply advocate for a more holistic approach to conceiving and responding to equality. Traditional feminists hold issues like objectification, sexism, and inequality as primary concerns to determining the moral permissibility of pornography: an intersectional approach to feminism stresses that these concerns are not enough (Marino 359). If pornography is to be truly morally permissible, it must not only respond to the aforementioned objections, but also engage with race, non-human species, and cultural systems in an ethical manner. Although mainstream pornography is undoubtedly oppressive on many levels, the objectification of bodies for sexual or erotic pressure need not be inherently oppressive, and with careful intersectional consideration has potential to be a morally permissible practice. That being said, an intersectional approach reveals just how difficult it is for pornography to truly be an ethical political practice. With careful, deliberate inclusion of diverse bodies and exclusion of oppressive practices; when its conceptualization, production, and distribution is intersectionally aware of oppression and dismantles systems of power: then, and only then, can pornography be morally permissible.

In a discussion regarding ethics and pornography, it is first important to clarify what these concepts entail. Defining ethicalness and moral permissibility is relatively simple, as I am not operating under a radical understanding: something is ethical when it is concerned with the best practices of morality. Put concisely, when something is ethical, it does not cause oppression, but rather affirms life without creating valued hierarchies that encourage oppressive systems. This includes a variety of spheres, such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation, non-human species, ecology, and more. The ideology of ethicalness is not, however, dealing with obscenity as a religious problem, but rather ethicalness as it exists within in a political system. Defining pornography, however, is a bit harder, as its definition itself is the subject of much heated debate. The mainstream understanding of pornography is visual material containing sexually explicit images or activity, designed to arouse erotic or sexual feelings as opposed to sentimental ones (Oxford Dictionary). That being said, this definition is extremely ambiguous, especially regarding what counts as sexually explicit. As Justice Stewart concluded in a case regarding obscenity and the first amendment rights, when it comes to pornography, “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio). If our popular conception of mainstream pornography is defined by people like Justice Stewart, then his flippant statement reveals two important truths: that the institution of pornography is not fixed but rather dependent upon societal standards, and that it is historically based on the male gaze. Any effort to create an ethical pornography must then seek to usurp this historical, oppressive mainstream position.

Catherine MacKinnon outlines compelling objections to oppose mainstream pornography on feminist grounds, but ultimately admits that to successfully oppose this industry, realistically the activisits’s stance must be to alter it, not to expel it from society. Highlighting pornographic realities that upset feminists, MacKinnon lists (among others) “sex forced on real women so that it can be sold at a profit to be forced on other real women; women’s bodies trussed and maimed and raped and made into things to be hurt and obtained and accessed and this presented as the nature of women; the coercion that is visible and the coercion that is not visible” (323). For her, primary feminist objections to mainstream pornography are that is it made without women’s consent, that is a political practice affirming a superior male gaze, and that it perpetuates a thought system that devalues women as objects. Pornography creates an oppressive sexual reality, reifying oppressive cultural standards and practices toward women. Outlining how pornography contributes to an oppressive system, MacKinnon argues that “Men treat women as who they see women as being. Pornography constructs who that is. Men’s power over women means that the way men see women defines who women can be. Pornography is that way.” (326). 

Although pornography may perpetuate corrupt socio-political systems, it is not doomed to always reify destructive practices. If MacKinnon is correct in her claim that pornography shapes the way men define women, then by reshaping pornography we should theoretically be able to reshape and usurp traditional systems of oppression. Thus, in order to end discriminatory practices toward women, we must either radically abolish or change that way in which, currently, pornography perpetuates female oppression. Yet abolishing this practice is impossible: even MacKinnon herself admits that “pornography cannot be reformed or surppressed or banned. It can only be changed” (322). Realisically, banning pornography will only encourage oppressive pornographic practices and unhealthy, harmful worldviews—the only way to subvert the system is by changing its mechanisms so that its foundation is based on morality and inclusivity, not oppression. 

While a difficult task, it is by no means inherently impossible: in fact, a closer examination of the nature of objectification reveals that there is nothing inherently immoral regarding pornography. Indeed, objectification, on a moral scale, is inherently neutral. Patricia Marino asserts that while some discredit objectification as morally impermissible, this using a part as a means without considering their end is actually quite natural (Marino 51). Objectification occurs every day, without negative repercussions. When one leans her head on her friend’s shoulder, she simply is using that shoulder as a pillow, not simultaneously considering all that friend’s complex desires and emotions in that instant. For this reason, many feminists agree that objectification can be morally permissible under certain circumstances. The standard feminist view is that objectification is morally permissible in an intimate, loving relationship, but this, Marino argues, is also incorrect. According to her, what matters is autonomy and consent—thus, if pornography is to be feminist, it must operate under these two factors as well. Autonomy and objectification are not inherently in conflict, as long as respect for the part being objectified is present alongside clear and freely-given consent. 

“Freely-given consent” is a very tricky concept that Marino has been heavily critiqued for. Indeed, Marino admits that examining consensual autonomy is difficult because the notion of consent depends so heavily on its social-political context. Acknowledging valid criticism, she writes that it is possible that “because of sexist cultural pressures, our desires or choices to be used in these ways can never really be autonomous ones—they are always ‘adaptive preferences’” (Marino 358). Essentially, there is no genuine consent because that implies a level of freedom the female does not have in an oppressive political system. Inequality is so deeply rooted into our very society’s fabric that we cannot detach ourselves from it to decide clearly and willfully, and never have true consent because we are always pressured by our socially-constructed surroundings. However, as Butler argues, “Construction is not opposed to agency; it is the necessary scene of agency” (Butler 147). Just because a constructed political system has been oppressive in the past does not mean it cannot be changed or deconstructed in the future—the abolishment of systems like slavery is testament to Butler’s claim. Marino is similarly optimistic, acknowledging that “the proper political and social context is crucial” for genuine consent, but that this context is certainly possible and even exists in our world today for practical moral application purposes (356). Thus, if consent is possible, and autonomy and respect are factors in pornographic objectification, there is potential for feminist pornography. 

Even though pornography may be feminist, that does not automatically make it ethical or morally permissible: it also must deal with ways in which racist notions have been subtly yet pervasively interpolated into mainstream pornography. The Black female experience of objectification is unique because it is so heavily shaped by the narrative of slavery, and thus their notions of autonomy and consent with respect to pornography operate very differently from others. Historically, the identification of Black woman as “breeder” established both that Black women were and were not like animals: like animals, they were forced to procreate to bring revenue and capital; unlike animals, these women were often brutally raped by their masters. As Walker reveals, before technologized pornography existed, Black women were the primary source of pornographic outlet for white men (Walker 42). These privileged white men did not need to look at pornographic pictures when they could so easily objectify their female slaves, forcibly satisfying their sexually violent and rape fantasies. Even more, Black women represented sexual deviancy and exotic fetishes: an African woman called Sarah Bartmann was often made an exhibit at fashionable parties, typically dressed in little clothing for the onlooker’s amusement, to gain pleasure by gazing at her “exotic” and “animalistic” naked body.  Objectified and sexualized when alive, her death only brought even more horrifyingly racist and sexist practices—after her death, she was dissected and her genitalia and buttocks placed as an exhibit people actually paid to see. The clear reduction of personhood to dissectible and marketable parts is astonishing and revulsive, stripping Black women of consent and autonomy in a gendered, racialized sense.

While breeding or exhibits like that of Sarah Bartmann are certainly not commonplace now, Black bodies are still uniquely abused and objectified through modern pornography. The idea of Black deviant sexuality on display, forced upon the Black female body during the period of slavery, has only been perpetuated through racializing porn websites (Collins 147). In fact, Daniel Bernardi likens the display of Sarah Bartmann to current images on black porn website DawgFilms (note that even the name of this pornography website ties Black bodies to animals).  This connection is perpetuated through mainstream pornography, with “colored body parts displayed as erotic, excessive, and explosive” (Bernardi 117). Black female bodies are animalized and continue to represent deviant sexuality through their pornographic role in enacting violent fantasies. Studies reveal that the Black woman is most often physically abused in pornographic scenes (referring to their history of abuse as slave), most often subject to submission after initial resistance (rape fantasy). The Black female body, more than any other, is portrayed as less than human, indecisive and ultimately controlled by the male in the pornographic and the viewer’s gaze. With “chains, whips, neck braces, and clasps,” Black female pornography often directly references slavery, enslavement, or a master-slave relationship (bell 59). If pornography ever hopes to be a feminist industry, it must first face the racial inequalities and unfortunate realities within this pervasive system. It is only when the Black female body is respected, treated fairly, and willingly, consensually objectified that there is any hope for pornography to be pro-race and pro-feminist.

Mainstream pornography is not only racist toward Black women: it also thrives on stereotypes for other minorities like Asian women or Latina women. Bernandi found that conventional pornography represents “Asians as puerile objects, Latina women as ‘all ass’” (118). Additionally, not only are Asian women portrayed as childish, bell finds that “the image of Asian women in pornography is almost consistently one of being tortured” in a perverse ‘father-daughter’ scenario (161). Even more than perpetuate racist stereotypes, these problematic pornographic scenes place the white male at the center, the women of color designed to serve the white man and thus upholding Westernized imperialist notions of superiority. Even pornography is whitewashed, the white male’s gaze and body at the center commanding and degrading the women of color to serve his desires. Ethical pornography must denounce these stereotypes and work to be inclusive without perpetuating oppressive stereotypes.

Even once pornography stops capitalizing on racist notions, it still is not moral or ethical if it perpetuates systems of oppression for nun-human species. The abuse of women is closely linked to the abuse of animals, both connected through their portrayal as objects to be consumed for the (typically, white) male’s pleasure. Animal meat and women’s bodies are often conflated through quasi-pornographic advertisements, menu specials, TV programs, and other social media: this “commercial pornography” is harmful to both women and animals, exposing deeper problematics notions between the ethicalness of pornography as it relates to speciesism. A thorough examination of society reveals the extent of this conflation: young prostitutes are known as “young meat” while old prostitutes are “old meat;” shows like The Fresh Prince features Will Smith jokingly referring to women as “USDA Prime Choice,” replacing the word “mingling” with “tenderizing” (Adams 2). This objectification is also evidenced centuries earlier, Shakespeare using the innuendo “the duke would eat mutton on Friday” to describe his habits of regularly engaging with prostitutes (Adams 3). Pornography perpetuates this societal abuse of conflating the oppressed category of non-human animals with women’s oppression, only furthering both forms of oppression. 

A completely ethical pornography, arguably, must also avoid other areas of traditional oppression: ecofeminists stress the importance that feminist projects work in accord with nature and the environment; other activists argue that pornography should stop upholding unrealistic beauty standards and expose more diversity in body forms, age, and disability rather than holding pornography as a privileged system only for a few particular categories of people. Some say pornography needs to oppose a capitalist system or else only perpetuates mass political oppression. There is an almost infinite number of systems that oppress and factors that can be oppressed through pornography. The question becomes, in seeking the viability of a morally permissible pornography, must all factors be taken into account? If not, which ones? A case example reveals that although in today’s world it appears impossible for pornography to adequately include all intersectional factors, there are still important gains being made in the production of progressive pornography.

 

The Feminist Porn Awards reveals that progress in the pornography industry is possible, that progress is being made, and that there is a lot more room for more progress before pornography can be wholly ethical. Produced through a feminist company called Good For Her, their philosophy about truly “feminist” philosophy incorporates the following categories: 

“1. Actors are treated with respect, paid fairly, given choice and ethical working conditions, empowered in their work.

2. Directors collaborate with and incorporate the actor’s own sexual desires and fantasies (makes for better scenes too!).

3. It expands the boundaries of sexual representation on film and challenges stereotypes especially of women and marginalized communities.

4. Realistic pleasure is depicted.” (www.feministpornawards.com)

These qualifications deserve acknowledgement and praise because they respond to compelling feminist objections to pornography like consent, equality, and respect. That being said, they do not explicitly exemplify how they will work against cross-sectional problems within pornography. They do later mention that feminist porn seeks to “reflect the diversity of people in the world;” however, they do not emphasize this or specify what exactly ‘diversity of people in the world’ entails. The Feminist Porn Awards qualifications have made a good start, and certainly encourage the production of feminist porn—for it to be ethical, for it to be morally permissible, it must strive to eliminate all types of systemic oppression in its conceptualization, production, and distribution. 

Even though mainstream pornography is oppressive on a multitude of levels, ethical pornography may be possible. Subversive pornographic movements today are already working to combat traditional feminist critiques regarding its portrayal of the female body and sexual desire. If, like Marino argues, genuine consent is possible in our socio-political environment, then it appears that certain types of pornography are already feminist. These feminist pornographic movements are a good starting point for an intersectional understanding of pornography that seeks to be morally permissible by not perpetuating any type of oppression. Ideally, with further improvement, subversive pornography will become more inclusive and less problematic in its portrayal of race, heteronormativity, non-human species, or the environment, eventually replacing mainstream pornography. When this occurs, pornography can be morally permissible and ethical; right now, we still have a ways to go. While there are pornographic projects that are making important strides in decreasing systemic oppression, there still are important intersectional factors that need to be taken into consideration before pornography is truly morally permissible and ethical.

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